Sarah Harmer took 10 years to release a new album — and it feels like she was never gone
'What the hell, just get this out,' the singer-songwriter's inner voice told her, and out came Are You Gone
Twenty years can yawn by, the count of each day a never-ending march. Then suddenly, a decade is gone. Then two. Time, in the end, is a feeling.
It's in these nuanced nooks of time that Sarah Harmer's music lives, her sense of story and melody a set of timeless threads that allow her 2000 debut album, You Were Here, to pour seamlessly into her first album in a decade, Are You Gone. Twenty years separate these landmarks, with three albums and the ghosts of friends and relationships resting in between, but hitting play on Are You Gone, its question mark missing, Harmer feels steady, unhurried.
"The older you get, the quicker time goes," says Harmer, over the phone from her home north of Kingston, where she has lived for the length of her solo career. "Ten years to a 15-year-old is an immense amount of time. But to a 49-year-old, it's like, ah, I was only 29."
It's time that she has not squandered. A vocal environmental activist, Harmer has been heavily involved on and off with Protecting Escarpment Rural Land, as well as getting behind pipeline issues and small-scale community groups. She lives in a house in the woods, and spent a year restoring another house after recording the rough mixes for Are You Gone, managing not to listen to them for a year. She's travelled to Greenland and Antarctica, to northern Labrador and Chile, a mix of educational and working trips that sometimes involved writing music, and sometimes didn't. She played drums briefly in a Kingston band. One big thing she has time for is her people.
"That's been a nice thing about putting out albums and having a busy bunch of time, but then also having some really wide open amounts of time to be available for different things that come along, and to be available to people that you love," she says.
In the 10 years since her last album, Oh Little Fire, Harmer has lived a life laced with writing music, but not releasing it. In the background, though, the songs found on Are You Gone were quietly knocking at her door, being written partially here and there, waiting to be fully let in.
When Harmer felt she needed a kick to get the album going — "keeping the blinders on," as she says — she called Montreal producer Marcus Paquin, whose work she knew solely from listening to Aidan Knight's 2016 album, Each Other.
"I was pleasantly surprised by her call but I definitely wasn't expecting it," Paquin says, laughing.
"I thought [the demos] were amazing right off the get go. I mean, Sarah is one of those artists [who] doesn't need a lot of bells and whistles for the songs to translate. So as raw as some of the demos were, the songs really came across immediately ... my brain went straight into, 'How do we not step on the story in our production?'"
That story ebbs from heartachingly specific to stirringly hazy. Album opener "St. Peter's Bay" sews together details of black-ice reflections and the embers of a relationship as Harmer sings, "I couldn't get the fire of my faith in us/ warm enough to comfort your cold feet." On "What I Was to You," she sings buoyantly of her teenage years going to bars with the Tragically Hip, beginning a lasting friendship with the late Gord Downie. Folk-dance number "New Low" uses horns and that scrappy '90s guitar to get you to your feet — but you decide why you're standing. "Just get Here," with its St. Lawrence imagery and slide guitar, is a call to reach out, if you need to: "If you've something to say/ but you ain't got no one/ whatever you do/ if you have to/ use your thumb just get here."
You can place yourself in every song, but only one person can write them.
"There was no record company pushing her to make this record," says Paquin. "And yet she still had to make these songs, and these songs came out. And as soon as I heard them, I knew they were special, and that people were going to want to hear them. And so I think that was always what permeated the conversation: people are going to love this."
CBC Music recently spent time with Harmer, recording a full First Play Live session for Are You Gone and an interview. Read on for more insight into the new album, and live performances of those new songs.
Editor's note: the Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You've been out of the music spotlight for a while. What does it feel like to be back?
I have more on my plate right now than I have had for a while, it feels like, just kind of getting ready to launch this album and go out and play shows. It's great. It feels a little, aye aye aye, a little daunting. And really exciting ... just rehearsing and buying some clothes that aren't ripped and to be presentable to the world because I kind of like to be a hermit. So it's a little bit of an adjustment on that front.
What brought you back to writing?
I didn't take any fixed break on writing. And I have been toting my guitar around here and there doing little benefit shows and different things. But I guess it was really just that I have had these songs accumulating and I've just had them in my mind for a long time, trying to figure out how best to record them and just kind of being my usual meandering self, time-wise, and finally just got to a place where I felt like, OK, I think [with] these songs, we can do it. I can do it.
What made you feel like you were ready to put them out?
I've just been doing a bunch of different things and so seeing a project all the way through — it's usually the final few inches are the hardest part. So I just committed to a few other people that I was going to do it ... I got quite rusty at decision-making and making creative decisions … but I also just had this voice in my head to be like, "What the hell, you know, just get this out." And that's about it.
You've said that you consider Are You Gone a spiritual successor to You Were Here. Could you tell me more about that?
I mean, they have [a] kind of bookend quality to them in some ways, in that I wrote You Were Here as a song in memory of a friend, and there are a few songs like that on this record. I cover both my friend Dave Hodge — he's a Kingston/Montreal musician — I covered his song on that first solo record, and I cover one of his songs on this record, which is "Wildlife." It just felt that there was a kinship between the two. I didn't really set out with that in mind, but looking on them both, they seem to have that connection.
