Sarah Harmer is the sort of artist who occupies a rarified space where she has super-fans, but is also loved by nonchalant listeners. Most folks have a favourite Sarah Harmer tune.
They may not even know it, but when that jam comes on at a summer barbecue or they hear it at the local open mic, they remember it as being that song that just … Ahh … gets them. Sing-a-longs start with artists like Sarah Harmer.
This is not just due to her genuine lyricism and her beautiful voice, but also because she has hopped from genre to genre with ease, going from the 90s rock of her former band Weeping Tile to her solo debut You Were Here which, while still rock-tinged, had a noticeably more chilled out pop feel, to 2005’s I’m a Mountain with its bluegrass vibe and then her clear return to a harder rockin’ sound with Oh Little Fire.
I had a chat with Sarah in advance of her Friday night performance at this year’s Folk Festival in Bannerman Park. She says she’s “stoked to bring my band, and my niece Georgia who is singing with us this summer before she heads off to university in St. John’s.”
Making a successful career of bouncing from genre to genre, while still maintaining enough of a similarity of sound, to sound like the same artist, isn’t an easy feat. Would you say you worked to keep them close enough in style to solve those concerns, did you push to make them as different as possible, or was it just luck that it all worked out?
I am not much of a planner. I write a bunch of songs, cross paths with particular musicians, and usually find myself moving towards a studio when the time seems right.
That said, I can over think, and get intimidated by the idea of recording a song “for the record,” to the point where I defer the commitment and wade in the murky waters of limboland for a long time.
I’ve made 5 solo albums or so, and each has been determined by different sets of circumstances. I don’t see the albums as being that different from each other actually. Usually it’s helpful when I’m hanging out primarily with musicians and I get motivated by their own drives and examples.
Lately I’ve been enjoying life as a local citizen, a gardener, a tree planter, a daughter … and the parameters of life have widened beyond that of write-tour-record- tour some more. I think I have enough focus now though that I’ve been in the studio on and off in the last few months making a new album.
It’s hard for me to see the delineations of my own musical path. I’m a fan of Rihanna, Daniel Romano, Roger Miller, Land of Talk. It seems rather random when pen hits paper and sound makes its way onto an album. Usually when I hear it, I know if I like it. That will change from time to time, but there is little strategy involved in my life. As cliched as it is, I do revel mostly in moments.
For the listening public, when our favourite artists don’t feed us every few years we get antsy. What can you tell us about the new record you are working on?
There are lots of words. Each song means something to me. (How’s that for vague?) I am trying to suspend my judgement of the recording until I have polished it up as much as I can, and everything is mixed. I am trying to face my fears that I’m not (or the version of the song is not) as good as it could be. Perfection-itis? I guess any fears at all, I’m trying to face them.
Since 2010’s Oh Little Fire you have played some big festival gigs and helped save the Niagara Escarpment from development. So you have obviously stayed a little busy. What else have you been up to?
Reading books. Intervening in the National Energy Board hearing on the Line 9 tar sands pipeline. Playing and organizing some benefit shows. Spending time with my family. Researching ancestors, stories. Probably spending a little too much time in the distant past, but it seems I have always been that way.
I recently saw an article that referred to your music as “Ultra-personal.” Do you feel the same way? Do you find it therapeutic to be so personal with your audience or is this just how Sarah Harmer is?
Well, I try to serve the listener as well as myself. I think music is ultimately part of the service industry. Sometimes when writing, I have someone in mind who I want to impress, but often I’m just satisfied if I can fill a void and burn some new fuel.
You’ve been to Newfoundland and Labrador a bunch of times before. Do you have a particular anecdote or memory that stands out to you about your travels here?
So many! Traveling with my parents and my sweetheart’s mom in a mini van around the Avalon Peninsula and being shown the most delicious and friendly hospitality at the Mallard Cottage, that was a week I will always treasure. A few summers ago, I got locked out of our motel late at night in Woody Point (thanks Jody!) and slept a few hours in the car under XL merch t-shirts to stay warm. Sailing with my dear friend Jacqui Hunter eating Labrador Caribou sausages on the high seas. (I’m generally a vegetarian, but when in Bonne Bay…) And late night house parties in St. John’s, walking down the hill to the hotel as dawn cracks over the harbour.
I feel really fortunate to be able to travel to beautiful places and play shows with my friends. Staying connected to vibrant Newfoundland and Labrador is a real privilege.