Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has worked hard to become synonymous with a high standard of musical craft. In a career that has now produced thirteen albums over the past twenty years, he has won both critical praise and the acclaim of famous peers as an artist of unforced style and easy grace.
From humble beginnings just outside Toronto, the Canadian lad who started his performing life singing other people's songs in local bars as a way of emulating his heroes, has gone on to win praise from and share stages with songwriting legends like Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello. The son (Christopher) whose birth inspired Sexsmith's first songwriting efforts may now be 27 years old, but one thing has not changed in those intervening decades: Ron Sexsmith draws inspiration from the world around him to create homespun grown-up pop classics.
With a new Mitchell Froom-produced album entitled Forever Endeavour about to be released, Ron sat down to talk with Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles, before an intimate performance as part of their American Express-sponsored event series, The Drop. Talk turned to Sexsmith's early influences, musical progression, artistic values and the importance he places on the power of direct communication…
Stefan Goldby: Your performing life started as a kid in St. Catharines, Ontario, playing cover versions of popular songs and earning the nickname of the ‘Human Jukebox’. It wasn’t long before you started introducing your own material, some of which didn't go down as well as songs that people already knew and loved. Yet you persevered and eventually began to win over fans for your own music. Can you explain the catalyst that led you to share your own material, despite those initial negative reactions?
Ron Sexsmith: I would be playing all these cover songs and every now and then, I would try to fit one of mine in. But I had such terrible songs, I don't blame anybody for not digging them at the time! I didn't know if I was cut out to be a writer; I knew I wanted to be a singer...
It wasn't until my son was born, when I was 21 when, all of a sudden, I started feeling like what I heard a songwriter was supposed to feel like. I remember reading interviews with people and they'd say, all of a sudden, they had all these ideas and melodies in their head, and that was happening to me.
So I was just sort of like, "Finally!" because I didn't think I was good at anything and here was something that I thought, "Oh, maybe I could try this out." And ever since, I've just been trying to apply myself to it.
SG: 13 albums of applying yourself later, here we are at the GRAMMY Museum, discussing Forever Endeavour: There's a noticeably smoother, fuller, more orchestral sound to this collection - Is that approach something that you had in mind from the very beginning?
RS: In terms of the arrangements on this album, a lot of that was Mitchell Froom. I had these songs, and to be honest, I didn't know what to do with them. I thought about working with Bob Rock again, who did my previous record, but even that idea I wasn't sure about, because the songs were very different. They're a little more sort of folky or introspective, and what happened is I bumped into Mitchell at Largo here in Los Angeles and he showed up with Susanna Hoffs, and he was telling me they were working on a record with orchestration...
...I got excited about that because, in my mind, the songs were very much of another time. There was almost, like, those old Neil Diamond records, and those albums would have strings, and horns... so it was like a cartoon where a light bulb comes on over your head. I don't think one really did... [Smiles] but Mitchell, I gave him the demos and just sort of went from there.
SG: That's a pretty nice musical dilemma to have; choosing between Bob Rock and Mitchell Froom to make your next record. As a solo artist, having that person with a trusted fresh pair of ears to run your music through is an invaluable partnership: What was it that Mitchell brought out in this music that maybe you didn't think about before?
RS: Well, Mitchell Froom and I, we have this history together; you know, he produced some of my early records. In the early stages, he really helped me a lot in terms of zeroing in on what I was good at, so I've always kind of looked up to him. He's the kind of producer that they don't really make anymore. He's sort of old school, he's all about the arrangements, whereas a lot of producers these days are coming at it more from a technical standpoint, like what the knobs do and all that...
So it's just good for my head, I think, to work with Mitchell every few years because I just sort of miss hanging out with him. But also, I look up to him. I think he's really smart, and to be honest, I feel that this is the best one that we've done together. It just feels fully realized or something.
SG: Even though there is that fullness of sound within Forever Endeavour's instrumentation, the lyrics feel like they've gone in the other direction: This feels more personal, a little bit more open, more raw, than you've been in the past.
RS: Yeah, I agree; this record is probably my most personal and I don't really know why. The last album, I found I had all these sort of disillusioned and grumpy songs… but humorous… which was sort of a new thing for me to write something vaguely pessimistic, you know? This record seems to be more wistful, I guess you could say. I'm looking back with regret and maybe questioning some of my behavior and past mistakes, and that was just sort of an accident.
