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The Glow Still Under the Ashes: A Conversation with Sarah Harmer

Among Canada's most significant natural resources, Sarah Harmer is the best singer-songwriter you haven't heard yet.

Sarah Harmer

Oh Little Fire

Label: Zöe/Rounder
US Release Date: 2010-06-22
UK Release Date: ‘import’

Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer considers herself to be a “pretty kick ass multi-tasker”. And it shows. A beloved and successful musician in her home country – her last record, 2006’s I’m a Mountain, was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Prize – and a commanding environmental activist, Harmer’s energy and focus are certainly enviable. How many pop stars can claim platinum records and significant ecological victories?

After a seven-year slog through a bureaucratic quagmire, with her small conservation group facing off against powerful lobbyists and the tyranny of apathetic voters, Harmer is now inches away from a conclusive victory in her fight to protect the Niagara Escarpment from resource extraction schemes. Now, with time enough to get back to the studio and out on tour, Harmer has just released Oh Little Fire, her fourth solo record and first new album in five years. And it is in every way a triumph, though it is an emotional ride indeed. Heartbreak abounds on this album, and so much so that it feels in many ways like a companion to her 2000 “break up” masterwork You Were Here. (“Oh man, yeah,” she shrugs. “I’ve just gone through the ringer one more time and I had to document it. [laughter] Oh, that’s a totally goofy way of putting it...”) Goofiness notwithstanding, Harmer has crafted a serious, touching, and yet vibrant record about relationships – between a man and a woman, the city and the country, the heart and the head, the dream and the reality.

But, it isn’t all about such yin-yang oppositions, or at least it isn’t merely a question of eithers and ors. Harmer is an awfully intelligent and incisive lyricist, and rarely one to fall into such simplistic traps. She is also a careful songwriter; a craftsman. Talking about the song “Careless”, a standout track on the new record, she seems uncomfortable admitting just how tough it can be for her to finish a song. “Those are the challenging ones to create because I wanted… I had a really particular rhyming scheme and I wanted to repeat it and... God. It was excruciatingly hard. [A pause.] Can you say that about songwriting?”

Perhaps unavoidably for an environmental activist, the natural world is ever-present in her writing; for Harmer, emotional and elemental landscapes intertwine in fascinating ways. “I guess they’re elements for a reason,” she reminds me, sounding something like a Sufi mystic. “They’re the real basics of life and those come through, always. I’m sitting right now with a lot of nice trees around me, and the natural world, it’s… everywhere. I document it sometimes, and it filters in unconsciously sometimes.” This elemental approach permeates much of her material, from the aching refrain of one of her earliest numbers “Dogs and Thunder” (“Oh, and I wonder what it is about dogs and thunder, what they hear coming over the fields?”) to the dreamy imagery of a midnight paddle on “Lodestar” (from You Were Here, which alludes beautifully to D.H. Lawrence's "New Year's Eve"):

Intensity of stars reflected in the harbour

Silently ignite

The oar dips into oil like water

And we… are… away


And wait for it

There are only two things now

This great black night

And the fireglow

And listen! The darkness rings

The darkness....

Harmer, who lives just outside of Kingston, Ontario, a mid-sized university town, comes back over and over again to the theme of escape and seclusion – she even has a song entitled “The Hideout” – narrating the sense of re-constitution we urbanites often feel when we leave the city and head into some Walden-esque space. “I definitely feel like I have a foot in both places,” she explains. “I love Toronto, I love it. It feels like it’s my hometown in a way for sure, even though I grew up outside of it [in Burlington, about 25 minutes drive]. But, it often gives me a real melancholy feeling when I’m there, for the most part, too. I don’t think I’ll live there.”

Of course, we can hear a similar melancholy in her articulations of natural settings as well. On Oh Little Fire’s album-opener “The Thief”, Harmer takes her broken-hearted longing and tries to bury it in elemental metaphors:

Down like a leaf in the long grass I lay for hours

The thief made off, but not with everything

There was a glow still under the ashes

The past was getting ready to let go

If a new wind would blow

“I think that my mouth just goes back to certain words,” she admits, “sometimes unconsciously.” But, what’s persistently compelling about Harmer’s writing is that, though she circles back again and again to these same themes, even these same words, the passion that underwrites them always feels true, unforced, and enveloping. Harmer really does appear to be struggling with the relationship between the built and the unbuilt environment, and cannot help but to project herself into this perhaps false dichotomy when trying to articulate her emotional situation. It’s hard not to make such connections after you hear a song like “The City”, from Oh Little Fire:

The city was too late for us

I got there and you wanted to get away

The city was too grey for us

We slept through the blue skies under clouds of the duvet

And the streets were all to straight for us

A parade of nobility seen from above

But the city is to blame for us and what was our love

So, then, is it any wonder that Sarah Harmer, as a poet of the uneasy relationship between human modernity and the natural world, turned to environmental activism? In an era when so many famous people turn to Twitter to get out their “activist” messages as though it were a reasonable alternative to actually acting, Harmer’s commitment and visibility in this fight have been pretty inspirational. Hiking up and down the Niagara Escarpment (which snakes along the northern shore of Lake Michigan before splitting Lake Huron and heading south across Ontario towards Niagara Falls), she played benefit shows in towns along the way, entertaining adoring crowds while raising awareness about the destructive results of resource extraction in the area. As documented in Escarpment Blues, the 2005 film about this unique tour, Harmer’s determination to protect her backyard was born of a profound and earnest commitment to the idea that the natural world and the human world are intertwined in ways too complex to disentangle. “If they blow a hole in the backbone,” she sings, “the one that runs across the muscles of the land, we might get a load of stone for the road, but I don’t know how much longer we can stand.”

