MARY LATTIMORE: OUT OF THE DARKNESS INTO THE LIGHT
photography by stefano galli
Somewhere along a drive through rural Kentucky en route to Graceland, avant-garde harpist Mary Lattimore pulled into a funeral home parking lot and gave me 45 minutes of her time. The fiercely independent musician has been crisscrossing the continent with her harp in tow, penning wordless meditative pieces that serve as cathartic diary entries and performing for rapt audiences while gracefully and gradually expanding her sound. It’s not unusual to find Lattimore on a bill alongside acts like Iceage or participating in collaborative art experiments that feature musicians like John Weise or $3.33, but even within the context of the experimental scene, she remains markedly unique. Her album Hundreds of Days is out now on Ghostly International and her swimming habits, Southern upbringing and connection to Prague are just a few of the details she was kind enough to share with me as she paused her journey to reflect while overlooking the flowers blossoming in the graveyard. She performs with Dylan Carlson of Earth on Tue., Aug. 7, at Resident. This interview by Christina Gubala.
Mary Lattimore: I’ve stopped in a little town called Carriage, Kentucky, and I’m pulled over at a funeral home parking lot. I have to make it to Arkansas by tomorrow night, so yeah, just going to stop in Memphis. I’m going to try to go to Graceland in the morning.
That’s a dream of mine! You grew up in North Carolina. I grew up in Atlanta, and The spirit of Elvis is so pervasive down there it’s almost sinful I haven’t visited yet.
Mary Lattimore: Same here! I’m old and I’ve never been. I also like kitschy, glamorous stuff. It opens at 10 so I’m going to be there at like 9:30.
I wanted to talk about your most recent record—it deeply moved me. I felt like it evoked the image of sunshine through lace.
Mary Lattimore: That’s so beautiful! Thank you!
Lots of writers have been coming up with different elemental ways of explaining what you make: ‘No, this is not heavenly, this is earth.’ Or someone else: ‘This is a very aquatic record, like water washing over you.’ What feels most accurate?
Mary Lattimore: I do like the water comparison. People have told me, ‘This is like floating in a flotation tank,’ or whatever they’re called. And I do a lot of swimming, especially on tour. I love swimming laps. It’s very cathartic, very relaxing. That’s how I work things out in my brain from driving around—swimming.
I swam for years competitively and I used to think that was the only place I could get any thinking done at all.
Mary Lattimore: Yes—I love it. You just meditatively work it out. I love it. And that’s really nice—I think that since it is instrumental music, that does give people sort of permission to take it to their own special place. A place with water, if they want to do yoga, if they want to—it’s out of my hands in a good way what people do with it, and it’s really cool. I like that human connection. Since there’s no words, that’s my way of connecting with people—playing for them and they take that and translate that in themselves, you know? It’s cool! The things I wrote about—death, and broken heartedness and things—if you can listen to that and absorb it to be something that you kind of want to meditate to or do yoga to, it’s great! It’s like taking it out of the darkness into the light. It’s really cool a song can have that kind of revolution.
You’ve said it’s like selling people your diary sometimes. As a fan I’m grateful that you feel that we have this jurisdiction to take it to our own emotional places. Do you ever feel vulnerable once you’ve published something? Or let me rephrase: after you’ve created something, is it a catharsis or is it a sore spot? And do you ever listen to your old tracks that you’ve created?
Mary Lattimore: Sure! I listen to them, definitely. It is like my diary, or like my scrapbook. It’s like looking back and thinking about ‘Oh, these songs I made in Philly,’ ‘This is me when I was 32!’ or something like that. It’s not a sore spot because this is the way that I get through things that are hard. This is my way of coping and working it out, and then I offer it to other human beings who are going through the wild arc of being a human. I have to say that sometimes when people tell me, ‘Oh, your music is the top thing we listen to in the yoga class,’ I do think it’s kind of funny. ‘Oh, that song is about my blind dead dog that my family couldn’t find.’ So I have had those feelings—my sadness that I put here—but then I do remember that I let it go once it’s put onto a physical object. It’s a really cool way of letting things go, mentally and literally—just like giving it away.
I’m DJing a wedding tonight so it’s funny reading your interview about the harp and how everyone pigeonholes it as ‘angelic wedding music.’ I’m like—very accurate!
Mary Lattimore: I did play a wedding! I play a lot of weddings. It’s a hustle! As a freelancer, you have to have ways of making money, and doing what you want to do.
I want to ask about the PIANO-GRAPHS: New Music for the Player Piano project at the Getty. As I was reading, it looks like a super group—John Wiese, Celia Hollander, Dean Spunt, Jeremiah Chiu, Corey Fogel, William Tyler and yourself all involved in this! How did the harp fit in?
Mary Lattimore: I wasn’t even there—it’s so weird to play a show and not even be there!
