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Sarah Harmer is no technical whiz. Sure, like any musician, she knows her way around a recording studio. She has a cellphone and an email-equipped laptop computer, which she tries to use to correspond with family and friends. Her record distributor even gave her a digital voice recorder for Christmas, which Harmer took on a Mexican vacation in the hope of capturing song ideas. Unfortunately, she left it switched on and the batteries were dead before she could figure out how to use it. Then, when Harmer returned to Canada, her old Ford Econoline van, which she’d left parked at her parents’ farm outside of Burlington, Ont., wouldn’t start. Alone in the farmyard, she was more than a little frustrated when her cellphone suddenly rang. It was her manager calling with news of her two Juno Award nominations. “I said, ‘Well, that’s great,’” recalls Harmer, “‘but I’m standing here outside freezing, nobody’s home and I’m just trying to get my van going.’”
The scene underscores the gulf Harmer feels exists between herself and the pop world. Defiantly independent, the 30-year-old musician takes pride in a grassroots approach to her career. She recorded her first solo album on the back porch of her farm north of Kingston, Ont.— complete with the sound of rain and crickets—and released it on her own label, Cold Snap Music. For her next recording, Harmer borrowed money from her mother, and produced You Were Here, a stunning collection of original songs that blended sharp lyrics with the subtle sounds of clarinets, cellos and an upright bass.
That record would have remained another largely undiscovered gem were it not for a radio programmer in Philadelphia, whose station’s support for the Ottawa last album led to major deals with Rounder Records in the United States and Universal Music in Canada. Late last year, Harmer found herself thrust into the spotlight, as You Were Here topped many critics’ year-end lists and earned a rave review in Rolling Stone, which called the album “marvellously compelling.” Now, with Juno nominations for best pop album and best new solo artist, and a North American tour underway, the gulf between Harmer and the pop world is rapidly shrinking.
Sitting in a funky Toronto restaurant, the self-described “country girl” confesses to feeling a bit unprepared for big-city success. “Ever since 1 was a little kid,” says Harmer, “I thought I should have lived in the 1800s when things were simpler.” Yet growing up on a 40-hectare farm fed her creatively, enabling her to write such evocative elegies to rural life as “The Hideout” and the shimmering “Lodestar,” two of the best songs on You Were Here. “I used to love reading Susanna Moodie,” says Harmer, adding with a laugh, “real Little House on the Prairie type stuff.”
Harmer’s sister Barbara recalls how Sarah often created a make-believe world in the barn, wearing gingham dresses and raising her own chickens. “We were all older than she was, so she played on her own quite a bit,” says Barbara, now a producer at CBC Newsworld’s Counterspin. “She always had a great imagination.” The youngest of six children born to farmer Alan (Clem) Harmer and his schoolteacher wife, Isabelle, Sarah followed three sisters to Queen’s University in Kingston. While enrolled in the arts program, she was drawn to live music, having discovered local heroes the Tragically Hip through her sister Mary.
After a brief stint with the country-rockers the Saddletramps, Sarah formed Weeping Tile, with Mary on bass, and released two promising albums. During a hiatus from the band, Harmer recorded a collection of country and jazz favourites to give to her father for Christmas. The resulting Songs for Clem kick-started her solo career, and led to You Were Here, which has established Harmer as a formidable young songwriter, with Joni Mitchell’s confessional gifts and Gordon Lightfoot’s unerring sense of place.
Some of the tracks on You Were Here are breaking-up songs that deal with loss and regret—but without a trace of self-pity. “I experienced some hurt and betrayal,” admits Harmer, who doesn’t elaborate on her love life. “But I’m a hopeful person and definitely optimistic.” Harmer professes to be happiest when she’s on her farm in Elginberg, just north of Kingston, where she likes to work in her organic garden. “It was an old boarding house, part of a Quaker settlement, built in 1911,” she explains. “I like having an attachment to history, to feel connected to what’s gone on within these walls or on this landscape. That’s what really excites me as a writer.”
Originally published in Maclean’s magazine 5 March 2001