Mary Lattimore The L.A.-based artist talks harps, kitschy places, and selling diaries

Photo: Rachael Pony Cassells

“Lost Lake” could be the title of a Mary Lattimore song, but it’s actually the name of a Denver dive bar in which we met. It’s a sharp contrast to her music: more than a little dingy and situated right on Colfax Avenue, a one-time highway that Playboy allegedly called “the longest, wickedest street in America.” Not that you could tell once Mary started playing; her set, drawn in equal measure from the just-released Hundreds of Days and her back catalog, was utterly transportive. This isn’t particularly surprising; regardless of where it’s listened to, Mary’s music has always had a sense of place that offers a compelling alternative. Accordingly, our conversation revolved around exploration — sonic, geographical, and the many intersections thereof.

Do you find the harp limiting at all, either creatively or in terms of how its perceived?

Yes and no. It’s limiting as far as being able to transport it; stairs and taking it places to play. Otherwise, I can fit into a lot of situations, and people that ask me to collaborate usually know that. They don’t expect me to play just ethereal all the time. Sometimes you have to prove yourself, and I think I’ve proven so far that I can take it to a versatile place.

I saw that episode of Against the Clock that you did with FACT, which was a bit of a stylistic departure for that series.

I haven’t watched it yet! Every one that I’d seen, they were using Ableton and stuff, or just using their computer to record. My computer setup is just GarageBand, you know [laughs]. I do record myself, but I’m not an expert by any means.

Does performing solo come naturally to you, or do you prefer an orchestra or band context?

It does at this point, because I’ve just done it a lot. I don’t really have any preference at all; I just like playing the harp. I like being able to do everything — I went to school for classical music, I like being able to play in an orchestra, I like being able to play in a rock band, noise music, as a duo. I just like messing around and hearing what happens.

Do you feel any sense of ambassadorship bringing the harp to listeners and spaces that might not be familiar with it?

I love it. I prefer to play in places like this, where people say “oh, we’ve never had a harp here before.” When I played in Las Vegas, I was really nervous about it because I’d never played there before. I played in this bar with a good number of people, but the promoter told me that it was the quietest it had even been in that venue. People were really listening intently, and it’s cool to get quiet and have the audience be right there with you. That’s the beauty of playing bars like this; it’s a challenge to see if you can connect with people.

Do you have an idea of where new listeners tend to get their preconceived notions of harp music from?

Every single day, I get compared to Joanna Newsom, I guess because we’re both women and we both play the harp. I think the expectation is that I’m gonna be like a folk singer, which isn’t really my style.

I imagine it’s odd to be the first artist of x or y genre that catches on outside of those circles, but probably even stranger when the audience has exactly one point of reference.

Right, or like… weddings. On Gilmore Girls, there’s a harpist in the lobby or something. Angels play them when cartoon characters die. Playing in this kind of world, Joanna is the main one that I get; I like her and I’m in really good company, but I do think it’s kind of a lazy comparison.

One of my goals is to kind of normalize the harp, you know? It can be like a piano or a guitar sound, or it can be a noisier thing. Whenever I write parts for records with bands, I try and think of a lyric to play throughout or write like a guitar would. Everything doesn’t have to be all harp-y, with glissandos and fantasia or whatever [laughs].

You were talking about the difficulties of transporting the harp itself — were you to go to Europe, say, would you be able to take it with you?

I bought a second harp, which lives in Europe. I won this fellowship in 2014 that came with some money, and I had to just nip it in the bud. I figured it would be like a savings account, that if I ran out of money later, I could just sell it. I just got too nervous to keep asking harpists if I could rent their harp in Europe and shove it in the back of a van and worry about every single scratch on it or the temperature. Someone else’s instrument is so precious to them, so for my own peace of mind, I had to just buy it. It lives in Prague, so whenever I go to Europe, I can see my second baby [laughs].

Do you generally write your songs start-to-finish as relatively discrete compositions, or are they culled from longer sessions?

I usually just sit down and improvise until I come up with something that I like. I’ll take that and make a layer of it, then a layer on top of that, and so on, so it’s kind of like structured improvisation. I’ll either start out with a loop of weird sounds that I like and fuck around with that and add layers on top, or I’ll start out with a small melody and add a layer of bass notes or something warped underneath the melody line. It’s pretty much all one take at a time, since I don’t really know how to edit. I’ll record something, and then if I don’t like it, I’ll delete the whole thing.

It seems like that would translate well to live performance, in terms of the piece staying true to how it was created.

Exactly, yeah. I think it’s cool to have those surprises since you never know what’s gonna blossom out of it, but you start out in the key of D Major or whatever as a touchstone, so you have the safety of that key and some small melody that lets you take it to a different zone. With Ableton or whatever, I guess it’s a little bit of willful ignorance. I use this Line 6 pedal that every guitar player is over by now, but even if it’s not that cool anymore, it’s like another instrument to me, and I know how to use it backwards and forwards. I like working with a little bit of constraint, being a little bit dumb and being crafty to get my way out of something if I get stuck.