Mary Lattimore: My friend—she’s a super close friend of mine, Sarah Cooper, and she works at the Getty. She had this thought about having some musicians who were involved in different kinds of instrumentation each write a piece for the player piano, and she would get it pressed into a roll. She asked me and I thought it would be really cool. The way that I loop stuff, it already sounds like if I were going to play the same song but didn’t have the looper—it’s like I would have to have ten different hands. A player piano can play faster than a human being and more notes, and it already seemed intriguing, like, ‘How would this sound on piano? Without having to think of the difficulty of humans only being born with two arms?’ I wrote this piece using the loops and had this image of sweeping cascading arpeggios that would sound pretty on the piano, and it was amazing. I didn’t know how to put the hard piece into MIDI form so [Sarah] got a friend of ours to put it into MIDI so it could be translated into the player piano roll. He sent me some samples on how the piece would sound played on a MIDI piano, and I was like, ‘Wow, it sounds so different than it does on the harp!’ That was an interesting middle layer. It was really fun! I really can’t wait to hear how the other ones sounded. Like William Tyler’s guitar and hearing how that would come through on the player piano … just like personal style. How does your personal style translate into playing an instrument that you don’t even know how to play? It’s funny because it’s technologically removed times three. You create it on your instrument and then it gets routed through so many manifestations and then shows up on the other side on an instrument that’s been a part of mankind for, what—three centuries?
The old-timey saloon player piano! It’s funny you mention your looping pedal. When I think of player pianos, a looping pedal almost seems like a modern version. I’ve read you’re quite partial to your Lyons 6—that other musicians have worn that pedal out and they’re tired of it, but you love it because you know it back and forth. How much do avant-garde musicians really influence each other’s equipment choice? Do you swap notes on the latest tech?
Mary Lattimore: I don’t really at all. Gear stuff is very new to me, and I kind of want to not listen to anyone and go my own way and find a path for myself. I feel like I’m still getting to know the thing I have to work with. It might be late-bloomer style, but I really want to get to know the one thing I have. I do have other pedals, like the Moog pedals and things that I really love. But with this I’m still taking my time to get to know it. Eventually I’ll move on to exploring new things, but I try not to listen to that because I’m already such a collector of stuff. I can’t even think about it! It overwhelms me, all the technology that could be incorporated. I was talking to my friend Brian and he was like, ‘You should learn how to use Ableton.’ I feel like having too many options might stop me from being so true to myself, take me into a synthetic direction … I’m trying to translate emotions into music, and I feel like that might kind of take me away from that in a way that I’m not ready for yet.
It’s translating emotions into a language that you barely speak.
Mary Lattimore: I want to learn this language first—
—and speak it fluently so you can use it in a poetic manner. I’ve only DJd vinyl for many years. I’m trying to work mp3s into my life, and it’s been exactly that—
Mary Lattimore: Totally!
—I feel divorced from what I love!
Mary Lattimore: Things advance for the sake of advancing and so many little details like the emotionalism gets left in the dust. People just keep on wanting to keep up. I try not to listen to people who say, ‘Oh the Lyons 6, I had that when I was 13!’ Certain dudes that I know—
—I think I know the same dudes! You said you don’t want to pay attention to what others are doing, but it seems like you draw a lot of inspiration from literature. You referenced Joan Didion in the title of your record from 2016, and you composed a song on the day that Denis Johnson died.
Mary Lattimore: I definitely love words and language and I feel like my music is trying to emulate language and word choice without using words, a little bit—like all the different choices you can hear? I really love to read, and I love elegant writing and simplicity. When I’m struck by something, an image created through words, I always am inspired to emulate that through melody in a way. And so [Johnson’s] Jesus’ Son is one of my favorite collections of stories. When he died I was at this artist’s residency in Northern California and I was really bummed out he died so young and that he wouldn’t be giving us any more of his writing. I decided to write a song about it as like an ode to him, and then I got his newest story collection. It was so good—definitely like a beautiful final project that I really loved so much.
You’ve been using your voice as a texture—do you foresee yourself as a lyricist—
Mary Lattimore: No.
Never? Do you want to expand on that perfectly succinct answer?
Mary Lattimore: [laughs] I love when people are beautiful lyricists, and I love words so much that I would be really hard on myself. I’ve tried to write lyrics and it just sounds so corny and I’m not a very good singer at all, except when I can sing wordlessly through a bunch of effects to kind of mask my voice. So definitely with this record even though there’s singing on it, I do not claim to be a great singer or guitar player or anything like that. It’s all for the sake of having more textures than just the harp. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t want to try to get too good at the guitar—it’s not really my thing.
You’ve been touring pretty hard in the last couple of years. Is this new?
