Most often associated with chamber ensembles and orchestras, the harp first gained pop music cred thanks to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” Then along came classically-trained harpist Joanna Newsom, who propelled the baroque instrument decidedly into the forefront of indie rock. Last month rock legend Thurston Moore released Demolished Thoughts, a solo album that prominently features the massive stringed instrument. He enlisted Philadelphia-based Mary Lattimore for her considerable harp skills. In an email from Paris, Mary discussed her training, her introduction into indie rock via Arcade Fire and her amusing first encounter with Thurston.
The Rumpus: You have mentioned that you started playing when you were 11. What made you choose the harp?
Mary Lattimore: Yes, I started playing harp when I was 11. My mom plays the harp, plays in orchestras and leads a harp ensemble, played gigs and weddings and stuff when I was a kid, so I have always been around harps and harpist friends of mom’s. It seemed really natural that I’d try it out after a few years of piano. I didn’t take lessons from her, though, so I think that helped for me to feel like it was something personal and my own. But I had a great role model in my mom to inspire me.
Rumpus: Where did you study?
Lattimore: I studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, with Kathleen Bride.
Rumpus: You seem to have taken a non-traditional musical direction with the harp by playing with musicians like Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile and Fursaxa. How did that happen?
Lattimore: I never played with a band or wrote my own parts until I met these members of the Arcade Fire in Missouri. We were talking and I told them I play the harp and one of them was like, “We’re playing Philly soon, why don’t you sit in with us?” I said sure and it was so fun–really exhilarating. I guess it was 2005. It was a new and scary thing to not play with written music, to just rely on listening and instincts. So then I got asked to play with members of Espers/Fursaxa to make an alternate soundtrack to the Czech New Wave film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. It was really cool to make music with friends and to tour with this film on a giant screen behind us. I met Jarvis Cocker through that and played on his record. I met Kurt [Vile] around in the neighborhood.
I don’t know, it has mostly been that friendships have led to collaborations and my loving a friend’s music has given me that feeling of wanting to get inside of it, to step inside of the sound. I’m lucky to have such talented pals–musical friends that are open and curious about using harp.
Rumpus: Do you ever perform in more traditional milieus like orchestras?
Lattimore: Yeah, I am a sub for the Allentown Symphony and the York Symphony. I still love to play with orchestras. It rules to be swimming around in the deluxeness of all those instruments playing at once.
Rumpus: What kind of harp do you play?
Lattimore: I play a Lyon and Healy Style 30. It was featured in the movie Richie Rich starring Macaulay Culkin.
Rumpus: How did you end up working with Thurston Moore?
Lattimore: I was asked to play this lecture that Thurston and Bill Nace were giving to kids on noise music. It was in NYC and I was playing before and after the lecture/demonstration in the entryway. I hadn’t met Thurston before. I was warming up, tuning and stuff, and could hear Thurston and Bill in the other room and thought that their sounds were kind of corresponding with mine, but I thought it was my imagination. But they came over at the end of the day and were like, “Did you hear us jamming? –Cool.” Thurston ran into Kurt and told him he wanted to use me on his record. I was shocked and stoked.
Rumpus: Demolished Thoughts was a star-studded affair. What was it like working with not only Thurston, but also with the album’s producer, Beck?
Lattimore: Oh, Beck was so nice! We recorded at his house. Every day we’d all take this evening walk on the beach. He made us feel really welcome at his home with his family. The engineers were great, too. It felt like we were all able to be creative and thoughtful with each other and with the songs.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Lattimore: Next, summer tour and then, who knows? Hopefully these gigs will lead to more interesting projects. I played on Meg Baird’s stunning new record that comes out in the fall and I am excited to play more shows with her.