It's like, when you write a bunch of songs… you don't see that there's a thread between the songs until you're done, and then it's like a movie where you go about sequencing, it in a way, that it kind of tells a story. But I'm going to be 50 next year, so maybe, I don't know, it's just time for this particular batch or something!
SG: When you pulled them together, sequenced them and made this 'movie', what made your lead single"Nowhere to Go" the correct choice in terms of how to start the film?
RS: You know, that was the first song I wrote for this particular batch and I remember when I was writing it thinking that it was going to be the first song. Whatever the record was, I had a feeling... because you're looking for a song that's going to set the tone for what's to follow...
I initially wrote that song because I made this [last] record with Bob Rock. It wasn't out yet, and I was on this high from working with Bob and I felt I had my confidence back. And then that soon evaporated once we started playing it for people. I mean I never had so much rejection than for my last record, when we were trying to find a label for it, so it put me in a bit of a depressed mood and I wrote "Nowhere to Go" and immediately started feeling better. That's the thing about songs. It's great to have an outlet. And it triggered the next bunch of songs. I always knew it'd be the first one.
SG: Reaching into more personal material opens up your music to directly impacting not just you, but also your wife and family. You said songwriting began with the birth of your son, so your art has always been intertwined with your family, but now, a couple of decades later, have you become more aware that your disclosures impact other people’s inner lives too?
RS: Well, that's a good question. I guess I don't really think about that too much when I'm writing. A lot of these songs, I couldn't have written about 10 years ago. I just feel I'm at a place now where there's enough distance for me to look back. That's one of the things about living with me or being one of my children or something is that there's a good possibility you're going to end up in a song, or maybe something that I've done or something is going to end up in a song, and you're not going to be too proud of that.
Randy Newman had a great line in one of his songs where he said, "I'd sell my soul and your soul for a song." And it's really like that. When you get an idea, you don't want to tiptoe around anything. You just want to head straight for it and say what you mean to say.
SG: If this isn't music that you could have written 10 years ago, how did you think this album compares to the rest of your career? What do you think is the key difference between this and what's gone before?
RS: I think the big difference between this record and, especially my early ones, is that I sing better now, just to be honest! I always sang well enough that people liked it. I mean not everybody liked it, but I was able to have a career, thankfully...
But when I hear my early albums… I don't think it's just me; a lot of artists feel that way… but they would love to go back and re-sing it, or maybe the production wasn't quite right, you know. I just think, with this album, I felt Mitchell Froom and I were in this place where I thought I was on equal footing with him for the first time.
It's always been a sort of master/student kind of thing. I've always looked up to him. But this particular batch, I know Mitchell was really excited about the songs, and his arrangements blew me away. He would send me these mockups of the arrangements... it just came together in this way that I haven't experienced that often. There's always snags when I record, and frustrating moments that I don't know why the song isn't working or something, but I didn't really feel that this time.
SG: So, in that snag-free environment is there a day or a session from the recordings that sums up, for you, the experience of making this album?
RS: Well, the way we recorded this record, I had never made a record like this before… and I guess it would sort of sum up the whole experience… was because of what he had in mind, of what he wanted to do. Because his studio's so small, we had to do it in sections where the first week was mainly myself with a guitar, singing the songs live with a percussionist. And it was a different percussionist, depending on the song. He sort of 'cast' different musicians based on whatever he felt their vibe was. So every day, there'd be somebody new coming in. But that was how we did it the first week.
It was hard for me too… you know, because you're performing and you're wondering if it's appropriate for what's going to be added later, and some of the stuff I had to go back and re-sing afterwards. But most of it, what you hear is kind of how it went down. And then it just went on the next week; they brought in different bass players, and horn players, and strings... it was like a puzzle, and finally you could see whatever picture was on the puzzle...
SG: So now, a new tour is about to start, and the picture on the puzzle is about to be shared. What of this new material are you most excited to play live?
RS: Well, the thing about this record... obviously, it has a lot of strings and horns and things on it, but it is a record that I'm comfortable playing solo. All the songs began that way… which is kind of true of all my records, but the last record, it was such a slick and polished kind of thing that I didn't feel comfortable doing it without my band. But these songs, I don't know exactly what I'm going to play tonight from it, but I'm not really concerned, because even on the album, even though there's all sorts of instrumentation, none of it walks over the songs. It's all very much in support of the song.
