When Mary Lattimore was last in Birmingham, for a Feb. 10 performance at Saturn, her presence might have confused some of the concert’s attendees who were there to see the headlining act, the New York punk band Parquet Courts. Attendees in the mood for energetic, catchy guitar riffs were first treated to Lattimore’s meditative performance, which saw her layering improvised harp melodies atop one another, slowly constructing a dreamy swirl of sound. If there was any skepticism in the room as Lattimore sat down behind her harp, it quickly evaporated into rapt attention.
“She’s a friend,” Parquet Courts guitarist Andrew Savage told me after the show, when I asked him about the band’s unconventional opener. “We really admire what she does.”
That admiration for Lattimore isn’t uncommon in indie rock circles. She’s the go-to session musician when artists like Steve Gunn or Thurston Moore want to add a harp to their albums, and she’s performed live with acts like Kurt Vile and Arcade Fire.
On top of her role as a background player, in recent years Lattimore has embarked on a solo career, releasing three albums — most recently, last year’s excellent At the Dam — of improvisational jazz harp. She’s also released two improvisational albums with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Zeigler, the most recent of which, Music Inspired by Philippe Garrel’s Le Révélateur, was also released last year.
Lattimore will return to Birmingham on Sunday, March 19, touring alongside Waxahatchee (Birmingham native Katie Crutchfield), and folk rocker Kevin Morby.
Weld: The harp isn’t a very common instrument, especially outside of classical spheres. How did you get started playing it?
Mary Lattimore: My mom is a harpist, so when I was about 11, she had me start taking lessons from a friend of hers. I played the piano when I was about five, so it seemed pretty natural at age 11 to try to get me started on the harp.
I had always played classical music. When I was 11, that was when I just started learning the foundation of everything. I played in youth orchestras in high school, and then I went to a classical music conservatory in Rochester, New York, and so while I was there, I was always listening to other stuff that was not really classical music. I had this other life where I was working in record stores and at college radio stations.
After graduating from conservatory, I started to meet people who were interested, to make friends who were in bands, [who] thought it would be cool to have a harp. That’s when I started to write harp for bands and records and things like that. It seemed like a natural progression for me.
After writing the parts and playing on stage, I went on to improvising, and then it went to collaborating and improvising with other people, and then it went on to me playing solo and playing my own stuff.
Weld: Your live performances are obviously heavily improvisational. Is that true of the material on your studio albums, or is there a little more structure there?
Lattimore: When I was recording it was all improvised. I would just improvise and see what happened [on the first take], and then I would make another track and layer it on top of that. So it’s improvising over improvisation.
Weld: Because you use effects so extensively in your music, it hovers on the edge of what some might call electronic music. Is that a conscious influence? Do you listen to a lot of electronic music?
Lattimore: Not really. [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t. I like Brian Eno’s stuff, ambient music like that. I listen to a lot of guitar-based music, I would say, or music from other countries. Moody [music]. It’s all just trying to paint a picture, create a vibe. I don’t really think about the genres. But my label is definitely an electronic music label, which is cool that they would have me on there. It’s surprising.
Weld: You have a pretty interesting online presence, in that you use [music distribution site] Bandcamp less as a way to put out polished work, and more of a scrapbook of works in progress.
Lattimore: Yeah! I guess I always did that on Soundcloud, before Bandcamp, and I guess I just thought it was a way to document stuff, like a scrapbook or a little diary. If people want to hear what’s going on, they can listen to it. Making money off Bandcamp isn’t really a big goal of mine. Maybe that’s where I’ve got it wrong or something, where I’ve missed the point of it. But for me, it’s just like, “Yeah, I’m going to throw this up there so it’ll be somewhere.”
I have a new record called Collected Pieces that’s coming out in April. It’s a digital record that’s just pieces [including some from Bandcamp] that haven’t been on any records yet.
Weld: You named your most recent album, At the Dam, after a Joan Didion essay. What was the significance of that essay to you, and how did it resonate with the music?
Lattimore: That was [from] a little road trip that I took from Philly to California. I’d just won this fellowship that gave me some money, so I wanted to do something memorable with that money. So I thought, “I’ll just take my computer and my harp in my car and visit a couple of places, these sort of magical places like Marfa [Texas] and Joshua Tree [National Park] and the [Native American] mounds outside of L.A., and just record myself and see what comes out of it.”
While I was doing that, I was also reading The White Album, the Joan Didion collection of essays, and there was an essay about the Hoover Dam. She was sort of obsessed with it. She went to visit it, and it’s sort of about how even when there aren’t any humans left on the earth, the dam will keep on flowing and working.
I liked that idea, kind of like how [recording] music, when you’re putting down the sounds, even when you’re not around, that still exists. It’s a documentation of your efforts and your feelings.
Weld: You’ve collaborated with quite a few musicians, from Steve Gunn to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to Kurt Vile. What’s the process of working with other artists? Do you improvise just as much, or is it a more structured environment?
Lattimore: I feel like people generally trust my taste. If I hear a blank space where I feel like a harp would fit, I try it there, and people are usually like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense. That sounds cool.” It’s kind of rare when they’re like, ‘We want it exactly here and we want you to play those exact notes.”
I think that’s the beauty of playing a weird instrument. You get a lot more freedom because people don’t really know the potential of it. It’s rarely structured. With Steve, I feel like it was a lot of live recording, where we would all just jam together. That’s sometimes how it happens, where you’re just all playing at once, rather than overdub style. In general, it’s just really free.
Mary Lattimore will open for Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby at Saturn on Sunday, March 19. Doors for the show open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.