SARAH HARMER at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge), Monday and Tuesday (April 26 and 27). $32. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Sarah Harmer's schedule may be booked solid, but she still finds time to spark up a joint. Besides today's breakfast interviews and photo shoot, she's gearing up for a week-long European tour. She's out of clean laundry and can't find time to scrounge up a hot outfit for the Bravo show she's taping later tonight.
It's only 90 seconds out of her day, but you get the sense that her solitary toke is the only moment of me-time the Kingston-based singer/songwriter's gonna get for quite a while. When you're a Great White Hope with a new album to promote in the floundering Canadian music industry, you've got to make sacrifices.
"There's not much I can think of from when I was starting out that I wish I still had," the waifish 30-something says slowly, after opting to stick with the basic black ensemble she threw on for this morning's photo shoot, "except maybe the lack of bags under my eyes. That's probably all I miss right now."
We're grabbing a quick bite at a mom-and-pop café in the gallery district before sound check, and as Harmer picks cukes and tomatoes out of her veggie sandwich, I wonder what else she's given up.
A decade ago, Harmer captured collegiate anomie with her band Weeping Tile, kicking out crunchy alterna-rock jams about midnight bottle tokes, drunken hookups and Parry Sound camp-outs in clunky farm boots. Signed to Atlantic by the woman who managed the Breeders and Courtney Love, Weeping Tile closed shows with bassist Sticky wailing Beastie Boys covers while Harmer bashed away at the drum kit.
Now it's 2004, and she's driving a Saab - all right, it's a hand-me-down from her brother-in-law. All Of Our Names, her tastefully stark new record, builds from the hushed vibe of 2000's breakout You Were Here, ditching feedback entirely for folkie introspection, while her airbrushed image gazes peacefully from TV spots and magazine ads.
At tonight's Live At The Rehearsal Hall show, a MOR concert set in a dolled-up Bravo studio, she'll play for a crowd of well-coiffed yuppies and breathless SUV moms.
Has the scrappy rocker chick lost her alterna-edge?
"I think the music is much more cross-generational now," she offers. "My friend's 80-year-old mom and her friends are coming to our show in Kingston. I know we're not just talking about age, but I definitely don't think All Of Our Names is easy-listening stuff."
Harmer pauses, choosing her words carefully.
"I don't see myself as a lonely, melancholy songwriter, but I know that's come across to some people. Maybe there's some sentiment that seems a little sad or something. I feel like I'm drawing on a lot of styles and influences I've liked over the years."
Harmer exudes a weird, evasive tension that your average cookie-cutter pop tart lacks. Years of media wrangling have made her a total pro with the press. I watch her deliver sassy sound bites to a Citytv interviewer with a charming grin like it's second nature.
But she's also got a resistance to playing along, a certain emotional depth that's hinted at in the newly forthright, raw lyrics of All Of Our Names.
Ask a question that cuts too close to the bone - like the origin of the wannabe cheatin' heart breakup story in her tune Came On Lion - and you can see it in her eyes, giant hazel-green pools that flicker and cloud over as she pulls back. It sets her apart from other Canadian pop star success stories - that and her talent.
That resistance surfaces during the Bravo taping, when smarm-meister host Lance Chilton taunts her for taking a three-year hiatus between albums. Harmer grits her teeth and fires back a veiled retort about Dan Lanois, refusing to play the role of eye-batting, dim-witted chick with a guitar.
Tough elegance, claims Harmer, is the crux of her personality.
"Growing up, I was a tomboy girl. Stamina was hot. 'I can carry that shit. I can drink as many beers as you. '" Her eyes light up.
"I wanted to be tough, thinking it was a bit of a handicap to be a girl, which is weird, cuz we grew up with five girls and one boy. None of us was soft. My mom's like that - maybe it's a genetic thing that we strive to be hardy. Maybe too much so, to the point where we don't really ask for help enough. I'd like to think I've relaxed a bit more about that, but I still like being able to be independent."
It's the same spirit that motivated Harmer to record All Of Our Names in her self-described "slanty shanty" home outside of Kingston with co-producer/partner Marty Kinack instead of heading to some big-budget city studio.
She compares their process to giving herself a DIY haircut with a pair of nail clippers.
"I wasn't going to a salon, I wasn't gonna get a cut like anybody else, I wasn't asking the professionals. Yeah, it's tedious at times and uneven and all that shit, but I had to have the confidence to go for it."