So if I have to, God forbid, tour this album by myself, I'm fine doing that. It's expensive touring these days, you know! But yeah, so tonight I don't know what I'll play. To be honest, I'm not sure how many songs I'm supposed to play, but hopefully I'll give people a good taste of what it's about.
SG: Kim Gordon once said something like, "An audience comes to see an artist doing what they would do if they only had the confidence to be that emotional on a stage." What do you think the audience responds to at your concerts?
RS: Well, it's a funny relationship with just having an audience, for one thing, because there's no guarantee when you put out a record, that anybody's going to respond to it. But when I got in the door and I started building a fan base, it was just so amazing to me that people would actually pay money to see me. Because I'd be like, well, I don't do a lot on stage. I just stand there and I sing, right? I don't really know how entertaining that would be for people. But I think the people that are into my stuff are coming because, for whatever reason, a song or a certain album has meant something to them.
And then I'm very old-fashioned in that, in my album covers, it's always a picture of me. I'm not George Clooney or anything, but I'm on the cover and I look like the guy who sings the songs. Because with songwriters, it's a personal thing. It's not like you like every songwriter. You have to kind of believe what they're saying, and you have to like their voice, and the way they play their instrument, and their point of view.
All that stuff is a singular thing that you can only get from artists like Randy Newman, or Tom Waits, or Gordon Lightfoot, or whoever it is... you're not going to get that from anybody else, and I think that's the kind of songwriter I've always tried to be.
So as a result, I have an audience that's very devoted, I guess, for lack of a better word. Even if they're not particularly crazy about a certain record I've made, there's been a trust built there where they'll give it the time that some records need for it to kind of grow or whatever. So I'm just really lucky that I have a fan base at all, and that it seems to be one that grows the older I get, too.
SG: You’ve made a very cohesive new album, one with a great flow all the way through, one that hangs together as a piece. On the other hand, you have people who are fans of lots of other different albums and songs you've done over the years. How do you go about taking this shiny new toy and dissecting it into a new live set?
RS: Well, whenever you make a new record, naturally you're always more excited about playing the new songs unless you're not happy with the record you made or something. But I find what it does is that a new album will show which songs from your back catalog would complement it. And it has a nice way of ... it sort of brings it all together. Like already, now I'm putting a set list together because we have a tour coming up, and I'm trying to pick songs that I didn't play so much on the last tour, and I'm trying to pick songs that I think will be cohesive the way an album is cohesive.
So I just bounce off the new songs. It gets hard the more of them you do, because I don't want to play three-hour shows or anything. But I think 80 or 90 minutes is perfectly acceptable, so that's what I aim for. Even that's too long for some people these days because they're all doing like this with their devices and stuff. But I don't have one of those, so I still like to listen to albums and concerts and all that stuff. It's part of that experience.
SG: You're obviously noticing some of the changes in the industry, even if you personally don't have one of those devices... It is a very different world from an artist's point of view, from the way it was when you started releasing albums. What would you say is the biggest difference in the business side of the music business?
RS: Well, the record industry's changed so much since I got in the door… and it started changing when I got in the door. No one was making vinyl anymore at that time, which was a bit of a bummer for me because that's my favorite format. And then, the digital stuff started happening and that was always on the horizon, the thread of, "Oh, people aren't going to buy records at some point."
I think that's been the biggest change is the whole internet thing and how it's kind of devalued the album as of format, which I think is sad, because obviously people still make albums. Every day, a band comes out with an album. There's something about having 10 or 12 songs together because they represent a certain period of your life or something that I think is just as important as a book or a movie… and people still go to see movies. But I guess no one has really come up with the right business model for going forward. Or maybe they have, but I worry that all the record stores are going out of business. And maybe that's a good thing; I don't know.
I used to worry when record stores started having escalators in them. I thought, "That can't be good," because when I was a kid, you'd go in a record store and it was one level, and you kind of knew everyone, and you wanted to know what records they were buying, and it was educational. And then, it got to this point where you couldn't find anything in this huge megastore. It's the same as the bookstores, I guess.
I'm not a device guy. I don't have any of those gadgets, mostly because I think it's detrimental to the attention span of society in general, because you see it. You see people in concerts and they can't go five minutes without looking down at... I don't even know what they're doing, what could be so important that they have to look there, you know? So I've just been resisting it because it stresses me out, just the whole idea of it. I like to sit and listen to albums and I love reading books and I like watching movies, and I don't want to lose that. You know?
