Gord Downie doesn’t do a lot of press: for his own band, for his solo work, and certainly not about any other subject. But when it comes to his dear friend Sarah Harmer, he was happy to recall times he spent at the Harmer family homestead in Burlington, Ont., when teenage Sarah was being shepherded around Ontario by her older sisters, who went to Queen’s University in Kingston and were friends with a very young Tragically Hip. Ten years ago, when I wrote a large profile of Harmer for Exclaim! magazine, I reached out to Downie, who was quick to respond.
“There seemed to be a sense about Sarah even back then,” Downie told me back in 2006. “She was obviously a quick study. I remember going to the Harmer farmhouse and sitting around the pool, and Sarah had a guitar. Maybe I knew four chords, but she already knew five. 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.”
Harmer soon started singing backups in a local band called the Saddletramps, and started writing songs for what would be Weeping Tile, her first band, formed once she herself went off to Queen’s. Her solo career launched in 1999, followed by Juno nominations, Polaris Music Prize shortlist spots, and guest appearances on some of the most beloved Canadian rock records of the last 20 years. In 2002, she recorded a song with the Tragically Hip, “Silver Road,” and later sang backups on the title track of their 2012 release Now for Plan A.
The Tragically Hip were very formative for you not just musically, but on a personal level as well, yes?
A. My sister Mary was good friends with the band, and she’d take me around to see them during the summer I was 16, which would have been 1987. I’d see them at Nag’s Head North [in Toronto] and Kincardine and in Hamilton and Call the Office in London and some beach town in front of a tiny crowd. We’d hang out a lot.
Were you seeing a lot of other bands at the time, or were they your baptism?
A. That was it. My friend worked at a record store in Burlington and I really liked R.E.M. and a lot of music, but I didn’t go to see much. I was 16, so I wasn’t in bars unless I knew the band and could get in.
What do you remember about those early gigs?
A. They were just so good at building an energy. They wrote different set lists every night. They never called it in. It felt new every night. I was just blown away, and then I was able to hang out with them in the band room. They were larger than life. Downie has become more animated than the early days, but he’s still the same charismatic performer. And as a whole, that band is really the result of each individual member. If one member was not a part of it, it wouldn’t be the Hip. They’re all crucial to the whole thing.
Any distinct personal memories?
A. One night when I was 17 or so the Hip were playing in Hamilton, and I hadn’t gone to the show because I’d been at the Twilight Zone in Toronto with my friends dancing all night. I have this incredibly vivid memory of pulling up my parents’ driveway and seeing the band’s van. It was dawn. I knew they were staying there after the gig; my parents were away. There were all these soaking clothes next to the pool, and I just assumed someone fell into the pool. So I hung all the clothes on the line. Later that day I realized they were Gord’s totally gross, sweat-drenched stage clothes.
How do you think their music evolved?
A. Though I’ve been a student of their music for a long time, even I feel like there’s a lot of stuff there that I haven’t uncovered. As with any music that one feels quite close to, I’m very critical, too. I care a lot. I pay a lot of attention. And because I’m a musician aspiring to write good stuff and put on good shows, I’m hyperaware of what they’re doing and what they’re putting out. But listening now in a less critical way, I’m appreciating and admiring it even more. They put out so much music and I feel like I’ll still be getting to know it for quite a while. There’s going to be an enduring reveal. It’s weird now, because to put a finite stamp on it changes your perceptions of everything.
How do you think the band changed from Day for Night onward?
A. Once you reach any kind of peak, I’m sure you say, “Okay, that was great, now let’s get good at something else, or promote some other elements.” It’s been an interesting balance between crowd-pleasing immediacy and fist-clenching anthemic stuff, with the recognition of much more subtle emotion and storytelling and sensitivity.
Downie’s lyrics are one thing to experience on a record, but to hear 30,000 people sing that third verse of “Courage,” the passage he lifts from Hugh MacLennan, is incredibly powerful—and unusual, to hear how this deeply philosophical statement really strikes people.
A. Yeah, and melody really strikes people, too. No offence to Hugh MacLennan, but you don’t even have to know or understand any deep philosophy that’s being espoused, you can just have the feeling of those words together, and that you know them and can sing along with that melody with your fist up in the air. It’s a wild vehicle for sentiment, because it’s so powerful on the musical front. But maybe I’m not giving people in the audience enough credit for actually thinking about what they’re singing, but it’s awesome when a rock’n’roll groove and melody can transport something from Barometer Rising or whatever [ed: it’s from 1958’s The Watch That Ends the Night] into [Toronto’s] Molson Ampitheatre and have people just owning it.
