AT THE DAM
Throughout her collections of improvisations, Mary Lattimore translates memory into music using her 47-string Lyon & Healy harp.
Lattimore started learning the harp at age 11. “The harp is an instrument that reveals more mystery and potential the more you get to know it,” she explains. “You’re sort of hugging it when you play it, so it’s very intimate and personal. The vibrations are right there up close to your heart, physically.”
Collaborations with musicians including Kurt Vile, Meg Baird, and Thurston Moore, helped hone her ear and develop a part-writing style. In 2014, she released a collaborative album in with synth player and producer Jeff Zeigler on Thrill Jockey and played with Fursaxa and cellist Helena Espvall, whose “otherworldly concoctions” of loops and layers proved a formative influence.
In 2014 Lattimore received a prestigious fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage — a rare honor given to 12 people every year — and used the funds to take a road trip across America with a friend, writing and recording songs at each stop along the way. With her harp and laptop, Lattimore drew inspiration from each location, letting the environments in which she recorded color her work. The result is evocative, delicate and haunting music, Lattimore’s harp at times bright and skipping, other times distant and hazy, swathed in gauzy delay.
She recorded much of At the Dam in the beautiful setting of Joshua Tree. “I would wheel the harp out on to the porch of my friend Chiara’s little house and I had the whole desert around me. It felt like a residency on another planet.” Lattimore also recorded in Marfa, Texas at a friends home, as well as in the mountains of Altadena, east of LA.
Recording far away from her Philadelphia home gave Lattimore space to navigate her thoughts. The stirring, slightly ominous opener “Otis Walks Into the Woods” attempts to encapsulate her reaction to the news that her family’s blind dog had walked into the forest on the outskirts of their farm to pass away – a gently hypnotic ode to a noble companion. “Jimmy V” recalls another fallen hero, basketball coach Jimmy Valvano. “Before taking the road trip, I’d seen a great documentary on him, a really interesting and complex, inspiring character, and thought I’d write a song with him in mind,” Mary says, “Maybe it’s the first harp song written about a basketball coach?” On “Jaxine Drive,” a guitar sighs, low and sorrowful beneath Lattimore’s hopeful-sounding harp, while “Ferris Wheel, January” imagines one looking at the Pacific Ocean from high elevation and the patterns of the waves creating an illusion resembling the bright lights of the Santa Monica Pier in winter. It’s a travel diary,” explains Lattimore, “A chunk of my life that I attempted to wrangle into a recorded language that feels familiar but not too precious."
At The Dam is named for a Joan Didion essay about the Hoover Dam: “its enchanting, grandiose practicality, how it will keep operating in its own solitude, even when humans aren’t around.” Drawing inspiration from these ideas and treating each memory thoughtfully and sensitively, Lattimore captures transient moments as time moves inexorably forward.