SG: You're about to send this fresh batch of songs out into that world, where new people will connect with them on their own terms and overlay their own interpretations and meaning. To turn that around back to you, can you think of the moment in your life where an individual song has had the most impact?
RS: Well, I think there were different songs at different stages, but I think one of the songs that turned things around for me... I was in the car with my dad, I was 15-years old, and I heard "All Day and All the Night" by The Kinks on the radio, and I had never heard it before. And I'm sure it had the same effect as someone hearing it for the first time in '65, or whenever it came out. It was like "Stop everything", you know?!!
I went to the record store the next day, and I didn't know which album to buy… I don't even think I knew what the song was called… but I saw this album called The Golden Hour of the Kinks, which had about 25 songs on it or something, and the first song I put on the record was "Days".
I don't know if you know that song or not, but it's just a gorgeous song. It was one of those moments where I was like, "Oh my gosh, where have you been all my life?" The sound of his voice, the lyrics, the melodies... And then it went from there: "Autumn Almanac", "Waterloo Sunset"... it was just song after song after song...
Before that point, I wanted to be a singer, but it sort of initiated the songwriter in me, even though it would be quite a while before I wrote anything. I mean I had some horrible songs. I had a song called "Prehistoric Lady", for example. But that was the moment, I think, hearing Ray Davies, where I just, you know, knew that's what I wanted to do.
SG: Artists who now express affection for your work – like Ray Davies, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello were the same artists who you’ve cited as formative in your own writing. As life and art wax and wane – is there any solace to you that your musical heroes admire and respect your work… or does it bring an extra kind of pressure? [Smiles]
RS: [Laughs] Well, I never expected that these people that I looked up to for so long would turn that around on me or say nice things, and it's been a bonus, for sure… especially when I started out, because I didn't really have a leg to stand on with my first record. It wasn't selling and nothing was happening until Elvis Costello started speaking about it, and then it was like the shot heard around the world! And then all of a sudden, it was Elton John… and McCartney had said some nice things early on...
It gets a little embarrassing sometimes because it is something that comes up quite a lot, and I don't think McCartney's been following my career. There was a period where he said some things. The Ray Davies thing, I got to sing with him last year, which is just crazy… and at the same time, because I've studied them for so long and I've done my homework, I've worked hard, I felt that I belonged there on stage with him. I mean he changed the world and all those people changed the world. I never did, but I've tried to write good songs and I've tried to follow in their footsteps, and I think if they've said nice things about me, it's because they see that I just have so much respect for the craft of songwriting and just the stuff that they did. It's still, to my ears, the best stuff that anybody's ever did...
SG: Let's close there, back at the beginning, thinking back to that one-man jukebox playing at the Lion's Tavern in St. Catharine's, Ontario... given what's happened over the 20-some years since, what do you think that kid would think about the "you" sitting here today?
RS: Well, the kid that I was when I was 17 or 18 and playing cover songs, I think I would be happy that I made it… I got in the door. It certainly was a long way aways from where I was.
I mean I was 98% enthusiasm back then. I couldn't really sing or play the guitar, but I had this sort of… back then, had an infectious excitement for being onstage and playing. And for whatever reason, I was packing them in, in my hometown ... which doesn't mean a whole lot. But in my hometown at that time, it was exciting.
So I think I would be happy that I figured it out, that I became a songwriter, and I made it, you know? Because I was 31 when my first record came out, so it was not looking good for me. And then I finally did it!
He would probably be shocked at all the weight I put on. That's an up and down with me so I'm working on that, but I think in general, he'd be happy that I'm making a living doing what I love to do.
SG: You could also whisper in his ear, “You're going to play with Ray Davies”…
RS: …Yeah, and all those people I was playing back there, I've met most of them now, so that's pretty cool...
When I look back, I feel like I've been a survivor. For someone who hasn't sold that many records, to be here and making this, my 13th and still sort of in the game... it feels that way. It hasn't always felt that way, but lately it feels that things have picked up for me. So that gives me a good feeling…
Check out Buzzine's exlcusive photo gallery of Ron Sexsmith Live At The GRAMMY Museum.
Ron Sexsmith's new album 'Forever Endeavour' is available now on Cooking Vinyl.