Quickly, how many harpists can you name? Was your first thought Joanna Newsom? Perhaps you landed on Alice Coltrane or Zeena Parkins, two brilliantly talented women whose boundary-pushing work never earned them mainstream acclaim. The roster of well-known harpists is a short one, but there's another who should be on your list: Mary Lattimore.
Lattimore was born and raised in western North Carolina, but she's spent much of the last several years as a Philadelphia fixture. To put a finer point on her work, one might call her an experimental harpist. As she plucks and glides, Lattimore pushes all forty-seven strings of her unwieldy instrument into uncharted territory, warping its heavenly sounds through various effects and knocking on her harp's wood frame with her knuckles and a heavy ring. Her music is spacious, strange, and comforting—even if you're not sure where Lattimore's taking you, she gently lulls you into trusting her lead.
Like Parkins, Lattimore has an expansive knack for collaboration. She's joined the likes of Thurston Moore, Steve Gunn, and Kurt Vile on recordings and in live performances. When she teams up with producer and synth wizard Jeff Ziegler, the two deliver dense, heady concoctions. At the Three Lobed Recordings/WXDU Hopscotch day party last year, she took to the stage with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meg Baird, and later this spring, she'll premiere a project with Superchunk's Mac McCaughan.
It's true that Lattimore makes for a mighty team player, but on her own she issues albums that are utterly transfixing. The most recent of these records is At the Dam, which was, in its own unassuming way, one of 2016's strongest records. Lattimore demands your attention with every gentle note, from the twinkling melodic details of her harp's upper register to the rippling resonance of its lower timbres. The opening glissandos of "Jimmy V" yield to sparse, glimmering notes, and the overall piece is so gorgeous that it's almost hard to believe that a college basketball coach inspired the song. "Jaxine Drive" shimmers in soft focus, while listening to the sublime thirteen minutes of "Ferris Wheel, January" feels like being cast adrift on a cloud floating through space. If that sounds far-out, it's because At the Dam is that way, too, as though it has no connection to any particular time, place, or even plane of existence.
Lattimore wrote At the Dam as she traveled solo around California and Texas, funded by a 2014 Pew Fellowship grant. Aligning with the circumstances of its creation, At the Dam is best suited for solitary, reflective occasions: late-night drives, aimless walks, too-early mornings when you haven't quite cleared the sleep from your eyes. With her harp, Lattimore crafts an otherworldly sphere in which she rewards quiet contemplation with unbridled beauty, where the returns of her efforts never diminish. When the noise of everyday life becomes too much to take, Lattimore's Dam is an ideal shelter for seclusion.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Harp to Handle."