The concept of union via agreement is what underpins any collaboration; but particularly in the case of a duo, where without majority rule the individuals’ energies, aims, intents and methodologies must match up if they’re going to get anything at all off the ground. It’s a simple truth – and one that holds for singer-songwriter Meg Baird and harpist Mary Lattimore. In fact, they’re so much on the same creative page – and long-term friends to boot – you wonder why recording an album together has taken them this long.
Respectively the co-founder of Espers and Heron Oblivion and creator of three solo albums, and the go-to harp player for Thurston Moore and Sunburned Hand Of The Man, among others, who’s released two solo full-lengths, Baird and Lattimore are compellingly articulate explorers of the psych-folk and instrumental-improv hinterlands. They were fixtures on Philadelphia’s leftfield music scene for many years and first met after Lattimore moved to the city from Rochester in 2005, following her friends Greg Weeks and Otto Hauser of Espers. Inevitably, the women’s orbits intersected, also pulling in creatively compatible locals such as Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn and Jeff Ziegler for their own projects. Both have since shifted west – Lattimore lives in LA, Baird in San Francisco – and as it seems to do on so many non-native Californians, the state has made its mark. On Ghost Forests, it’s both backdrop and bit part.
Baird spoke recently about the “mind-boggling” beauty of California and in particular its extremes of light and dark. That’s a pool of dramatic possibilities that has been tapped so heavily across music genres that it’s assumed tics and tropes of its own, especially in regard to LA, but potent manipulations of darkness and illumination – their power to calm or transport, unsettle or sadden and ability to evoke other eras/realities – have long been a feature of both Baird’s and Lattimore’s work. Baird told Uncut that a major inspiration for Ghost Forests was the location of the Headlands Center For The Arts near Sausalito, where her friend worked on her recent solo album Hundreds Of Days during a term there as artist in residence.
“I came up to visit sometimes from the city, and her giant, dreamy redwood studio is where the first sketches for the collaboration were made,” she said, adding that “the way we were meeting up again in this heartwarming but heartbreaking, terrifying but gentle, beautiful coastal place” made a deep impact. These six tracks, then, are a record of reconnection and shared memories.
Recorded over four days and running at just 35 minutes, the album risked sounding slight, but there’s satisfying emotional weight, not to mention great beauty in its mix of acoustic and electric guitars, harp, synths, Baird’s vocals and some piano. Opener “Between Two Worlds”, which borrows the title of a group art exhibition on uniquely Californian themes the women saw together last year, begins as a thing of tremulous beauty, a braid of single, plucked harp and finger-picked guitar notes, pure and free and sweet, but builds steadily from around the halfway point to a peak of shrill harp trills and clanging six-string in feverish apocalyptic counterpoint, underpinned by an ominously thrumming synth.
“Damaged Sunset” is more subdued, dropping back from its initially urgent acoustic strumming to a simple chord pattern that’s a perfect vehicle for Baird’s mournfully sweet vocal, the whole rising and falling in a hypnotic rhythm over soft synth pillows. Her lyrics, though, poke at darkness and anxiety: “Blame the way the sky looked when those planes fell down…/ Set the towers on fire just to feel the space beyond, you won’t rest again here.”
For “In Cedars”, Lattimore’s harp takes the lead, cascading over treated guitar while both Baird’s vocals – multi-tracked for divine choral effect – and synth manifest as gaseous exhalations, the whole conflating images of deep earth with near space in seven knockout minutes. As their take on a Scottish traditional (after Beverly Woods’ 1983 rendition), closer “Fair Annie” is the record’s most straightforward track, its surge-and-retreat rhythm carried by Baird’s lyrical finger-picking and Lattimore’s sturdy piano style as if in conversation, her harp the dulcet overlay.
Ghost Forests is a sensual record where the spaces in between the sounds assume a corporeality all their own – and although it has the power to untether the listener, it isn’t “romantic” or “sublime” in the conventional aesthetic sense. Yes, there’s dreamy hush by the yard in its enigmatic snapshots, but they were taken in the very real world.
The January 2019 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Jack White on the cover. Inside, White heads up our Review Of The Year – which also features the best new albums, archive releases, films and books of the last 12 months. Aside from White, there are exclusive interviews with Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Stephen Malkmus, Courtney Barnett, Low and Mélissa Laveaux. Our 15-track CD also showcases the best music of 2018.