A Personal History of Music, Day 10: “Basement Apartment” by Sarah Harmer

John Scalzi

I don’t usually turn to Time for musical recommendations, but in late 2000, I happened to have a subscription to the magazine and the magazine, in turn, happened to recommend Sarah Harmer’s album You Were Here as the top debut album of 2000, and one of the top ten albums of the year. The next time I was CD shopping — kids, at the turn of the century we actually went to stores to purchase music, on small silver discs — I saw Sarah Harmer staring up at me from a playground swing on the cover of her album and decided, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.

I’m happy to say Time magazine did not steer me wrong: You Were Here is indeed a terrific album, and Sarah Harmer quickly became one of my favorite songwriters. Harmer’s lyrics are observational, smart, and, depending on song, painfully wry or gorgeously sweeping. It’s not difficult to believe that at some early point in her life, Harmer was the girl in the corner at the party, guitar possibly in hand, watching the crowd and sorting her thoughts into song form for later. You Were Here in particular seems to fix a particular moment in time and place: The early twenties of the North American (Harmer is Canadian), when one is either about to or has left college — with a degree or without one — and is wondering what the hell happens now.

No song on the album typifies this better than “Basement Apartment,” in which the narrator resides in one of those shitty, barely-livable university-adjacent addresses, with one or more people, who may or may not skip out on rent because you’re the only one actually on the lease. It’s squalor! But it’s genteel squalor, and it’s probably temporary, unless it’s not, and suddenly it’s ten years later, and you’re still in that apartment, with new but not necessarily better roommates.

The song hit for me because I did live in that apartment — or one not unlike it — in the space between my last year of college and moving on to my first job. It was the apartment I rented with a bunch of friends, most of whom went home after graduation, so it was filled with subletters for the summer. They were nice people, if I recall correctly (it’s been a few years). But it’s not like they were vetted for being nice people. They were vetted for being able to cover a share of the rent. Harmer’s song vividly took me back to that moment in my life; the interstitial moment between what has happened and what comes next. It still takes me back, more than twenty years later.

So thanks, Time magazine. You got this one right.

(As a coda to this particular story, I’ll note that after two decades, I finally got to see Sarah Harmer live in concert through a slightly coincidental set of circumstances — she was going to be in concert in Santa Monica the same weekend I was scheduled to be in Los Angeles for the LA Times Festival of Books. I ditched all my friends in the hotel bar and went to see her and her band instead. They were fabulous. And they played “Basement Apartment.”)

— JS

8 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 10: “Basement Apartment” by Sarah Harmer”

  1. Well, I learned I Sarah Harmer, if I recall correctly, from the long gone and much-missed IndieCrit site.

    Her music is terrific. And she’s a solid follow on The Twitters too.

  2. I first heard of Sarah when she co-performed CAPTAIN WEDDERBURN wiht Great Big Sea.

    That caused me to look into her music, and I discovered Basement Apartment.

    Good day.

  3. I’ve been a fan of Sarah since the mid 90s, with her band Weeping Tile. I went to see Weeping Tile a few times, and they always rocked. Much of the material on You Were Here was actually just Weeping Tile songs that Sarah had written, re-recorded with the original Weeping Tile band members.

  4. I note that every single song that you’ve listed so far is from a female vocalist.

    I sometimes wonder why my own music collection (physical media) is heavily slanted toward male performers (guessing probably 80/20 or perhaps a smidge more male). This preponderance doesn’t mean that I don’t love female vocalists (I do, and I certainly have my share of favorites), but I guess – being male – I identify with my own gender more as a listener.

    So – out of curiosity, what would you guess the gender-split of your physical collection is, and what thoughts (if any) do you have about that?

  5. Physical media – tapes, CDs, LPs, etc (I suppose because is that a basic form of evaluation; i.e., spending money on a single piece of media, versus streaming)

  6. I picked up that same album, but I think it was a random buy for me. On a few occasions, I walked through the store and just bought whatever caught my eye and I think Sarah Harmer’s CD was one of those.

    Unlike Dutch above, I didn’t find her through Great Big Sea but I was pleasantly surprised to hear her perform with them.

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