Mary Lattimore interview: The cosmic harpist discusses the creation of new album Hundreds Of Days
In recent years Mary Lattimore has carved a niche for herself as the indie harpist with a light and dynamic touch, able to paint pictures without words and etch narratives with delicately intertwining melodies. Her new album, Hundreds Of Days, was released last month, and shows Lattimore further propelling her sound into richer and more finely hewed realms.
We emailed with Mary to discuss her creative process, the idyllic setting for the creation of Hundreds Of Days and the literary gems that have been lighting up her world lately.
Does the title Hundreds Of Days refer to how much time went into the creation?
Nope. The record was made in a pretty short time. The title kind of refers to missing a place and people for hundreds of days, but that also means that you’re spending hundreds of days in a new place with new people, building something there too.
When was the official outset of the creation process?
I had an artist’s residency last summer in a really beautiful and remote place and was writing songs there in my own studio right next to a lighthouse overlooking the ocean. I was there from May to July of last year.
Were the first seeds of all the songs created in all different places and states of mind, or were they more unified?
They were more unified for this one. I had this huge studio in a redwood barn and would spend a lot of time trying out new instruments and trying to channel general feelings into this record, a general state of mind out there in the national park, as opposed to stitching together lots of different vibes, a pastiche from different places as I did for At the Dam. This one feels more cohesive and specific.
You’ve said that ‘It Feels Like Floating’ started off about a guy’s drug trip but changed into an ode to personal activities - does the inspiration for a song often shift as you continue to compose?
Sometimes it shifts but usually stays in the general area of the idea. Like, the description of his drug experience morphed in my version of his description, a translation of a more literal floating feeling. A lot of the songs are about trying to connect with people, memorializing them, or memorializing the day or how it felt to be standing with them, listening to them talk.
Are there any other examples on this album?
’Baltic Birch’ didn’t entirely start out as a song about Latvian seaside towns. It came out of a broken heart and need for liberation from it, but I took that feeling to Latvia so it was infused with that feeling of being a stranger exploring a new gorgeous mysterious place, being hungry for new-ness. Things that might feel like landscape odes are, but you’re also bringing your personality to these places so descriptions of trees will always be the story of you describing trees, if that makes sense. In general, though the song-ideas come out the way they start, but since they’re instrumental, the listener can take them to another place.
You were awarded a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts on the Pacific North Coast, where you largely recorded the album: How did it feel to receive this award?
I felt really really lucky. It’s a selective residency and offers so much.
Tell us about the setting that you were in there.
The setting was gorgeous. There were Victorian military buildings on this remote chunk of land by the ocean. The buildings were this unique shade of creamy white. The kitchens in the houses where the artists stayed were a little 1950’s ramshackle. The porches overlooked a basketball court where you’d see deer staring back at you from the cracked cement.
There was often fog and the air smelled like eucalyptus, wild fennel, sage, and rain. At the top of the hill was my studio, a large barn. Will Oldham had the studio and so did Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Paul Clipson, so it felt like there was good creative energy from the near past.
What were your days like there?
I read a lot because of the lack of cell phone reception and internet. I read 14 books in 6 weeks. I’d wake up, read, make breakfast, read, go to the studio and work on music or take a hike in the national park, then everyone would meet back for dinner at 6pm. Then, back in the studio for a little while or sometimes we’d go into the town of Sausalito to the Presidio Yacht Club and grab a beer. Felt breezy, intense, and artistically concentrated. There were so many interesting people there. I wish it could be real-life but it’s not supposed to be.
Are you still in contact with many other of the artists/writers that were there? Would you ever think about a cross-media collaboration, like someone reading their verse over your music?
Maybe? If the themes of the writing were similar to the themes of the song. I still keep in touch with some of the artists. They were all so next-level.
Did you feel inspired to try a different art form, or do you do any others already?
I love drawing and painting but am not so great. I love to write, too, but these things are really only for me, for fun.
For the listener, what is the difference between listening to Hundreds of Days as an album, as opposed to Collected Pieces?
