Sarah Harmer all ‘Fired’ up with edgier sound
Sarah Harmer arrives at Universal Music’s Vancouver office carrying a backpack and wearing a tired smile. She’s doing press for her fifth record, Oh Little Fire, and also her upcoming slot as one of the headliners at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 16-18). Harmer’s just come from an interview where someone asked her what kind of car she would be. Politely bemused, the avowed environmentalist guessed she’d be a Prius. In many ways, it’s been a long afternoon.
But the break between records for Harmer has been even longer. The singer-songwriter’s last album, 2005’s I’m a Mountain, marked her first foray into acoustic alt-country. It was a notable departure from the pop-driven indie-folk sound she’d cultivated so beautifully on her 2000 breakthrough debut, You Were Here, and the 2004 follow up, All of Our Names, both of which showcased her distinctive blend of thoughtful lyrics, layered guitars, and catchy melodies.
With Oh Little Fire, Harmer’s made some notable upgrades to her signature sound, including more adventurous production elements, indie folk-rocker Julie Doiron on backing vocals, and a star-powered duet with her pal Neko Case.
“[You Were Here] definitely felt like kind of a new mat I was rolling out in way,” Harmer laughs, tucking one leg under her and settling into the conference room couch. “I feel the same about this album. Maybe it’s just because it’s another new decade and I put out You Were Here in 2000. They both were made in kind of shitty warehouses spaces in Toronto with friends — there’s a real similarity.”
And, like her debut, Harmer also took her sweet time in getting the ball rolling. She cheerfully calls herself “lazy” when asked why she took five years to make Oh Little Fire. Truthfully, she admits she was a little burnt out and there were bigger issues calling her name.
“The last real show I did was in England and it was 29 shows in 31 days and it almost killed me!” she says, recalling the impetus for her self-imposed seclusion. On that tour she was also reading a book about climate change, George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, which made her reflect on her own carbon footprint as an entertainer.
“I just started to want to focus locally,” Harmer says. And she did, helping co-found the citizen’s environmental group Protecting Escarpment Rural Land (PERL), in an effort to stop development on the Niagara Escarpment, which abuts Harmer’s backyard in Burlington, Ontario. Currently, PERL is fighting a company that wants to dig a quarry along a stretch of the 700-kilometre-long, cliff-like range, a home to fragile provincial wetlands and forest.
She’s been able to bring some celebrity power to the fight: Case called Harmer last year to see if she could help bring attention to PERL’s cause. The solo singer-songwriter and sometime member of Vancouver indie-rock band New Pornographers made the trek out to Burlington’s town hall for a fundraising concert. But, even with some high-profile names and lots of attention, the battle continues to be an uphill one. Though every level of local government has rejected the company’s attempts to excavate its new quarry, a final court decision is on hold until October.
Harmer sighs heavily about this latest development, but she’s not depressed.
“Ultimately, it’s really made a lot of people realize what can happen when you collectively come together,” Harmer says. “B.C. knows about this. There have been lots of examples here with logging and other community achievements. It enriches your whole life just to know [nature’s] there. People get kind of tiring after awhile. No offense,” she adds quickly, laughing.
Harmer’s recent trip to help friends Jim Guthrie and Brian Webb of indie rockers Constantines record a soundtrack in Haida Gwaii (part of a short film series for the Discovery Network) has reaffirmed for her the connection between nature and creativity.
“It’s amazing,” Harmer says. “I didn’t know what I was in for. It’s tricky because we did a lot of instrumental stuff. We were kind of recording on the fly, like on beaches and on a boat at one point. It’s hard sometimes to put words that reflect what you’re seeing without imposing something upon that that seems foreign, you know? And just poetic enough and open enough that the wind can blow through the words a little bit.”
That experience was markedly different than how Harmer ended up writing Oh Little Fire.
“It’s mostly about pain and heartbreak,” she laughs. “Yeah, that really hurt. My experiences — or, I should say, the experiences — there’s nothing in the record about me at all of course, it’s more human interactions...” She trails off a little ruefully, unwilling to say more about the actual writing process.
She’s full of praise, though, for producer Gavin Brown, a longtime friend who’s worked with a spectrum of Canadian indie bands from Metric to Billy Talent. She credits Brown for pushing her out of her comfort zone, adding unusual twists and turns in the studio to increase the album’s rock quotient.
“Gavin’s got a frenetic energy and is super decisive,” Harmer says. “He gets really worked up and makes decisions quickly and I’m a little bit more, ‘Yeah, that could work... Uhhh, I don’t know, let me think about it.’ Not having a boss on your ass to do things made me lethargic. I’m too ponderous.”
On Fire’s opening track, “The Thief,” Brown built the song’s dark mood by barking orders at Harmer and Doiron to layer every possible harmony imaginable. He then brought in an actual Soviet-issue tape delay to record multiple tracks, which adds a distinctively heavier backing beat throughout.
“He’d be like, ‘Yeah, Sonic Youth, watch out!’” Harmer recalls. The album’s biggest surprise might be the torch-burner quality on “New Loneliness,” which Harmer originally anticipated as sounding “natural, but eerie. It got spookier as we recorded it, but I love all the weird sounds coming out of it, like this kind of electric bog. The sentiment of the song has so many natural references and it’s kind of dry in some ways, it’s probably good that we made it a little weird. It’s referencing dragonflies and white-tailed deer, so it’s good we edged it up a bit.”
And while Harmer’s definitely embraced these sonic elements for her latest musical reinvention, she admits her down time has made her a bit apprehensive about touring again. “I don’t feel quite ready yet,” she concedes. “I’m definitely out of practice, so I’m a little bit like, ‘Oh, do I really wanna go away?’” She smiles and takes a deep breath. “But it’ll be fine.”