GEORGIA HARMER'S TOUR DIARY
FROM DECEMBER 2018 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Baden-Baden or bust
Georgia Harmer is seeing the world from a remarkable spot: behind the microphone, singing backup on Alessia Cara’s European tour. In this WEP exclusive, the 19-year-old Harmer, who won the spot over hundreds of other musicians, shares her first glimpse of life on the road and describes what it’s like to find your voice while singing someone else’s songs
SAT., OCT. 27, 2018
PEARSON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Last night, we left Toronto at 9 p.m., three hours after boarding the biggest plane I’ve ever been on. I watched three movies while we flew, and by the end, my eyes stung. I got a little drunk from the tiny plastic bottle of red wine I was given – I refused the plastic cup – and cried a little. I often do when travelling, because it makes me aware of the passing of time. The feeling of missing is a very comfortable place for me.
We arrived in London at what felt like 3 a.m. but was really 8 a.m., exhausted and having trouble speaking, thinking and containing laughter. We were so out of it that we actually went the wrong way, following some adorable British children to their connecting flight, going all the way through security again for no reason.
When we eventually found ourselves at U.K. customs, the border officer was very impressed that we would be playing BBC Radio 1. I thought it would be funny to say, “This is the first we’ve heard of that!” We find it hilarious that we often don’t know what show we’re playing until we’re playing it.
SUN., OCT. 28
Today was our first day in London. Emily and I woke up simultaneously at 3 a.m., after falling asleep two hours before. There was no use trying to sleep any longer, so we got up slowly and watched the sky get lighter outside the hotel window. We rushed downstairs to catch breakfast at 7 a.m., 10 minutes before our call time.
Then the three of us backup singers, Alessia, her best friend and assistant, her guitar player and tour manager all piled into two big black sprinter vans and headed to the studio of a British TV show called Sunday Brunch. A woman who described her chic outfit as teddy-bear-inspired led us to a dressing room full of digestive cookies and candles. People arrived to describe the concept of the show to Alessia: Every Sunday morning, a different group of famous people cook and talk and a musical guest wraps up the show.
We changed into our all-black outfits and rehearsed on a set that felt like a Barbie mansion. Everyone kept calling us darling. While the rest of the show was taping, we took naps under our coats in the dressing room. We sat in a circle and passed around a guitar, each of us singing an original song while the rest of us harmonized parts we had come to know. When we were about to tape, I fell behind and didn’t know how to get into the studio. The makeup artist led me right through the door with no fuss about noise, and turned around to ask me in a very soft voice if I was okay. The guy at the rehearsal space yesterday asked me the same thing, the same way, and I didn’t understand him, not remembering where I was or what British accents sounded like. We taped our part of the show, a stripped-down acoustic version of Alessia’s newest single, “Trust My Lonely,” then sat on stools in the living room of the Barbie mansion, watching one of the strange and funny guests make a tart.
After lunch, we arrived at the BBC building. We went upstairs to the live-session studio and recorded acoustic versions of two songs, with piano and our four voices. The camera guys looked and talked like characters from Skins. We listened back to the songs after just one take. They wanted it to sound organic. We accepted our mistakes.
MON., OCT. 29
I’m sitting in a pub, drinking a Guinness by myself. I spent the last two and a half hours walking to Kensington Gardens. I listened to Queen’s “Love of My Life” over and over while I walked. When I got there, the sun had nearly set. The light was very faint and it was hard to see into the distance. Right away I noticed how open the sky was. An open sky makes it easy to breathe. I walked up a winding path, following a sign that read “Sunken Gardens.” I liked the sound of that: darker than a secret garden. The name of a forgotten place. The Sunken Garden was several feet lower than the path surrounding it, which was covered by an arch of branches with gates opening inward. A clear pond with a little fountain was framed by rose bushes on all four sides. I found a bench on the far side and sat, listening to the trickling of the fountain and the sounds of people talking in the distance.
