Sarah Harmer's quiet storm
There's been little hype behind the Juno nominee,
but the self-effacing singer is making the music industry
sit up and take notice, SARAH HAMPSON writes
Thursday, February 22, 2001 Globe and Mail
Now the toaster sticks
And the empties are piled
I haven't been up the stairs in a while now I gotta wash the sheets on my bed
Gotta watch the things that go unsaid from Basement Apartment
by Sarah Harmer
Her lyrics are rooted in the present, and so is Sarah Harmer.
"I think it's good to live without expectation, not because you won't be disappointed, because I think that's kind of silly, but just so that you live in the moment, and you don't put it all ahead of you or behind you." She tells me this on a Monday afternoon, in a dimly lit downtown Toronto bar, perched on a stool, her chin-length auburn hair a mess.
"Van head," she grimaces, running one hand through her hair as she walks in, chewing gum and wearing a quilted jacket over her tiny frame. She's in town for a day, having travelled across the northern United States on a leg of her tour. Her face, a Cubist arrangement of large, striking features (almond eyes, sharp cheekbones, a full mouth), is pale. She twists her small, unadorned hands and picks at her little-girl nails that have no moons at the base. On one hand, she has written "7:30 pm" in black ink -- a reminder to call someone in Texas later today, when she's on the Via train hurtling home to Kingston, Ont.
In this, her moment as a rising star, singer and songwriter, she is girlish, tentative, self-effacing. She's somewhere in between a dazzle of delight and a daze of exhaustion. For a year now, since she independently released You Were Here on her own Cold Snap label, she has been touring North America. The industry quickly took notice. In September, Rounder Records in the United States and Universal Music in Canada approached her, a deal was hammered out, and the album was subsequently rereleased. Now it has earned her a double Juno nomination -- as best new solo artist and for best pop album. Time magazine calls Harmer's album the year's best debut in their list of the world's Top 10.
But she's not an artist who courts the spotlight. Or particularly wants it when it's upon her, it seems. She may be a contender of Nelly Furtado's, the young Victoria-born singer-songwriter who has become the It Girl of the Canadian contemporary music scene and is nominated for five Junos (two in the same categories as Harmer), but she is not nearly as visible. If Furtado is soaring in full plumage to the top as a previously unknown and much-hyped artist, Harmer is a different species of songbird, hidden in a bush somewhere, letting the sound of her music entice people to peek inside the branches and see who's there.
She "ums" and "uhs" her way through this interview, stuttering through answers, putting them out on the table like they're bits of bread she hopes you'll like. She seems afraid to say too much about herself, to overhype her success, for fear of jinxing it, perhaps. Harmer, who is 30, has been singing professionally since she was a teenager. There's nothing new there. Performing first with the Saddletramps and later as part of the folk-rock band Weeping Tile, which went on hiatus in 1998, she's "been around," as she says. She recorded three albums with Weeping Tile and, in 1999, released a collection of old favourites titled Songs for Clem, originally intended as a gift for her father. But this major solo work is different: confessional, dreamy, melancholic, as though she scribbled down the words in the middle of the night over gin and a cigarette, as though it was intended for her own catharsis.
In fact, she likes to work in a private, isolated fashion. "I kind of like that I did this record totally on my own time and under the radar of any kind of media because I like that kind of underdog thing," she says softly. "In this world, it's, like, me making music and writing songs is the most important thing to me, and the whole promotion of it . . ." she pauses, lifting her large blue-green eyes with their wide dark pupils from the table to me. "I like there to be a sense of mystery about things," she trails off.
Her septuagenarian parents, who still live in the farmhouse she grew up in on the outskirts of Burlington, Ont., loaned her $30,000 to take "these songs in my back pocket" and co-produce the album with Toronto-based musician and producer Peter Prilesnik in an atmosphere that she says was free and experimental. "You're not gonna just make a bunch of these [songs] and throw them under your bed," they gently queried, she recalls with an expression of wry humility. Her parents know her well, her laugh says, too well perhaps.
