Music

String Theory: Mary Lattimore Makes the Harp Cool

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With all due respect to David and the secret chord the biblical hero played to please the Lord, the harp has never exactly been the coolest of instruments. There is a softness, a celestial kind of gauzy, lilting harmony we’ve come to expect from the harp. But Mary Lattimore’s compositions, with their half-dozen layers and minor chords, bring the instrument firmly into the present day. Her songs are haunting more than comforting, sad more than soothing, beautiful in their complication and emotional difficulty. They are delicate like a finely woven spiderweb, and just as strong. Unlike Joanna Newsom’s, Lattimore’s songs aren’t built like traditional pop songs. There is no four-minute tightness, no chorus, no poppy element. Lattimore’s instrumental music is a gorgeous reminder that this ancient instrument is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Her new album, Hundreds of Days, was released May 17.

Lattimore got her start in more contemporary sounds as a contributor to the Philadelphia psychedelic rock band the Valerie Project in 2007. After that she began working with her “buddy” Kurt Vile and a slew of other prominent musician’s musicians (Sharon Van Etten, Thurston Moore, Arcade Fire). But the harp is by nature a solitary instrument, it is heavy and needs space, and so in 2012 she released her first solo effort, a cassette, and since then she’s been insanely productive. Hundreds of Days is Lattimore’s fifth album in five years. Her 2016 album, At the Dam, was made on a road trip across America, the songs inhabiting the same vastness as the big desert sky she recorded under. The next year, she released Collected Pieces, a gathering of songs and sounds compiled from her life as a Philadelphia resident.

Today, Lattimore lives in Los Angeles, a city she finds both comforting and alien. In the midst of all this change and discovery, though, she’s found a new confidence and a cohesion to her compositions, which are more emotionally charged and more delicate than ever before. The Voice spoke to Lattimore about her new album, playing the harp, and what’s next.

Let’s start at the beginning: How did you start playing the harp?

I grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and my mom was the harpist for the Asheville Symphony, so I grew up around harps, and started playing when I was eleven years old. [My mom] thought that mother-daughter relationship might make things kind of weird, so I took lessons from her friend.

In high school, when I was playing a lot of classical music, it was a little bit weird because I would be making mistakes while I was practicing and my mom would be washing dishes, yelling from the other room, “Wrong note!”

This might be a stupid question, but how heavy is the harp?

It’s 85 pounds, and I’m not strong at all. I ask for help when I need help. I have a whole system of putting it into my car. I have to drive a big car [a vintage Volvo station wagon] and live on the first floor always. It is a very big, very cumbersome, and very expensive instrument. I want people to feel like it’s not. I played in a train station yesterday, because I want it to feel more accessible. Not just, “I saw one on television.” The harp is the most ancient instrument and I want people to interact with it more.

When did you realize the harp could have a more dynamic use than just classical music?

People think of the instrument of being kind of sweet — it’s angelic. They use saccharine kind of words to describe it. “It’s so pretty. It’s so beautiful.” And it can be those things, but I like the idea of getting a little deeper with it, making a concoction with it that has different kinds of moods. Balancing the sweetness of the harp with darker sounds gives it more depth, I think, and helps people think of the instrument in a different kind of way.

I still love classical music a lot. I went to a music conservatory in Rochester, New York. I lived in Austria for a while, where I played classical music. My visa ran out and I needed a place to settle down, so I chose Philadelphia. I found this super-cool musical community.

How influential was the Philadelphia music scene to your development as an artist?

Oh very. I got involved with this thing called the Valerie Project. That was my first time writing parts and using my brain in those kinds of ways. I saw how the harp could fit in with a kind of rock sound.

At the same time I was buddies with Kurt Vile. He was like, “I want some harp on my songs.” It was mainly just a social thing. In Philadelphia, it went from me playing classical music to writing parts. I started playing with Thurston Moore, and he really gave me the confidence to improvise.

How did you begin composing this album?

This past summer I had this residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in California. It’s in this beautiful national park. There’s barely any cellphone reception. They give you a place to live and dinner, and then you get a studio. My studio was this huge redwood barn. I brought all the instruments that I had at my place, including a theremin and a synth and a guitar and some different things I had never messed around with before.

I just moved to California last year — a year ago in March, after having lived in Philly for twelve years. It was a really big change to leave this place that was my home and move to a separate coast. I was on tour for six months. I had a lot of feelings of nostalgia and being homesick. I was just processing that through my songs, I guess. Trying to move on from something [that had] more to it than the place where I kind of grew up. Just having a chance to really reflect and really think.

Hundreds of Days feels more intimate than your earlier work. Does that feel right to you?

Having all that solitude to work on stuff where no one was listening to me play, I got into this bubble where I felt like I was free. I know so many guitar players and so many great singers. It’s kind of scary. I know I can play the harp — I’m fine at that. With these other instruments, I know that there are high schoolers better than me. I guess I’m a little bit of a control freak. I don’t like bringing other people in, because I like the surprise of what I make on my own. I record in real time and I don’t know how to edit. I don’t know how to stop and start again, so I record each layer individually and then stack them on top of each other.

[The residency] was this little bubble where I could sing and use my voice for texture. I don’t think I’m a good singer. It’s a texture, and it’s a new texture for me. It’s exciting to blend in with the harp. The lesson is, try it and see what works.  

In 2018, a lot of our music really values speed above everything: a four-minute song, a tight chorus, a quick engagement. But this album starts off with an eleven-minute song.  

[Laughs] It’s eleven minutes because that’s what’s happening in real time. It’s one take and then I see what’s happening and I layer on top of that. I try to mask it with other layers. It works because of that element of surprise. You never know where it’s going to go.

I have a lot of music because I like messing around and seeing where it goes. The first layer in general is just one take. If I make a mistake on the second layer, then I’ll scrap that. It’s the third or fourth or fifth layer of harp [that] is pretty strategic.

I play this instrument and not many people know how it works. Nobody is, like, screaming from the kitchen, “Wrong note” anymore. There’s a mystery of the instrument, so I get all the control that I want.

Mary Lattimore’s new album Hundreds of Days is out now; she is playing Union Pool on May 29.

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