WED., OCT. 31
Yesterday, our second day off in London, I woke up halfway through the day after unintentionally staying up until 5 a.m., and went to a cafe beside our hotel for breakfast. The guitar and keys player was already there, journaling and eating lentil soup. He bought me a coffee and we sat and talked about upcoming gigs. He told me that we’ll be playing all the biggest stadiums in North America in December on the Jingle Ball tour, a series of radio shows with other artists, including Shawn Mendes and Cardi B. He told me we’ll be playing Madison Square Garden and the Scotiabank Arena. I hadn’t even considered the idea of playing venues that huge. The last show I saw at the Scotiabank Arena was Tom Petty, the summer before his death. I went with my whole family and it was monumental. I wondered if I’d be nervous. I couldn’t imagine musical intimacy between an artist and that many people at once. But when he mentioned the crowd, a sea of people, singing every word with us, I felt my heart lifting in my chest.
I can’t believe what I’ve experienced over the past six months. Watching little girls, grown men, families singing every word to Alessia’s songs brings tears to my eyes. We often have to look away, from the kids especially, when we’re singing “Scars to Your Beautiful” so we don’t choke up onstage. It’s clear how much her words resonate. To stand behind such a force and unite with so many others is an unimaginable gift.
THURS., NOV. 1
HAMBURG TO STUTTGART
Last night was our first and only night in Hamburg. After an early dinner, a bath and a complimentary beer from the mini fridge, I left the hotel to meet the rest of the crew at an Italian restaurant to celebrate the tour manager’s birthday.
When I got to the restaurant I ordered a pizza and we all sat around a long table, drinking red wine and sharing our food. We started talking about which chord everyone was. Kyla was a dominant seven. Emily was a minor sixth. Alessia and I don’t know music theory very well, so we were trying to explain which notes on a piano make up our favourite chords, playing them on a keyboard in the air. There was a piano around the corner from our table, so we got up and played our chord, the same one – a version of A minor, apparently, with a seventh and a ninth.
It was late, so there weren’t many people in the restaurant, and being roughly five bottles of red wine deep, we started playing the songs we had prepared for London. Our performance in this tiny Italian restaurant in front of three old couples was debatably better than the one we did for BBC Radio 1. We weren’t thinking too hard, laughing uncontrollably at Alessia dressed up as Velma from Scooby Doo wearing a wig that made her look like a burgundy mushroom. It was Halloween. The restaurant applauded us and the owner came out and gave Alessia a big hug. They talked to each other in Italian and found out they were from the same town. He said he felt like he had known her forever and told her to say hi to her parents for him, even though they had never met. He brought us tiny glasses of yellow alcohol that tasted like lemon lollipops. We danced down the cobblestone streets back to the hotel, interrupting the peaceful emptiness with more songs and laughter.
Now I’m on the plane from Hamburg to Stuttgart. I missed two calls from one of my best friends while I was waiting to board. I called her back and we talked for a couple of minutes. She told me about her weekend in Montreal, where she lives. All our friends from Toronto visited for Halloween and I missed it because of this trip.
I had to hang up because we were boarding. She was surprised I had to go so soon and said she had so much to tell me. I felt tears coming. I promised to call her back. I hung up before she could hear my words catch in my throat. I love this adventure. I love feeling this free. But my friends aren’t together and won’t be for a long time.
This is only the beginning and I need to be good at being away if I want to be good at this job. I feel grateful to have so much to miss. The meaning of closeness has completely changed for me.
FRI., NOV. 2
GERMANY TO SPAIN
I’m in Bilbao, in a hotel that makes me feel unsafe. No specific reason – just a vibe. My phone will be dead in the morning and I don’t have the right type of wall plug to charge it. We’re here to play the EMAs.
Earlier today, in Germany, we played a radio show, then drove an hour and a half to the Mercedes Benz museum and played a short acoustic set there. Apparently, Mercedes is the name of Mr. Benz’s daughter. Learning that made me homesick. There were a bunch of diehards in the audience of about 30 who sang all the words with us. We had mostly been playing radio shows without audiences, and having faces to sing to, sing with, brought us to life.
This morning, we woke up in the nicest hotel in a small German town called Baden-Baden. We had a buffet breakfast of bacon, eggs, grapefruit juice, sautéed veggies, smoked salmon, cereal with cacao nibs and Brazil nuts, croissants and Nutella, a ginger shot and an espresso. Yes, I ate all of that and felt amazing. A Kings of Convenience album was playing softly and it made me feel at home, far away in a hotel surrounded by forest-covered mountains, sitting in the morning sun.
