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College Hoops and 47-String Harps: A Conversation with Mary Lattimore

Stream ‘At the Dam,’ the Philadelphia based harpist's beautiful new LP.

Image: J Makary

This article originally appeared on Noisey Australia.

College basketball coach Jimmy Valvano was a boisterous, charismatic, and colorful character. Not someone you’d associate with the soft and subtle beauty of the harp. But after watching a moving documentary about the life of the North Carolina State Wolfpack coach, who led his team to the 1983 national championship and died of bone cancer ten years later, Philadelphia based harpist Mary Lattimore wrote “Jimmy V.”

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Taken from her upcoming album, At the Dam, the track is one of five shimmering compositions Lattimore wrote after using the funds she received from a prestigious Pew Center fellowship to road trip across America with a friend. Lattimore and her 47-string Lyon & Healy harp have been around having recorded and performed with Jeff Zeigler, Meg Baird, Thurston Moore, Sharon Van Etten, Jarvis Cocker, and Kurt Vile.

Stream the LP below and read a chat we had wiith Mary.

Noisey: "Jimmy V" is a beautiful song. You wrote it after watching the doco?
Mary Lattimore: Yep, I went through a phase of watching those 30 for 30 ESPN documentaries and the one about Jim Valvano really ripped me apart. His charisma and his flaws and his amazing formula for inspiring and his illness left me feeling so sad. So it was in thinking about those elements in a one-of-a-kind kind of human that I wrote that song. I wanted it to be a warbly little backwards warped poem for him.

His "cutting the nets" speech is amazing. Are you a fan of college basketball?
Yeah, I just re-listened to that speech. It’s so good. I am a fan of college basketball in that I think basketball is the most fun sport to watch, but I don't really follow NC State or Carolina or Duke (I'm from North Carolina). My cool little brother is a basketball coach at Cape Fear Community College, so I root for the Sea Devils. I think that getting really good at a sport is probably a lot like practicing an instrument and having a mentor who sees through all of your layers, sees how your brain works, is really valuable.

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Family was important to Valvano. His basketball teams seemed like an extension of his Italian family in Queens, New York. Do you find the same sense of family playing in bands?
Definitely, and I have a really great community in Philadelphia. There's a lot of good music being made here, a lot of great art, and unpretentious vibe here that I really appreciate, feels like a family.

You have performed with Meg Baird, Thurston Moore, Jarvis Cocker, Kurt Vile, and Steve Gunn. Do you feel a familial connection even if you are playing with them for a short time?
Kurt, Meg, and Steve are three of my best friends. The musical connection came later. Steve's from Philly, Meg used to live here for a long time, I know Kurt and his beautiful family just from being around, buds for 11 years now, so we'll always have a connection. Jarvis and Thurston were very kind to include me on their projects and I learned a lot from playing with both of them. They took me under their wings and are both such interesting guys. I feel lucky to know them.

At The Dam is named for a Joan Didion essay about the Hoover Dam. Can you remember the time you first read Didion?
That was the first thing I'd ever read of hers, The White Album. I guess I was a late bloomer to her work. I took this really great road trip out to LA with a friend, driving the southern route from Philly to NC, to New Orleans, to Austin, to Marfa, TX, to Joshua Tree, to Altadena, CA and LA, running away from winter. I wanted to read some stuff on my trip that felt kinda haunted-California, dark romance, so first I read Manson, a Charles Manson biography, and then The White Album. I recorded the record on the trip.

California seems to play a part on the album. "Jaxine Drive" is named after a street in Altadena. Have you heard of Christmas Tree Lane which is the oldest large scale Christmas lighting venue in the world?
No, and that's in Altadena? I had no idea! Yeah, Jaxine Drive was the street where I was staying and recording, in a small midcentury guesthouse next to the larger house. Before some friends of mine bought it, it had belonged to a sculptor named David Green and his wife was named Jaxine. I'd never heard that name before, but I think it's beautiful. Will have to look out for Christmas Tree Lane next time!

'At the Dam' is available March 4 through Ghostly International.