Published Jan 01, 2006While pissing behind Sarah Harmer's woodshed, I think of a line on her new album: "Living this close to the road / You question your vulnerability." Which I do, frequently, every time I zip up when a car passes by.
It's Groundhog Day, 2004, and Harmer has just returned from a promotional weekend in Vancouver to her home outside of Kingston, Ontario, only to discover that her pipes have frozen. This prompts a polite request for the visiting journalist to take his urinary tract outside, after "sipping tea all day from a pot steeping slowly on the stove" — another Harmer lyric, one of many that details a life outside urban bustle, a world of moonlit roads, great black nights, and footprints in the snow.
It's in this world that Harmer recorded her new album, All of Our Names. Aside from the lyrical portrait she paints, it's also audible in the music itself, which is unhurried, delicate and sparse. Outside of a few jaunty pop songs, the album is mostly melancholy, reflective, lonely.
It would be easy to paint a picture of the solitary artist secluded deep in the woods, nursing heartbreak and capturing it on tape. Except that Harmer's hideout is hardly isolated. It's a ten minute drive from the definitively suburban fast food mecca of Highway 401's Division St. exit. It's a 20 minute drive to Princess Street in downtown Kingston.
That said, life north of the 401 is definitely different. Making the first turn towards the Harmer home, I pass an establishment advertising itself as the "Redneck Barber Shop." Half a kilometre later, a mulleted man has stopped his pick-up truck in the middle of the lane to take a piss while facing traffic. Despite the seemingly large amount of public urination in her neighbourhood, this is thankfully not one of the recurring rural images Harmer puts into song.
The Harmer hideout is a beautiful country home. The kitchen, where she prefers to write, is bathed in streams of sunlight all day long. The four corners of the living room feature a drum set, a piano, a newly-acquired vintage pump organ, and a well-lived-in couch with throw cushions featuring the CBC logo in faded '70s orange. In the centre is a wood stove that clicks throughout our interview — apparently it clicked throughout the recording process, too, necessitating some meticulous digital surgery.
Upstairs, Harmer's bedroom doubles as the home studio's control room. The laundry room on the main floor is the vocal booth, and a set of cables is neatly tucked beside the staircase and along the ceiling. Gig posters are plastered throughout the house. Out back is a stone sauna built by Luther Wright, her ex-roommate and guitarist in her mid-'90s band Weeping Tile.
Harmer moved in seven years ago, when another friend still owned the house. He sold it to Harmer 18 months later and it's been a band house ever since, with different friends or bands house-sitting while she's on tour. "I call this place the 'Slanty Shanty,' which should give you an indication of the tilt my brain is on when I'm here," Harmer says. "Sometimes I'm slightly tempted to rent a room in the city, but my boyfriend lives there and I have three sisters there. I can't get enough of the countryside. I love it, it's totally exciting."
It's also an ideal retreat from the rigours of touring. After her indie album You Were Here was re-released in the fall of 2000 by Universal in Canada and Rounder in the U.S., Harmer set out on a tour that was perpetually prolonged as the album picked up steam in the States.
"It wasn't that gruelling," she says, "although I did hit a stage of being fully fatigued, feeling that I had to sleep for five days and not move. But it felt good, because before I hadn't really done any work in the States other than playing in New York. It was tiring — and hopefully this time I won't have to go to Seattle five times to establish something — but it was good and every time seemed to be building. There was always good news." The album eventually went platinum in Canada and sold almost 70,000 copies in the U.S.
When Harmer came off the road in December, 2002, she wanted to capture the momentum of her live band in the studio. "But by the time that happened, I was like, 'Yay! Chill out!'"
Sessions were eventually booked in Toronto with a Boston producer, and things seemed to be progressing well. Then Harmer got a call from CBC Radio journalist Nora Young, who was doing a series on the seven deadly sins and wanted to commission a song about greed. After putting it off until the deadline was unavoidable, Harmer wrote and recorded "Took It All" in two days at home with her soundman / keyboardist / boyfriend Marty Kinack.
