Arts & Life, Music

Sarah Harmer: A song-writing experience

Kids always want to be the same things when they grow up – cowboy, rock star, mermaid – influenced by TV and Disney movies, no doubt. Eventually, however, as these kids do grow up they grow out of these dreams and into reality, where mermaids do not exist…or so we’re told.

I, for one, wanted to be a rock star. In my younger days I would put together “bands” with my friends and make my dad let us sing at church on Sundays. I picked up a guitar when I was 11, when my dad’s way of teaching me was by tossing me a chord book and saying, “learn these, and then you can play songs,” which I did.  And, unlike most other kids, this dream continued until I was roughly 16.

When I finally did ditch my childhood dream of becoming a world-renown musician, it wasn’t because it was unfeasible, as many would tell me. It was my realization that I would have to eventually write my own songs that shared my own feelings. Thankfully, there have been many with the same dream who actually possessed the courage to see these dreams through, and now bring us all the music we know and love today.

Sarah Harmer, a Canadian singer/songwriter, is one such individual. She was recently in Winnipeg to receive the Winnipeg Folk Festival’s 2012 Artistic Achievement Award, putting her name among many greats, like Buffy Sainte-Marie and my personal favourite, Bruce Cockburn. In addition, she participated in one of the Winnipeg Folk Fest’s education and outreach programs, Musical Mentors.

I was invited to attend the press release of this program at R.B. Russell school, so I made my way down to the North End last week to meet Sarah Harmer and hear what song-writing wisdom she had to share with the young musicians at the school. Walking into the music room, Sarah Harmer sat in front of a row of these kids eagerly waiting with their guitars and drumsticks in hand with their long, classic rock star hairstyles.

They took turns asking her questions on song writing, which Harmer described as a “mysterious and personal process,” making me cringe and the kids nod along in agreement.  She admitted that it wasn’t always her dream to become a singer, but that it came later in university when she attended live shows, which became her inspiration. She started playing guitar at age 17 and has been writing songs for just as long.

Harmer advised that song writing doesn’t have to be complicated and that some of the best songs come from playing and writing more simply. Her main piece of guidance was just enjoying the process, because music is like the “service industry,” as it “[moves] people and [makes] them feel better…so if you’re having a good time…it becomes contagious.”

However, the most contagious thing about the afternoon was the enthusiasm of these kids. I envied their confidence, not only in the questions they were asking, but in their own talent. After Harmer played them one of her tunes, “The City,” they exchanged their own songs they had been working on, without hesitation. Complimenting and encouraging one another, and offering to assist in adding lyrics to their chord progressions.

Every adult in the room, including Sarah Harmer, seemed mesmerized by these kids and their courage. And rather than it being a question-and-answer period between student and mentor, it turned out to be a conversation between songwriters – and, it would seem, a pick-up attempt by one of the students, who would drop delicate compliments here and there, referring to Harmer’s music as “bliss to [his] ears,” as well as his captivation by her strumming style.

Winnipeg Folk Festival is doing these kids at R.B. Russell, and other schools in the city, a great service with the Musical Mentors program. Harmer expressed that, like her hometown of Kingston, Winnipeg is great place to work on and develop individual music as it is “geographically isolated from big cities,” which provides less distraction for a song writer to “hunker down and create their own world.”

I left the school feeling as inspired by these kids as I did by Sarah Harmer, yet the thought of exposing my inner thoughts and feelings to the world still makes me shudder. My dad, with his progressive teaching methods, has attempted to motivate me to write my own music by banning me from playing anything that isn’t original – no covers allowed in this household. Unfortunately for him, I’ve always been the rebel of the family…or at least I like to think so.

I will always be thankful for the music I grew up with and I will always have music in my life. However, much to my father’s dismay, it is unlikely my soul will ever be laid bare through song. I will leave those childhood dreams to be fulfilled by these kids at R.B. Russell, and maybe, one day, I will see them on the Young Performers Stage at Winnipeg Folk Festival.


Karmen Wells is an intern at the Spectator Tribune as the social media editor. Follow her on Twitter @araenae