Over the past seven years or so, Harmer’s lobby group P.E.R.L. [Protecting Escarpment Rural Land] has brought so much attention to this cause that it seems success is all but assured at this point. “All levels of government have voted to reject this quarry proposal for the top of Mount Nemo,” she tells me, her elation palpable and infectious. “And the City and four levels of government and the Niagara Escarpment Commission who oversee the planning of the escarpment, they have rejected it. Now it’s a lot of legal consultants, water experts, biologists, planners… we’re basically appealing to [Ontario Premier] Dalton McGuinty right now, whose office has expressed to me and to the environmental defense people we work with that what they need is a municipal voice to say something and then they will follow suit.” In other words, the last step is to get voters to turn up the heat on the government to sign a bill protecting the land. “And, so that’s what we have now: everybody has come to the same conclusion that this is a bad idea, and have all rejected it, and so now we’re calling on the Premier to properly designate the land within the Niagara escarpment plan because it’s outdated. Everybody recognizes that.” They may recognize it now, but when Harmer began this fight many Ontarians probably weren’t even aware that there was such a thing as a Niagara Escarpment, let alone a Mount Nemo. Harmer’s very visible activism has changed all that in ways both obvious and subtle. “Of course, it’s kind of an esoteric thing,” she admits. “Like, gravel extraction and aggregate resources in Ontario, it’s not the sexiest thing to talk about. But, it’s also so intertwined with these really awesome places, these ecosystems, these caves and waterfalls…”

Appealing to people’s sense of home – their backyards – was Harmer’s most successful approach in terms of bringing supporters onside. But, it was her aggressive campaigning and noisemaking about the issue that turned heads in the halls of the Ontario legislature. “It is political will [that gets things done], but it’s also a lot of lobbying from the aggregate industry, and admittedly, from people like me on the other side! I’m ultimately lobbying, though I’m not getting paid by anybody. It’s all about getting the message to the people who pull the levers.” Significant environmental victories are few and far between in this era of unapologetic oil slicks and catastrophic uranium-laced bombing campaigns. The fact that Harmer’s small grassroots activist push managed to reach so many people and to achieve a near-complete victory stands as a powerful lesson to couch-bound would-be activists everywhere. You can’t change anything unless you try.

But, let’s face it, Sarah Harmer is a musician first and an activist second. “It’s exciting, you know, and I feel like I’m in the thick of it talking to you about it right now, but the last few months I’ve been having to refocus on touring and playing guitar and being a bandleader, stuff like that.” And Harmer outright rejects the notion that politics and music might not mix, or might put off her fans. “What I’m drawn to and what I really find reassuring is people taking chances publicly. Whether or not it’s musicians. Sometimes I think that I can articulate things in a fair and pretty simple way from the stage, and sometimes less so. I think it’s a real gift. I went to see Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles play, and I think it’s amazing the way he is able to weave performance art and politics and music, and have it really thicken up to enhance the experience. It is connecting people, while they’re enjoying music, to these other anchors in the world.”

Some of the heaviest anchors in Harmer’s world are her friends in and around Kingston. They play on her records, inspire lyrics, and offer songs for her to try out. You Were Here culminated with a tune by local Kingston singer-songwriter Dave Hodge, and a standout track on Oh Little Fire is “Silverado”, a duet with Neko Case written by her friend Trevor Henderson. But these aren’t just favours, a case of a famous musician helping out her struggling mates. “I have been a long term fan of Trevor Henderson, and I think Trevor’s songwriting is just great. You should check out his version of the song! He’s such a great character and his songs – I’m not using exciting enough adjectives for them. I don’t know. He and Dave Hodge, I think their songwriting is… it’s my favourite.” And, what of Neko Case? For many listeners unfamiliar with Sarah Harmer, their collaboration will come as a real revelation. Their voices work so well together one would think they’d been singing as a duo for years. But, though they’d known each other through mutual friends for some time, they hadn’t done any work together before this. “We actually learned [the song] in a little town called Avening north of Toronto. Neko had played at Massey Hall [in Toronto] and then she came up north to play a benefit show for P.E.R.L. at this beautiful old wooden hall. And, we learned that tune that night and then recorded it awhile later. I am such a fan of hers. For years, you know? She’s incredible. Her voice is just incredible and her songwriting? Oh, she’s just a… she’s a dude.”

Throughout our conversation, I wondered how she would react to my big question, the one I had been hiding in my back pocket. One hesitates to ask confessional songwriters about their own lives since they already offer up so much of their internal worlds to us on their records. But, the overarching theme on this new record is unavoidably one of loss, of heartbreak. And so, I ask her, is this record a companion to her famous confessional album You Were Here, a record all shot through with images of loss, of grief, of loneliness? How does it feel to be again singing songs filled with such rawness and emotional honesty about the lingering absence of a departed loved one? “It’s just stories, you know,” she reassures me, sort of. “It’s fictionalized, so there is a good amount of remove. But, it is still so close to me, too. I think those albums are both about human relationships for the most part and… God. I really am looking for some new material.” She laughs heartily before she comes to her conclusion. “You know, I like singing these songs, honestly. There’s some tough stuff there, but you know what? It’s called Oh, Little Fire because you’ve got to go through it, I guess. Sometimes you have no choice.”


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