Mary Lattimore: ‘The great misconception about the harp is that it’s this unwieldy, untamed beast’

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Mary Lattimore: ‘The great misconception about the harp is that it’s this unwieldy, untamed beast’

Mary Lattimore
Photo by Rachael Cassells
Words by David James Young

We speak to Mary Lattimore before she plays at Melbourne Recital Centre, with support from acclaimed multi-instrumentalist  Benjamin Skepper and violinist, vocalist, dancer and composer Eric Avery.

It’s an important conversation.

With the sole exception of Joanna Newsom, the harp has been an overlooked and underappreciated instrument in the indie world. Despite their mystical, dreamlike sound seeming like a perfect fit, most songwriters will first venture to the guitar or the piano before even glancing at the instrument. Mary Lattimore – who has been playing the instrument for well over half her life, starting at the tender age of 11 – says that she understands, at the very least, where this is coming from.

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“I feel like people are pretty easily intimidated by it,” she says, speaking to Beat from on the road at the tail-end of her North American tour. “They see how big it is, and they see how many strings are on it, and they’re like ‘oh, I could never do that’. The great misconception about the harp is that it’s this unwieldy, untamed beast. The reality is that if you sat down at the harp and you didn’t know how to play it, but wanted to play a simple melody? That’s attainable. I can pretty easily show you how to do that. Part of my goal as a musician is to make this instrument more accessible. It’s not an insurmountable dream to learn how to play it.”

Across both her solo and collaborative work, Lattimore has been one of the most in-demand harpists working in the last 15 years. Last month saw the release of her fifth solo album – the six-song suite Goodbye, Hotel Arkada. If you’re new to Lattimore’s ways, this may be the perfect entryway into her world: A blissful, harmonic free-fall of a record that centres her beloved harp as a heavenly ambience wraps around it. Though it’s music that falls out of the conventions set by other rock, pop and indie music, Lattimore still finds herself curious as to how her work is perceived by mainstream publications.

“I mean, I don’t really care,” she says – before reconsidering and ultimately rephrasing. “I mean, I wish I didn’t really care.

“I’m always curious as to how other people will react to it. I try not to make music because I want it to be liked by critics, because I feel like that’s kind of lame. Then again, if a journalist has a take on what I’m doing where the writing is beautiful and the critique is thoughtful… I think that can be very valuable. I would never change what I’m doing because one person doesn’t like it, but I appreciate words being used in that way.

I do read a lot of stuff, and sometimes it does get to me. Still, I don’t have any regrets about anything I’ve made.”

Goodbye, Hotel Arkada is also notable for its guest appearances. Lattimore has built up quite a network over the years by working with acts like Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile, Jarvis Cocker and Sharon Van Etten. On Arkada, this resume expands again with appearances from Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and The Cure’s ex-bassist Lol Tolhurst. Having been a collaborative artist since first arriving on the scene in earnest circa 2007, Lattimore has learned exactly what makes her click with other musicians: a distinct blend of differences and common ground.

“I’m definitely drawn to how another artist would approach the exact same thing in a way completely different to the way I would,” she says. “At the same time, I’m also drawn to how our philosophies are inherently similar. There has to be a shared bond in that we both absolutely love what we do. Roy Montgomery plays on this record, and though he’s a very different musician to me I know that if I could play guitar I would want to play it exactly like him. Every collaboration I’ve done has been this cool musical conversation, in a way. I love bringing artists on to my albums and just letting them do their thing – it always keeps things interesting to me.”

Next month will see Lattimore return to Australia for her third tour of the country. She will be accompanied by longtime collaborator Paul Sukeena on guitar, and will be performing at such luminary venues as the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Recital Centre. It’s the latter city in particular that she is excited to return to: “Everybody in Melbourne is just super cool,” she says. “I love the coffee there, too. This is going to be Paul’s first time in Australia, so I’m really excited to explore as much as I can with him.”

Lattimore is also booked to play some festival dates while in town, including a trip out to Meredith and an appearance at Thirroul Music Festival on the south coast of New South Wales. “It might be a little unusual for people,” she laughs when asked how festival crowds take her as opposed to audiences at her headlining shows. “I’m just happy to connect with anyone that wants to listen.

“I’ve played some big rooms and some festivals before, and I’ve had people come up to me and say that it was special to them. That’s what I look out for – the people that want to listen and be present will be there. If not, they’ll have other options.” Besides, Lattimore’s Australian visit is all purely part of her greater ulterior motive: “I just want to hold a koala in my arms!”

Mary Lattimore is playing Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday December 8. Enter the promo code BEAT20 for 20% off tickets purchased between Friday 17 November and 27 November. Buy tickets here.

This article was made in partnership with Melbourne Recital Centre.