SPOTLIGHT: After a Break for Activism, Sarah Harmer Returns with ‘Are You Gone’
Photo by Vanessa Heins
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah Harmer is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for February 2020. Stay tuned all month long for more from Harmer and her new album, Are You Gone, out Feb. 21.
“Are you gone?” is a question many fans probably wanted to ask Sarah Harmer in the decade since her last album, Oh Little Fire.
In the music industry, a decade without a release is an eternity, enough time for epochs to pass and landforms to move and extinctions to pile up.
But Are You Gone is the answer to its own question, the title of the new album from the Canadian singer-songwriter who first caught the attention of critics and fans with 2000’s You Were Here. It’s a welcome affirmation of musical life springing forth from a talent who wasn’t gone at all, just focusing her energy elsewhere.
Much of that energy was spent with the community organization she co-founded, PERL —Protecting Escarpment Rural Land — and its years-long fight against a corporation aiming to expand a quarry in the Niagara Escarpment, a rock slope that winds through the Great Lakes and Southern Ontario.
Amid that battle, and the three-hour drives and endless hearings in hotel ballrooms it entailed, music moved to the background for a while. “There were periods of time when I wasn’t really picking up my guitar very much,” she admits. But melodies and lyrics still bubbled up from time to time, and she played the occasional benefit show. A new album was always something she would talk to friends about and meant to get around to, but time kept passing by.
“I’ve been trying to be OK with just being, as well as being productive,” she says. But she would wake up in the middle of the night wondering “Why aren’t you singing? Why are you not doing this anymore?”, she recalls.
Finally, “it just accumulated,” and she got to work, inviting some longtime instrumental collaborators back to the studio and taking her usual place behind the controls, this time with Montreal’s Marcus Paquin as a co-producer. Working with Paquin, rather than someone she knew well, was new, and by design — a way to make sure everything kept moving forward and was up to the high standards she envisioned for her return to recording. “I thought, ‘I want to do this with somebody I have to be on my best game with,” she says.
“I just felt like art and music are so fundamental to our lives, and I’ve been really moved by a lot of art and music in the last decade that my friends have been making and kind of contributing to the cultural milieu, so I felt a responsibility to do that too.”
Being present is a theme woven throughout the album, a mindset built into Harmer’s foundation. She came to it naturally during a rural Ontario childhood with plenty of solo roaming time, and she was able to find it again after stepping out of the music industry for a while and taking things at her own pace at home north of Kingston, Ontario, “right where the last of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario, starts to become the St. Lawrence River.”
“I live in the boonies and I can spend days and days not getting into my car and just in the slow observational mode of things,” she reflects. “So I think presence has been something that has been felt more strongly in the last number of years than in the past when I’ve had a busier life and a busier schedule and been moving around quite a lot. It was nice to be still for a while.”
Loss and grieving also show up on Are You Gone, including on “What I Was to You,” a song Harmer wrote for her friend Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip, who died of brain cancer in 2017. Harmer takes a very personal approach to such songs, composing them with a single person in mind, often writing only for them at first. It comes from “not wanting them to dissipate into nothing,” she says, and the result is songs that are uplifting and sweet even as they look very frankly at grief and how it’s carried by those a loved one leaves behind.
“There were some ghosts in the songs, as far as I was writing about time passing and people leaving your life and relationships moving out of the frame,” she says of Are You Gone. “Still they linger in your own heart and mind. Some of the songs kind of touch on that theme of residual emotions.”
The Springboard for Everything
Very much in the frame on Harmer’s songs, on this album and from the very beginning, is the natural world — the rivers, the valleys, the rocks that unfurl beneath our feet.
“I come from a line of tree-huggers,” she says with a laugh. Her parents, both farmers, instilled in Harmer a respect for nature, and as a child she spent countless hours exploring her outdoor surroundings, which is something you can’t shake, she says, no matter where life takes you later.
“The more you’re out in it, the more you develop a relationship with it and the more that you care about it,” she says, “so I think that exposure is a huge thing.”
Just as much as friends or lovers and other fellow humans, nature is a key character in her songs, including the magical wintry landscape that plays a starring role in “St. Peter’s Bay.”
“There’s just magic in the land,” she says. “It’s so incredibly interesting and interconnected. It’s the springboard for everything.”
That love of the land inspires Harmer to bring its bounty into her songs, but it also gives her the fire to defend it.
With PERL, she pushed way past her comfort zone to speak out against a corporation that wanted to expand a quarry into the Niagara Escarpment, a meandering limestone ridge that gives Niagara Falls its plunge and is home to many of Ontario’s rare and endangered species. Harmer vividly remembers something like stage fright at the first meeting that would give rise to PERL.
“I borrowed my mom’s blazer and I was super nervous because I realized I was going to stand up and say some things. I’d performed in front of people before, but it was completely different,” she says.
But the more speaking and organizing she did, the more comfortable she got — aided by a body of information about the escarpment and its environmental and economic stakes that she compares to “grad school.”
“I didn’t see myself as someone out there on the front lines so much, but it was just slowly a role that I realized, ‘OK, sometimes you don’t choose this, it’s the position that you get put in and you develop over time.’”
Anyone, she stresses, can adapt themselves to such a role, and “New Low,” a crunchy-guitar-fueled rocker on Are You Gone, is both a celebration of those who have showed up to women’s marches, climate rallies, and more and a call for more to do so.
Out in the street three times this week
New threats, new lows
It just gets us to our feet
Activism, Harmer says, is “really just about standing up, just getting up. Whatever it is, move just a little bit more than you have before. And that starts to snowball, too. Getting some momentum, that’s the hardest thing.
“It’s like making this record,” she adds. “Starting from a full stop, it was really hard to push that rock, to get it going. And then once it started going, I’m like, ‘OK I’m underway.’ I think that’s the same with any kind of organizing and volunteering or collective community work. Once you roll your sleeves up and dive in, soon it becomes like, ‘Oh there’s this to do, there’s this to do,’ and you start finding more of a momentum to it.”
With the release of Are You Gone on Feb. 21, the momentum is set in motion for Harmer’s return to the road, at least for now. And that, too, will require some adjustment into a different — but familiar — role.
“I have to go shopping, I have to buy some clothes that aren’t lumber jackets,” she says with a laugh just a few weeks before a tour that will take her all around the US and Canada this spring. “I need to get back into entertainer mode a little.”