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Sarah Harmer’s new album—her first in five years—kicks off with the unsettling sound of crackling distortion followed by some driving electric guitar. “A new wind will blow through everything,” Harmer sings, somewhat ominously, “through everything I know.” It’s the dramatic opening of a recording that represents a stark shift away from the celebrated singer-songwriter’s last studio release, I’m a Mountain. Where that Polaris Prize-nominated album was steeped in bittersweet bluegrass, Harmer’s new oh little fire is a defiantly rockier and, mostly, happier affair.
“I’ve always loved rock music and repetitive guitars and I do think this album sounds like some of my work with Weeping Tile,” says Harmer, referring to the scrappy alt-rock band she formed in the early 1990s. “It’s definitely a departure from I’m a Mountain. The approach was quite new and my co-producer, Gavin Brown, and I recorded it completely differently.”
For one thing, Harmer and Brown (Metric, Billy Talent) recorded much of the album in Toronto, which may explain the recording’s more rugged and urban feel, especially on urgent, peppy songs like “Captive” and “The City.” “I lived in Toronto on and off for a year and a half, I have friends and family in Toronto and my parents live on the other side of the city, near Burlington,” says Harmer. “So the city has been a part of my life for the last few years, for sure.”
This is new territory for the rural-loving Harmer, whose home in the countryside outside of Kingston has inspired memorable songs about boat rides on lagoons and moonlit walks along wintry roads. But it’s not to suggest that oh little fire isn’t still rooted in some lyrical observations of pastoral settings: “New Loneliness” offers striking, un-city-like images of a canoe trip on a waterway, a dragonfly on a cattail and “a wandering white-tailed deer.” And the alt-country twang of “Silverado,” written by Trevor Henderson, is closer in rural feel to I’m a Mountain than anything else on the new album.
Harmer played drums in Henderson’s Kingston-based band Music Maul before starting work on oh little fire, where she added drums to three tracks, including opener “The Thief,” something she hasn’t done since 2004’s Juno-winning All of Our Names. She also sang backup on albums by Howie Beck, Great Lakes Swimmers and Neko Case, who returned the favour by singing on “Silverado.” But, mostly, her time since I’m a Mountain was devoted to political and environmental causes, including PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land), the lobbying group she co-founded. “I wasn’t super focused or in the throes of music for a long time,” Harmer admits, and her songwriting suffered. As she confesses on “Captive,” “I’m just so out of practice and distracted.”
Brown, it turns out, cracked a much-needed whip. “I’m a loiterer and Gavin’s not,” says Harmer. “I had these songs that kind of pitter pattered around in my head and I was mulling around about how to get them across. Gavin can make decisions very instinctively and has a lot of energy, so he really pushed me to finish writing them. We were a good mix.”
As the songs came to fruition, a strong lyrical theme emerged involving embers, flames and ashes. “That’s why I called the album oh little fire,” explains Harmer, “because of the idea of keeping something burning and tending to a fire. I keep a wood stove going all the time at my house. It’s the idea of the pilot light that everyone has in them and just tending to that life force.” Romantically, she adds, without giving specifics, the album chronicles a “blazing inferno, a meltdown and then a kind of rekindling.”
Harmer’s activism sparked the song “Escarpment Blues” on I’m a Mountain and her interest in saving the Niagara Escarpment continues to run deep. “We’re trying to protect the land a couple of farms over from my parents’ where I grew up,” she says. “These are provincially significant wetlands, forests and endangered species’ habitats. Plus, there is a whole archaeological element. They just found post moulds of a 1620s longhouse and French ceramic trading beads two fields over from us. It really dramatizes history, both natural and cultural, in a way I’d never known before.”
That historical interest, Harmer reveals, may fuel future songwriting. “I’ve been learning about the Neutral Indians and a woman they called the Mother of Nations, who was the Neutral’s peace queen,” says Harmer. “She helped the Iroquois Confederacy to spread the word of peace between warring tribes. That’s a timeless message, especially with Canada’s history as a peace-keeping nation. I’d really like to write a song or two about that, if I can, in the same way that Bruce Cockburn brings so much passion to his subject matter.” Clearly, a new wind is blowing through Sarah Harmer’s world—fanning the flames of her richly creative muse.Nicholas Jennings is a frequent contributor to Words & Music.