Mountain range

Halifax-bound Sarah Harmer finds her roots---and her protest singer---on I’m a Mountain. Shannon Webb-Campbell reaches the story’s summit.

You are here Sarah Harmer performs at the Rebecca Cohn this Saturday.

“It’s going to be very acoustic,” says Sarah Harmer, calling from her home just outside Kingston, Ontario. “I’m playing with my band, it will be more like a kitchen-party tour, not much electric, with a clarinet, accordion, mandolin and stand-up bass. We’ll be playing a lot of songs from my latest record.”

Harmer hits the Rebecca Cohn on September 23. Heavily based on bluegrass, folk and stripped-down simplicity, her latest collection (and Polaris Prize nominee) I’m a Mountain is as picturesque as its title. By roaming deep into the woods of her imagination, Harmer relays tales of a country boy’s troubles with “Luther’s Got The Blues,” pays homage to country kitten Dolly Parton on “Will He Be Waiting For Me” (Parton sent a Valentine fax to Harmer stating she loved the tribute) and penned a lullaby-like protest song, “Escarpment Blues,” to save the grassy wetlands on the outskirts of the Niagara region.

“The title track ‘I’m a Mountain’ is a song of encouragement, it’s somewhat goofy, tongue-in-cheek,” explains Harmer. “It was one of those songs I had kicking around. My friend Luther, of Luther Wright and the Wrongs, used to play it. Southern Ontario is very flat. Sometimes the escarpment is called the mountain—it’s the topographical feature.”

Last summer’s “I Love The Escarpment Tour” had keyboardist Julie Fader, stand-up bassist Jason Euringer, clarinet/accordionist Spencer Evans and mandolin/guitarist Joey Wright hiking a portion of the escarpment’s rugged 770-kilometre Bruce Trail.

“The tour was a success from my expectations,” she says. “We brought my friend Andy Keen to film a two-minute documentary. We’re just finishing the final edit of the Escarpment Blues doc. It should be available on Halloween.”

Once Harmer branched out from the scrappy, gritty sounds of Weeping Tile, she added 1999’s back-porch jam session Songs for Clem, Time magazine’s album of the year You Were Here (2000) and 2004’s All of our Names to her solo catalogue. Clem Harmer lends vocals to Mountain’s “Oleander” and “Goin’ Out” (written for an AIDS vigil), though plans for an entire album with her father, dubbed Songs with Clem, have fallen through.

“My dad sings on a few tracks. I realized if my dad had his way we would cover songs like ‘The Rose’ and ‘Morning Has Broken,’” she says. “I found a way for him to sing on the new songs instead. We also did a duet for iTunes—“Blue Spanish Eyes”—you get to hear the real crooner in my dad. This way we avoid cheesiness.”

Recently Harmer switched gears and made her acting debut, starring in Anita Doron’s poetic drama The End of Silence. A tale of love, language, culture and friendship, Nora (Harmer) finds an unusual bond in her ex-husband’s mistress Dyra (Ekaterina Chtchelkanova), a Russian ballerina challenged by the language barrier.

“Anita’s character Nora wasn’t me, but when I read her beautiful words I couldn’t help but to try,” she says. “When you’re dealing with someone else’s art you have to be more sensitive than with your own. Sometimes you have to fake it, there is no time for indecision or weak knees. You just have to buck up.”

Currently, Harmer is enjoying some quiet time at her farmhouse on the outskirts of Kingston, planning to tend to the garden and plant trees before winter comes. A few melodies have flowed through her fingertips, though she seems to be experiencing a bout of writer’s block.

“I’ve lived here for 10 years now,” she says. “I’m so fortunate to have so much space. I like the city, but you have to share the city with other people. I’m working on a song now where the city is the main character.

“The city is so well-trodden and burdened, there are so many people, I can’t make it mine like the natural world. I have a handful of songs I wrote on tour. I get kind of focused on tour. I have moments where I hear these songs with drums and bass. My aspirations are to fucking write some words. I aspire for the courage to write some lyrics.”

Sarah Harmer, September 23 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $32.50, 494-3890.

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