Look at that green
Out through the screen
After a quick rain came
So fast that
There wasn't time
To roll up the window
And pull the clothes
Down off the line
-- from The Hideout
She is the youngest of six children who were born over the course of 11 years. Her father was a farmer until asthma forced him to quit and become a business investor, always working from home. He is now retired. Her mother, Isabelle, was a school teacher and then, after all the children were born, "a powerhouse" who continues to volunteer at cancer patient facilities and old folks' homes. They had a chicken barn and a pig barn on the property. Harmer remembers baling hay, bringing it into the barn, hours spent outside. It was the kind of spare and simple life that's heard in her music.
Her childhood comes back to her in glimpses, fleeting moments, rather than as one, long narrative. She remembers a yellow gingham dress she wore, and hating Grade 7 and 8. She remembers little outfits her mother would make for her and her four sisters when she took them up to the old folks' home to do singing routines to entertain the elderly. She remembers music always, everywhere, filling the house, her father's "beautiful, beautiful" singing voice, the children all playing piano, a grandfather who had a violin. As early as three years old, she was singing in the local United Church choir. She later sang in the Hamilton Children's Choir, and her parents would drive her faithfully to performances.
How was her childhood formative? She pauses, hating the routine nature of the question, it seems. "It's more like my parents being really supportive and not enforcing that I do something that was more business-oriented," she replies.
She also balks at questions about her musical influences, because there have never been any clear ones. She has eclectic listening habits. She likes reggae, hip-hop, PJ Harvey. In Grade 10, she remembers liking bands, such as the Replacements, that had "a kind of beautiful-loser quality, like they were just writing what came to them and didn't seem that they were tailored for anything other than documenting their own perspective." When she attended Queen's University in Kingston -- where she took courses in philosophy and women's studies before quitting in 1993 after three years to pursue her music -- she remembers hanging out with members of the Tragically Hip when they were just starting out. Some of then were friends with her sister, Mary, a musician. "I remember thinking that I wanted to save up money and buy them a vacation or something," Harmer says with a laugh. Being on the road was tiring -- she could see that. And romantic. Heroic even.
And I knew by the time
On the stove
That you were no longer
I guess we're all
Just out on loan
And everybody is only
-- from Coffee Stain
Don't think, from the dreamy quality of her responses and her lyrics, that Harmer is all sentiment and sweetness. Beneath her ethereal exterior, she's hearty as a willow tree. "I like having stamina," she says of her gruelling tour schedule. Asked if she was surprised when a big label picked up her album, she replies slyly: "Ooh, I knew it was hot. You have to have that kind of confidence if you're going to do it."
The decision to go with Universal and Rounder was tough. "I don't think it's a mark of good music whether a major label picks it up or not." She deliberated about whether to sign. "I was at a real crossroads in my career," she admits. One option was to turn Cold Snap Records into a "bona fide label" with someone running it. "I'd learned a lot about what to expect from a record company. They were not going to be the creative oomph behind [the music]," she says. Her solution was to negotiate a deal that suited her. "I was coming to them with a finished product," she offers. "I just let it be known that I had no problem saying no."
Simplicity. Sharp living-in-the-moment experiences. That's what she wants. That's what writing songs feels like for her. They present themselves like epiphanies. "It's a mystery to me, when melodies happen. It's like magic." There's one arresting glimpse she recalled of herself as a child that helps explain her personality: "I remember always wanting to be back in the 1860s." There is a born-into-the-wrong-century quality about Harmer. The great publicity-driven celebrity-hungry juggernaut of modern society is not where beautiful music is made. At least not for her. She prefers to sit at her kitchen table, writing as passionately as it sometimes rains, in the wood-stove-heated farmhouse outside Kingston that she shares with fellow musician Luther Wright. "I like simple things," she says shyly. "I like going to the shed and getting the wood. It's a real connection to what you need to sustain yourself."
Return to Articles