"That was the impetus for recording the whole album here and with Marty," she says. "We had tried to record together before, but we were both totally, I don't know, let's play ping-pong.' But when Nora Young gave me the deadline, it kicked our ass and [the song] sounded a lot more exciting to me than I thought it would. Then I had to call the producer and make an apologetic break-up call."
Harmer and Kinack shacked up and started to work. Kinack, who does live sound for Broken Social Scene, Sam Roberts and Hayden, is no stranger to home recording. He started out as part of the Winnipeg band Transistor Light and Sound Co., whose lo-fi recordings somehow landed them a short-lived deal with BMG in 1997. Other than two songs recorded with Harmer's ex-drummer Gavin Brown, most of All of Our Names was constructed slowly at home. Sometimes very slowly. "Basically, I didn't crack the whip," Harmer admits. "My discipline was slack sometimes. Then I forgave myself and kept going. I'm sure [the record company] was telling my manager to tell me to hurry it up. But not to a point where I was at a risk of never talking to those people again. Maybe I'm naïve."
That glacial pace, which consumed all of 2003 for the couple, resulted in a downbeat album of folk pop that Cat Power and Hayden would listen to on their first date. It prompted Harmer's manager to joke that it was her "heroin album." "I thought it was a bit more upbeat than anyone I played it for," says the melancholy songwriter, still surprised.
It's not a guaranteed crowd pleaser like You Were Here. Subtleties reveal themselves slowly in the sparse arrangements, whether it's a tiny guitar lick, Kinack's careful keyboards or Harmer's own drumming. "We did record a lot of stuff and then got the classic option anxiety, so there are a lot of tracks we muted," says Harmer. "For me, there's a lot of detail on here. I would never say cluttered, but perhaps that's because I know every nuance, every little thing that went on there. It would have been a different record if I had done it all in a month. I would have brought in a lot of other people to help with arrangements. But if I had done it two years ago, some of the songs wouldn't be the same."
Timing is everything in Harmer's career, second only to her raw talent. Good fortune found her out early on, whether it was growing up in the middle of a glorious period in Canadian rock, or the fact that since her humble beginnings, everyone who has heard her sing has been itching to work with her. Her current career as CanRock It Girl is the rare successful second act in the Canadian music biz, bouncing back without a moment's hesitation after Weeping Tile was dropped by their label and moving to even greater heights as a solo artist.
When she counts her blessings, she probably starts with her family. Harmer grew up on a farm outside of Burlington, Ontario, the youngest of six children: five girls and one boy, with lots of room to roam. Both parents were involved in music at church, and Mama Harmer would corral her four youngest girls to sing "The Candyman" at the old folks' home up the road. The Harmers were Liberals; her dad's cousin is Julian Reed, the MP for Halton Region who is also a renewable energy activist. The Harmer family used to campaign for him by driving around in a van with a loudspeaker on the top blasting "I Saw the Light."
Young Sarah Harmer was a music geek from an early age, schooled by her elder siblings. Her brother passed down classic '70s albums; her sister Nancy took her to see Springsteen when she was 14. Her sisters Mary and Barb snuck the 16-year-old Sarah into clubs to see their friends in a brand new band called the Tragically Hip.
"We'd go to Brampton, Kincardine, Wasaga Beach, when they were playing little shitty bars to nobody," enthuses Harmer, lighting up like the wide-eyed teenager she was in 1986. "I vividly remember going into the graffitied band room and being really shy, after watching these guys sweating it up on stage. I just thought they were gods! I was forever changed after that."
Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie remembers the teenaged Sarah Harmer quite well. "I met Mary [Harmer] early on in first year at Queen's, and we were inseparable, really, so I went out to the Harmer homestead pretty early on. You figure out very quickly that all the Harmers are big-hearted and fun-lovin' people, every one of them, and you want to be around that a lot. They all sang for its own sake, and still do."
"There seemed to be a sense about Sarah even back then," Downie continues. "I don't think there was a prescient thought of greatness or anything, but [her sisters] probably thought she would make her life in music. She was obviously a quick study. I remember going to their farmhouse and sitting around the pool, and Sarah had a guitar. Maybe I knew four chords, but she already knew five. After doing 600 gigs that week, I would sing with her in a ragged voice, and she had the voice of a bird. I sensed she had this look on her face like, 'Jesus, if you can do it, I certainly can.' But I had nothing to teach her, let's put it that way!"
