Published Feb 19, 2020On a crisp winter morning in Campbellville, ON, it's bright and sunny inside the Trail Eatery, a cozy joint down the road from where Sarah Harmer grew up in Burlington.
She's been reading a book (arborist William Bryant Logan's Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees) at a table by herself, as other customers quietly munch on eggs and toast, obliviously drinking their coffee while one of North America's finest songwriters sits in their midst.
Maybe they don't see her because she's been away from us a while. Harmer's stunning new album, Are You Gone, is her first since 2010's Oh Little Fire. In the ten years between, she was up to big things.
"[I knew] in the back of my mind that I wanted to keep singing — that it was something I should be doing," she says. "But I was very distracted by pipeline issues, environmental concerns and small-scale organizing of community groups, which really takes as much time as you have.
"I played drums in Music Mall, a Kingston band," Harmer adds, referring to the city she's lived in, or near, for decades now. "I learned a bunch of different skills. In the back of my mind, yeah, I did want to come back to making a record, but I was daunted by the one-time try you get recording a song. It was the hardest decision-making realm of my life."
Harmer did sporadically write songs over the past decade, and then in 2017, she connected with Marcus Paquin, a Montreal-based producer, whom she only knew for his work on Aidan Knight's Each Other, which she appreciates. Paquin wound up being a quiet but encouraging shepherd for Are You Gone, quelling Harmer's second-guessing tendencies during the sessions.
Upon hearing the rough mixes, her friend Howie Beck was so effusive about the songs, Harmer thought she might be onto something. The result is an infectious, but haunting record.
"Are You Gone, to me, felt like it could be applied to a bunch of the songs because there are ghosts — people I write about here — who aren't in my life anymore, but they're still in my mind," she says of the album title. "The idea of energy, life force that we're all surrounded by, and the idea of our feelings for them still existing, even though the physical manifestation has moved on."
For many of us, the ghost in Harmer's "What I Was to You" is sadly familiar: the late Gord Downie.
"He's around," she says. "The first line is actually about another friend of ours, Phil, who was dying. I didn't finish it and had put it away. And then Gord gets diagnosed. I ended up writing about being a 16-year-old and seeing the Hip. My sister was friends with him, and they took me under their wing.
"Gord was a huge influence on me," Harmer adds, studying the bottom of her coffee cup. "Not too consciously, but just because I was listening to him a lot. It's pretty deep in the cortex, but he was definitely a huge one for me."
Are You Gone comes out on February 21 on Arts & Crafts.
Listen to this entire interview with Sarah Harmer via the Kreative Kontrol podcast via Apple Podcasts or below.