SARAH HARMER, opening for the INDIGO GIRLS alongwith KELLY HOGAN, at the Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lakeshore West), Friday (June 16) at 8 pm. $32.50-$45. 870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
That could change, thanks to Harmer's lovely solo album, You Were Here, the major-label interest she concedes she's getting and -- wonder of wonders -- the fact that British radio has somehow discovered the disc, although it's currently available only at shows and on her Web site (www.sarahharmer.com).
Whatever happens with the record, Harmer now knows for certain she's capable of conveying realized musical ideas with or without a band.
Moreover, the Kingston-area singer/songwriter best known as the leader of Weeping Tile powwowed with her inner vocalist during the recording of You Were Here, and she learned some interesting things.
Hoser barking Key among them was the discovery that while howling like a carnival barker will snap 50-swilling hosers in Saskatoon to attention during gigs, turning her voice down low and just purring imbues her lyrics with stunning intimacy.
Listen to rainy-day ballads like Capsized, where Harmer wearily wonders, "What's the sense in being so sensitive/Can I trade this thin skin for a shell?" and you feel like you're flipping through her journal under the covers by flashlight.
"I remember about three or four years ago when people would say, 'Yeah, you've got a great voice,' I'd be kind of disappointed. It was, like, 'I want them to like the songs and to think I have a craft,'" she chuckles over a pint in a Riverdale pub.
"But my voice really has changed quite a lot. When I listen back to early Weeping Tile or Saddle Tramps (Harmer's pre-Tile band), I hear me singing loud. Now it's more down here. But my influences have changed. And I let breath do a lot more work.
"Voices are malleable, just like your ear is malleable. You can't help but pick up on sounds that are around you."
On You Were Here, Harmer gets to stretch, and while the most striking songs tend to be candlelit, there's no fault to be found in a clarinet-juiced corker like Around This Corner or the poppy Basement Apt., an obvious first single and a holdover from early Weeping Tile days.
Originally, Harmer planned to record at the home she shares with fellow musician Luther Wright, but an opportunity to partner with producer Peter Prilesnik proved irresistible.
"We didn't really know each other that well, so we didn't have an established working relationship when we began," she explains. "We just kind of jumped into it, the two of us.
"So yes, there's less of a scrappy, college rock and roll kind of vibe to the record. But there were also fewer people to please. Weeping Tile recordings were a band effort.
Clearly personal "Most of the songs were written after I stopped playing with Weeping Tile" -- they plan to play together again in future. "Even the ones I wrote while I was still in the band seemed independently mine, and very personal."
Though she admits music was a big part of life in the household just outside Burlington where Harmer grew up with her five siblings, it was actually several fortuitous blasts of CanRock that sealed her fate as a professional songwriter.
She recalls having an epiphany at a Crash Vegas gig in Kingston, where she was attending Queens.
"I was watching the show and I just thought, 'I can do that.' And, not having the strongest work ethic...."
Harmer's future career trajectory was probably laid long before that, though, courtesy of her sister Mary.
"I saw the Hip when I was 16," she says. "Mary had this apartment, and when they were just starting out, playing around southern Ontario, they'd use her place as a crash pad. One summer I think we went to see them 20 or 25 times -- so, yes, I was going to bars at 16 -- but it was so awesome. That totally reinforced what I'd always liked about bands. I knew I had to do it."
And so she did, first with roots rockers the Saddle Tramps and then with Weeping Tile. Along the way, Harmer toured the country countless times, got signed by a major label and grew exponentially as a vocalist, composer and musician, amassing almost uniform critical praise along the way.
The You Were Here experience has not only allowed Harmer to experiment with her voice, but it's also permitted her to explore the realities of independent distribution. Though she's done indie before -- notably with her highly personal covers disc, Songs For Clem -- this time it's her own stuff she's selling. Once again, Harmer is reminded that for every benefit of being on a major, there's something to be said for being grassroots.
"Being completely independent lets you know exactly what you can do on your own with the allies you have around you," she says. "I've been around since I was 17, so I have some friends who help out.
"My sister Barb distributed the Songs For Clem album for me. She worked record stores all across Canada, and we got tons of support. It didn't matter if I was affiliated with someone or not.
"I like the hands-on approach. I have my own post office box and I go check my mailbox when I'm home and get those order forms and stuff those CDs into envelopes. I totally dig that.
"I got a great letter from this guy who works in a feed store in Peru, Illinois. It's got, like, this old-dad handwriting, and he's writing, 'I like Songs For Clem. Can you send me your new album and do you have it on cassette?' Beat that."