Music

HARMER'S CHARM

Nicholas Jennings March 5 2001
Music

HARMER'S CHARM

Nicholas Jennings March 5 2001

HARMER'S CHARM

Music

Nicholas Jennings

Multiple nominees at this year’s Juno Awards (March 4, CBC TV) range from such established stars as Barenaked Ladies and the Tragically Hip to bright new artists like Nelly Turtado and Nickelback. Being the 30th anniversary, the event will also have its heritage moments, including a performance by the Guess Who and the induction of singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Among the newcomers is Sarah Harmer, who is winning a place for herself in the finest tradition of Canadian songwriting.

Sarah Harmer is no technical whiz. Sure, like any musician, she knows her way around a recording studio. She has a cellphone and an e-mailequipped 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. Defiandy 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 subde 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 PhiladelHarmer in phia, whose station’s support for the Ottawa last album led to major deals with Rounder week: a Records in the United States and Univer‘country girl’

sal Music in Canada. Late last year, Harmer found herself thrust into the spodight, 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 confes-

Defiantly independent, the musician has an unerring sense of place

sional 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.” IS]

FORTY YEARS OF FAVOURITE SONGS

A music lover recently burned a compilation CD on his computer titled Northern Nuggets: Forgotten Sounds of the ’60s. On it, he recorded a wonderful assortment of obscure songs by Canadians, including One Single River {A Song for Carmela). Performed by Bob Dylan and The Band, the outtake from 1967 s The Genuine Basement Tapes L-II was written by Ian Tyson and Peter Gzowski, no less. Sadly, there are no such curiosities on Oh What a Feeling 2, the four-CD box set issued to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Juno Awards.

Like its 1996 predecessor, which sold an impressive 250,000 copies, the latest package favours only the best-

known Canadian songs of the last four decades. Still, as a collection that features everyone from singer-songwriters Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to rappers Choclair and The Rascalz, Oh What a Feeling 2 serves as a useful—and mostly enjoyable—reminder of the strength of this country’s musical heritage.

Compiled by a music industry team led by Randy Lennox, head of Universal Music Canada, and Larry LeBlanc, Canadian editor of Billboard magazine, the new box set offers 76 tracks spanning four decades. Disc One opens with the divas who have dominated Canadian music for the last decade, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, Jann Arden and Chantal Kreviazuk, before moving through various pop and hip-hop numbers. The second disc serves up the 1970s hard-rock

sounds of Trooper, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Lee Aaron and Helix— all noticeably absent from the first box set—and then segues into tracks by contemporary alt-rockers 54-40, Sloan, Matthew Good Band and Our Lady Peace. Disc Three is the most chronologically cohesive, weighted heavily on songs from the 1970s, including the Guess Who’s Share the Land and Nick Gilder’s Hot Child in the City. But the best is reserved for the final disc, which focuses almost exclusively on the singer-songwriters, including Bruce Cockburn and Jane Siberry, who have given Canada its reputation as a rich breeding ground for musical talent. Although it offers no surprises—every good box set needs at least a couple of rarities—Oh What a Feeling 2 proves that Canadian music has never been stronger or more vibrant.

N.J.