Sarah Harmer Biography
Last updated: 11/02/2007 12:00:00 PM
Sarah Harmer's new album, All of Our Names, could just as easily be called Short Stories from Quaker Valley. That's because each of Harmer's slice-of-life songs, largely written at her rural home near Kingston, Ontario, boasts a rich narrative. Whether it's a wintry walk in the countryside ("Pendulums"), a romantic crush ("Almost") or a thoughtful reflection on human potential ("Dandelions in Bullet Holes"), the celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter magnifies those experiences into captivating stories, full of imagery and insight-much as she did on her acclaimed debut, You Were Here, which Rolling Stone called "marvelously compelling" and Time voted best debut CD of 2000.
"Sometimes there are just those moments," says Harmer, "whether it's an experience with a friend, some little turn of phrase or something that happens, that you realize are special and worth sharing." Adds Harmer: "I slowed things right down as I made this album. I'd go for walks and bird watch. I planted a lot of trees, real solitary stuff, and just observed a lot. It's like anything, the more aware you become-just seeing hawks and deer in my case-the more you seem to attract those things. There are so many worlds out there, so much going on. The detail just floors me."
Most of the new album was also recorded at home in Quaker Valley, where Harmer's laundry room served as a vocal booth and her living room was filled with up microphones, amplifiers, guitars and a drum kit. Says Harmer, who co-produced the album with Martin Kinack and played many of the instruments: "The control room was in my bedroom and during the summer I watched cedar waxwings build a nest outside my window. It was an amazing way to work." Meanwhile, the setting also posed certain challenges. "We had to unplug the fridge and turn off the furnace," admits Harmer, who points out that one track, "Came on Lion," is imprinted with a particular charm. "You can actually hear the woodstove on that song," she laughs. "Although we were able to spot erase it in some places, there are still little pings, which is the sound of the cast-iron stove getting cooler."
That homespun quality helps to give All of Our Names an undeniable warmth and intimacy. But ultimately, it is Harmer's honest songwriting and crystal-clear, falsetto-laced vocals that draw the listener in. Blending roots, pop and folk sensibilities, songs like "Silver Road," about a moonlit drive through the woods, boast bright, infectious melodies, while others such as "Almost" possess quirky, hypnotic grooves. Although mostly sunny and upbeat, the album does contain a number of darker songs, including "Greeting Card Aisle" and "Took it All."
The latter had its genesis in an invitation from a radio host who asked Harmer if she'd compose a song about greed for a series on the seven deadly sins. "It's about the idea of having it all," explains Harmer, "of seeing the world as being abundant and living life that way."
Overall, the new album represents a shift in tone for Harmer. "This is less a personal album in some ways," she says. "The first album was a lot of heartbreak songs and really personal stuff. This album is on a bit of a larger scale, more about humanity." The best example of that is the dreamy, anthemic "Dandelions and Bullet Holes," which Harmer describes as "the spine of the album." The song was written after a trip to Amsterdam. "Being there gave me a different perspective," says Harmer, "and made me feel closer to everything and more conscious and responsible for my actions. The world is in such a precarious state. I felt the need to issue a kind of call to arms to remind people to recognize their abilities to change the world for the greater good. Growing up, you might feel like you're just a powerless little person, but it's not really the case."
The youngest of six children born to farmer Clem Harmer and his school teacher wife, Isabelle, Sarah grew up on a hundred-acre farm near Hamilton, Ontario. After a stint with country-rockers the Saddletramps, Sarah formed her own band, Weeping Tile, while at college in Kingston, Ontario. The group recorded three albums before Sarah recorded a collection of country and jazz favorites to give to her father for Christmas. The resulting songs for Clem kick-started her solo career, and led to You Were Here.
Now with All of Our Names, Harmer has created another collection of memorable songs. The album's title is taken from a line in the epic "Dandelions in Bullet Holes," in which Harmer envisions the day when everyone, on a mission for the greater good, will see their names on life's giant marquee. It's a grand thought But Harmer's idealism, like her emotional candor, has a way of winning over the most cynical listener. And that is the true mark of a great songwriter.