Mary Lattimore uses her harp to mine memories and connect to the world

In advance of her Wexner Center show on Sunday, the Los Angeles musician talks about Wawa, the Log Lady and emotionally connecting to the world through her harp

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Mary Lattimore

Before relocating to Los Angeles, harpist Mary Lattimore lived in Philadelphia for 13 years, and every summer she would drive to Long Beach Island in New Jersey. 

“I had a special little beach I would go to there, … and there was this Wawa that I really liked to go to that was right by the entrance to the beach. You could change into your swimsuit there and get a hoagie and take it out to the beach,” said Lattimore, who later wrote “Wawa by the Ocean,” a spritely yet meditative, 10-minute harp piece dedicated to one link in this country’s greatest convenience store chain (yes, better than Sheetz). “It's a nostalgic song since I don't live there anymore. I play it as a tribute to that place and that time in my life.”

Memory plays a central role in Lattimore’s gorgeous, wordless songs, which are often composed entirely on harp and then hypnotically looped and layered. “We Just Found Out She Died,” for instance, came about after Lattimore heard news of the death of actress Catherine Coulson, who played the character Margaret Lanterman, better known as the Log Lady, in the TV series “Twin Peaks.” Lattimore previously went with a friend to hear Coulson speak at a library in Philadelphia.  

“It was such a cool talk, and we really liked her personality, so that song is kind of a tribute to her. … She seemed so vibrant,” Lattimore said. 

Both “Wawa” and “She Died” are featured on Collected Pieces: 2015 – 2020, a beautiful new compendium of two rarities collections that follows Lattimore’s excellent 2020 release, Silver Ladders, which was produced by Slowdive’s Neil Halstead and found its way onto countless year-end lists last winter. On Sunday, Dec. 5, Lattimore will perform at the Wexner Center’s Mershon Auditorium along with experimental accordionist Walt McClements. (Originally scheduled opener Ana Roxanne had to cancel due to a vocal cord injury.)

Only recently did Lattimore discover the impact Silver Ladders had on listeners. “Being on tour and having people come up to me at the table and tell me how much that [album] was a companion for them, it's been so cool to hear that,” Lattimore said by phone from New York City, where she recently played three sold-out shows at Union Pool. “I think it's also because it's instrumental, and you can kind of take it to your own place. Also the harp has a soothing sound to it, and people's nerves have been very frazzled in the past year and a half. ... It makes me really happy to hear that it's been helping people and making them less anxious and keeping them company during the pandemic.” 

Lattimore had a hard time making new music amid the pandemic. For one, despite the challenges of lugging around an enormous, 85-pound instrument, Lattimore loves to tour. Staying home (“in my weird apartment by myself”) for weeks on end made her restless, coupled with the sobering reality that there was no end in sight to the pandemic. “It was really hard to wrap my head around being stir crazy, but also not knowing if [touring] will ever happen again,” she said.

Lattimore also felt numb. “It just wasn't flowing. Melodies were not coming,” she said. “The harp is my way of connecting with the world in this emotional way, so I was just like, no, the feeling isn't there. I don't want to make up something on the harp just to kill time. … I want to save it for something that I feel sincere about making.” 

Instead, Lattimore pivoted to other instruments like keyboard and harmonium while working on remote collaborations. “It was sound-based rather than emotion-based playing, I think. … We were passing [tracks] back and forth, and it was almost like a math problem or something. It wasn't very emotional playing, but it was technically cool,” she said. “I was also doing a lot of playing for money, like session work — making up songs for assignments.” 

She did manage to improvise and record one song, “We Wave from Our Boats,” during the early days of pandemic isolation, when Lattimore would wave to neighbors in a gesture of solidarity, similar to the way in which people feel a natural compulsion to wave to other people on boats while out alone on the water.

Now, finally, Lattimore is back on the road, playing shows with just her harp and an effects pedal, using the recorded versions of her songs as skeletal frameworks for live improvisations that tend to create a reflective, meditative space for the audience. “At my shows, people aren't, like, screaming and dancing,” she said, adding that her song titles and specific memories are for her own nostalgic musings; the hope is for listeners to create their own attachments. “It’s not, ‘OK, now you have to think about the Log Lady.’ I'm not assigning you to think about what the title is about. It's really for the listener to figure out on their own where they want to take it.” 

Now that Lattimore is boosted, armed with COVID tests and performing in front of vaccinated audiences, she said much of the anxiety associated with performing in a pandemic has begun to dissipate. “I just feel total relief, honestly. I'm very overjoyed to be playing for people again, to be in the same room as people again and connecting,” she said. “It's something that I really missed.”