Sarah Harmer – Getting personal
Evidence that Sarah Harmer’s career has turned a corner is obvious from the scene outside a recent Toronto appearance. The stairs at the ornate Trinity Centre are crowded with young women who have copped Harmer’s gamin look; a remote truck from the CBC is parked nearby, taping tonight’s performance; scalpers are extracting a 100% profit on tickets; and whereas Harmer once would have felt lucky to attract the 700 people on hand tonight, now it’s the ticketholders who feel blessed.
All this excitement has been fueled by her new album, You Were Here, initially released through her website but now out in the U.S. through the Rounder affiliate Zoe (and in Canada through Universal). “I always had kind of high expectations for You Were Here, but I was holding onto it for as long as I could, to find a proper, appropriate home,” Harmer says.
Acclaim for the record has been widespread, and Harmer says she spent the month of September traveling nearly 15,000 miles around the continent, playing with the likes of Billy Bragg and Josh Rouse. It’s no surprise Harmer has been winning fans. You Were Here is a welcome break from the Lilith school of flinchy girl singers. Her music is at once heartfelt and hardy, sensitive and sanguine.
There is some irony in Harmer’s music endowing her with such steady work, though. Growing up near Burlington, Ontario, she sought out music to avoid toil. “I used to get out of doing my chores by going to the piano and singing for my dad,” she says. “We went to church every Sunday and sang in the choirs. I started writing songs when I was 17, here and there. It was something that just came along.”
Ten years ago, she moved to Kingston, Ontario, and formed the band Weeping Tile. After an initial EP, the group was picked up by Warner in Canada and released an underappreciated debut, Cold Snap, in 1995. Valentino followed in 1997; despite acclaim, the wheels came off during a tour of the U.S. Midwest with Ani DiFranco. The group went into suspended animation, while Harmer played acoustic shows, recorded and released a set of traditional tunes called Songs For Clem, and wrote new material.
“There was a song or two I had written that I didn’t want to perform with the band,” she explains. “I felt it was more of a personal expression that I just wanted to keep in a quiet context. I would say selfish, but I’m not sure that is the word. I just wanted to possess the songs myself.”
Working with producer Peter Prilesnik in his warehouse studio in Toronto, Harmer and a coterie of friends and former bandmates pieced together You Were Here, a set that adeptly handles the Tin Pan Alley tunefulness of “Open Window” (which Harmer wrote for a pal’s wedding), the groovy memoir of “Basement Apt.”, and the wildly romantic “Lodestar”, which punctuates a late-night boat trip with a quote from D.H. Lawrence.
“It was serendipity,” she says of borrowing from Lawrence, then laughs. “Okay, it was lack of my own original thought! I love literature and poetry from the turn of the century. I love the verbosity and Edith Wharton and brainy kind of salon culture.”
In her Weeping Tile days, Harmer showed an aptitude for old-school balladry (the Cold Snap song “Westray” borrowed from Robert Service). But on You Were Here, Harmer has mastered the more personal approach to songwriting — nowhere more so than on the title cut, her reaction to the death of a friend.
“There are definitely some events and phases of my life that I felt were kind of distilled into songs that are on this record. It is a pretty personal record, and there are lots of moments of exposure,” she says. “I like to be open. I like to be embraced more, in a wide-open kind of loving perspective, in the last few years. I think that is what I am happy to get across and what I want to get across.”