“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in biweekly installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
For fans of Philly’s local music scene, it hurts a little to have to use the word “former” to describe Meg Baird’s residential whereabouts. The singer uprooted from her longtime home here about four years ago and settled into San Francisco, a transition she reviewed briefly with The Key for an interview last August, in advance of a show at Johnny Brenda’s where she shared a stage with friend and frequent collaborator, Philly-based harpist Mary Lattimore.
Luckily for Baird’s fans, whatever coast she’s living on, she has been as prolific as ever. Last year saw the release of her third solo album, Don’t Weigh Down The Light, where she was accompanied throughout by Charlie Saufley for a return more toward the fuller sound of records made with her Philly-based band, Espers. Baird premiered a music video for the title track from that record on NPR last December.
Lattimore is celebrating the release of new music of her own as well. Her new record At The Dam hit stores on March 4th – it’s an album of experimental harp music that she improvised as a document of recent trips in California and Texas. Having recently garnered a Pew Fellowship, Lattimore is looking forward to an upcoming tour playing a number of European dates. Though she’d played throughout Europe before — as a duo along with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Zeigler, opening for Steve Gunn, or as part of Thurston Moore’s band — Lattimore looks forward to the autonomy and accolade of this tour as her first international venture as a solo headlining artist.
Baird’s music is often branded as “psych-folk” (a label she dismissed as “old-fashioned”), and although her various ventures over the years have explored a few different sounds, her gorgeous voice is reliably recognizable and uniquely haunting, invoking and updating the work of forebears like Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny or even Marianne Faithfull. Her latest project — a heavier folk-rock collaboration with Saufley and former members of Comets on Fire called Heron Oblivion — will play their Philly date at Boot & Saddle on May 27th, the newer South Broad Street club where, at the time of this interview, Baird had mentioned not having yet had the opportunity to play. Philly will welcome her back with open arms and ears as always. And, as always, we’ll still think of the former Philly artist as a treasured part of Philly’s own musical heritage.
As for Lattimore, she can’t say at this point how long she’ll remain in Philly. But for now, she loves her Fishtown neighborhood, and shows it by lugging her beloved, massive instrument all the way upstairs to the stage of Johnny Brenda’s with some frequency. In a recent rave review of At The Dam, Pitchfork described “the experience of traveling, practicing and performing with a harp” as “undeniably solitary.” Traveling and practicing — okay, maybe. But as for performing, at least in Philly — to hear Mary tell it, and to see her in her element at her favorite home venue, it sort of takes a village to get that thing upright and onto a stage, and a village of her friends seem always willing.
The Key: Meg, you’re originally from South Jersey. Why did you first move to Philly?
Meg Baird: Originally I went to Rutgers. Most of my friends were moving to New York at that time. I was interviewing there too, but Philadelphia just seemed more appealing. I was in a band from college, had a friend with a huge house. It just seemed so much more possible than what everyone was scrambling to try to hang onto in New York at that time. So I just went for that and never left. [laughs]
TK: What was the band?
MB: We were called Slumber. We were around a couple years. It was kind of dream-shoegazey, like a little bit noisier than shoegaze but not much.
TK: Like My Bloody Valentine..
MB: Just kind of, yeah, influenced by a lot of that stuff. It wasn’t a long-lived project.
TK: Were you singing in that one?
MB: I was.
TK: Mary, are you a Philly native?
Mary Lattimore: Nope, I’m from North Carolina, Asheville, the mountains. I’ve lived here [in Philly] for ten-and-a-half years.
TK: Why did you move to Philly?
ML: I had some friends — who actually turned out to be my Meg’s bandmates, that’s how I met her — Greg [Weeks] and Otto [Hauser], and they both are from Rochester, New York, which is where I went to school. I lived in Austria for a couple years, and my visa ran out, and I had to find a new place to live, and I checked it out and I really liked it here.
TK: How did you first get connected to the Philly music scene?
MB: I think right when I moved here I went to an Un show — some of the bands/people/shows that were a little bit around the Siltbreeze label — that’s when there were lots of shows at The Khyber at that time. I was seeing a lot of the Siltbreeze shows, and Bardo Pond shows, and I think also because I was working at the Fabric Workshop, and working in the visual art community a bit too. There’s so much crossover, especially with Bardo Pond. Siltbreeze was Tom Lax, he was really active in bringing bands in and putting shows on and releasing music at that time.
ML: I was part of this big movie soundtrack thing called The Valerie Project — it’s like members of Espers, Fursaxa, Fern Knight, Charles Cohen played on it — yeah just like a twelve-person orchestra. We did a film soundtrack, we did like a reimagining of a score for a Czech New Wave film. I knew Greg Weeks from being in Rochester. We were all friends by that time, just kind of like living around the area, you get to know people.
TK: Who’s your favorite Philly artist, or which Philly artist was most influential to you?
MB: Oh dear, I really don’t know. If I was forced to pick, it would probably have to be the whole Bardo Pond and everyone in it, and their kind of legacy.
ML: Meg Baird! Also Fursaxa really influenced me a lot, I played with her for a long time. Tara Burke, Fursaxa is her project. She lives up at Hawk Mountain now, but she lived in Philly for a long time. She does droney, sort of looped-bass pieces, has a really beautiful voice, really haunting.
TK: Where did you play your first show in Philly, and what are your memories of how it felt to be on stage that night?
ML: My first Philly show was with Arcade Fire, those guys are friends of mine and that was the first show I ever played period. I’d been friends with a couple members, and I knew that I was moving here, so they just said “sit in with us, when you move, we’re gonna be playing there too!,” and so I played a couple songs with them [on harp], and I really loved it, you know, it was like sold-out TLA, and that was my first time I’d ever been on stage with a rock band, so that was really great.
