Hundreds of Days, the new album by Mary Lattimore, is a stunning, sprawling work abounding with moving compositions anchored by Lattimore’s distinctive harp playing. It’s the result of a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, located in northern California, and the result is Lattimore’s most moving work to date. Her tour of the US begins today–she’ll be in NYC on May 29th, at Union Pool, for her record release show, and will be back on June 28th for a show with Iceage at Market Hotel. In advance of this, we spoke about the making of Hundreds of Days, Denis Johnson’s influence on her music, and dead whales.
The sense of place in your music is incredibly evocative; “Wawa By the Ocean” comes to mind as one example. How would you say that this album channels the geography of northern California (if it does at all)?
To me, I think some of the instrumentation lends itself to foggy, gauzy sounds and the harp delayed and obscured might reflect that too. Maybe a glassy sounding piano that might be kind of lonely and watery? I think the titles might be clues but hopefully you can hear the natural phenomena and remote landscapes in the melodies and instrument choice, somehow. It was made in this big redwood barn and the first song has this little bird sound because one perched on the window and the mic picked it up through some of the effects. None of it was too intentional or literal, but hopefully it carries some of the magic of being in that national park for a few months.
The song “Their Faces Streaked With Light and Filled With Pity” takes its title from a line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. When did you end up settling on this title for this song?
It’s my favorite, Jesus’ Son, and I wrote the song after I learned that he’d died. That line has always been so evocative and funny in this elegant, tragic way, so there wasn’t really a choice of what to name the song. I just knew that the title should be the most beloved line.
Have other literary works influenced your music at all?
I named my last record At the Dam after a Joan Didion essay about the Hoover Dam.
On an album full of evocative titles, “On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale” stands out in particular. Did the title of this come from a real event?
Yes. I was spending the 4th of July in Bolinas, CA up near where I was staying for the summer and a blue whale had been hit by a boat recently and had arrived on the beach there. Unfortunately, they couldn’t move it, so it had to rot there and it had lots of visitors taking photos of its spine and deteriorating body. I heard scientists put its eyeball in a plastic bag and took it away. It was an equally majestic and horrific thing to see, the remains of this really large and otherworldly creature. I thought I should memorialize the experience of seeing this rare sight. I came home to the residency and made the song and then recorded the piano part over top of it late-night a few days later.
The instrumental interplay on that song is particularly striking. How much of your work comes from composition, versus improvisation?
Thank you. In general, the songs are a loose combination of improvisation and composition. With that one, I started off with the harp looped figure, then added a harp melody on top that seemed natural, then synth stuff. Sometimes melodies just feel like you can pluck them out of the air, like they’re meant to be there. Then I got the idea to add that piano from the grand piano in one of the buildings but I didn’t have a microphone stand, so I had to do one hand at a time, holding the mic in the other hand while I played. It’s all kind of improvisation in both notes and techniques, just seeing what will happen and trying to pick up a feeling, and I’m pretty ramshackle about it.
In between albums, you’ve used Bandcamp to release individual works. Has that changed the way you approach writing or organizing your music at all?
No, not really, I don’t think. I just throw up ideas onto Bandcamp that I don’t wanna lose, diary-style, but they might not fit onto anything concrete. It’s kind of saving its little life, that little nugget of an idea, just so it doesn’t get thrown away and sometimes you can hear weird technical glitches in it or it’ll sound all incongruous with other stuff, but it’s there for posterity’s sake.
Photo credit: Rachael Pony Cassells