The titles in particular feel very connected. Did you feel that before you decided on the newest title?
It crossed my mind. I had a hard time figuring out what to call the album actually. Because the songs just seemed like their own thing. I didn't really think of them having a parent kind of name [laughs], you know? Maybe people feel like that when they write books and stuff and other albums, but. It crossed my mind when I thought of calling it Are You Gone. But it wasn't, you know, a huge reason — it just kind of felt familiar in that way.
I think it felt like it could work as a title because I can apply that idea of "are you gone" to, you know — you can be talking to a lot of things when you ask that question. Like is your courage gone? Are those voices in your head gone? Or, you know, are you physically gone now that you've died?
And the title is from the song that you wrote for Gord Downie, right?
Yeah, yeah. "What I Was to You."
Can you tell me about that one?
Weirdly, I started writing that song about a friend of ours named Phil, who had been quite sick and so I didn't know how he was doing exactly, and just how ill he was. And so when I wrote that first line, I was thinking of him because he was right on the edge of being alive. And then you know, I just had the melody of that song, but I really only had that first couple of lines. And then I wrote it in the next year or so. Or maybe it could have been a couple of years, I don't know. And after those first two lines, the rest of it I told the story about just thinking back on being friends with Gord.
It feels like the joy of your friendship really comes through, in that song.
Hmm. Oh that's nice.
It reminded me a lot of "Around This Corner."
Yeah. The kind of lilt of it. Yeah, I can see that for sure. And, yeah, they're both kind of jaunty tunes in a way but they also have some tougher sentiment I think. So maybe it's like, bluegrass, you know, and it's really jaunty, and really they're singing about murdering and [laughs] jealousy, but maybe not a good comparison [between the two songs]. But yeah, I can see how those two could sound alike.
Going back a ways, when did you work on the first song for this album? I know it's been going on for a long time for you.
[Laughs] Oh yeah. "Take me Out" was previously called "Ba-da-da" and I think I have a piece of paper that I for some reason haven't thrown out from a recording session that I did in my house in 2004. I think it's the only song on this album that I had maybe recorded somewhat before. I mean, I had the arrangement and the melody and a few of those lines for 15 years probably [laughs].
And going to the lead single for a minute: what inspired "New Low," the activist anthem?
I've been feeling like I was being more motivated to, you know, in my comfortable life, in my privileged country life, to be going out and getting more vocal about [standing up]. Just watching the state of American affairs and corporatization of Canadian energy policy and the Islamophobia and brutal fear and bigotry that we're seeing around us. So yeah, I just wrote it about people standing up, whatever that meant … and then musically, it was kind of a weird chord progression. And I remember I was just walking across [laughs] literally walking across the lawn and I was playing guitar and I just started playing those chords and I was singing the horn parts and it all seemed very — it was pretty immediate when I started playing those chords, what the melody was and the parts seemed to come pretty quickly.
In terms of singing the horn parts, I have noticed that you do double the vocals a lot — sing the horn parts, and a little bit with the guitar as well. Why is that?
[Laughs] I don't know why. I'm just like, "Can you play this: 'bah-bah-da-bah-bah' on the whatever?" And then I'm like, "Oh, maybe I'll just keep my vocal in there." Does that sound ridiculous? So, yeah. Who knows.
The album is technically named for a song about two friends who have passed. What made you end the album with "See Her Wave"? That feels like another goodbye.
Yeah, that's written for my late friend Jackie Hunter. It seemed like a closer, you know? It seemed just like the right little shanty send-off to end the album with. I wrote that one for a woman I met in western Newfoundland, a wonderful, wonderful person. I won't go too much into her diagnosis, but also very tragic and an incredible, wonderful person with a wonderful family. So I wrote that for her family and then I thought to include it on the album.
And again, it's a grieving song, I guess, but the joy comes through it, too.
I love to hear that. I can hear that all day. That sounds nice because well, Jackie was a wonderful, big warm character that you could know for a couple hours and feel like she was totally on your side and was rooting for it — she had a very maternal, wonderful quality and I got to know her [over] a few times, going out to western Newfoundland. [I] just ended up writing the story when she died quite suddenly.
And I wanted to go back to You Were Here. What does it mean to you, 20 years later?
When I think of it, I think of recording it, and the little beat-up old warehouse we made that in in Parkdale in Toronto, and a lot of the people that I recorded with and worked on that album with, I still work with and still mostly are friends with. On this album, Jason Euringer sang harmonies and played stand-up bass on "See her Wave" and "Little Frogs." And he also sings on "Uniform Grey" and plays some other stuff on You Were Here. And Gord Tough, who plays tons of the electric guitar on this album, also played a lot of the electric guitar then and so it feels — yeah, I feel really fortunate to be able to look back two decades and still, you know, still go to that neighbourhood. Still have friends that I knew back then that I'm still getting to make music with now.
And what would you tell your 2000-era self about what you've done or learned?
Nothing. I probably knew more then, you know? ... I don't know what — if — I'd tell myself anything.