The harp isn't really an instrument you can casually pick up, like the guitar or the piano. Los Angeles-based harpist Mary Lattimore has spoken about the ways her instrument of choice is notoriously difficult to play. "If you’re into it, you get over the paying for it: the longish car to take it around, the first-floor apartment you always have to have, the space it takes up, the 47 different strings, the maintenance, and the getting to know its layout and mechanics," she said in 2011. "It takes a long time to feel comfortable on it; you don’t feel masterful very quickly."
A longtime collaborator with artists like Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, and Jarvis Cocker, Lattimore has performed as a solo artist since 2013, when she released her album The Withdrawing Room. Her latest, Collected Pieces (out Friday), brings together an enchanting collection of songs that showcase her complex take on the harp. To really master the instrument, in Lattimore's case, is to expand its use entirely. She plays along with a looping pedal for in-the-moment improvisation. Her songs often begin with delicate, softly plucked roots, but soon transform into gorgeously skewered and warped compositions as she feeds bits and pieces to her loop. When she plays live, she makes great use of the entire harp, often wearing metal rings and knocking against its wood, or running her nails and scratching it, to incorporate that into the mix as well.
It's in these moments on Collected Pieces, when she is 10 minutes deep in a song and the sounds in her loop bounce off each other like tubes in a tangled wind chime, that Lattimore most resists classification. There are moments on the album where her sound is a sort of avant-garde electronica, as with "It Was Late and We Watched the Motel Burn," on which her dainty, pizzicato harp notes fall in and out of a froggy, reverbed synth. On the unsettling "Bold Rides," her high-pitched plucking is sucked into a squeaky, alien loop that might delight anyone who experiences ASMR.
You might also include her with contemporary new-age acts like Julianna Barwick or Grouper, who focus mainly on the hazy possibilities of the voice. Lattimore's "We Just Found Out She Died" is directly inspired by Julee Cruise's musical contributions to Twin Peaks, and the Badalamenti-biting track, embellished with her harp playing, builds to an abstract vocal part that you wouldn't have found on Lattimore's last solo release, 2016's At the Dam. It's also worth noting just how excellent Lattimore is at naming her tracks: Collected Pieces begins with the classically beautiful "Wawa by the Ocean," whose title references the cult-favorite Northeast regional convenience store, and ends with a song called "Your Glossy Camry."
Harps tend to have an entrancing quality across history and art. Angels are often depicted as strumming them, perhaps to meet you at the gates of heaven. The Greek mythical figure Orpheus used his tiny golden lyre to charm humans and gods with his beautiful music, taught to him by the god Apollo. In the old murder ballad and folktale "The Two Sisters," a young dead girl's body is often said to have been made into a harp that plays itself, tells the story of her death through the music, and reveals her killer. In Irish mythology, the god Dagda had a magical harp that would put the seasons in the correct order.
What is so wonderful about Lattimore's music is that it seems to illuminate these historically bewitching qualities of the harp. Her playing always presents more than meets the eye, as she culls unconventional noises from her instrument. At a performance last year, when she was opening for Marissa Nadler, I witnessed Lattimore pluck so hard at the tops of her strings that she actually caused them to pop off. At performances and on tape, you might find yourself waiting, unsure of what happens next in her lengthy, improvised compositions. Whatever she delivers, it might as well be magic.