Mary Lattimore: Has harp, must travel

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Mary Lattimore: Has harp, must travel
Mary Lattimore in Los Angeles on Oct. 20, 2021. As a child, she learned she could play her instrument almost anywhere. As an adult, her bittersweet music depends on doing exactly that. Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times.

by Grayson Haver Currin

NEW YORK, NY.- Mary Lattimore made her public harp debut in an Arby’s parking lot.

Her mother, Lelia Hall Lattimore, thought they might be late for her teenage daughter’s recital the moment they left their small North Carolina town for the state’s largest city, Charlotte. When a tire blew, she knew they were doomed. As they fished the harp from the trunk to retrieve the spare, Mom had an idea: Why didn’t her daughter play right there?

As Mary Lattimore began to pluck 47 strings in her new floral-print dress, customers abandoned roast beef sandwiches. The tow-truck driver, Angel, marveled. Most customers had never heard a harp live, let alone in a fast-food parking lot.

“I stepped out of my bratty teenager self and went for it. I was able to see the comedy, because playing the harp is fun,” Lattimore said by phone from her Los Angeles apartment as her cat, Jenny, meowed to be let inside the studio where the harp lives. She announced the last word with a relish that suggested the Renaissance staple is rarely described as such. “I love playing for people who have never seen a harp, who think it’s a museum piece. I want people to feel like they can approach it.”

During the last decade, Lattimore has been at the fore of a surprising but steady harp uprising, with upstarts like Brandee Younger reenergizing it in jazz and Sissi Rada slipping it inside techno. She delights in unfamiliar audiences who first see her instrument as a novelty. But Lattimore handles her harp like a solo guitarist, improvising around contemplative melodies with the help of pedals that warp her crystalline tone and seem to bend time.

She has recorded with Kurt Vile, toured with Thurston Moore and taught Kesha how to hold the harp. More importantly, though, are Lattimore’s beguiling solo albums, bittersweet chronicles of her travels with an instrument she called “my friend.” Her latest anthology, “Collected Pieces II,” includes a hymn for an orphaned deer she encountered during an artist residency on a 20,000-acre Wyoming cattle ranch and a paean for a cluster of seaside Croatian pines.

“Even if you’re just being quiet in a new place, there’s a sense of forward motion. You get addicted to that newness,” Lattimore said. “These songs are a way of remembering those places, a souvenir of my feelings.”

Lattimore was born into a very different harp tradition. Her mother played in orchestras and entertained at weddings while teaching two dozen students. Lattimore insists that the harp’s vibrating body, pushed against her pregnant mother’s stomach, was her first influence.

Lelia Lattimore said she was a fastidious technician, “because if the note isn’t right, it’s wrong.” As the preteen transitioned from piano rehearsals to harp recitals, her mother recognized that her daughter wasn’t motivated by such strictures. Her daughter loved The Cure and belonged to the R.E.M. fan club. The instrument’s precision induced so much anxiety that she took beta blockers before recitals. To shield their relationship, Lelia Lattimore drove her daughter to lessons in nearby cities instead of being her teacher. “It was an adventure,” Lelia Lattimore said, “our time together.”

That link between motion and music stuck. Although Mary Lattimore earned a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, she envied the skateboarders beneath her rehearsal room window, the élan of their escapades. She studied abroad in Vienna and Milan, an aberration for anyone with access to Eastman’s resources.

When Lattimore moved to Philadelphia after college, a vibrant network of young experimental musicians indoctrinated her in improvisation. She had always struggled to memorize elaborate classical pieces, so the idiom offered an escape hatch. She no longer memorized; she responded, her chops flourishing without charts.

“It’s very vulnerable to improvise, especially on an instrument so big and rare. You’re showing your guts,” she said. “But those people taught me to trust my instincts.”

While furtively writing her own material, Lattimore began touring and recording with rock bands. In 2014, she was anonymously nominated for a Pew Fellowship, an annual $60,000 prize for a dozen Philadelphia artists. The call to tell her she’d won, she said, remains “the greatest thing in my life.” Lattimore paused a string of minimum-wage jobs and plopped half the money into the bank. She turned her battered Volvo westward, she and her harp bound for a Los Angeles rental.

Stopping in national parks and idiosyncratic towns, she wrote what became her 2016 album “At the Dam.” Lattimore recognized that being in motion shook loose strands of inspiration, moods she wanted to express with melody. She needed, then, to remain on the go.

In January 2018, Lattimore relocated to California, soon landing a residency at the Headland Center for the Arts just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Inside a studio built from redwoods, the ocean always audible, she composed her 2018 breakthrough, “Hundreds of Days,” and a duo record with Meg Baird, a songwriter and friend who had decamped from Philadelphia years earlier.

“Mary had really passionate ideas about music, but she didn’t want them to involve tedium,” Baird said. “She always wanted to place the harp into a context where it wasn’t treated like precious furniture.”

Lattimore’s dual volumes of “Collected Pieces” testify to that dynamic. “It Was Late and We Watched the Motel Burn,” written after doing just that from a tour van window, is vertiginous and unsettling, the melody constantly swallowing itself. “For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth,” inspired by the astronaut (and composed when Lattimore’s jaw was wired shut after a fall), is delicate and empathetic, a tender transmission between altered realities.

Lattimore tours so much, she has churned through three used Volvo XC90s (the model that holds a harp) in seven years. After COVID-19 scuttled her itinerary, she longed for the daily invigoration of that travel, the surprises that shape her music. She found a temporary fix through collaborations.

Guitarist Steve Gunn remembered her desperation to jam when he was recording his new album, “Other You,” in Los Angeles during lockdown. She hesitated to visit. When she finally arrived on the last day, they cut the instrumental “Sugar Kiss.” It sounds like a group hug during a cataclysm. “I don’t think she’d been out of her house, and we were all struggling,” Gunn said from Belgium. “You just want to be around Mary, so it was a nice way to step into hanging out.”

Lattimore went on to record an album of discursive duets with her neighbor in Los Angeles, fellow Philadelphia expatriate Paul Sukeena, and two luminous drones with instrumental duo Growing. Their baptisms-by-volume had once coaxed her toward experimental music; making them now helped her survive isolation.

“I lost myself during COVID, just dead inside,” she said. “These were the sparks I found.”

Lattimore is slowly returning to motion. In September, she visited Croatia for her birthday. Rather than lug her harp, she took a keyboard, savoring Adriatic vistas while composing her first film score. A week after returning to Los Angeles, she drove to an artist residency in Marfa, Texas.

The scores, the residencies, the keyboards: They are concessions to age, since she cannot haul what she dubbed “my giant 85-pound sculpture” around the world forever. Her parents have both endured hip replacements after decades of moving harps. But during the 14-hour haul from Marfa to California, she realized how much she had pined for the peripatetic thrills of touring — she and the harp, seeking the joys of the open road, en route to anywhere.

“The moon is shining on the desert. There are no cars. You are just listening,” Lattimore said, her pitch rising. “I had missed that so much, even gas station bathrooms. I like who I am when I am traveling. You are drinking in something you need.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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