The Beautiful Weirdness of Mary Lattimore's Harp Music

Illustration for article titled The Beautiful Weirdness of Mary Lattimore's Harp Music
Photo: Rachael Pony Cassells

Harpist Mary Lattimore would like you to know that the harp, all 47 strings and seven pedals, often towering above the artists who choose to master it, is just an instrument.


“You can shove it into the back of a car, it could be played at a bar,” she says. “It’s for everybody, it’s not a precious thing that belongs in a museum.”

Since her 2013 solo debut The Withdrawing Room, Lattimore’s harp music has worked against the perceived preciousness of the instrument. Her largely improvised compositions, which often employ looping pedals and even the use of the harp as a percussive instrument, skewer the inherent delicacy that the average listener expects from the harp. A quietly plucked melody, fit for tea time in the most Rococo of rooms, might spool out into a gloomy ambient piece, a harp note warped in Lattimore’s loop like a twitching fly caught in a spider’s web. In the process Lattimore bends the harp’s majestic qualities into something sulkier but no less beautiful, the improvisational quality of her pieces making it impossible to tell where her music will take listeners next.

Her latest album Silver Ladders, out now on Ghostly International, may be her darkest yet. As much as Lattimore delights in expanding her chosen instrument beyond its basic associations, after her 2018 release Hundreds of Days she says she was beginning to feel bored with herself. “The harp definitely has cool potential to make a variety of moods and sounds, but sometimes to me it gets a little cartoony, plugging in different pedals that make it sound like, oh, a space alien landing!” she tells Jezebel over video from her sunny Los Angeles home, her recently adopted kitten Jenny patting at ping-pong balls (“I was going to let her play with them one at a time, but she’s found the whole bag”) on the floor.

Lattimore also wanted to get away from the personal nature of her music-making, one in which her records were always a mirror of herself. She began to consider the possibility of working with a producer, a far cry from her process of simply recording herself on her computer, looking for one who would push her work into a different, sonic realm. Across her work Lattimore has collaborated frequently almost as an extension of her social life, working with artists like Meg Baird and Julianna Barwick and appreciating creating a “mind meld” grounded as much in friendship as a shared musical sensibility. But she was wary of the associations that come as a woman artist who hands over the production side to another person.

“I was kind of scared of giving up the power,” she says. She remembers reading a review of her music that speculated that a man she worked with was “manipulating” her music as she blissfully strummed her harp. “I still have a little bit of PTSD from that review. I want everyone to know that it’s me and my brain who is working on these weird sounds.”

It helped that Lattimore had a specific man in mind, one whose music she already adored: Neil Halstead of the English shoegaze band Slowdive. The two connected through a mutual friend at a music festival and after Halstead accepted the opportunity to produce Silver Ladders, Lattimore flew, on a tiny plane battling harsh winds, to the blustery surfer town of Newquay in Cornwall where Halstead lives to record. The foggy, damp bleakness of the seaside and the scenery, which includes the famous Headland Hotel of The Witches fame, got Lattimore thinking about the beauty of the ocean but also its rugged dangers. With songs inspired by stories of drowned surfers and mermaids, the music of Silver Ladders has a gothic touch. On “Chop on the Climbout,” Lattimore’s harp playing foregrounds a deep, bass-y synth, with a heavy reverb that thunders like a storm cloud. Lattimore wanted the album to have the “glittery, glimmery-ness of Slowdive,” a band known for its dark, atmospheric rock music, and you can hear it in Halstead’s guitar work through out the album, particularly in the somber, echoed electric guitar lines of “Til A Mermaid Drags You Under.”


Lattimore has long shown that the harp can be a darker, heavier instrument, but her artistic process grew from a more proper classical training. Growing up in North Carolina, Lattimore’s mother was a classical harpist with the Asheville Symphony, later retiring to teach students and play at social events like weddings. “She’s a very emotional, lovely can hear it in the way that she plays,” Lattimore says. “Her tone and the warmth of her sound I think are really special. When I was learning how to play the harp I tried to emulate that sound and that control and the warmth.” It wasn’t until Lattimore graduated from college with a foundation in classical music that she began to write music beyond what she had grown up playing on the page. After moving to Philadelphia in 2005, Lattimore fell in with a small orchestra who were composing an alternate score for the Czech New Wave film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a challenge that required her to improvise on the spot and one that would solidify how she wanted to make music in the future.

“You have to turn off your brain in a way, the part of your brain that says: no, don’t play that, it’s going to sound ugly or that’s going to be a mistake,” Lattimore says. “Knowing how to get yourself out of a situation too is fun, if you go into weird key. It’s like a ‘choose your own adventure.’”

Lattimore moved to Los Angeles three years ago. The gentrification of Philadelphia, a shift she experienced firsthand working as a realtor’s assistant and living for 13 years in the city’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood Fishtown, had pushed Lattimore to the West Coast. In the thick of the city’s lockdown she turned to puzzles and 90 Day Fiancé, but also the pleasures of tapping into the harp’s therapeutic qualities for listeners having a hard time. In July she released the song “A Unicorn Catches A Falling Star In Heaven,” a 28-minute self-described “zone-out jam.” “I started thinking about nurses and people who are really on the front lines and they might want to come home and listen to peaceful harp music that’s not necessarily about this woman’s weird, broken heart,” she says, laughing. “[I’m] trying to tap into the feeling of, okay, I’m just going to make something that’s purely for the beauty of the fingers on the strings.”


As amorphous as the harp can be in Lattimore’s hands, there is still the sense that she’d like to move beyond its perceived limitations. “I have guitar envy,” she says at one point during our conversation, noting the range of sound the instrument produces. Later in our conversation, she mentions how guitar players are allowed to just be with “their cool guitars.” “There’s a whole center for their needs and their wishes,” she says, laughing. The harp, Lattimore says, still has a reputation that needs work, and requires a future in which the diversity of its sound and its accessibility is emphasized.

“It should not just be white older ladies on the cover of harp magazines... people should feel encouraged to play it if they love the sound of it and feel like they’re drawn to it,” she says. “Something we have to work on as a harp community is amplifying voices of harpists who are doing cool, weird stuff not necessarily in the classical genre...That’s the beauty of it: making it your own thing and having your own personal language with it.”


Silver Ladders only strengthens Lattimore’s personal language with the harp, centering her style, as it swerves between the unsettling and divine, almost in a shoegaze tradition. But it also establishes Lattimore as a masterful world-builder no matter what her instrument is, in the breadth of her collaborations and how she’s constantly pushing to place the harp in new settings. “You hope that other people connect to it, even though there aren’t words,” Lattimore says. “Having a way to connect through distance and through music is a really important human feeling.”

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.