Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).
Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.
(photo of Weeping Tile at Wolfe Island Festival 2007 by Frank Yang, Chromewaves)They say that rock’n’roll is the fountain of youth. Of course it is: at the ripe old age of 39 I wouldn’t still have good friends under the age of 25 unless we both somehow bonded over music.
One such friend, however—though she’s been a fantastic supporter and promoter of live music in Toronto and Montreal for the past five years—gave me blank stares when I told her who was playing my book launch.While dispiriting, that underscores part of the reason why I wanted to have this book in print again. It also proved to me that perhaps some introductions are in order.
Unlike the launch of the first edition in 2001, (which I’ll reminisce about in a later post), we wanted to keep our bill to three bands, ideally reunions of bands from the book to make the night more of an event. Each of the three co-authors got to pick an artist; several had to decline for various reasons, some never got back to us, and some we didn’t get a chance to ask (no hard feelings?) before we landed on the current line-up, which we’re incredibly proud to present.
Today, we’ll look at our headliner (note: they’re playing the middle slot, however, so don’t be late!).
Everyone knows and loves Sarah Harmer for her work in the past 12 years as an award-winning singer/songwriter, composer of intergenerational Canadian classics tailor-made for cottage campfires and homesick expatriates, team player and best bud to people like the Weakerthans, Holy Fuck, Feist, Neko Case, and hundreds more. After her 2005 acoustic album I’m A Mountain, she retreated for several years to focus on environmental lobbying, returning in 2010 with the album Oh Little Fire.
What people might not know or remember is that Harmer first emerged playing electric guitar and fronting Weeping Tile, a rock band that was part Breeders, part Neil Young, and 100% awesome, a band who could convincingly cover both the Replacements and the Beastie Boys (“Sabotage,” anyway). They released two albums on Warner, as well as 1994 EP featuring an early version of her 2000 smash solo hit “Basement Apt.” The band split up amicably in 1998; Harmer went solo and the rest of the band formed Luther Wright and the Wrongs. Since then there have been occasional reunions in Kingston (usually a Christmas benefit show for the Salvation Army), but only one Toronto appearance—which was over 10 years ago. The upcoming book launch show features the 1995 line-up of the band, with sister Mary Harmer on bass alongside Wright and drummer Cam Giroux.
When Harmer’s solo career took off in 2000, I was a bit incredulous. Not because the album You Were Here wasn’t amazing: every track on it was a classic, and the word of mouth was so strong thousands of fans knew every word of those songs when she played on the mainstage of the Hillside festival before it got re-released by a major label.
No, I was shocked because how could all of these people not see before what a huge talent Harmer was from day one? It’s all right there on the first EP (actually a self-released cassette that Warner re-released); every song on there perfectly captures twentysomething angst living in a small, picturesque university town somewhere along the 401. Her voice is a stunning gift, like that of her friends Feist or Neko Case; though none of those three women sound alike, they’re all capable of captivating you with their first note. Listen to the original “Basement Apt.” vocal, the way her voice crackles on the line “below street level / barely alive”—you know she feels that hurt, that ache. As Harmer matured as an artist, she got more professional and better in many ways, but there’s an honesty and an urgency to her Weeping Tile material that still strikes a raw nerve. I love everything she’s ever done, but those records still kick me in the gut.
Gord Downie, who was close friends with several of Harmer’s older siblings when The Tragically Hip was just beginning, recalls hearing a 16-year-old Sarah play for him by the family’s pool near Burlington, Ontario. “Maybe I knew four chords, but she already knew five,” Downie once told me. “After doing 600 gigs that week, I would sing with her in a ragged voice, and she had the voice of a bird. I sensed she had this look on her face like, ‘Jesus, if you can do it, I certainly can.’ But I had nothing to teach her, let's put it that way.” A year later, she was asked to join a rootsy band called the Saddletramps. At Queen’s University in Kingston, she formed Weeping Tile, a band where she was the only consistent member.
By 1998, Weeping Tile was a victim of changing tides in the industry—they hit their stride as the boom was going bust. On her own, Harmer started from scratch the old-fashioned way: playing house shows, selling her albums through mail order from her farmhouse outside Kingston, and winning a whole new audience with just her guitar and her songs. She started out with an album of back-porch, old-timey covers recorded with a friend for her father (Songs For Clem), followed by You Were Here, a more concerted—but not compromised—pop bid that proved wildly successful, going platinum in Canada and even making a fan out of David Letterman.
Harmer was an icon to many I knew—especially female musicians—for who she was as much as for her songs themselves. Most women in rock then were solo artists; few fronted a real band. Most women, as the stereotype goes, opted for softer music; even in the grunge era, few strapped on electric guitars and let loose (there’s a definite PJ Harvey influence on some songs from 1997’s Valentino). Harmer wasn’t a glam girl, nor was she grungy; she was your sister, your friend, the modest performer who shows up at the open mic night and blows everyone away. There were no pretensions there—“unshaven, of course I am”—because there didn’t need to be, with talents and charisma as natural as Harmer’s.
No wonder everyone started lining up to work with her: around the turn of the decade, she seemed to be singing on everybody’s album, especially those who came before her in the CanRock Renaissance and saw a kindred spirit: Rheostatics, Blue Rodeo, Skydiggers, Weakerthans, Neko Case, and a dozen more. In both Weeping Tile and on her own, Harmer wrote with a distinctively Canadian voice, very much a product of the CanRock Renaissance she grew up in.
All of which is why I’m ecstatic that Weeping Tile are playing the book launch for Have Not Been the Same’s 10th anniversary.