What do you make of the fact that in this country we have people like the Tragically Hip, like the Weakerthans, like Rush—beloved rock bands with lyrics that stray so far from the clichés of the genre and become, for lack of a better word, hoser anthems that are not just for dorky book nerds? The poetry of “bro-etry,” if you will?
A.I was just thinking of Rush. I went to see Rush a few years ago, because my record label guy in the States really wanted to go. We had crazy good seats. It was fascinating watching the crowd—mostly men—who were so moved by these really esoteric lyrics. I don’t know Neil Peart’s lyrics super well, but they’re not that straightforward to me. I thought, s–t, if we could just motivate all these people to care about clean water or energy transition. Look at the power here—this is f–king awesome! Music is amazing, because you get to take it into your office or your living room or wherever you get to know it, and later you bring all those personal connections into a room with thousands and thousands of people.
As someone who still lives in the Kingston area, how have you seen their impact on their hometown?
A. I really admire their character as citizens. They’ve done a lot of generous fundraising and they get the word out for various Kingston community initiatives for kids camps or health care stuff. They don’t wait to see what someone else will do. They’re really great leaders on that front. They came to the [protest against Enbridge’s] Line 9 show I put on a few years ago. Gord does so much Waterkeeper stuff. They were involved in [protesting clearcuts at] Clayoquot Sound [in the early ’90s]. It’s hard sometimes to use the capital you have as a beloved rock band and put it to various causes, especially when they’re a bit more controversial, like energy issues.
What about on the musical community in Kingston?
A. My drummer right now, who was also the first drummer in Weeping Tile, Jon McCann, told me that [Hip drummer] Johnny Fay took drum lessons from [McCann’s] dad, who taught a lot of the drummers in Kingston. He said that when he was in Grade 9, the Hip were the model; the goal was to get an agent and gig as much as possible. Jon said his band would get three-night gigs in Picton [an hour’s drive west of Kingston] every week—and he was 15. The work ethic was there. The Hip was setting the course. And that had an effect on me, too. I remember hanging out with Gord and [his wife] Laura at Ultrasound [in Toronto] one night and he had just seen [Harmer’s first band] the Saddletramps play. I was on the edge of whether to go to university or stay in Toronto and play with this band. Gord and Laura were trying to tell me that I should go to university, because I’d never have that kind of experience again. But after the set, Gord was like, “Huh! Good band!” All the guys in the Saddletramps worked, had 9-5 full-time jobs. I was 18, 19 at the time and I just wanted to get a van and cross Canada. I know it was because I had that example of the Hip as real people who were living the rock’n’roll dream. [ed: Harmer did end up going to Queen’s.]
So many musicians talk about the Tragically Hip’s generosity.
A. That’s just who they are. I remember getting up and singing with them at Mile One arena in St. John’s. It was such an honour that they asked me, but all I could think of was, “But I’m such a fan!” Later I sang on one of their records, that was awesome. They are very unassuming. I didn’t even know I was going there to sing; I was just going there for a barbecue! When I went over with the song “Silver Road” to record with them, I didn’t have it totally written, but it was a great experience. Those guys are all very brotherly. They’re all sensitive guys. I’ve known their parents over the years, too, they’re all good people. That comes through in their ethics and how they’ve played out their career for more than 30 years.
MORE: We’re following the Tragically Hip—and their fans—across Canada
What do you make of the decision to go public with the news of Gord’s illness and to go on the road?
A. It seems quite normal to me, to put out a record and go on tour—especially if you’re the Tragically Hip. One of the things that defined them for a long time was the amount of touring they did: the amount of this country and this continent that they saw. I remember early on thinking, “Oh man, I want to make a lot of money so that I can buy those guys a vacation.” That was before I was in a touring band. In a way, [this tour] seems like the regular go-to thing to do. None of us know how many days we have left, but to have a finite stamp on it does change your perceptions of everything. I’m really happy the tour is going well and everyone is sharing the gift of these experiences, the bravery of living in the moment.
A. Despite everything that is going on our climate and injustice in our country, we can’t forget to come together celebrate the number of times the Tragically Hip helped bring us together and have our hearts moved. That is us honouring the life force, whatever that is. Celebrating is a duty.
Michael Barclay is the co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-95