Within a year, she met guitarist/singer Andy Lindsay of the Toronto roots rock band the Saddletramps. He worked at the Sunrise Records in Burlington, where Harmer would go to ogle the cute boys and buy records by R.E.M., Lone Justice and the Replacements. Lindsay asked the 17 year old to join his band, which she did for the next three and a half years.
After high school, Harmer headed to Queen's University in Kingston to study philosophy and women's studies, but commuted back to Toronto every weekend for gigs. The Saddletramps played one fateful show at Ultrasound on Queen St., where Harmer was introduced to two men who would shape her future. Kevin Fox — who has played cello with Harmer for the past decade — was playing that night in a Montreal band called Bag of Hammers. The band's manager was Patrick Sambrook; he's handled Harmer's affairs for 12 years now.
"I remember meeting Patrick because it was the first time I'd ever seen a band with a manager," Harmer recalls. "He was really pushy, like, 'Where's our dressing room?' I thought, 'Who's this guy? Manager? Who has a manager?' It was a totally foreign concept to me."
Sambrook started scheming the first time he heard her sing. He told Fox that Sarah should be singing his songs instead. A few months later, Sambrook called Harmer in Kingston to see if she would sing on some Bag of Hammers demos. She told him she was working on her own songs. "I didn't hit it off with Patrick right away, because he's a pushy guy and I wasn't in that headspace at all," she says. "But he did call me a few months later and said, 'My opening band just cancelled on me in Ottawa. You said you had some songs. Can you get a band together?'"
Despite some looming scholastic deadlines, Harmer asked bassist Joe Chitalen to learn some of her songs and they did the Ottawa gig as a duo. Later they added drummer Jon McCann — later of Blurtonia, Guided by Voices and now Tangiers — and called it Weeping Tile.
"Patrick kept calling me. 'You want to do a gig with Change of Heart?' 'Noooo.' I meant yes, but I'd seen them blow the doors off [Kingston club] the Toucan and just be awesome, absolutely amazing, and I loved their Smile album. I told him I wasn't quite up for that yet."
Weeping Tile soon took shape with an ever-revolving line-up of players, including sister Mary on bass for a while. An independent cassette was released in 1994, featuring the first version of "Basement Apt." and other venerable songs that she still performs today. It's a remarkably accomplished debut with nary a stray note, a bold announcement of a major new songwriter. The cassette was re-released by Warner Canada in 1995 as Eepee, followed shortly by debut full-length, Cold Snap.
But during its lifespan, Weeping Tile always seemed too normal for the alt-rock crowd, and too raw for the rock radio crowd: half Tragically Hip, half Breeders. They also arrived on the scene just when the bottom was dropping out of the Canadian rock music scene everywhere: in the clubs, on the radio, and certainly at retail. Within six months of releasing their second album Valentino in 1998, Weeping Tile was dropped by Warner.
Harmer and her cohorts took it in stride. "We were never a super ambitious commercial band," she says. "We just did our thing and we were lucky to be able to get people to hear our music. It was a great situation, but it wasn't economical for [Warner]. When we got dropped, it was freeing, it was good."
Shortly after, they were invited to tour with Ani DiFranco, only she wanted a more acoustic incarnation of Weeping Tile. They recorded a low-key, four-track acoustic cassette called This Great Black Night, but by then it was all over. Initially billed as a hiatus, the split became permanent. "Things got a bit ugly for a few months," Harmer admits. "I don't think the dropping had too much to do with it. It was more interpersonal dynamics that were afoot. We were dropped in the spring of '98 and we broke up in the late fall."
That same autumn, Harmer recorded an album of standards as a Christmas gift for her father Clem. She did it on the back porch of the Hideout with the help of her friend Jason Euringer. Its lo-fi nature means it actually sounds like it was made when those songs were contemporary. Harmer's voice was a natural fit for such old-timey favourites as "Stormy Weather," "Black Coffee" and "Sentimental Journey." The only modern song was Nanci Griffith's truly tear-jerking "Trouble in the Fields," which is still a staple of Harmer's live set.
