Mary Lattimore has been plucking strings since she was 11 years old growing up outside Asheville, N.C.
But it wasn’t until moving to Philadelphia in 2005 that the classically trained harpist found a way to marry her passion for the ancient angelic instrument she calls “my true love” with her enthusiasm for contemporary indie rock.
Since then, Lattimore has mapped out an acclaimed career as a solo artist known for her experimental instrumental compositions that boast evocative song titles such as “Wawa by the Ocean,” “It Was Late and We Watched the Motel Burn,” and “Otis Walks Into the Woods.”
Lattimore — who won a prestigious Pew Center for Arts & Heritage fellowship in 2014 — is also a busy studio musician. She’s added string stylings to recordings of Philly friends whose careers have matured along with hers, such as Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, as well as avant rockers like Thurston Moore.
And on Saturday, she’ll perform at Union Transfer with Meg Baird of formerly Philly freak-folk band Espers. Together, they released the haunting album Ghost Forests in November. The duo are opening for another locally connected guitarist: the Lansdowne-reared songwriter Steve Gunn, whom the harpist has frequently played with.
Lattimore’s career arc has distinguished her as the woman who, along with singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, is responsible for the unlikely achievement of making the ancient instrument first known to be played in southern Mesopotamia in 3500 B.C. a not-unfamiliar sight on indie-rock stages.
But unlike most indie rockers, Lattimore’s first time ever playing with a rock band was at a sold-out show sitting in with what was then one of the hottest rising bands in the world.
That arc began on stage in Philadelphia in 2005. Lattimore was working as a college radio program director in Rochester, N.Y., while studying at Eastman School of Music when a chance meeting led to her sitting in with the then exploding in popularity Arcade Fire at a show here.
“When I started playing classical music, it wasn’t what I was primarily listening to for fun or nourishment,” says Lattimore, speaking from her home in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, where she moved from Philadelphia two years ago.
“I was learning it, and I loved it,” says the musician, whose mother, Lelia, is a recently retired classical harpist with the Asheville Symphony. “But I was also listening to all different kinds of music.”
Lattimore calls herself “a mopey, melancholy kind of person.” Her favorite band is the 1980s British band The Cure. “I never really put together what I was learning and what I would listen to, because they were just two different things.”
Playing with Arcade Fire shortly after she moved to Philadelphia put the two together. “I had never sat in with any band ever before,” she remembers. “I was thrilled to be asked. But I was just terrified.”
She played the harp parts for “In the Backseat” from the band’s debut album, Funeral.
“They played the TLA and I sat in with them and it was so fun and so exciting. It’s like the feeling of being in an orchestra, when you’re surrounded by this saturation of sound,” she recalls. “It was amazing. And I thought: Maybe this is what I should do?”
Soon, other gigs started coming. She began experimenting with electronic effects and looping her playing while playing live with Tara Burke’s group Fursaxa. She played with members of Espers in The Valerie Project, recording an alternative soundtrack to the 1970 Czech cult film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Lattimore in particular cites Vile, with whom she and Baird recently completed a fall tour of Europe, with encouraging her to pursue her own contemplative, improvisational recordings, which she’s done on her own and in collaboration with the Philly producer-engineer Jeff Zeigler.
The most recent Lattimore solo recording is 2018’s Hundreds of Days, recorded early last year during a two-month artist’s residency at the Headland Center of the Arts in Marin County, Calif. It’s her most expressive and captivating work to date.
Her mastery of the 47-string instrument makes her the envy of celebrated Philly-area musicians who earn their keep playing only six (strings, that is).
“All of us bone-headed indie-rock-guitar-player dudes learned that she could play anything,” says Gunn, who is set to go on tour behind his new album, The Unseen in Between. “People have just continually caught wind of how amazing she is.”
But it’s not just Lattimore’s playing that impresses. Gunn also points out the challenges she faces as an itinerant musician whose instrument is not the most practical.
“She’s also got this instrument that’s heavy and expensive that she’s driving around in her Volvo,” he says. “She’s so determined and inspired, it’s pretty incredible. It’s amazing to travel with her.”
The course of Lattimore’s career was altered when she won the Pew fellowship, which came with a $60,000 prize. She hadn’t applied, and doesn’t know who nominated her, so winning came as a shock.
She used the money to take time off from her four part-time jobs — in a Realtor’s office, as a baby sitter, as a record-store clerk, and working the coat check at Union Transfer — and drive across the country with her harp.
“It was the greatest thing, it changed my entire life,” she says.
That led to the widely praised 2016 album At the Dam, which takes its title from an essay about the Hoover Dam in Joan Didion’s 1979 collection, The White Album.
She stopped and recorded in Marfa, Texas, and in Joshua Tree National Park along the way, and helped inspire songs about other places and things, like “Otis Walks Into the Woods,” about the Lattimore family dog walking off alone to his death, or “Jimmy V,” about the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano.
Lattimore has driven across the country many times with her 6-foot-tall, 85-pound harp. She owns a second one that she keeps in storage in Prague to use during European tours and will borrow one of her mother’s for the East Coast dates this month with Gunn and Baird.
Weariness with moving the instrument while living in a Northeastern city was one of her reasons for leaving Philadelphia after 13 years. “I just really tired of the weather paralyzing me,” she says.
“There was too much, ‘Oh, I can’t move my car.’ Or there were steps in my house I had to carry it down and I would have to bring it through an alleyway that would ice over in winter. That was just the most terrifying thing.”
In early 2017, she packed up the Volvo and headed west. She wound up at the opposite coast of the convenience store in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island that she paid tribute to in “Wawa by the Ocean.” It’s a delicate and dreamy composition that kicks off her 2016 set, Collected Pieces.
“I feel in love with the beach there,” she says. “And the Wawa is so convenient. It’s right by the water. I was in my own little zone.”
Lattimore’s Pew prize continued to pay dividends last year when it led to the Marin County residency, where she was free to follow her creative instincts while working with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
She brought all the instruments she owned along, allowing her to experiment with a guitar, a theremini, and her own voice “with the freedom of no one listening at all.”
The results are heard on Hundreds of Days songs like “Hello From the Edge of the Earth” and “The Day You Saw the Dead Whale,” and are available in altered versions in a brand-new digital-only release of remixes by the Philadelphia deejay King Britt, Icelandic Sigur Ros pop star Jonsi and Ziegler with Sarah Schimineck.
Those songs, like all of Lattimore’s compositions, which are rarely merely beautiful and convey a sense of place, point the listener off on a journey of their own.
“It’s wordless music, and it’s my way of reminiscing or capturing feelings,” the harpist says. “Kind of like diary style, trying to remember how I felt when I was at the beach, or when I was in Marfa. It’s all instrumental, but it’s my language. The listener can take it anyway they want to take it."