Mary Lattimore is a classically trained harpist and absolutely radical human being. Do you know how hard it is to tour with a harp? It's hard! Harps are enormous, delicate, magical and cantankerous, yet Mary manages this all with a devotion that few can approach. She's totally there for her friends, as evidenced by her fulfilling a request to not only create a harp arrangement for Richard and Linda Thompson's "A Heart Needs a Home", but also driving across country to play it at my wedding. A sought after "harpist for hire" collaborating with many well-known musicians, Mary also shines as a brilliant solo artist. Her new album Hundreds of Days on Ghostly International recently reached #4 on Billboard's top New Age charts. Many thanks to Mary for Spillin' the Beans.
Mary Lattimore, on the road with coffee. Photo by Mary Lattimore
Hi, Mary! Thank you so much for taking some time to Spill the Beans. Why don’t we start with you telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Hi, Ben! I’m so happy you asked me to do this and it’s a privilege to be homies. I am a harpist living in LA, working as a babysitter sometimes, but mainly working as a professional harpist, touring around and making music and hangin' out.
When did you start playing the harp and when did you realize that it was what you wanted to pursue to the extent that you have artistically?
I started playing the harp when I was eleven. My mom is a harpist and kind of forced me to start taking lessons, after a few years of learning how to play the piano. Eventually, I started getting better at the harp and getting to know it well and that’s when I started to really love it. In high school, I envisioned having a career that involved variety and traveling and making stuff and my mom’s a professional musician, so it was pretty natural that I would see her ability to fashion a creative life and gravitate towards that too. I was always really bad at school and didn’t last long at desk jobs I’ve had, preferring to scoop ice cream, sell records at a shop, sporadically work at a coat check. I like hustles, especially when they involve my harp.
Mary Lattimore, photo by Rachel Pony Cassells
You have been sought out to contribute and collaborate with an impressive list of artists (Jeff Zeigler, Kurt Vile, Thurston Moore, Steve Gunn, just to name a few) both on recordings, as well as live. How do you look at these projects compared to when you are making a record of your own and playing solo?
I’ve learned a ton from these kinds of collaborations or session work. It’s always educational to see how bands/people make a record, the steps that go into it, or more experienced musicians go about putting together the pieces and when contributing, you get a peek behind the curtain to see the moving parts.. My newest record involves more instruments than just the harp and I think that was influenced by hearing how the elements fit together, how things get added and edited in order to make this finished thing, a song. I feel like the collaborations and the improvisation with others just expands the musical vocabulary that can be used to influence the solo stuff. Gotta keep learning and learning, getting better at listening.
Your new record Hundreds of Days came out last month. Tell us about it!
I made it last summer when I was an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts out near Sausalito, CA, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The Arts Center is in these old military buildings in a National Park, so there’s a lot of solitude and dramatic landscape. I had a studio in a redwood barn at the top of a hill near a lighthouse. I saw whales, deer, coyotes, otters, tons of stars, and breathed in the freshest air in North America. Dreamy place! I made this record by holing up in my studio and messing around with lots of instruments I didn’t really know how to play, like a Moog Theremini and guitar and vocals, new things for me. It was really fun and pretty free.
Artwork for Mary Lattimore’s “Hundreds Of Days” by Becky Suss.
And there’s a big tour coinciding?
Yep, this summer I’m doing a solo tour of the US and then coming back to California to do a tour with Iceage, then another one with my best pal Julianna Barwick, then another one with Dylan Carlson, so lots of traveling coming up!
You were raised in North Carolina. When I first met you, you were living and established in Philadelphia. Now you’re in Los Angeles. On top of that, you travel extensively. How would you describe the art and music cultures in those three locations, and what are some spots you’ve spent time in that left an impression on you?
Good question! I haven’t lived in North Carolina for awhile, but it has a great art and music history, especially where I grew up in Asheville. The Black Mountain College was there and brought a lot of great thinkers and legendary artists to the area. It’s a very stunning jewel of a city, nestled in the mountains, and has a reputation of being pretty open and poetic, rumored to have been built on a giant crystal. We have a great record store in Asheville called Harvest Records and the friends who own it have nurtured a good scene there.
Philly also has a great music scene and history and I found living there to be warm with community-style support and collaboration. It felt like playing music and going to shows was really the social backbone in cool way, was all part of communicating with the people around you. When I first moved there, it was cheap enough and scrappy enough to feel like a clubhouse everywhere, to spark some territorial and cozy ownership of a corner of it, but things are changing and hopefully it will never lose it’s strong music vibe.LA is interesting and I’m just getting to know it. It feels like things are especially vibrant right now when thinking about the music I gravitate towards and the art. It feels like there’s a freshness infused into it, but maybe that’s just me being in a honeymoon phase. I love it here and go to a lot of shows, buy a lot of records, see a lot of art shows. What’s cool about it here is actually getting paid reasonably for session work and to see friends get compensated for making movies and art and music, legitimized by money so the rent can get paid and more shit can get made. It makes choosing a freelance life feel not so scary when there are more creative jobs woven into the fabric of the city. At least it feels that way to someone so new here.
My other favorite city I’ve spent a lot of time in is Vienna, Austria, home to a great coffee culture as well an important music and art scene in the big picture of civilization.
Similarly, what about coffee culture?
Growing up in the Asheville area, I wasn’t really aware of any coffee culture then, but I remember when Charlotte got a Starbucks, which was when I was in high school, I think. Philly has delicious coffee and so does LA, but I’m not really that tuned into the nuances of the shops. But Vienna was definitely very coffee-centric and going for coffee was such a ritual, a sort of half-solitary, half-social routine, less utilitarian for fuel and more therapeutic. The coffeehouses are somewhat frozen in time, with waiters in tuxedos and newspapers on wooden holders and each coffee is served on a silver tray with a small glass of water and a tiny spoon. Cake is especially good there too! Each Viennese coffeehouse has its own personality. Drinking a coffee is a way to kind of post up in a cozy place for an afternoon and people used to get their mail delivered to their favorite spot. I love that tradition, that excuse to slow down.
Alright, here we are, talking about coffee. So, you like that stuff?
I love it. I love the ritual of making it, the descriptions of the beans, and also I need it in order to move my body from one place to the next.
How do you make it at home?
My roommate has a Chemex and I learned how to use one from my friend, the writer, filmmaker and professional surfer Jamie Brisick, who taught me never to line up the fold of the filter with the Chemex spout or whatever you call it. Haha. This was just last year.
Chemex, photo by Kristan Lieb
What’s your favorite coffee drink to grab at a cafe?
I usually land on a medium soy latte, sometimes with an extra shot. I really like the taste of a lavender latte or a turmeric latte, which are both newer to me. I like the idea of drinking pastel colors with my coffee. Maybe that’s coffee blasphemy! (Mary, it's fine!)
Mary Lattimore, photo: Jackie Lee Young
OK, last question; Have you ever written a song about a convenience store? If so, did they happen to notice?
Hey, great question. As a matter of fact, yes. One time, I wrote a song called “Wawa by the Ocean”, which was about a beloved beach, Ship Bottom, New Jersey, and the convenience store located close to its ocean. I posted this song on the internet and Wawa wrote to me and asked if they could send me a care package straight from the headquarters. In the package was a Wawa t-shirt, a cooler, and two bags of coffee, one regular and one decaf. The decaf is still in the freezer. I debate drinking it just for nostalgia but Wawa coffee isn’t that remarkable, even though it’s a great store! Soon after, an article was written about the song for the website conveniencestorenews.com. You might wanna check out that website after you read this! Thanks, Ben!
Here is a playlist.