In the dog-eat-dog world of the music business, Canadian Sarah Harmer has made a habit of taking her time and doing things her own, unhurried way. While many artists would have quickly followed up on the success of 2000's You Were Here, Harmer patiently waited four years. "Ever since I was a little kid," she told Nicholas Jennings in Maclean's, "I thought I should have lived in the 1800s when things were simpler." Harmer's deliberate, careful approach, along with her warm vocal style, has been an essential ingredient in the crafting of three distinct albums between 1999 and 2004. "Harmer has an incredibly versatile voice," wrote Naomi de Bruyn in Green Man Review; "not only is it sensuous, but so emotion-laden that she can reach deeply within and turn you inside out when combined with her heart-felt lyrics."
Harmer grew up in Burlington, Ontario, the youngest of six children. Her father, Alan (Clem) Harmer, was a farmer who also sang and played violin; her mother, Isabelle, was a schoolteacher. Harmer attended church, where she sang in the choir, and she also sang with her brothers and sisters at the local nursing home. "We'd do piano lessons," she told de Bruyn, "and went and played and practiced our songs for the poor old people who had to listen to us!"
Harmer joined the Saddletramps during the late 1980s, while simultaneously attending Queen's University in Kingston. In 1991, however, she temporarily quit the band to concentrate on school, taking courses in women's studies and music. Harmer quickly returned to music, however, when she received a call from Patrick Sambook, who was looking for an opening act for Thomas Trio & The Red Albino. She formed Weeping Tile with her sister Mary, and used the opportunity to try out the songs she had written recently. The band recorded an EP in the fall of 1993 and then recorded Cold Snap, which was released by Warner Music Canada in 1995 and by Tag in the United States. Another album, Valentino, followed, but the deal with Tag fell through, leaving Harmer without a distributor in the United States.
Harmer got a fresh start as a solo artist in 1999 when she recorded Songs for Clem, a collection of favorites, as a gift to her father. Recorded during a break from Weeping Tile, she planned to give the collection of jazz and country standards to her father for Christmas. She originally had no plans to release the collection commercially, but finally decided to self-release the album on Cold Snap Records. Later, she garnered a deal with Universal Canada. "It couldn't be more authentic," wrote Johnny Loftus in All Music Guide, "if it was recorded at a Sunday Southern Baptist picnic." Interestingly, Harmer also bypassed many of her original songs in favor of traditional fare, including Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the country music classic "Tennessee Waltz." Appropriately, Songs for Clem was recorded on the back porch of her farm in Kingston, Ontario, and included the sounds of crickets and rain. "The resulting Songs for Clem," wrote Jennings, "kickstarted her solo career."
Harmer's introduction to American listeners, however, would have to wait until her debut on Zoë Records in 2000. "Think of Shawn Colvin with stronger hooks, or Aimee Mann with a better attitude," wrote Brett Milano in the Boston Herald, "and you'd have something like Sarah Harmer's recent album You Were Here." The album was also very emotional in a singer-songwriter sense, revealing heartbreak and hard times. "You Were Here is a fresh display of unforced honesty," wrote Eden Miller in Pop Matters, "in a time where that's becoming increasingly rare." Despite the subject matter, Harmer had a knack for penning rich melodies and wrapping them in spacious arrangements. While the album was well-liked by critics, Harmer would receive her biggest boost in popularity in the United States when Liane Hanson interviewed her on Weekend Edition on National Public Radio (NPR). The half-hour interview included 17 song clips from You Were Here, introducing many listeners to Harmer for the first time.
Harmer waited until 2004 to release her second album, and while the four-year wait may have seemed like a long one to many popular recording artists, she was in no hurry. "I have friends who have been working on albums for years," she told Karen Bliss in Canadian Musician, "and when they come out, they don't remember all the time that lapsed in between. It's just whatever; I like the slow way." In fact, she had started working on the album at home in the winter of 2002, after declining to work with a well-known producer. Working with her boyfriend, Marty Kinack, she began laying down tracks in November in a makeshift studio at a Quaker Valley farmhouse in Ontario. "I had to remember to unplug the fridge," Harmer told Jeff Miers in the Buffalo News, before she turned on the tape machine. "It's a pastoral approach," wrote Miers, "an anomaly amid the current high-tech world of overproduced and underwritten albums. And it's a perfect setting for Harmer's tales of hard-won idealism." All of Our Names was released in March of 2004 to more critical praise.
In spite of Harmer's deliberate pace, her music began to reach a larger audience. She performed on The David Letterman Show, and "Basement Apartment" was used on HBO's hit series Six Feet Under. She also made a video to help promote her single "Almost." "We made the video. ... in Montreal when it was 40 degrees below," she told Dave Dawson in NU Country. "It was the middle of January in the coldest place in [the] world at that time." Harmer then placed a new song, "Silver," in the film Men With Brooms, a comedy starring Leslie Nielsen. "I wrote the song and went to the Tragically Hip studio and recorded it with them," she told Dawson. In the summer of 2005, she maintained an active touring schedule, appearing at a number of summer festivals in Canada. When Harmer will release her next album is anyone's guess, but fans can be sure of one thing: It will, like all quality projects, be worth waiting for.
For the Record . . .
Born in 1970 in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.
Joined Saddletramps, late 1980s; released Songs for Clem, 1999; released You Were Here, 2000, and All of Our Names, 2004, on Zoë Records.
Addresses: Record company—Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, website: http://www.rounder.com. Website— Sarah Harmer Official Website: http://www.sarahharmer.com.
Songs for Clem, Universal, 1999.
You Were Here, Zoë, 2000.
All of Our Names, Zoë, 2004.
Buffalo News, April 30, 2004, p. G16.
Boston Herald, February 8, 2001.
Canadian Musician, May-June 2004, p. 38.
Maclean's, March 5, 2001, p. 60.
"Interview With Sarah Harmer," Green Man Review,http://www.greenmanreview.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Interview With Sarah Harmer," NU Country, http://www.nucountry.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Sarah Harmer," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 10, 2005).
"Sarah Harmer," Pop Matters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (June 10, 2005).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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