ARTIST INTERVIEW: Mary Lattimore

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Mary Lattimore is a multifaceted musician who specializes in the harp. In addition to her multiple solo albums (including the 2018 release, Hundreds of Days), she has played with musicians including Thurston Moore, Sharon Van Etten, Jarvis Cocker, Kurt Vile, and Steve Gunn.

In late September, I was one of a full house at the Ace Hotel Theater, totally riveted by harpist Mary Lattimore’s ethereal performance. I’m not exaggerating when I say the entire audience was dead silent, intently listening to each plucked note from her Lyon and Healy Concert Grand harp. Large tufts of fog floated up from behind her, caught in the bright white spotlight from above Mary as she and her harp sat in the middle of an otherwise dark stage. She composed songs with herself, using looping pedals, a technique I’d only seen used by guitarists and EDM artists up until that moment, to manipulate the pieces of tunes she played live in front of us. I had the pleasure of meeting her after the show and conducting this interview!

JK: I loved hearing all the inspirations for your songs at the Ace Hotel. Would you mind sharing the inspiration stories for “Otis Walks Into the Woods” and “The Warm Shoulder” for our readers?

ML: Otis was my family's sweet black lab. They live on a farm in rural North Carolina and Otis was blind, so he slept on the screened-in porch in the winter. One day, my mom went to let him onto the porch before bed and he wasn't there. He wandered off into the woods to pass away. My dad looked for him but they never found a trace of him ever. The song is a tribute to the sweet blind dog walking out into the woods, disoriented but confident in his mission and solitary. The Warm Shoulder is a sort of love song based on the joke "What did the cannibal's wife serve the cannibal when he was late for dinner?" The punchline is "The cold shoulder!". I wanted to make a song that was the opposite of that cranky feeling, and also romantic but a little like a David Lynch+1950s girl group instrumental warped feeling, too. Television style of love.

JK: In your latest album, “Hundreds of Days”, you broadened your use of string instruments and synthesizers to include piano, theremin, electric guitar, and a sequencer, which was very impressive. You also chose to debut your voice - what did singing bring to the music that these other instruments could not?

ML: I just wanted to add a different texture and the human voice is its own irreplaceable texture. I'm not a great singer but it wasn't really the point, to show off my voice. It was mainly just the sound and the thickness of the layering of the breath.

JK: Spotify has a function which shows where most of your listeners are coming from. Most of your listeners are located in Mexico. Why do you think that is? Were many of your artistic influences Latinx artists?

ML: What? Really? I had no idea! That's so interesting! I have no idea why! I don't really use Spotify, so that's news to me. I would love love love to go to Mexico so you're inspiring me to ask my booking agent about going there right now! Haha.

JK: Which artists have been most influential to your style?

ML: I would say Brian Eno, some Krautrock bands like Neu, friends like Julianna Barwick, Liz Harris (Grouper), Kurt Vile (in the part-writing/looking at the bigger picture of a finished song), Alex Somers and Jonsi (Sigur Ros), Alice Coltrane in the freedom and spiritual process of making music, Zeena Parkins in her fearless harp innovation, Bill Nace.

JK: What contemporary artists, including the artists you’ve collaborated with, have been the most impactful to you in your career?

ML: Thurston Moore really gave me the confidence to improvise, and Tara Burke (Fursaxa) and cellist Helena Espvall. Working with Kurt Vile has always been really thrilling because we have a good musical synergy. I played on a record for Jarvis Cocker and I loved it so much and continue to love what he's doing and how much he appreciates the harp as a modern instrument.

JK: You said you worked for your college radio station! What is your favorite memory from your college station days? How do you think working college radio impacted your life?

ML: I was completely in love with WRUR in Rochester. I worked as an assistant music director and music director and it was thrilling to hear all the new stuff and to get to compile a show, to curate it and to forge a connection with listeners in the community, to talk about records, to talk about what people are listening to and loving. It's a little club, college radio, a little tribe. I'm so glad it's still around and a vehicle to get music out to people. It's a very special asset and it's so fun to be involved.

— Jordan Kessler, DJ

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