If you’ve seen a harpist onstage with local musicians like Kurt Vile or Meg Baird or Tara Burke (Fursaxa), it was almost certainly Philadelphian Mary Lattimore plucking the strings of the mighty instrument. You may have also seen her working among the long rows of CDs and vinyl at A.K.A. Music in Old City, or sharing a stage with Arcade Fire; most recently she flexed her harp prowess on Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore’s newest Beck-produced, Matador-released album, Demolished Thoughts.
She’ll be performing as part of Moore’s group at the First Unitarian Church Sanctuary tomorrow, and then heading out for the Ottawa Folk Festival and a few dates across California. The A.V. Club caught up with Lattimore to talk about harping; her favorite harpists; working with Vile, Moore, and Baird; and getting trapped on Beck’s Malibu balcony during the recording of Demolished Thoughts.
The A.V. Club: Of all the instruments in the world, how did you choose the harp?
Mary Lattimore: My mom is a professional harpist, so I was always around harps—my mom’s harpist friends and the kids that took lessons from her, going along to her symphony rehearsals—and I was always listening to her work on parts and pieces, so the harp’s always been a part of my life. When it came time to learn how to play, I was 11 years old and I didn’t enjoy it so much at first, but the better I got the more it became my own. And now I have this 30-year story with this instrument that feels like a sister or something. It’s gone everywhere with me.
I think the harp is the most rewarding and complex, most beautiful and magical lush instrument. If you’re into it, you get over the paying for it: the longish car to take it around, the first-floor apartment you always have to have, the space it takes up, the 47 different strings, the maintenance, and the getting to know its layout and mechanics. You can’t have a glamorous manicure. It takes a long time to feel comfortable on it; you don’t feel masterful very quickly.
I think that if you find yourself drawn to the sound of the harp in particular, nothing else sounds like it, so it sort of picks you. You measure things out, and if your love for that sound comes out on top, there’s not really a question of harp versus guitar. It’s something weird and special to have in your life.
AVC: If someone came into AKA Records and requested recommendations for rad harp records, what would you suggest that’s not Joanna Newsom?
ML: I do like Joanna and think she is a formidable, powerful harpist. She can play really difficult parts without getting tired, and she isn’t timid, which is cool. I just bought this record by this jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby called Dorothy’s Harp. It’s from 1969, and I love it. It’s got this effortless, unbridled kind of vibe where the harp is integrated into the ensemble, isn’t some kind of prim or precious element, and you can feel the fun she’s having with the other musicians when you’re listening.
I also think that Zeena Parkins writes really interesting parts. I admire her a lot. There’s this Bjork record she played on, and the harp is just shimmering throughout it. I just saw this video of her playing with Hole on MTV Unplugged. [Laughs.] Seems like she’s a really versatile and creative player. So, anything by her will really give you an idea of where you can take the harp, in both an experimental way and in pop music. I’d love to meet her.
AVC: It’s a huge instrument. What’s it like taking the sucker on tour?
ML: It’s really not too bad! For the most recent tour with Thurston Moore’s band we rented a U-Haul trailer and it fit in there great, surrounded by merch and stuff. For Kurt Vile’s tour last summer, we just had a giant van and took out some of the seats. My tourmates have been so helpful, especially when there are stairs, and I’m super grateful. It’s not a big deal, although it is huge. It’s totally insured, just in case there’s ever a terrifying situation.
AVC: You did a show with Arcade Fire in Philly about seven years ago. How did that come together?
ML: I was visiting my friend Allie and her family in Missouri, and we met them there at a bar. They asked me to sit in just casually when they came to Philly. I had just moved here and didn’t really know many people, so it was something to look forward to in an unfamiliar, freezing cold place. I had lots of fun, and I later found out that Win and Will Butler’s mom is an accomplished harpist and the daughter of Alvino Rey. It was the first time I had been on a stage like that, playing with a group of people who were stoked and an audience that was crazy. You don’t get that same exhilaration when you’re playing with the orchestra. I love that kind of connecting.
AVC: You played with with Kurt Vile & The Violators at the Transfigurations Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. How did you two hook up?
ML: Kurt and I have been friends for a long time, since I first moved here from Asheville. He’s got a real smart brain and a smart mouth. He’s the very best. I played on Smoke Ring For My Halo, his newest record. You can hear the harp on “Ghost Town” and “On Tour.” He’s invited me on short tours, which were really fun hangouts. My favorite thing he and I did was when we played at this boutique in New York City for a party presenting some of Kim Gordon’s art. We did this cover of a Gram Parsons song, just the two of us, and it sounded so beautiful and lonesome. Kurt’s the real thing.