Given the emphasis on improvisation in both composition and performance of your work, what do you view as the purpose of an album? Just establishing a permanent reference point for the work?

You got it [laughs]. Records are like souvenirs, a little bit, of a time. A diary-style souvenir of a place and time. It just immortalizes the situation. It’s a little bit narcissistic, I guess, to be selling people your diary. The point of it is to mark the time, but also to try and connect with human beings. Having a wordless conversation with people that might find a spark of connection in there.

If you don’t mind me asking, do you find that your livelihood as a musician is especially dependent on one of albums, commissions, or tours in particular, or is it a balance of all three?

I’m hustling all the time, so touring is just another part of that. I do a lot of session work. I like momentum, I get paid through session work and playing shows. Record sales… I don’t really know what to say about that. I love records, I worked at record stores for years and years, and there’s something about albums that’s a complete thought. All the work that goes into a record — the artwork, the mixing, and mastering — it’s like a book. You wouldn’t want to just read one chapter of a book and think that’s enough. You can get disconnected from the fact that a human being made it with a specific intention. That’s what art is.

Speaking of wordless conversation, I understand how a melody could be said to have narrative qualities; with regards to song titles, do you view them as something more akin to writing prompts or as a quick note about your own experience or interpretation?

That’s like an indulgence for me, jotting down where I’m coming from. But people can take it to the wrong place; you don’t have to think about this specific convenience store by the ocean. You can take it to wherever you want, though.

I read that this album was recorded at the Headlands Center. Can you describe that scene a bit?

I just got a residency, so I was there for a couple months. I had a studio in this big redwood barn right near a lighthouse. They cook for you and give you a big, beautiful Victorian house to live in… there’s barely any cell phone reception, so you just have to buckle down and make your work. You take in the landscape too, which totally infuses the music. It’s such a gorgeous place, with no real worries except for mountain lions, I guess [laughs]. There are like 14 different people at a time, but they’re visual artists, writers, all different disciplines. You can do whatever you want to there, there’s no strings attached. I just used it to write a record pretty straightforward, but some people just use it as a break from life.

I saw an older interview of yours where you said that a lot of your collaborations had come about through friends. How would you compare Philadelphia and L.A. in terms of fostering that sort of creative community?

In Philly, I definitely had a kind of scene where it was really social playing, with everybody supporting each other and stuff. I just made the move to L.A. about a year ago, really intentionally because I wanted to move forward with music, getting involved with film scoring and things like that. Getting really professional about session work. There’s money to be made with art there, and it’s not so much social, like “I respect what you’re doing, let’s work together.” You’re there to follow the ambition; it’s dog-eat-dog a little bit.

Do you think that creative work necessitates a trade-off between social and professional functions?

I guess it all depends on the city. The rent, how affordable the place is. You can be much more social about it if you’re living in a cheaper city where you don’t have to hustle all the time. I’m doing a lot of work in L.A., but there are so many people who have moved there that were friends of mine from all over the place, so now we’re collaborating a ton as well. It feels great. I never want to have a stupid office job ever again in my life, so I’ll totally supplement my playing for fun with playing for, like, a commercial [laughs]. I don’t consider it selling out when it can enable my playing for fun and getting experimental or whatever.

I have a ton of respect for artists who are working totally outside that framework, but it seems like the necessary compromise of that approach is that you can’t stop working at any point. Are you able to take vacations or maintain some semblance of a regular schedule?

I love to tour, and I consider it really fun. It’s a way that I get to see all my friends from across the country and hang out with them. It feels like a vacation, because I’m on my own terms and in my own car; I can eat at nice restaurants, and if I’m making money, I can hang out a lot. I’m lucky, because I don’t have to support a band or have anyone depending on me. I like going onto Atlas Obscura, which is this website that can locate weird, kitschy places around you. I do a weird kind of tourism between dates.

I’m going to Lawrence next, but I don’t have to be there until Tuesday. I wanna go to the Clutter house — you know that book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote? It’s fascinating, it’s about the murder of a family, which was real, and Truman Capote befriended the murderers. I guess you can see the farmhouse where it happened.

Do you find yourself drawing influence from across different forms of media often? I know that you re-scored a silent film once.

Yeah, definitely. I’ve written a couple songs that were for books or authors — one of the songs on the new record was written the day that Denis Johnson died, the author of Jesus’ Son. Making music is a way of processing things that happen in the world. I always say it’s like exorcism a little bit: getting out feelings or navigating things that are happening. I like thinking about writing and turning that into music, trying to bring a vibe from one work to another.

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