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Photo by Jackie Young

Avant-harpist Mary Lattimore hits the open road with Messthetics 

Heartstring highways

When Mary Lattimore first played the City Beautiful, the harpist soothed the savage beasts that are True Widow fans with an opening set of ethereal, beguiling, challenging instrumentals plucked out on a massive harp and fed through pedals and effects. Orlando Weekly has seen a lot of live music over the years, but the incongruity of witnessing this in the company of a horde of devotees of the doomy shoegaze of True Widow was nothing less than surreal. And yet, in about five minutes, disbelief melted away as the audience stood spellbound.

For Mary Lattimore, this was just another gig. She's taken her harp and her songs out of the art-music world and fearlessly into the rock club circuit with unfettered optimism. "Generally, with clubs I'll be the first harpist who's ever played there," she says. "I'm kind of teaching them, I guess. … But people are open."

Since that True Widow tour in 2016, she's racked up miles traveling alongside indie rockers Parquet Courts, Danish punks Iceage and drone metal legend Dylan Carlson (Earth), and now she's on a run of dates opening for the Messthetics, instrumental jammers boasting ex-members of the legendary Fugazi. She relishes the challenge. "I feel like the more different the pairing is," says Lattimore, "the more likely people are to be curious and quiet."

Lattimore has been on the road fairly nonstop the last couple of years, with 2019 providing no respite. But the nomadic life of a touring musician agrees with her. "I've worked some crappy day jobs that made me really depressed and sad," she says. "So I definitely prefer driving down to Florida, just me and my harp, with the window rolled down, instead of working in an office all day."

Lattimore travels alone, driving from gig to gig with just her harp and a selection of "murderous" podcasts and audiobooks for company. She speaks of her harp less as a tool and more as a traveling companion, at one point exclaiming, "How am I going to sleep [on tour] if the harp is in the car and I'm feeling guilty about it the whole time?"

During our conversation, Lattimore remarks that "it's cool to be able to skate between these worlds," referring to the seeming opposites of the "serious" experimental music world and the rock world. But even the most cursory of glances at her performing CV attests to the fact that few have done it as deftly as her. Since she starting making music in 2013, she's performed and collaborated with everyone from Thurston Moore to Jarvis Cocker, from Ed Askew to Sharon Van Etten. She's soundtracked experimental films and provided accompaniment to artist Nick Cave's Soundsuits in New York. In 2014, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship and used the time and funds to road-trip West and record and release the stunning At the Dam album on indie tastemakers Ghostly International. This is a music career very much on her own terms.

And these terms often revolve around the joys of collaboration, be it recorded or on stage. She likens collaborating with friends to a "conversation," and enthuses about recent and upcoming work with Meg Baird (Espers), Steve Moore (Zombi) and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, with whom she is about to release a record and tour. The alliance with McCaughan is particularly full-circle for Lattimore.

"Mac and I met when I was a little nerdy intern at Merge Records a long time ago," she laughs. "He's doing synths – like a mad-scientist synth arsenal that he's experimenting with – and I'm playing harp." Her enthusiasm for these musical conversations found their fullest fruit in January's digital release of a remix album of the songs from last year's Hundreds of Days LP done by musical comrades far and wide. "Getting the remixes was almost like hearing your friends react to your song," Lattimore enthuses. "And hearing them manipulate it is like a window into their brain."

Mary Lattimore drops into town ever so briefly with the Messthetics on Wednesday, so catch up with this restless artist while you can. Soon enough she'll be far down the road, on to the next city, the next stage.

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