Thursday, April 1, 2004

The record's been done for some time now,
but the equipment remains in place

The Sarah Harmer piece of which Miss Liss spoke.

One note: She has the most remarkable eyes. Sooner or later someone's going to have to devote a couple thousand words to them alone.

Happy at last: Loneliness and sorrow in short supply on Sarah Harmer's new CD
Aaron Wherry - National Post
Thursday, March 25, 2004

Sarah Harmer is not curled up beneath one of this hotel bar's leather couches, sobbing gently to herself.

She is, instead, resting quite comfortably upon said couch. She seems content. And not at all desperate for our attention, approval or friendship. Still, we have been warned about Sarah Harmer. She is, we have been told, lonely.

It says so right here in Rolling Stone. In a three-star review of her new record, All of Our Names, Harmer is identified as a "lonely Canadian." Lonely. And Canadian? It's a wonder the dear girl finds the motivation to keep on breathing.

Canada's Exclaim said much the same thing in a February profile. Venturing to her quiet hideaway just north of Kingston, Ont., they found a green tea-sipping girl with frozen pipes who'd made a "melancholy, reflective, lonely" record. Lonely. Canadian. And reflective?

Clearly Harmer is a girl crying out for help -- an artist emerging from some sort of creative hell in the backwoods of Eastern Ontario, searching desperately for meaning, purpose and partnership.

"I was actually the happiest I've ever been -- and I'm generally a pretty happy person," Harmer says of recording All of Our Names (while we nod reassuringly -- clearly she's in denial). "My manager would call me, and I would say, 'It's coming along great. It's coming along. It's coming along. Dude, I'm really happy. Everything's great. Whatever the pace is doesn't matter, because I'm blissed out. No complaints.' And I don't feel like I wrote from a melancholy place on this record. I know that feeling because I definitely have written some songs in that frame of mind. But I didn't see that on this one. I don't think that there's any full-on dejection going on."

Thing is, before we agreed to meet her and only after consulting with several therapists about how best to speak with a troubled soul, we gave that sad little record a listen. And it wasn't so sad at all. It was actually rather hopeful.

"And if I am the sailor/ you are the warm gulf wind/ and you've blown into this little port/ and roused my dreams again," she sings on Almost, the album's second track. Elsewhere there are surely glimpses of darkness and confusion, but hardly the stuff of a lost soul bleeding in the corner.

"I'm really hopeful," Harmer continues. "And I think this is an optimistic record. At least that's how my outlook has been, more than ever lately, about things in general, even though the state of the world is more obviously precarious."

Dandelions in Bullet Holes, inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, is all about this precariousness. But even there she sings of a "wheel of hope" and how the "clouds of rain will all move on." Not quite "I hate myself and want to die" then.

And life was apparently anything but precarious in Quaker Valley, Ont., where Harmer has settled and where, with the help of producer Martin Kinack, she recorded All of Our Names.

Home became the studio. Speakers propped up on coffee table books. The bedroom full of sound equipment. Endless amounts of cords and wires running along walls and down stairs. Blankets hung to soundproof the place. And that producer doubled as a boyfriend.

In between games of ping-pong and long walks in the country, Harmer and Marty would sit and lay down some tracks in the living room or laundry. The record's been done for some time now, but the equipment remains in place.

If it was sad and lonely we were looking for, we should have talked to Harmer after the recording of her last album, 2000's You Were Here, a slowburn success that officially proclaimed the former Weeping Tiles frontwoman a star in her own right -- a singer/songwriter with something to say and the gentle hooks to be heard.

"Sometimes it's good not to get too comfortable recording. It's good to be tough," she says. "Like my last record was just made down the street here. And I slept on the couch there a lot of nights. And there'd be mice running around and a leaky roof. It had been a crack den. It was a really crappy warehouse."

The result, not surprisingly, was a scrappy album -- its biggest hit Basement Apt, an ode to the oh-so-urban experience of subterranean living.

The self-described tomboy relished the experience, though, the romanticized idea of suffering for her art, the chance to prove herself anything but "soft."

The ideal would be tested over the next few years -- relentless touring across North America precipitated by You Were Here's slow but steady success both here and south of the border, where Harmer was Kathleen Edwards before Kathleen Edwards was Kathleen Edwards.

Which brings us back to the part where Harmer, drained and disillusioned from her sudden brush with fame, her dreams of successcorrupted, retreats to the country, begins living on red wine and cherry-flavoured antacids, and records a seething follow-up of sadand lonely laments. Failing that, she crumbles under the pressure of major label attention and critical expectation and eventually winds up yelling at passers-by on Kingston street corners, while wearing a sandwich board that warns "The End is Nigh."

Except in this version, she retreats to the country, finds pleasure in bird watching, gets happy and, maybe most importantly, hungry. Sad, but true.

"From being in a band and touring for a few solid years to going to being at home where I could wake up in the same place and look out the same window and watch the cedar waxwings build a nest and really slow everything right down -- that was conscious. I wanted to get hungry again. I wanted to want it."

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