That conscientious DIY attitude is something Harmer attributes to her rural upbringing. Along with a love of music - Harmer's next project is a collaboration with her dad, entitled Songs With Clem, a follow-up to the set of old-timey standards she recorded for her father in 1999 (see sidebar) - her parents raised her with a strong environmental consciousness, a sense of responsibility for how she interacted with the world.
"We didn't sit around the dinner table talking about Marxism, obviously," she explains. "They were too busy raising kids and running a farm and being regular people to get overly intellectual. But I think it's ingrained in me - what you eat is political, how you deal with waste is political."
You can see the thread of grassroots politics running throughout Harmer's work, from the mining disaster reportage of Weeping Tile's Westray to the quietly furious anti-capitalism of 1st Lady, which she reworked for her GASCD album to benefit Quebec City FTAA protestors.
Though All Of Our Names seems like Harmer's most personal album, with lyrics cribbed, as she sheepishly admits, "from the big old book of me," it also contains some of her most powerful political sentiments.
It could be because they focus less on abstract indignation and more on Harmer's own sense of human potential and fallibility. Even Dandelions In Bullet Holes, the epic, pacifist ballad from which the album's title is lifted, rides "the line between hope and despair."
Perhaps Harmer's new groove, then, is less about losing her edge than about growing up and realizing smoking BTs in a basement is a helluva lot less productive than trying to challenge the system.
She thinks so.
"With songwriting , or whatever I do - I'm in my 30s now - it's not up to my parents anymore, and I've gotta do stuff. I've gotta do something to help the world. I do think music can be a powerfully understated, subtle message to move you in one direction."
Back in 2000, Sarah Harmer launched her post-Weeping Tile solo career with a quaint collection of old-timey standards recorded in the country with her Jason Euringer. Songs For Clem was intended as a homemade gift for her dad, but after Harmer released it in 1999, the album was so popular that Harmer started working on a follow-up. This time around, her dad's chipping in harmonies on the disc, called - you guessed it - Songs With Clem.
"My dad's got a beautiful, beautiful voice, and we hadn't recorded it onto tape anywhere," she confesses.
Songs With Clem is still heavy on the old standards, she quickly adds, "cuz my dad insisted we should do songs people know. He said people'd only like the album if they knew the songs. So I told him he could pick the covers."
But when Clem suggested she try her hand at the Bette Midler chestnut The Rose, Harmer told him, "We're never gonna go near that. Can you imagine?"
Harmer's not the first musical daughter who's collaborated with her pops for fun and profit. Here are a few other father-daughter combos.
Natalie Cole & Nat King Cole
After snagging a best new artist Grammy nod back in 1975, Natalie spent much of the 80s wailing forgettable R&B cheese. In 1991, she exhumed her father's voice for the platinum-selling Unforgettable: With Love, on which she belted versions of Unforgettable and When I Fall In Love over recordings of her dead dad. Creepily lucrative.
Nancy Sinatra & Frank Sinatra
Egged on by producer/Svengali Lee Hazlewood, Nancy hooked up with Papa Blue Eyes in 1967 to collaborate on the single Something Stupid. The record sold a million copies and gave both Sinatras a boost. It was the biggest hit either singer ever charted; pop tart Nancy earned a hint of credibility, and ole Frankie got to pander to young rock 'n' roll kids .
Rosanne cash & Johnny Cash
The centrepiece of Rosanne Cash's most recent album, last year's Rules Of Travel, was the achingly beautiful September When It Comes, a bittersweet country duet with her ole dad that now sounds like a prescient eulogy. But intergenerational combos are nothing new for the country clan: Carlene Carter, daughter of June (and ex-wife of Nick Lowe), dueted with her rockabilly father, Carl Smith, on 1995's Little Acts Of Treason.
Shana Morrison & Van Morrison
It's sad when rock stars' kids snag recording contracts on the strength of their parents' music - whether or not they have the talent to back it up. Van Morrison refused to let his kid Shana make music till she graduated from university with a business degree. But when she decided to cover two of his tunes - Sometimes We Cry and Naked In The Jungle - for 2002's 7 Wishes, Shana's father added his bluesy harmonies to the former, the bright spot on a mediocre album. Ozzy Osbourne took his cue from Van a few years later and helped out with pouty Kelly's re-released Changes.