I admit to a weakness for singer-songwriters, particularly those in the folk-rock and alt-country genres. And for some reason, a lot of the singer-songwriters I enjoy are Canadian, not, believe it or not, because I’m Canadian: I’ve lived in the U.S. for almost 16 years, I’m not plugged into what’s going on in Canada musically (although I do read Pitchfork and they seen to have a direct line into the Canadian music scene), I don’t listen to the radio here or in Canada, and the podcasts that are my main source of new music are almost entirely American.
There just seems to be something about Canada that produces good singer-songwriters, which is perhaps not surprising given that Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (who would be on virtually anyone’s list of all-time greatest songwriters) are Canadian. I think there’s also a greater market for this type of performer in Canada, partly due to restrictions on the number of times songs can be played (thereby enforcing a kind of diversity), partly because of the “Canadian content” regulations, and partly because there’s less need to slot every musician under a certain label in Canada.
Sarah Harmer is one of my favorite performers in this tradition. While she started out as a member of a couple of Canadian independent “alt-rock” type bands in 1990s, she moved into more of a pop-rock direction once she launched a solo career, and she’s now put out four albums (I’m not including her first album, Songs for Clem, which is an album of covers she recorded for her dad) of finely crafted, melodious pop-folk-country-rock. (Obviously the fact that I’ve used four different labels to describe her music gives a hint to the fact that she doesn’t, as far as I know, get much airplay in the U.S.: she doesn’t fit into the right boxes.)
You can’t be a good singer-songwriter if you can’t write good songs. This should go without saying but in a industry where image/style has become the dominant factor, the value of the song is often lost. Sarah Harmer writes beautiful songs, full of simple yet catchy melodies, and lyrics that capture moments beautifully. She backs this up with a strong yet not overwhelming voice that perfectly adapts to the needs of each song. And then she adds just the right arrangements, sometimes a more rock-oriented, driving sounds; other times quiet acoustic numbers.
She has a particular genius for capturing small “slice of life” moments with beautiful but simple phrasing. I think of a song like “Lodestar” from I Am Here, her first album (2000). A quietly picked acoustic guitar is joined by subtle phrasing from an electric guitar as the lyrics describe a boat ride in the dark (under the Lodestar of the title). After a couple of quiet verses, drums, cello and muted trumpet break in to drive the song home, as she sings the key lines: “There are only two things now: this great black night, and this fire’s glow. Listen: the darkness reigns.”
Relationships are another key focus (not shockingly) and she has several songs that perfectly capture some of the angst, anxiety and excitement of new and old relationships. “I almost dialed your number when I thought the coast was clear,” she sings in “Almost” from her second album, All of Our Names. She captures the worry of running into an ex in “Around the Corner”: “I’ll be coming around the corner and I know someday we’ll meet… and I’ll cover my heart so you won’t see it beat.”
Her latest album, Oh Little Fire, continues her growth as a songwriter, with gems like “Captive,” “Late Bloomer” and “Silverado” (with the great line “Hey what about me? When can I tumble like ol’ Neil, ass over heels?”)
So where to start if you’d like to experience Sarah Harmer? If you’re an album person (like me, a dying breed I realize), you could do worse than starting with her latest album Oh Little Fire. If you like more of a country-bluegrass flavor, try her third album, I’m a Mountain.
If you just want to pull a few tracks from iTunes to get started, I’d recommend Basement Apt., Lodestar, Silver Road, Pendulums, Almost, I’m a Mountain, Escarpment Blues, The Thief, Captive, and One Match.