sarah harmer - oh little fire

In 1999, I jumped ship from a PhD program in philosophy and moved to Seattle to live with a girl I’d been seeing on and off for years. Having no practical skills of any kind and no employment history to speak of, I was working in customer service at Amazon.com and wondering what I’d do with the rest of my life (fervently hoping it wouldn’t be customer service).

Early 2000 saw my deeply dysfunctional relationship finally explode in a fireball of acrimony, which left me alone in a new city with a crappy job, no experience, no skills, no friends, and several more years under my belt than the other post-collegiate slackers in the same situation.

A little over a month later, I met the woman to whom I’m now married. The day I first kissed her — March 26, the day this happened — marked a pivot point in my life. The ten years preceding were filled with doubt, self-recrimination, and aimlessness. The ten years since have followed a steady trajectory of increasing bliss. It really was that simple and that miraculous.

The wife-to-be and I discovered Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer’s debut album You Were Here in September of that year, just before my 28th birthday. It quickly became one of our favorites and the soundtrack to our falling in love, getting engaged, and getting married. We went to see her play in early 2001, pre-engagement, and I managed to corner her as she tried to go to the bathroom between sets. I quickly, inarticulately, and probably somewhat creepily tried to explain what her album meant to us and asked her to play our favorite song. In her second set, she did, dedicating it to “the guy in the red shirt.”


On March 26, 2001, I proposed. In July, “Open Window” played at our wedding.

This is all to say that some albums are not just albums but experiences, jumbles of memory and feeling that are more than the sum of their musical parts. That mysterious neurochemical alchemy can’t really be replicated, which is why you so often hear people say of their favorite artists, “I liked their earlier stuff better.” It’s not necessarily that the music was better, just that there are feelings of serendipity and intimacy around some albums that are tied to a particular time and circumstance.

Harmer’s follow-up albums in 2004 and 2005 were fairly disappointing, and at that point she more or less went off the grid and devoted herself to environmental activism. I figured she was gone for good.

To my delight, I was wrong. She’s just released a new one, Oh Little Fire, which is far and away the best thing she’s done since her debut. It’s a return to her poppier earlier sound, occasionally to a fault — some of it tries a little too hard to be appealing. But repeated listens have been rewarding and I highly recommend getting it and seeing her live if you can. This song, “Captive,” is the most radio-friendly track on the album, but as an old married guy I’ve come around on the virtues of radio friendliness. There’s a lot to be said for feeling good.