MB: Pretty sure it was The Khyber — I feel like most memories go back to The Khyber! [laughs] Back then it was just like a good rock venue, you know? That was with the band that I was playing in. I also was playing with my sister — I know I played at the Tin Angel, pretty early on, when I moved here, with my sister, doing something much quieter and folkier. That was really special, that was a special room too. I’m not sure which was first. But that’s what comes up when I think way back. [laughs]
TK: Were you super nervous?
MB: I’m sure I was nervous. But those are good rooms, you know, you can’t help but just get into the same space as everyone there. So not that kind of nervous, where you run off stage, you just feel appropriately heightened and excited.
TK: So a helpful nervous.
TK: What’s your favorite Philly venue to play?
ML: Johnny Brenda’s! The only problem for me is bringing the harp upstairs, but usually people are really nice and helpful, and understanding. I’ve had lots of bartenders help me, and friends are always around. But yeah this is definitely my favorite place to play in Philly.
MB: I haven’t played in some of the new ones that have opened, I haven’t even been to Boot & Saddle.
TK: There’s that new Fillmore too..
MB: They don’t spell that with a “Ph” do they?”
MB: That would be really upsetting. [laughs] As of late, Johnny Brenda’s had become a good favorite for lots of reasons — good sound, good size. I had a chance to play Union Transfer, opening up for some bands. I opened up for Sharon Van Etten there, that’s a great new space, so it’s nice that that’s here. And I also just like the informality, you know, people that are putting on a special show at Bartram’s Gardens, by Ars Nova, or you know, all that kind of programming that can happen here, where it’s a special show in a special performance space.
TK: What do you love most about the Philly arts scene?
MB: One, it’s just really good. There’s lots of really good artists here working, and making great work. But it’s pretty accessible still. People are very willing to talk to you, meet you, get to know you. Really welcoming and really supportive. Even when I came back here, I needed some favors — I needed to borrow an amp, I needed a place to stay — it’s overwhelmingly supportive and open.
ML: There’s a lotta different places to play, and a lotta different people that are all interacting with each other. I just got that Pew Fellowship [in 2014], and that’s a huge thing for Philly arts, twelve people per year get it, and it’s really incredible. I have a couple friends who won it [last year], and it just is a real life-changer, it’s a great thing about Philly.
TK: What did you find most frustrating, if anything, about your time working or trying to grow as an artist in Philly?
MB: I didn’t really feel too held-back, when I was here. You know, if there was anything that was holding me back here, that’s really more probably just personal things — sometimes it’s good to leave a place that’s comfortable — but I wouldn’t attribute that at all to the place. Sometimes I felt, you know, when there are that many people that you’re friends with, and there’s so much culture around music, it may be a little harder to take a couple chances or something, when you do have such a strong community like that. But you know, that’s a small negative to a big positive.
ML: I don’t really know about frustrating. I can’t really think of anything.
TK: In which neighborhoods have you lived in Philly? Which made you want to stick around, and which couldn’t you wait to leave?
ML: Only Fishtown. I do love it here, I really love it here. It’s changing a lot, which I don’t really love.
MB: Well my first neighborhood, I actually lived on Washington Square, somehow, through some strange luck of knowing someone that knew someone. That was quite nice. One of the townhouses. It was a house that would’ve been empty, and they needed to have someone living there. It was kind of like an extended house-sit thing — we were paying rent, but I lucked into that. That was really nice. Probably never gonna replicate that again. I lived in Old City, like right before it got crazy. That’s the one that drove me up the wall. It was quiet, it used to just be a couple restaurants and bars. I don’t know if you were here then, when it completely transformed into, like, limousines? That era was rough. I had to get out. Nowhere else gave me that feeling, but yeah living in Old City during that crush, was that early 2000’s? That was tough.
TK: What was your preferred means for getting around Philly when you lived here — bike, walk, drive?
MB: Walk. If I had the time. I like walking, and it’s a walkable city. Biking can be great, too. Biking at night, when it’s calm. I’m not a very intrepid biker. I wish I were. But riding a bike around on a nice night. But when you walk, you have a chance to see everything. It’s just a natural way to be in a place, I think you actually take it all in.
ML: I like walking around, with headphones on. SEPTA too. I mean I drive, just because I have the harp, but I mainly walk or ride the El.
TK: How have you seen the city change in your time living here, and was it for the better?
ML: For the better, in some ways, I mean the scene is always getting better and better. A lot of my friends have really made their mark on the musical world, and I feel like people are really accepting of Philly musicians right now, in the bigger sense.
MB: I’ve seen some of it change for the better, for sure. It used to just be desolate, at times, you know even downtown, so it was nice to see more activity and things just sort of take on their own energy more. But I think that some of what I see now that doesn’t seem that good for Philadelphia — I don’t even think it’s specific to Philadelphia — I think, you know, a city does all this work to try to become more appealing, and people start moving there, and it gets all this outside imaging on it from developers. I think American cities in general are facing a really dangerous wave of overdevelopment and displacement right now, so I don’t think Philadelphia’s unique. But it’s hard to see it, after being in San Francisco, which is just a horrible extreme example of that, and to see it how much more of it is here than when I left is hard. But, it’s everywhere. It’s Nashville, lots of cities.
TK: Meg, you mentioned in your last interview with us that you’re a Phillies fan — do you prefer the 2008 or 1980 World Championship Phillies?
MB: [laughs] I’m a 2008 girl!
TK: PBC or Yards?
ML: I don’t really drink a lot of beer, actually. Whiskey and ginger.
MB: Yards for drinking, but I love the people of PBC too! [laughs] But personal taste, probably Yards. Just for sippin’.
Boot and Saddle, Johnny Brenda's, Mary Lattimore, Meg Baird, The High Key Portrait Series