by Ali McGhee
Experimental harpist Mary Lattimore is no stranger to Asheville. The artist, who comes to the Mothlight on May 25th with openers Simple Machines, grew up here, and she has played local venues regularly over the years, most recently with artists like Parquet Courts and Julianna Barwick. Though she currently lives in Los Angeles, her ties to the area remain strong through family and friends.
Lattimore came to the harp early–her mother has been a harpist in the Asheville Symphony for years–and studied the instrument in Rochester, NY, at the Eastman School of Music. After that she lived in Vienna, where she taught English, worked as a nanny, and rented a harp by the hour in a nearby music shop.
A career in music unfolded upon her return, when she joined The Valerie Project, a group that performed an original score for the surrealist Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Through her work with the group, guided improvisation became the method by which she composed and has evolved since then.
Lattimore released her first solo album in 2013, and her newest, Hundreds of Days, will be released on May 18 on the Ghostly imprint. Recorded during a residency in the Bay Area, the album has a soft, meditative quality that conjures the elements of its creation–the motion of waves, the stirrings of soft rain, and the silence in between. Created on Lattimore’s signature harp, the album also brings in instruments that are less familiar for the artist, including guitar and Moog synthesizer.
I spoke with Lattimore about her favorite things to do when she’s back in Asheville, the early challenges of improvisation, and the backstories to some of her most intriguing song titles.
You grew up in AVL! What are your favorite things to do when you’re in town (besides play)?
I love to go to Harvest Records–those guys are some of my best friends in Asheville and I’ve known them for years. I love seeing what they have and catching up with them. That’s a really important stop for me. I also visit Natalie Pollard, the owner of Villagers. She’s a close friend (and has a really cool dog).
How did your time at the Eastman School and in Rochester, and then in Vienna, shape your music?
I went to Rochester thinking it was closer to New York City! It was hard; it was really cold. But I had been craving a more creative environment after high school [in Shelby, N.C.], and Eastman was full of kindred spirits hanging out and studying really intensely, and that got me really focused. I also worked at the college radio station at the University of Rochester and at record stores, so I balanced it with other music I loved while studying classical music.
I felt like it was a pretty well rounded music education. The non-classical learning was very important to the bigger picture. If I hadn’t had that outlet it wouldn’t have been the same.
I didn’t really study music in Vienna when I went after finishing at Rochester. I rented a harp by the hour and would play, but I didn’t do much musically. I was just soaking in the environment, being a nanny and teaching English. It was more about personal growth. Practicing was more about keeping it up. I didn’t want to lose the foundation I got from college.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one of my favorite films. How did you form an entire group around it? What did you get out of re-scoring it?
After Vienna, I moved in with two friends from Rochester in a beautiful compound of three houses in the city. There was a great musical community there and one musician started the Valerie Project. He picked the film, and I’d never seen it before. We were a 12-person ensemble traveling with the original print of the film from the Czeh Republic.
Writing harp parts with that ensemble was the beginning of my process of learning to compose. I had to look at images and decide what mood to convey, what musical colors to add in there. And when people told me, “Oh, we like this part,” it gave me confidence to come up with more parts, it gave me that little push to say, “Oh man, I can do this.”
I’d never improvised before that. There was some composition: We were creating parameters to improvise within. Like, oh, this theme will come around whenever this character comes into the picture. From there I started writing harp parts for different bands that were very deliberate, but it gradually became more relaxed and I was able to come up with more on the spot.
When I play live, I recreate songs within the construct of a theme. I can make a song longer or shorter, or add things to the loops, and that’s part of the fun. It’s improvised and composed at the same time. There’s always room for surprises and happy accidents.
Your song titles are so interesting. Can you tell me the story behind “We Just Found Out She Died” (off 2017’s Collected Pieces)?
That was about the Log Lady from Twin Peaks. I bought my friend a ticket to hear the actress [Catherine E. Coulson] speak, which was really fun. She was so smart, cool, and charming, with such sunny stories. She was a great lady, and exactly perfect.
I wrote that song right after that the actress had passed away. I’m not sure whether she was sick, but it but didn’t seem like that when we saw her, and she passed away around a year later after we saw her speak. So I thought I’d try to write a song that would fit with a Twin Peaks-y, David Lynch-y kind of style. I wanted to write something that was a tribute to that kind of weird beauty.
Do you have any favorite moments or stories behind songs on your new album?
I love the writings of Dennis Johnson. He wrote Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams. I wrote a song for him when I found out he passed away from cancer pretty young, titled “Their Faces Were Streaked with Light and Filled with Pity.” It’s a beautiful line from Jesus’ Son, when the main character and his friend are kinda messed up and have a hazy sense of reality. They end up in a snowstorm and see all these crosses and angels in the sky. They’re actually at a drive-in movie theater, seeing the film through the snow, but they feel that the figures are angels ripping a hole in the sky.
Another song on the new album is called “On the Day You Saw a Dead Whale.” I went to Bolinas, California, for the big 4th of July parade there. And they’d had this giant blue whale that had been hit by a boat and died and washed ashore, and they couldn’t figure out how to lift it away, so it was forced to rot on the beach. It smelled horrible. It was horribly tragic, but also pretty majestic. And scientists came and took the eyeball away in a plastic bag. That’s something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
You seem inspired by in so many things. What books, movies, music, podcasts, etc. are inspiring you right now?
I have a really great friend group in L.A., a lot of transplants and musicians who just moved here. So I’m blending in with the music that’s already been here, and it feels like a really creative time. I’ve been hanging out a lot with Julianna Barwick and the producer Alex Somers and his boyfriend Jónsi. Also Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.
I’m also getting in to doing more film scoring. I just saw the new film with Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here. It’s a really brutal but amazing film with a score by Jonny Greenwood, which I loved. I think about what scores can do to enhance the visuals, and I’ve been looking to see who did the score and what else they did. How did they build that side of the movie? I’m also noticing how people use silence in scores.
I’ve been thinking about where I can take my music since I don’t really sing. So I’ve been playing on some scores. Composers write with Midi harp, so I’ve been replacing a lot of the robots. I was thinking about it the other day–they replaced this cumbersome expensive instrument with a robot that can play everything perfectly, but you can’t really replace the harp. The warmth of its wood, the little mistakes and nuances that a real harpist brings are irreplaceable.
The harp as an instrument seems to me to be in a certain class of instruments, with the cello as another example, that have a particularly special relationship with the body because of their size, which is basically the size of a human (although obviously all instruments are deeply connected to the body). Can you comment on this (if you agree)?
Yes. The cello is another where you can wrap body entirely around and feel the vibrations from the instrument. My mom was a harpist with the Asheville Symphony, and I think about that, about being in the womb and my mom leaning the harp back, with the vibrations on me in the womb. And I wonder, did that have any impact on me? That was one of the first sounds I probably ever heard close up.
Mary Lattimore plays the Mothlight on Friday, May 25. Simple Machines, with Sarah Louise and Sally Anne Morgan of House and Land, open with guest musicians Thom Nguyen, Patrick Kuckuka, and Nathan Olso.
The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.