AVC: Your most recent gig has been with Thurston Moore’s new project. Are you a big Sonic Youth fan?
ML: I love Sonic Youth a ton. I feel like I can vividly remember when and where I got really into Sister and Daydream Nation and Bad Moon Rising and Goo and Dirty, and when I listen to those, there’s that otherworldly flashback to ninth grade orchestra camp in Greensboro, North Carolina, summertime boomboxes or Chapel Hill cassette jamming, or the everyday drive to a hotel job. Each one of those is like a personal soundtrack that melts into part of my history. That’s the way favorite records should be, I guess, never getting old to you and becoming a part of your life so they leave a positive and permanent mark.
AVC: You first met Thurston at some sort of noise-music-for-kids educational program in New York City. Can you talk about that?
ML: Yeah, I was hired to play the event, I think it was called “Avant [Garde] Preschool” or something. Anyway, I was supposed to sort of bookend this noise lecture and demonstration that Thurston and Bill Nace were presenting to kids. All the kids were really cute. I played for a little bit, and then Thurston and Bill talked to the kids, played some, and then let the kids mess around on their guitars with drumsticks and stuff. The kids were super into that hands-on part. Anyway, then I played afterwards, just some improvising, and they came running over and started playing my harp, too. Eventually, I sat one of them up on some thick books so he could get the full effect. It was fun!
I remember Thurston describing improvisation in music as taking a road and seeing where it goes, and then taking another road and checking out where it goes, and then finding another one, etc. I thought that was pretty cool, just the image of these hidden paths revealing themselves and the choices being there, and if you get stuck, you just take another path and see where that one leads. You can find confidence when you’re not worried about messing up.
AVC: Demolished Thoughts, the new Thurston Moore album you worked on, was recorded by Beck. What was it like working with Thurston and Beck? Are they all business?
ML: We had tons of fun. I still can’t believe that really happened. [Laughs.] It was pretty perfect, being whisked out of normal life to go to Malibu. No, not all business, but it was definitely serious, in a good way. [Singer-songwriter] Samara Lubelski [who also recorded on Demolished Thoughts] and I had written some parts and would take turns recording and listening. Beck would take a musical line I’d come up with to somewhere different. He had great ideas, and I’m really proud of how it sounds. I loved his family and the engineers. We’d take a walk at 5 o’clock each evening down to the beach, before the sun set. There were all of these caves in the cliffs. It was a little chilly. We didn’t go into Los Angeles or anything, just stayed in a kind of recording bubble in this picturesque setting.
AVC: Anything funny happen?
ML: Beck let me take a photo from his balcony of the evening sky and I got locked out there a while, and everyone was in the sound-proof studio so they couldn’t hear me knocking. Then his little boy heard me and came to the door but couldn’t get it open, so I was stuck for what felt like a while. Kinda dorky.
AVC: When you played with Thurston, Bill Nace, and Samara Lubelski a few months ago at First Unitarian Church, it was an all-out improvised set. Will you all play the Demolished Thoughts tunes for the upcoming gig?
ML: Yep, this time it’s songs from Thurston’s Demolished Thoughts, Trees Outside The Academy, and Psychic Hearts albums. There’s a little bit of freaking out, but it’s a very song-based set. Looking forward to this show because it’s in the beautiful Sanctuary! And the next day, we play David Letterman!
AVC: Meg Baird’s opening the show, and you appear on her upcoming record, Seasons On Earth. Can you tell me a bit about the record and her new songs?
ML: It’s the prettiest record, such a stunner. The songs are very intimate-sounding, kind of elegantly timeless. There are mostly originals on this one, including the song I play on, which was partly inspired by our trip to Asheville for that Transfigurations Festival, actually! [Baird’s band] Espers played that festival too, and we all stayed at my family’s cabin, which is full of ghosts and tons of nostalgic historical family ephemera and arrowheads and a million collections, and the song sort of reflects that cozy and storied vibe.
AVC: You’ve played with a lot of people. Do you record and compose your own music?
ML: I really enjoy playing with other people the most, and collaborating. But it looks like I am going to try it coming up, hopefully with the awesome Jeff Ziegler [of Arc In Round and Uniform Recordings]. Recording solo is kind of an intimidating idea to me, but hopefully the end result will sound cool and unique! Also in the future is a project with Annabel Alpers [of Bachelorette], and hopefully a project with Steve Moore of Zombi, if my dreams come true!