Harmer serenades Sydenham

Sarah Harmer isn’t that scary in person—in fact, she’s actually quite charming.
Sarah Harmer isn’t that scary in person—in fact, she’s actually quite charming.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of publicity.rounder.com
Harmer’s new record I’m a Mountain harkens back to her earlier repertoire.
Harmer’s new record I’m a Mountain harkens back to her earlier repertoire.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of sarahharmer.com

Interview: Sarah Harmer @ Sydenham Street United Church Tonight

Another year and Sarah Harmer—Queen’s alumna, Kingston rocker and one of Canada’s most esteemed singer-songwriters—has put out another album, I’m a Mountain. It’s new in perhaps the instrumentation and the more prevalent bluegrass vibe, but the album takes the time to revisit older songs and ideas, reaching back to Harmer’s days as lead singer of local band Weeping Tile.

“A few of [the songs] had already been swimming around in my brain for a while. The title track is an old song that Weeping Tile [even] played a few times at the end of our last tour,” Harmer said.

After the long wait for her previous album All of Our Names and its subsequent success nationally at the Junos as well as across the border, I’m a Mountain sprung up quickly this summer.

“We did this tour, my band, my friends, my acoustic tour in June, the Escarpment Tour. And after we did that, everybody was really warmed up and all the songs seemed to kind of reveal themselves. I wrote a few more and covered a couple and lickety-split: a week in the studio to record and mix and master.” The “I Love the Escarpment” tour spanned cities and small towns along the Niagara Escarpment from Burlington to Tobermory, in an attempt to raise money for and spread awareness about preserving escarpment land that aggregate companies have their eye on. “Really as far as places go, it’s the place I know most intimately,” explained Harmer, a Burlington native.

“The Niagara Escarpment has the richest biodiversity in the whole friggin’ province.”

The influence of bluegrass as well as the Escarpment tour can be heard in the natural imagery, organic sound and acoustic instrumentation of the new album. “It was a hiking tour, you know—it’s like you can’t get any more organic ... I had been listening to bluegrass bands like Heartbreak Hill, not really intentionally but just kind of having to come across those bands, having those bands come across my path in the last few years. So I was just writing pretty simple songs and they all did kind of relate together once I had them corralled.”

I’m a Mountain marks a return for Harmer to the dynamics of recording and working with multiple musicians. Though a veteran of many bands like Weeping Tile and the Saddletramps as well as collaborations with other bands like the Weakerthans, All of Our Names saw Harmer playing most of the instruments herself.

“These songs [on I’m a Mountain] just kind of lend themselves to showcase things more with different instrumentation. I think my other records were more individually crafted. I would overdub and play different instruments and leave stuff to the moment and craft it differently. This album just required this kind of sound.”

In order to obtain the kind of sound I’m a Mountain needed, Harmer recruited many of her musician friends, including Jason Euringer, Joey Wright, Julie Fader, Spencer Evans, Luther Wright and her father Clem Harmer. I’m a Mountain may rely on simple bluegrass melodies, but the presence of mandolin, violin, guitar, flute, piano, clarinet and rich vocals keeps the energy of the songs alive and interesting.

“I was really happy to hear the songs played back and really have so many fresh lines and solos that I really didn’t even know until I listened to the album a number of times after it was finished,” Harmer said.

Harmer is now in the midst of taking her six-piece acoustic band on tour. They already hit up Montreal for two shows and will be performing at Sydenham United Church in Kingston on Friday.

“It is a treat,” she said. “There are some awesome players that I get to share the stage with and, you know, people I have played with for years like Spencer Evans, Jay Euringer and Joey Wright, who I’ve seen in Crazy Strings, a Toronto bluegrass band.”

Heavily involved in the Canadian music scene for years, Harmer traveled with The Tragically Hip at the age of 16, fronted her own bands and released solo albums to critical acclaim. The recent surge of enthusiasm surrounding Canadian music seems almost contagious and Harmer is excited.

“There’s so much good stuff—it all sounds different, it all sounds great,” said said. “It’s exponential, it’s like most things: you get the ball rolling, and then one [successful band], comes two. And I’m sure different eras have experienced different surging of music, different instrumental original bands ... It does seem pretty deep.”

It also reminds her of the Kingston music scene where she was a fixture in the early ’90s.

“I was here in the early ’90s. Man, on a local level it was incredibly vibrant and exciting, and maybe it is now and I don’t notice, I’m not as connected to it. But that was a big, thriving time as well, maybe not on a national level, but on [as exciting as].”

It seems Harmer just keeps evolving as a musician, from early ’90s rocker, to alternative-folk solo, to putting together a bluegrass ensemble. She constantly, subtly shifts the vibes of her music, keeping it fresh and down-to-earth.

“Last spring I had an incredibly fruitful and wonderful year. I just learned so much this year and got to experience tons of things that I’d never done before with being outside all spring and doing amphibian-monitoring in the woods and ponds. And we planted 1,400 trees, worked with the field and stream rescue team in Burlington and did creek restoration. It was awesome and I think ... I got injected with some fresh, good stuff this year.”

Sarah Harmer and Her Acoustic Band delight Kingston tonight at Sydenham Street United Church. Congratulation to the lucky reader who won tickets!

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