Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts and Ron Sexsmith walk into a Starbucks ... and, well, nobody notices. While that would be unlikely in the coffee shops of Canada, it happened in Austin, Tex., just two weeks ago. Harmer and Sexsmith were there to play an afternoon gig on the café's patio for the middle-aged, Birkenstock-wearing set - while the notoriously hard-partying Roberts dragged himself out of bed just to watch. When Harmer was about three songs in, the crowd began to understand that maybe they were in the presence of Canadian greatness. One fellow even nudged his buddy, saying, "See, I told you there were some good things happening in Canada; it's not all Cowboy Junkies." After Harmer's set, a very sure-of-himself record store owner gave the red-headed beauty his card and told her, in a somewhat patronizing manner, to e-mail him when she comes through Wisconsin. Considering Harmer's 2000 solo debut album, You Were Here, had healthy sales in the U.S., she doesn't exactly need that kind of grassroots support. She was gracious nonetheless. That afternoon the 33-year-old singer proved irresistible - her pretty songs, impressive musicianship and striking good looks went down well with the non-fat soy lattes.
But you could never dismiss Harmer as just a coffee-crowd pleaser. The night before, she had completely transfixed a jaded rock audience, playing songs from her new disc, All of Our Names, at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. She's got an edge, an indie cred that distinguishes her from Sarah McLachlan and all those other women who don't rock found on Women & Songs CD compilations. Heavily influenced by the musical tastes of her five older siblings, Harmer developed an early interest in the Tragically Hip. When she was in high school, living outside of Burlington, Ont., with her farmer father, Clem, and teacher mother, Isabelle, Harmer joined the Toronto roots rock band the Saddletramps. Then she moved to Kingston to attend Queen's University and formed the rock outfit Weeping Tile and played drums in the Wads, a fun punk side project. "I couldn't sing punk, I'm a good girl," says Harmer. "But behind the kit, yeah, I can let it go."
Looking saucy in a sheer black top, black bra and Italian jeans, Harmer steps off the Starbucks patio and into a divey bar down the street. Patronized by legionnaires and honest-to-goodness Texas rednecks, the establishment is actually called The Hole in the Wall - and it's almost too scary to stay. But finding a quiet spot in a back room next to pinball machines and pool tables, Harmer - along with her friend Julie MacDonald, who plays keyboards in the band - settles in with a Rolling Rock beer, completely at ease.
The last time Harmer was at this festival was in 2001, just as You Were Here was catching on in the U.S. That album, inspired by the kind of formative moments someone has in her late teens and early 20s, spawned the hits Basement Apartment and Don't Get Your Back Up, and introduced her as a singing/songwriting force. After touring exhaustively for more than two years, Harmer retreated to her farmhouse in Elginburg, Ont., outside of Kingston, and took her sweet time getting back to work. "I was doing a lot of stuff I like doing, outdoor stuff," she says. "And then I did start to feel like, 'C'mon Sarah, you can garden when you're 50.' I felt a bit of guilt when I saw my contemporaries out there doing stuff and contributing to the creative environment."
Eventually, she got down to it. Harmer and her boyfriend of two years, Martin Kinack - who lives in Toronto and does sound for the acts Broken Social Scene and Hayden - set up a studio in her house and produced the new CD themselves. The instruments were recorded in the living room and vocals in the laundry room; the control board took over the bedroom. Harmer played guitar, bass, drums, piano, synth and Wurlitzer. And musician friends would come by and help her flesh things out. "Sonically, we were trying to get the natural quality of my voice, so it sounded like I was right there singing in front of you, rather than using a lot of compression like on the last album," says Harmer.
The result certainly is intimate - slow and languorous. While there are a couple uptempo numbers at the beginning, including the first single, Almost, and the catchy, quirky New Enemy, the last half of the album is serene and beautiful, if a bit somnolent. "Actually, when we first recorded Almost, it was moodier, a kind of darker version, slower," says Harmer. "It didn't have that much splash. I played it for some people, my manager, and I decided that I could bring it a little bit more to life." In other words, Harmer needed a radio-friendly hit, and the redone Almost is doing the trick. It's moving up the Canadian charts and is in demand on the triple-A radio format in the U.S.
Harmer also had an "upbeat summer driving song" that she'd have liked to put on All of Our Names, but she couldn't write the words. "I had it all ready, the melodies figured out, but I couldn't figure out exactly what it was about. It's still called Ba Da Da." In fact, Harmer almost called the whole album Ba Da Da because that's her default phrasing when nothing else fits, and it's sprinkled throughout this latest batch of songs. Despite those few instances of writer's block, Harmer ended up saying quite a bit this time out. She's made a conscious shift away from the introspective, woe-is-me theme of You Were Here to broader lyrics about interpersonal connections.
She calls the song Dandelions in Bullet Holes the "pride of the fleet. I felt like I entered the world a little more on that song. I had been travelling and my perspective moved around a lot. I was taking in the sea of humanity and trying to weave that all together." The chorus goes: dandelions in bullet holes / we stand in our civilian clothes / on blankets laid out on a lawn / clouds of rain will all move on / and when the mist clears we will see / both of our names on a marquee / across the ocean the same day / and then washed ashore a block away. It describes how she turned a corner on her way to a gig in Amsterdam and saw a marquee that said writer/activist Naomi Klein was also in town that night. "I was reading No Logo at the time. I had no idea she was going to be there, and I thought, 'We're all making this happen, it's not other people.' I felt more involvement in the world, like what I was doing, even though it is incremental, at least it felt like it was rippling in a certain way."
That's probably more serious talk than The Hole in the Wall has seen in some time. So Harmer leans back and hums along to some guy who is playing a very out-of-place acoustic cover of Morrissey in the other room. It elicits her memories of dances at the Knights of Columbus in Burlington: "You know, we'd go, look cool, smoke cigarettes, and they'd play New Order and the Smiths." Over the course of a beer and a diner breakfast another day, Harmer drops tidbits about herself into conversation: she was obsessed with etiquette as a child and still has a big Emily Post book, but she's forgotten all the rules; she watches only Hockey Night in Canada and TVO at home, but on the road she's addicted to channel-surfing; she twisted her tailbone three years ago when she was goofing around on her friend's crutches and hasn't fully recovered.
She also describes herself as a "terrible gift-giver." But the facts don't back her up. After all, in 1998 she recorded some of her father's favourite country and jazz songs on her back porch and gave him the CD, Songs for Clem, for Christmas. Not only was it thoughtful, but it was so popular that friends and family convinced her to release it. This past October, Harmer began working on the follow-up, Songs with Clem. "We recorded 13 songs and really worked my dad. It was his first time singing into a nice-sounding mic and hearing his voice back. His voice is really beautiful." Harmer had written some original acoustic country tunes for the project, but Clem insisted they also do songs that people know - he chose Spanish Eyes, Four Strong Winds, Somewhere My Love and On the Road Again. "We did that last one late one night," recalls Harmer, who had invited friends over to play bass, mandolin, banjo, violin. "Of course, my parents go to bed at 10. We were still recording upright bass, and my parents were sound asleep. I felt like I was in high school, tiptoeing around."
While there's still work to do on that record, Harmer has to put it aside for a while. She's gearing up to start a tour with an essentially new backing band. There will be a couple of dates in Europe before a full-on assault of the U.S. - and then she'll tiptoe back to Canada, bringing her dreamy new songs to the hole in the wall she calls home.
Maclean's April 5, 2004