Essential Reads From A Harpist Who Finds Melody In Words

Experimental musician Mary Lattimore just put out a new record, and with it, shared a few stories that have inspired her effervescent songwriting…

Mary Lattimore is a friend of mine. She lives in LA right now but, several years ago, our paths crossed in Philadelphia, and we quickly became chummy. I had often heard through mutual friends about Mary’s wonderful dreamlike compositions — sometimes electrified and reverberated — played out on the harp, and so I was a little starstruck when we first met. And equally humbled by her easygoingness and gentle demeanor.

She is also a self-described bookworm, who notes that stories and the way that their words are woven together aren’t unlike the melodies that float inside her brain. Which was a really nice way to think about books, one that I hadn’t considered before. I guess the titles that I revisit or hold space for do so because I want to keep their songs of tenderness, or conflict, or triumph close by.

Mary just released a new album called “Silver Ladders,” which was inspired by a trip to Croatia where she spent time swimming in bays accessed by silver ladders. Inspiration is wherever you find it, it seems. Mary certainly has a knack for that.

Without further ado, here’s Mary with her essential reading recommendations:

“The name of my record, ‘At the Dam,’ was based on Joan Didion’s essay about the Hoover Dam. I named a song, ‘Daisy’s Valentine,’ after a great story by Mary Gaitskill, and ‘Their Faces Streaked With Light and Filled With Pity,’ a mis-remembered line from a Denis Johnson story in ‘Jesus’ Son.’ When words are pieced together beautifully or unexpectedly, they create a certain melody, and I can’t help but greatly admire writers as someone for whom stringing together words is difficult. Books also provide us an escape route, especially lately. I’ve found comfort in the immersion of a great book, so transportive, and getting to know these narrators and authors despite physical distance. Here are a few I’d recommend:

“I’m in the middle of “The Water Dancer,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m really appreciating its mix of narrative (about the escape of an enslaved protagonist) with fantasy (descriptions of supernatural powers, memories of his mother — “a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue”). There are gorgeous moments within the brutal subject matter and I’ve cried many times. I’m really loving the main character’s voice and observations that are mirrored in today’s racist class structure, too. I think Coates is a great writer and thinker.

“I just got a collection of song lyrics and drawings by Joni Mitchell called “Morning Glory on the Vine.” It’s a treasure, reprinted from a binder Joni compiled and made into a book for her friends for Christmas in 1971. Lovely lovely lovely. Her art and lyrics go hand in hand, and it’s fun to see the lyrics revived as poems, carrying their own tunes without instruments.

“I’ve been diving into the poems of Yrsa Daley-Ward, who I had the privilege of seeing perform at Form Arcosanti, a music festival in the middle of the Arizona desert. Her collection bone is great. They feel very alive with human-ness, very personal, and very of-this-moment in ways.

“Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a really great collection of short stories. It came out after he died and I’m grateful for this one last beautiful expression from a writer who I regard as my favorite. His stories can be bleak, but there’s redemption in there and fallible characters are beloved. My favorite of his work is ‘Train Dreams,’ an elegant novella, but I feel like this collection of short stories is a good place to start if you haven’t yet read his writing.

“”Savage Appetites” by Rachel Monroe is really right up my alley. She’s written captivating pieces for various publications and this is her first book, digging into the question of why so many women are drawn to dark stories of true crime, why we find them to be both terrifying and deliciously compelling. I love how Rachel includes herself in this book, as she’s looking for answers along with the reader. This book is fascinating and terrific.

“”Night Sky’ With Exit Wounds” is a book of poems I’d recommend by Ocean Vuong, who wrote the heart-stopping novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Each line is a little world. Sometimes I find his writing to be a bit overwhelming, like my brain can’t absorb all of the imagery and needs some kind of vacant, vapid line as a palate cleanser, but that’s a good thing!

“Joanna Pearson’s “Every Human Love” is a new-ish collection of short stories I love and she’s got such a knack for unsettling narratives, eeriness that will stick with you. Her stories are addictive and I’ve been looking forward to jumping into Joanna’s little haunted zones for 25 years now!

Black Mountain College was an experimental college that existed from the 1930s to the 1950s in a town near the one where I grew up. Many brilliant visual artists, dancers, writers, musicians and philosophers were called there, many well-known and legendary. The book “Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art” is a great, great book curated by Vincent Katz, and is one of my most prized possessions. It’s so fun to just spend an afternoon with it, thinking about how everyone came together, unmasked and communally manifesting wild art-dreams in the mountains of North Carolina.”

Photo by Rachael Pony Cassells. Rachael also created a visual score to accompany Mary’s newest album — definitely worth checking out.

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