Mary Lattimore: This is newer. I didn’t start playing solo until maybe 2014 or 2013. And so mostly before that I played with other people’s bands, so this is a new thing for me to be on tour by myself. Before that I toured with Thurston Moore for almost two years, and I did a couple other tours—especially last year and this year, I’m really getting into it. I just love being on the road and feeling really free.
You performed on Thurston Moore’s record Demolished Thoughts—I love that record and I’ve really been enjoying your solo stuff. I also saw that you used to work in a record store. I deduced you were involved in classical music and took it quite seriously from an early age, and at a certain point, things started becoming more with avant, noise, and rock ’n’ roll.
Mary Lattimore: I had always listened to non-classical music—I enjoy classical music, especially harp, but even more so being young, I’m sure you felt the draw of the Athens scene, R.E.M., Pylon, and for me it was Chapel Hill. Because sometimes growing up in the South, it doesn’t feel so cool. At all! And those were like nice touchstones that reminded you that cool shit could come from the South even though there were a lot of kind of conservative towns surrounding where I grew up. I was just listening to a lot of different kinds of music, not just classical music, and then I went to a classical music conservatory and I was playing classical music, but I was working at record stores in Rochester when I went to school, and I worked at the college radio station. It’s always been something I was able to let nourish my brain as much as my classical music training.
You were a college radio DJ?
Mary Lattimore: WRUR—‘Your station for variation! Rochester, New York!’ and I was a DJ at WXYZ in Chapel Hill when I went to school there. I loved college radio lots, and learned a lot from working at the stations, and was the Assistant Music Director. It’s really fun!
You’ve been playing the theremin recently–what is the strangest instrument you’ve ever picked up?
Mary Lattimore: I don’t think I’ve really played that many unusual instruments. The theremin was given to me—it’s called a Theremini and it’s a Moog theremin, and they gave it to me because they were like, ‘Let’s see how she sounds on this thing!’ I really enjoyed playing it. It’s super weird and super fun.
Something so sensitive to your presence.
Mary Lattimore: Yeah! A friend of mine has a French horn, and I tried to play that but it seemed so so hard, controlling your breath and using that to make a sound like that. I couldn’t really get a cool sound to come out, but yeah—I really like messing around with instruments I don’t know how to play and seeing if I can get something cool to come out.
Your second harp lives in Prague—why?
Mary Lattimore: I bought this harp a couple years ago from an American girl who was living in France. I was touring with different bands and each time I went on tour in Europe I’d rent a harp from someone. And shoving a harp into the back of a van … you’re liable to get scratches on it. You want to be very careful, especially when you’re loading it with drums and guitars and drunk people are helping you with it—you’re so paranoid that you’re going to put a tiny scratch on this person’s beloved instrument that you’re going to have to pay for or that they’re going to be really sad about. So I had the opportunity to purchase this harp. I won this fellowship in Philadelphia that gave me some money and I thought that this would be a good way to have peace of mind in the future. If it gets a nick on it or a scratch, that’s just a sign of me having a great tour. It’s a surface thing that marks the time. I’m not very precious with my own instrument surface-wise, and it might sound really shitty to say it, but I feel like if it’s a well-loved instrument it’s not going to be totally pristine. I probably could treat my harp a little better, but I mean … I know the rules about heat and cold and being too hot or too cold or whatever. It’s nice to not have to worry about ruining someone else’s harp, and the company that we usually rent from is a backline company in Prague, so they said they’d store the harp in there because that’s usually where the tour starts anyway with the band. So my little harp—Harpy Junior—lives over there, and I’m going to be reunited with it in the fall. I really do love Prague. I feel lucky I have a physical thing that connects me to it.
Have you ever had a show where it wasn’t what you were expecting? Or what the audience was expecting?
Mary Lattimore: The feedback with the harp and the loops is sometimes a problem because the harp is hollow and the feedback gets caught in the loop, and if there’s not a solid sound check to get out those frequencies it really makes it a nightmare. In the nightmare, the feedback keeps getting worse and worse every time the loop comes around, and that’s where my problems lie. But it’s just me to worry about, and I know how to fix problems or get out of situations where I get into sound trouble. I can always play a more noisy set. Another one of my terrifying things is the stairs. In New York they have basement steps with cellar doors— opening those and having to bring the harp down is scary, especially by myself on tour. Every time I encounter those, I’m like, ‘Oh man!’ Usually it’s fine—everything is fine. I love it. It takes a lot to rattle me, I think.
MARY LATTIMORE WITH DYLAN CARLSON (EARTH) ON TUES., AUG. 7, AT RESIDENT, 428 S. HEWITT ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $12-$15 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! MARY LATTIMORE’S HUNDREDS OF DAYS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM GHOSTLY INTERNATIONAL. VISIT MARY LATTIMORE AT MARYLATTIMORE.NET.