Originally from North Carolina, Mary Lattimore is a classically-trained harpist and composer now based in Los Angeles, California. Over the last decade, the musician has devised her own vocabulary to shape a novel and immersive ambient sound informed by experimental, modern classical music and post-rock.
Equally striving as a solo musician or in a collaborative mode – she has performed with Kurt Vile, Meg Baird, Thurston Moore, Jeff Zeigler, Sigur Rós’ Jónsi and more recently Julianna Barwick – Mary Lattimore reached out to Slowdive and Mojave 3’s Neil Halstead to produce her new album. Following on from Hundreds of Days, her critically-acclaimed 2018 solo record, Silver Ladders was released on 9 October 2020 last on Ghostly International.
Either performed in the context of classical music, jazz or harp traditions across every continent, the antique instrument is perhaps more strongly associated in Western Europe with the modern Celtic levered harp. However, Mary Lattimore’s music is rooted in improvisation and has no connection with any of these traditions.
In a live situation, playing a 47-string Lyon and Healy concert harp and equipped with a Delay Modeler effects pedal, Mary Lattimore will often launch into long narrative improvisations, building up sprawling layers of recurring motifs, looping bass lines and cascading progressions. Sometimes adding distortion, echo and reverb, the new composite arrangements are mesmerising.
On Hundreds of Days, Mary Lattimore complemented her sound with layers of guitar, voice, keyboard, piano and Moog Theremini to enhance the celestial sound of the harp. On Silver Ladders, the sonic palette is whittled down to harp, synthesiser and guitar only and explores the “darker side of the harp” with a repertoire based on three existing demos and four studio improvisations.
Heavy strikes on low harp strings summon up Neptune’s wrath.
The sea, literary fiction and visual arts are all central to Mary Lattimore’s immersive sound. “It feels Like Floating” from her previous record for instance evoked the weightless sensation of swimming in the ocean while the title track of the new album refers to the ladders down to the sea at a beach in Croatia. The same album was also recorded in the coastal town of Newquay in Cornwall, again informing the maritime narrative on the record.
The narration throughout captures the ocean both as a wonder of the natural world and as a dangerous force. “Don’t Look” recalls a beach-side tragedy in Cornwall whereby young surfers got into difficulty and their rescuers perished at sea. The poetically-titled “Til a Mermaid Drags You Under” captures a similar ambivalence. The sublime ten minute-long tale dives deep underwater with the low-pitched drones of Neil Halstead’s guitar constantly contending with the lighter tickle of the harp strings on the surface.
Released on 8 October last on YouTube, independent filmmaker Rachael Cassells articulated a visual score for the album filmed on the California coastline. The monochrome visuals beautifully express the many layers of emotions resurfacing on Silver Ladders – from grief to elation.
If the natural world is a constant source of inspiration, so are the room paintings of Philadelphia-based visual artist Becky Suss. Her artwork has featured on the cover of four Mary Lattimore records to date – Slant of Light (2014) with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Zeigler, At the Dam (2016), Hundreds of Days (2018) and Silver Ladders (2020). Apart from “At the Dam”, they feature a domestic space. All are inspired by the painter’s late grandparents’ mid-century home that no longer exists, by her memories of it and include existing objects she has kept for herself. The rest is imagined.
Immersed in 1950s aesthetics, the intimate rooms project both a domestic and a psychological space full of memories and dreams. With her electronically-enhanced fifty-year-old classical harp, Mary Lattimore is suggesting an enchanting retro-futuristic sonic illustration for the timeless scenes.