Sarah Harmer. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, b Burlington, Ont, 12 Nov 1970; BA (Queen's) 1993. Sarah Harmer grew up in a musical family, her father a farmer and singer, and her mother a pianist and organist. The youngest of six, Harmer picked up a guitar at the age of 17 with the sole purpose of learning three-chord Neil Young songs. Harmer was greatly influenced by the musical tastes of her older siblings and shared their love of the Tragically Hip, Bruce Springsteen, and '70s rock. At 17, she was invited to join Toronto's roots rock band, the Saddletramps, singing back-up and occasionally lead. She moved to Kingston in 1989 to attend Queen's University, but continued to play gigs with the Saddletramps throughout Quebec and southern Ontario. In 1991, Harmer left the band to focus on her studies; it was also during this time that she began writing her own songs.
In 1992, Harmer was given the opportunity to open a show at Ottawa nightclub Zaphod Beeblebrox. Harmer called on friend and stand-up bass player Joe Chithalen, and the duo prepared five original tunes written by Harmer. In the fall of 1993, Harmer brought together a four-piece band including guitarist Gord Tough; Joe Chithalen on bass, vocals, viola and cello; and Chris Smirnios on drums. They were later replaced by various musicians, including her sister, Mary Harmer, on bass. With the name Weeping Tile, the band recorded Sarah Harmer's originals and released an independent EP on cassette in early 1994. After a tour of Ontario, followed by an East Coast tour with The Watchmen, Weeping Tile released their first album, Cold Snap, in the spring of 1994. It was licensed to Warner Music Canada in 1995 and Tag in the United States. Weeping Tile put out their second album, Valentino, in 1997; however, sales were slow and the group amicably disbanded after being dropped by their label.
After wrapping up with Weeping Tile, Harmer began to concentrate on solo pursuits. Her first solo album, meant as a gift for her father, was a collection of his favourite standards. The independent release, Songs for Clem (1999), was recorded with friend Jason Euringer on the back porch of Harmer's farmhouse in Kingston, Ont. The album's fan base grew to include CBC radio host Stuart McLean, who twice featured performances by Harmer and her father on his show Vinyl Café. CBC television also requested a solo performance from Harmer for its show Heartland, which encouraged her to begin performing as a solo artist and to record an album of originals entitled You Were Here (2000).
You Were Here was recorded in the Toronto warehouse studio of Pete Prilesnik. The album was funded by Harmer and allowed her to co-produce and collaborate again with Weeping Tile alumni Gord Tough, Luther Wright, and Camille Giroux. Released independently by Cold Snap, You Were Here became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that year. Time magazine (2000) labeled it "the year's best debut," while Rolling Stone (2000) called it "marvelously compelling." Maclean's magazine (2000) called You Were Here a "brilliant solo debut which signals the arrival of an exceptional singer-songwriter." Harmer was quickly picked up by Universal Music Canada and the American-based Rounder Records. She spent two years on the road performing 270 concerts in North America and abroad.
Writing Style and Musical Influences
Harmer has experimented with a variety of musical styles since her early days in the Saddletramps, all of which have contributed to her songwriting style. Weeping Tile, known for their aggressive rock sound, showcased Harmer singing at full voice with a slightly rough edge. As her style evolved during the creation of You Were Here, however, the instrumental and vocal components were scaled back to reflect a more folk or pop aesthetic. Her debut album embodies the effortless, yet starkly clear quality for which her music is known. Despite this hallmark, Harmer is continually exploring her musical boundaries. She has touched on a range of musical genres throughout her career, including rock, folk, pop, roots and bluegrass. Harmer's lyrics have addressed topics of love, loss, and the human relationship with nature. In fact, Harmer has credited the Canadian landscape as being a backdrop to all that she does, and in turn, is often identified as a uniquely Canadian artist.
In 2006, Harmer co-founded an environmental group called PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land), which was begun to save Mount Nemo (part of the Niagara Escarpment Harmer grew up on) from becoming an open-pit quarry. Harmer organized public meetings, conducted research, circulated petitions, and was the sole performer (along with her collaborative musicians) on a two-week walking tour entitled "I Love the Escarpment." Harmer subsequently released the album I'm a Mountain, a collection of songs she performed on tour, in addition to the DVD Escarpment Blues.
Harmer has received numerous acknowledgements at the Juno Awards, including nominations for best pop album and best new solo artist for You Were Here (2001), and best songwriter for "Hideout" and "Don't Get Your Back Up" (2002). In 2005, she won the Juno for adult alternative album of the year for All of Our Names and became a winner once more in 2007 for music DVD of the year for Escarpment Blues. The accompanying album, I'm a Mountain, brought Harmer Juno nominations for songwriter of the year and for adult alternative album of the year. I'm a Mountain was also nominated for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize. In 2011 Harmer was nominated for two Junos, including adult alternative album of the year and producer of the year, alongside collaborator Gavin Brown, for Oh Little Fire.
Eepee. 1995. 1 12794 WEA
Cold Snap. 1995. Warner/Tag 1 23834 WEA
Valentino. 1997. Warner 1 99284 WEA
Songs for Clem. 1999. Cold Snap CD0855-21
You Were Here. 2000. Cold Snap/ Universal Music Canada/ Zoe Records/ Rounder 0121596452
All of Our Names. 2004. Universal Music Canada/ Zoe Records/ Rounder 0249861775
I'm a Mountain. 2005. Universal Music Canada/ Zoe Records/ Rounder 7697423922
Oh Little Fire. 2010. Universal Music Canada/ Zoe Records/ Rounder 0252736827
Teshima, John. "Sarah Harmer's rising lodestar," CHART, no 121, Nov 2000
Cooke, Stephen. "Harmer tops Time list with You Were Here: Kingston singer returns to play Marquee Club," The Mail Star, 28 Dec 2000
Jones, Christopher. "Sarah Harmer's good instincts: taking charge of her own vision," Words and Music, vol 7, no 1, Spring 2001
Christie, Rod. "Sarah Harmer," Canadian Musician, vol 23, no 2, Mar/Apr 2001
Krochak, Gerry. "Harmer ready for long-awaited return: singer-songwriter here Friday," The Leader Post, 5 Apr 2001
Barclay, Michael. "Sarah Harmer out at the hideout," Exclaim!, Mar 2004
Plummer, Sean. "Harmer's way: Sarah Harmer proves that good songs come to those who wait," Access Magazine, no 69, Apr/May 2004
Whibbs, Shannon. "Sarah Harmer: leaving the laundry room," CHART, May 2004
Bliss, Karen. "Sarah Harmer: unhurried, unpretentious, unaffected," Canadian Musician, vol 26, no 2, May/Jun 2004
Jones, Christopher Taylor. "Roped and tamed: Sarah Harmer wrestles an unruly muse into a fine follow-up CD," Songwriters Magazine, vol 7, no 3, Fall 2004
Hayward, Karla. "A mountain of music: Sarah Harmer is bringing her stripped-down bluegrass stylings to St. John's," The Telegram, 8 Sep 2006
"Songstress Sarah Harmer hits a green note: Canada's vibrant singer-songwriter raises her voice for the trees," Village Post, 1 Nov 2006