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The two faces of Juno

Sarah Harmer boasts rave reviews and presentable sales. Nelly Furtado has soaring sales and respectable reviews. Catch 'em this week

WILL IT be the multicultural global dance pop of media magnet Nelly Furtado or the finely crafted alternative folk of critically championed Sarah Harmer?

Odds are that one of Canada's two emerging young divas will walk away from next Sunday's Juno Awards at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum with the prize for Best New Solo Artist.

Both are also in the running for Best Pop Album, while Furtado, this year's leading nominee with five nods altogether, is also up for Best Single (``I'm Like A Bird''), Best Songwriter and Best Producer.

In their own ways, each singer is enjoying a breakout year. One, Harmer, boasts rave reviews and presentable sales. The other, Furtado, has soaring sales and respectable reviews.

How this commercial/critical dichotomy plays with Juno voters, made up largely of people in the music industry, is anyone's guess.

``It could go either way,'' figures Larry LeBlanc, Canadian editor of Billboard magazine and an observer of this country's music scene for three and a half decades.

``Some people may say, `Nelly's too mainstream. Sarah really deserves it.' Or it could go the other way because Nelly's had a lot of the hype and press.''

Superficially, at least, parallels between the performers exist. Both are undeniably talented. Both began to make waves last fall.

Both will perform at this year's Junos. And both have concert dates in Toronto this week: Furtado at the Phoenix on Thursday, Harmer at the Danforth Music Hall on Friday and Saturday.

But that, for the most part, is where the similarities end.

Even before the release last October of her debut, Whoa, Nelly!, Furtado, then an unknown 21-year-old signed directly to heavyweight DreamWorks in the United States, was being hailed in leading American music mags Spin and Rolling Stone as someone to watch.

The album, a catchy hybrid that includes a couple of tunes sung in Portuguese, subsequently received mixed but generally favourable reviews, rolling up sales of 206,000 in the U.S. and 145,000 here.

Along the way, the Victoria-born singer has been adding to her public profile, with coveted appearances on Saturday Night Live and Letterman.

Furtado, who could not be reached for the purposes of this article, has never made apologies for her commercial aspirations.

``If I wanted to make an underground record, I wouldn't be on a major label,'' she told me when Whoa, Nelly! came out. ``I wanted to make a pop record because my songs are poppy and hooky, anyway.''

The emergence of Harmer, 30, has been more gradual and low-key. She came up through the ranks as a singer with the Saddletramps and, later, Kingston alt-rockers Weeping Tile, with whom she made three albums.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- `If I wanted to make an underground record, I wouldn't be on a major label.'- Nelly Furtado --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In 1999, she took a tentative step toward breaking out on her own with Songs For Clem, an album of cover tunes recorded with singer/guitarist Jason Euringer at her family's rural homestead in Elginburg, outside Burlington.

You Were Here first came out last spring as a self-financed release on Harmer's own Cold Snap label. It was then reissued in the fall with the backing of indie Rounder in the U.S. and Universal here.

Her first fully fledged solo album entirely made up of original material, it offered an irresistible combination of lyrical and instrumental song craft.

Critically, the reception has been ecstatic, with the album making numerous year-end top 10 lists, Time magazine's included.

Toronto's Eye magazine, in its annual poll of 80 music critics from across Canada, ranked You Were Here as the fifth best release of 2000, close on the heels of international hits such as Radiohead's Kid A. (Whoa, Nelly! was not in the top 30.)

At the same time, sales for You Were Here - 26,000 in the U.S., 20,000 here - are comparatively modest but continue to build.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- `This one feels like it has enough support from the record companies and also the people who are buying it.'- Sarah Harmer --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

``It feels like there is some longevity there,'' Harmer said last week.``Records can come and go pretty quickly. Definitely with Weeping Tile, our last record came out, and it was over. This one feels like it has enough support from the record companies and also the people who are buying it.''

LeBlanc, for his part, is convinced that Harmer's album will eventually go platinum in Canada (100,000 sales), although it might take a while.

``It's the tortoise and the hare,'' he says. ``The Nelly record is probably going to end up being a much bigger record. But the Sarah record is a building, building thing.

``With Sarah, it has been ongoing word of mouth. People tell people about that record. It's the kind of record that if you can't convince a friend how good it is, you go out and buy it for them.

``And she's the type who is going to keep making great records. She's the real McCoy, a gem, a real find.

``To me, the Nelly record is a first record. It's not a bad record, but for me it just does not gel.

``The next record by Nelly Furtado is going to be phenomenal, because she'll have had the experience of working this record, and at the same time she's going to have the confidence to go on and do other things. She'll have her pick of producers and musicians for the next one.

``She could end up being the next Sarah McLachlan, which wouldn't be so bad for her. It's two different types of careers.''

Juno juror Craig MacInnis, who listened to all of this year's entries in the Best New Solo Artist category, also distinguishes between the relative strengths of the two singer/songwriters.

``A Sarah Harmer-type performer comes along maybe once in a generation,'' he says. ``Everything about her stands out.

``She's versed in country and folk music, and she also has a melodic pop sensibility that's entirely modern. Her only liability is she might have too much talent for the mainstream.

``Furtado, on the other hand, sings credible pop for people whose hips move when they listen to music. Her brand of giddy artifice is also rare, though her music is not as special as Harmer's.''

On another level, LeBlanc sees Harmer as a contemporary incarnation of a Canadian singer/songwriter tradition that includes a litany of distinguished predecessors, while Furtado puts a fresh, global spin on Canada's multicultural mosaic.

``You don't want to put Sarah in the Neil Young-Joni Mitchell-Murray McLauchlan-Bruce Cockburn vein because she's obviously a contemporary person, but that's where her roots are,'' LeBlanc says.

``Nelly's roots are in her own background, but at the same time she's influenced by everything from commercial radio to world-beat music. That's new for Canada.''

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