Hundreds of Days was really thoughtful in the selection of the songs I put on there, in the sequencing, in choosing the art. Feels like an intentional complete story with an arc to me. Collected Pieces is odds and ends culled together. The art didn’t really connect to the songs. It felt like it was scooping up bits to scrapbook them, to immortalize in a way, but Hundreds of Days feels like it has more heft somehow. In my mind, Collected Pieces gains more from a person streaming it or whatever, listening on a song-by-song basis, but Hundreds of Days asks you to listen to the whole thing as a record and to maybe see it as a whole.
What kind of setting do you imagine listeners taking in Hundreds of Days?
I’ve been letting that go, designing where other people take it. I let it go when I throw it out there into the world, so anyone can do anything with it! Secretly, though, I hope you have a sunny breakfast while listening or take it on a long walk with your heavy thoughts. Music is such a good friend.
Where does the album artwork come from and how is it tied to the music?
The genius Becky Suss is an old friend of mine from Philadelphia. Her paintings are very large, pretty floor-to-ceiling interiors, either from her imagination or from her memory. I love the perspective, the color, the detail. I think she’s the greatest living American painter and I feel lucky in that she’s let me use a lot of her paintings for my record covers. Hope this connection continues throughout our lives, that our careers will be entwined like this.
Some of the track titles are very evocative, where do the titles ‘Their Faces Streaked With Light and Filled With Pity’ and ‘On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale’ come from?
’Their Faces’ was written when I found out the writer Denis Johnson had passed away. His writing has been my favourite for a while and I love the story from Jesus’ Son where the title came from. The ‘Dead Whale’ song was written after I spent the day in Bolinas, CA with some friends for the 4th of July. A whale had died there on the beach and they couldn’t remove it because it was too large. The beauty/tragedy of seeing such an otherworldly creature up close, with its giant ribcage and muscle, felt profound and once-in-a-lifetime.
In recent years you’ve become the harpist of choice for indie bands artists like Hop Along, The Clientele and Steve Gunn, to name just a few - how does that feel?
Oh great, they’re all buds of mine.
Do you usually have much freedom to make up your parts or do they usually direct you in what they want?
In general, I can make up my own parts but am super flexible if there are certain sections where someone wants something different than I’ve thought of. Session work is one of my favourite things to do for work and in general!
Specifically, with the three I’ve mentioned?
If I remember right, Steve just wanted me to do whatever, Hop Along was a little more specific, the Clientele on one song had me replicate a piano part already written. Mostly, it’s a combination of trial and error, improvisation, and manifesting ideas that the band articulates.
You’re touring a lot, what can fans expect from your live show?
Just me, my harp, and some versions of the songs that are partly jamming on the themes.
How stressful is it travelling with your instrument?
It’s alright unless there are stairs. I’m used to it.
What do you listen to in the van?
I am in my own car, usually, and I like listening to true crime podcasts and audiobooks for the long drives. Right now, I’m listening to Dreamland, a book about opiate industry in America. I just finished I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, this great book by the late Michelle McNamara which ultimately helped to catch the Golden State Killer recently!
Have you figured out the best way to describe your music to people succinctly other than saying “harp music”?
I say cosmic harp music.
You’re a noted reader, having recently taken part in our What I’m Reading feature, what books have left an impression on you recently?
The two audiobooks I just mentioned, and that new David Sedaris book was funny and sad and I loved it. The new-ish book of Denis Johnson stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is not to be missed!
Any that stand out from your time writing or recording?
I was reading books about Andy Warhol’s Factory and also groupie culture. Finally read I’m With The Band, which was really entertaining.
How or what do you want people to feel when they finish listening to Hundreds Of Days?
I guess I want them to love the harp and to maybe see it as less fancy or hotel-lobby or old-timey. I want them to feel like a human being, in touch with things that have no words, maybe to feel a little introspective, I guess, but it’s really up to them where they wanna go with it.
Mary Lattimore's Hundreds Of Days is out now on Ghostly International.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 5th June 2018.