Last night, we went to the spa in the Baden-Baden hotel. We sat in the Turkish sauna in our towels, dripping steam and singing. The acoustics were great. We took the train from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, got on a plane in Frankfurt and flew to Bilbao. Two countries and four cities in one day.
FRI., NOV. 5
I’m sitting outside a café beside the river that runs through Bilbao. I haven’t had a chance to think about what we’ve done in the past few days because we’ve been so busy doing it. I woke up in Bilbao on Saturday morning, two days ago. I had to think really hard to figure out what day that was and how long we’ve been here. Even though it feels like I’ve been away for so long, it’s like time didn’t pass; it just pulled me forward with it, leading me into each moment and place like the rooms in a house. The rest of the band met us in Bilbao for the EMAs, the last show of the trip. Alessia was nominated for best world stage performance. Spoiler: She won, and we cheered.
We drove just out of the city to a giant soccer arena where the show would take place. I walked past dressing rooms with signs reading Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s backup dancers, Jason Derulo, Panic at the Disco.
After soundcheck, we headed to an area called Old Town, where we could get wine and tapas. It was a beautiful day. We sat at a table in the sun, drinking red wine, and sharing cheesecake and calamari. Emily and I left to meet Alessia and Liv at the Guggenheim. We walked along the river, a little drunk and a lot happy.
We went to the van Gogh and Picasso exhibit. The paintings were breathtaking. I’d never seen anything like that in person. I was so tired from our day of travelling that it was hard for me to stand for so long. I sat down on a bench in front of a towering painting of a person lying on a desolate earth under a night sky and a sea of stars. Two little boys were wrestling on the floor in front of it. It made me think of the world ending, while everything else, the stars, the sky – everything bigger – still remains.
When we got back to the hotel, there was a giant mob of teenagers outside, waiting to see any of the celebrities who were staying there for the awards. We decided to sneak in the side entrance and huddle around Alessia so she wouldn’t be seen. We wrapped Emily’s scarf around her head and successfully passed by the crowd unnoticed.
The next morning, we all got in the van and headed to the venue. We had lots of time before our dress rehearsal, so we went to artist catering and ate so much good food. Apparently, Coldplay uses the same caterers. The walls were covered in beautiful paintings by an artist who sat at the back of the room, painting beside a chalkboard covered in poems. One of them made me cry. Big words in the middle read “To The Future With Love.”
We did our dress rehearsal; Hailee Steinfeld introduced us. Halsey passed us in the hall later and told Alessia her soundcheck sounded great.
We spend the rest of the day at the venue. There was a lounge area with free massages, which I obviously took advantage of. I walked by the hair and makeup room and saw the guy from the Old Spice commercials. We played the show and I could barely see the back row of the audience. Backstage, after we played, Janet Jackson glided by us, surrounded by a protective team, pausing to smile at me and Kyla, who was deeply shaken by the queenly glance for the rest of the night, and likely the rest of her life.
We prepared for the after party. We took the two bottles of wine and half a dozen beers from the dressing room and put them in our bags, stocking up for three days of Airbnb-ing post-tour. We sent our now heavy luggage home with the non-partiers of the band and got in a car to drive one building over.
When we arrived, we were led to a table with Alessia’s name on it, along with two large bottles of alcohol, a bucket of ice, a cup of limes and a cup of strawberries. We were in a fenced-off area, slightly above the dance floor, divided from the rest of the dancers. A DJ booth stood on the border between celebrity zone and dance floor, where there was a man dancing on a well-lit table, surrounded by bodies, across from a giant white Pegasus suspended in the air with invisible string. A hostess came to our table and asked me if she should bring us champagne. I asked her if it was free and she threw her head back and laughed. All around us were celebrities and music-business people, and people who didn’t seem to have a place and spent their time filming and watching others.
We stayed in the fenced-off area and danced and danced. I saw a man who looked like a famous model I recognized from Vanity Fair or Instagram or a Dolce & Gabbana ad. The tour manager told me he was one of his friends and offered to introduce us. I refused to let that happen and continued to dance. Eventually, I was physically pulled into their conversation. The unsettlingly good-looking man told me his name in a deep Spanish-model voice. He kissed both of my cheeks and slid one hand around my waist. “Very nice to meet you,” he said.