The end result was too good to keep in the family. Harmer released it independently in 1999 as Songs for Clem; in hindsight it was an ideal bridge between the loud guitars of Weeping Tile and her solo career. "It wasn't an artistic decision," she says. "It wasn't like I thought I was going to redo 'Your Cheatin' Heart' and it would be my next big thing."
Since then, it's proven popular not only with Harmer's core audience, but with a whole new generation: her father's. Stuart McLean latched on to Songs for Clem on his wildly popular CBC Radio show Vinyl Café, inviting both Sarah and Clem to perform on the show on two occasions. Most of her mail order requests are now handwritten letters from old folks across Canada.
If she had wanted to, Harmer could easily have left rock'n'roll behind and made a living touring folk festivals and retirement homes. Instead, she hunkered down to work on her first solo album and poppiest moment to date, You Were Here. It wasn't an easy birth. Harmer co-produced it with Pete Prilesnik, and though she's too polite to talk about it, it's no secret that their professional relationship deteriorated over the course of the project.
"Do we want to talk about the producer?" she asks in a conspiratorial, hushed tone. "Yeah, it was hard to make. But not as hard as getting up and going to work every day from Monday to Friday. It was challenging. I did have a couple of meltdowns. I was coming down to Toronto to record and I had to be strong. It was me and Pete for the most part, but I had a lot of friends step in near the end who helped me through it on an emotional level."
The hard work paid off. Once You Were Here got major distribution, the leadoff single was a redecorated "Basement Apt." that became a huge hit on just about every radio format. It wasn't at all surprising that the song became as big as it did but it raised questions about old stereotypes at radio — namely, that the nice woman playing an acoustic guitar over a drum machine will always have more doors open to her than the scrappy rocker girl who doesn't play up her sexuality because she's too busy playing guitar. In other words, everyone wants to hear Sarah Harmer sing "Basement Apt.," even though hardly anyone wanted to hear Weeping Tile do the exact same song.
Harmer sympathizes, but doesn't buy the conspiracy theory. "Weeping Tile was a four-piece, lots of guitars, much scrappier. The vocals are a lot more prominent on You Were Here. It's a bit more across-the-board crowd-pleasing kind of stuff. It wasn't surprising to me that You Were Here had more doors open to it than Weeping Tile. The album is different enough that they're completely separate situations. As much as I don't see it myself, on an industry level people see me now as..." she lowers her voice like she's uttering a dirty word "...soft rock. I go to the Clear FMs and I think, 'Really? Is this the kind of music I do?'"
Well, yes it is. Yet Harmer will always be an indie rocker with a hard-on for PJ Harvey ("the Peej," she calls her affectionately), just as she'll always be the unflappable folk festival veteran who is up for any unrehearsed musical challenge at any time. In 2001, a Juno Awards juror was quoted as saying, "Her only liability is she might have too much talent for the mainstream."
With nothing to prove, she's ready to try anything. "I'd like to make an album sometime where I don't hold all the cards," says the woman who just spent the last 12 months slaving over her album with only one other set of hands. "I was listening to some Mary J. Blige tune on the radio and I thought, 'Yeah, I just want to go in with some songs and just be the musician.' It's great to collaborate and I'd like to do that more than I did this time. I'd like to record on the road, too. I like the idea of having two days somewhere. I have friends all over the place. It's the Carolyn Mark model, and it takes a lot of chutzpah."
As the interview wraps up and twilight descends on Quaker Valley, another new Harmer lyric springs to mind. In a song about old friends reminiscing and taking stock of their lives, she sings: "In the clatter of the afternoon and the sunlight that is left / We can make a list of things to forget / The false starts and the loose strings / Feelings of regret that ring."
Except that in the charmed life of Sarah Harmer, that list of "things to forget" is probably shorter than most. As she walks me to my car, she tells stories about Weeping Tile's annual Christmas reunion gig in Kingston. They always learn some covers for the occasion; this year, it was Joe Walsh's California cheeseball classic "Life's Been Good to Me So Far."
And with that, I head out in the road, as the sky's last light burns away.