Take a look at her Bandcamp page and you will see a lot of loose associations, almost fantasy-like fragments, that the American harpist Mary Lattimore puts out. Last year she released her acclaimed album Silver Ladders in between those separate tracks. Her second collection, Collected Pieces II that followed last autumn, a wonderfully beautiful, reassuring compilation, in which she displays her astonished view of the world with harp and numerous loops.
Written by Loulou Kuster
Photography by Rachael Pony Cassells
You imagine you’re on a small wooden rowing boat that slowly ripples along a busy, spinning world when you listen to 'We Wave From Our Boats'. The hushed track, filled with calm loops that keep rolling for three and a half minutes, is featured on Mary Lattimore's recently released compilation album Collected Pieces II. You can imagine the splashing water. In a nearly two-year pandemic, in which human contact has become something scary and every human being feels like a threat, Lattimore observes the world as something sweet, like a story a grandmother tells her grandchild.
"It's probably a weird habit of mine, but I still wave to people on a boat, even as an adult"
“There was a time in the pandemic – which we are actually in again – when we didn't know what the virus was and exactly how it worked. People walked outside, masked, through the streets. There was something alien-like, something dystopian about it. If a person came your way, there was that feeling of 'ew, there's a human, a human could have the virus so it's a potential danger' and then you quickly crossed the street. But still I had the urge to wave at that person, like, 'Hi, I'm not trying to offend you, I'm just scared, just like you.' Like being a kid on a boat with grandpa waving to the kids on the other boat.” Lattimore smiles shyly between the lines, almost apologizing. "It's probably a weird habit of mine, but I still wave to people on a boat, even as an adult."
Lattimore grew up in Asheville, a small town nestled in the mountains of the US state of North Carolina. It comes as no surprise to those around her that she started playing the harp: her mother, Leila Hall Lattimore, was a much sought-after harpist in North Carolina. According to Lattimore, the seed of love for the stringed instrument was even planted when she felt the vibrations of the sound box from her mother's belly as a baby. It wasn't so much later that she, as a little kid, started plucking the strings of the harp for the first time. In the years that follow, the love for the stringed instrument remains, and intense too. After playing and practicing endlessly, she lands a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music. But somehow she doubts whether this is the right path, because she couldn't care less about the focus on ancient religious pieces.
The penny drops only when, after graduating, she moves to Philadelphia, where she encounters musicians who focus on a more experimental course and where she masters improvisation herself. She starts making music with Julianna Barwick and Steve Gunn, performs on stage with Kurt Vile and Arcade Fire and is working on her album Silver Ladders with Slowdive's Neil Halstead. While putting together Collected Pieces II, it feels like she opened a box full of memories from that time. “I can remember exactly where I was when I recorded it, what room of the house I was in or what my train of thought was. It was super comforting and healing to put all my memories all together like a little package, like a souvenir of everything I've experienced."
But memories are not the only souvenirs that Lattimore likes to collect, she actually prefers to travel as much as possible to appreciate her home more. And where does she most like to travel? “Croatia is a place very close to my heart. I don't want to sound very hippie, but it feels like a cosmic band. As a child I was very fascinated by the country, although I had never been there then. Last summer I was there for the second time in my life and celebrated my 41st birthday there. It was a long cherished wish to celebrate my birthday there. The first time I was there, a few years ago, it was a great source of inspiration for Silver Ladders. I walked barefoot to the beach, put some beers in my bag and could entertain myself for hours reading, walking and staring dreamily at the trees and the ancient houses. For example, I wrote ‘Pine Trees’ about a strange little island full of pine trees off the coast of Stari Grad, the town I like to visit.”
Lattimore is full of specific anecdotes and observations throughout the conversation. She tells story after story. About the astronaut Scott Kelly, for example, about which she wrote a track that ended up on Collected Pieces II. “A few years ago I had a stupid accident when I wanted to drop off glass. I tripped off the curb and instead of catching myself, I shielded the glass, dropping my full weight onto my jaw, which then broke. For months my jaw was sewn shut and I couldn't speak. That was super difficult, because I'm normally a mega social and chatty person."
“I only moved to my parents' farm for a while. That's where I started following Scott Kelly on Instagram, who was in space for about a hundred days at the time. He made beautiful observations of the earth and space and how as a human being he was so far away from everything and everyone. Man, how would he feel when he's back on Earth, I thought then. He'll probably feel the same way I do when my jaw is loose again. I had been away from people and conversations for such a long time. You then only have a continuous monologue with yourself; people feel like some kind of alien. With that in mind, I wrote a song for him, "For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth." I ended up sending that number to NASA. A NASA spokesperson wrote back: “He loves it! And he really wants to incorporate it into his presentations.' I don't know if that actually happens, but it's wonderful to think that at NASA they may be listening to my thoughts while they have serious meetings about space shuttles and light years.”