An interview with Sarah Harmer

This setting would be a daunting one for any artist. However Canadian folk songstress Sarah Harmer seemed none too discouraged sitting in the shade along the Bow River, hours before hitting the main stage at the 2003 Calgary Folk Music Festival.

If playing in front of a crowd nearing 10,000 people wasn’t enough, the Kingston, Ontario native found herself playing alongside music legends like Daniel Lanois, Ani DiFranco and Ian Tyson. Artists she readily admits are considerably more accomplished than herself.

"It is a little intimidating seeing my name up on that big screen," says Harmer, referring to the jumbo-tron-like screens on each side of the main stage field. "But I think everybody thinks of themselves as just little old so-and-so. There’s someone like Ian Tyson and ‘Four Strong Winds,’ a song I grew up learning, but there’s real camaraderie that doesn’t seem to have any hierarchy at all. The folk festival is really good for musicians to just get together with one another–it’s like camp."

However, Harmer isn’t just another so-and-so. With two albums behind her (Songs for Clem, her solo debut cover album, and the Juno-winning You Were Here), collaborations with a host of artists such as Canadian rock icons The Tragically Hip and sizable followings in both Canada and south of the border, Harmer is hardly a nobody.

This was no where more apparent than in her performance on the main stage on the festival’s closing night. Harmer energized Prince’s Island Park with a full band behind her, playing tried and true hits like "Basement Apartment" and "Don’t Get Your Back Up," as well as unfamiliar songs from her anticipated new album, due out next year.

With such a variety of set-ups and formats at the festival–from Ani DiFranco’s solo performance the night before to Blue Rodeo’s horn-backed set earlier in the day–Harmer needn’t worry about conforming to the ideal of the folk fest performance: there isn’t one. Coming off the heels of a Canadian solo tour, she opted instead to "shake things up," backed by a full and, at times, electric band. Either approach works, she says, depending on the artist.

"With Ani, [playing solo] works. She didn’t need accompaniment as far as I was concerned," says Harmer, who made sure she caught DiFranco’s set the night before her own. "She’s so percussive with her guitar playing, and she’s got so much going on, that it’s completely well-rounded and completely satisfying for me. But before her, Kathleen Edwards and her band seemed totally appropriate too."

Outside of touring and festival performances, Harmer has also entered a new territory in the realm of recording. Currently working on a new album to be released in January, she’s transformed her house outside Kingston into her own private studio. This unfettered access to a personal recording space has transformed the record-making process, allowing her to become more involved in the instrumentation of the upcoming record, among other things.

"I’ve been laying drums and guitar, and playing a lot of different instruments on the album," she says, adding this means songs aren’t recorded live, allowing her to play multiple parts in one song. "Sometimes I’m the entire rhythm section. It’s a little less rock and roll, since you’re not creating it in the moment and creating that magic, and it’s a little more detail oriented and stretched out, but it’s been good for me to say, ‘I really want to do this melody on guitar,’ and really take control."

This type of environment, with all the comforts of home, also leads to sometimes welcome distractions. For Harmer, much to her label’s dismay, this has meant enjoying the nature that surrounds her home.

"I live in the country just outside of Kingston, so I’ve been taking up bird watching. I love planting trees–I just bliss-out in the natural world that is my backyard. And I’ve been paying lots of ping pong, let me tell you," she says with a laugh.

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