Name: Mary Lattimore
Occupation: Harpist/ composer
Current Release: Hundreds of Days on Ghostly
Recommendations: I really love the watercolor paintings of Paul Jenkins and the books written by Denis Johnson.
Website / Contact: For even more information about Mary Lattimore, visit her website marylattimore.net
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I didn't start writing my own solo music until 2013, but I started playing the harp when I was eleven. I studied classical music and my favorite pieces to play growing up were those by French impressionistic composers like Debussy, Ravel, Tournier. I've always loved romantic, melancholia in music. My favorite band has been the Cure since I was eleven, too, so somehow those go hand in hand - lush, deluxe with a little nostalgia and some inexplicable sadness. I love songs that say a lot with no words, where the melody line is a sentence in itself. My harp teacher in college would always wordlessly sing with the melody line of the song I was playing in my lessons, so I learned to make lines that would ribbon out to a singing voice even if there were no vocals.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I can relate a lot to this question, as somebody who studied and studied for years and years, playing pieces that had been played for centuries, trying to get them "just right" but also trying to add a personal touch in a nuanced way. When you're under constraints while making something your own, it can be really interesting (and solitary) work, like figuring out what your own style is when you're playing a piece everybody else in your class has played before.
After school, I went on to write parts for other people's records, so learning how to trust my instincts was hard but I knew the instrument super well, so I could trust that. A big push came when I was a part of the Valerie Project, a 12-person ensemble made up of a bunch of Philadelphia musicians. We composed an alternate score to the Czech New Wave film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. We were all composing themes and parts at the same time, really working together as a unit, so I think the encouragement from the others involved really helped me to say that I could actually be a contributor, even though I'd never written anything before. It was important for my style of learning and becoming free, to have gotten to know the instrument well and have a solid foundation and then to un-learn some of the perfectionism and to hone the instincts. So, yeah, to emulate and perfect, then to unlearn and un-perfect while still retaining the roots.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I guess with a bunch of instrumental records and basically only using the Line 6 Looper, there's a little fear of sounding same-y. All of the elements are kind of the same (harp, Line 6, Garage Band), but with this new record, I've started to add other instruments to branch out a little. This time, I added guitar and some keyboard, some synth, singing a little just for texture, the Moog Theremini. There are still challenges, like I don't really know how to edit on Garage Band very well, so I have this willful ignorance where I have to try to do a layer in one take each time. Someday I'll know how to really cut and paste but for now, I like the scrappiness of just starting over if I fuck something up or keeping it and adding more to mask the mistake. A little bit amateur-hour but also fun!
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I've never really had a studio in cities where I've lived. I've always just played in my dining room (thanks to my kind roommates over the years!). Last summer, I made the new record (Hundreds of Days) in a redwood barn at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, in the wilderness on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The barn was my studio for the summer and I had so much space to spread out with these new instruments and my giant harp. It was so luxurious!
Now, I'm back home in LA with my dining room practice-corner and that's great too. My house gets a lot of light and my neighbors are cool about the music-making. I don't really have much gear, but I have some great Moog pedals and I'm constantly learning how to make weird sounds with the Line 6, playing it like an instrument. Someday soon I'm gonna branch out into a new gear-world but right now, I’m trying to stretch my knowledge of the few elements I have now.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I am a little ignorant/innocent when it comes to technology. I know that there are things that could make recording easier for me, or offer more ways to get weird on my harp, but I like going slow, learning little-by-little at my own pace. I think the ease sometimes takes away from the creativity.
A lot of harps have been replaced with MIDI robots. Part of me likes the soulfulness in the human mistakes and I'm pretty old-school as far as incorporating machines goes. I use technology in that I like connecting with people who listen to the music through social media. I use Instagram a lot. I like Bandcamp. Humans excel at channelling parts of themselves into the sounds they choose to make with instruments and voices. It's a compulsion as old as time, to make music. You can't help but inject your personality. It's all so personal. Machines excel at (in the way I like them best) warping the sound to make it even more bonkers or haunting or strange. The personal choice is there and machines can help deliver those choices if you want them to.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My Line 6 definitely presents surprises every time I improvise with it. It's really like another instrument to me and playing the harp through it allows me to have many hands. I can make some pretty violent sounds through it or dark sounds or ethereal, glittery, hundred-fingered sounds, so this tool is invaluable to me. Using it to improvise and loop creates a connection from the immediate past to the immediate present. My friend Jeff Zeigler, who owns Uniform Recording in Philadelphia and who is a talented engineer/producer/musician, is also the person who mixes all of my records, so his command of the tools in his studio really helps to shape the pieces, too.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I do all of these things. I guess I prefer face-to-face jamming with us all interacting with each other in the moment but I also do a lot of overdubbing and session work remotely. I love playing music with other people; it makes me think about my own pieces in new ways. My favorite person to play music with is Kurt Vile and each time I get to play on one of his records, I carry around a smile on my face. It's the greatest when I don't get too much direction, when the trust is there that everyone will bring their own specific magic to a project.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Oh, it's all seamless. Right now, while waiting for the new solo record to be released, I've been doing a lot of remote overdub work and some session work here in LA for TV, film and records, trying to get more into that kind of work. I've been babysitting a lot too, and walking around, hanging out with friends. A day in my life these days would include a piece of toast with avocado, a little yogurt, some coffee, and reading out on the deck in the morning sun. In the afternoons, I usually go for a walk around Echo Park Lake if I don't have to babysit, and then sit down at the harp for some work on whatever project needs me. Then I'll answer a bunch of emails and then hang at night with some friends.
I go to a lot of shows and I go to the movies a lot. I mean, things are pretty breezy now with creative harp projects for work that are also really interesting. It's not always this way. But for now, it's all blended in, the movies and the music and the museums and the taking kids for a walk in their strollers and driving around and going to shows and drinking cocktails and eating nachos and exploring this new huge collage of a city. I think it's cool to make your life an art project as much as you can, and an experiment. Thoughtful drifting is cool if you can swing it but it always ebbs and flows, combined with periods of stupid work you do just to scrape together money and periods of happy work you do that feeds your little heart.