Siobhán Kane interviews Canadian songwriter, singer & documentary movie star Ron Sexsmith who plays The Academy this Thursday.
It is hard to believe that Ron Sexsmith has been making music for over thirty years, but he did start when he was a teenager. In his early days he was known affectionately as “the one man jukebox” because of the copious amounts of covers he had perfected, and has previously said that it was great training for a life in music, perhaps because it is along the same thinking that to be a great writer, you must first of all be a great reader. His love of others’ work such as Leonard Cohen and The Beatles informed and inspired his own sound which is a warm coalescing of folk, pop and rock, poetic language and his unmistakable vocal – just think of something like ‘Strawberry Blonde’ (‘she was not the girl next door,/but the girl from around the corner’) or ‘Secret Heart’ (‘Secret heart come out and share it/this loneliness, few can bear it’)
He has released eleven solo records since 1991, and on his sixth record, 2002’s Cobblestone Runway, there was a subtle shift towards a different kind of a sound (replete with synthesizers, gospel choirs and strings), compounded by 2004’s even more pop-influenced Retriever. Yet through the twists and turns of his sound he has never lost his tender grasp of the nuances of language, and in a sense the almost holistic power of music. In some ways he credits the huge success of Nirvana as somehow opening things up more for people like him, and there was a certain kinship around that time with people like Elliot Smith also, but Sexsmith has always felt he is something of an outsider in music. Although he is admired by some of his own heroes such as Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello, he still remains in many ways under the radar, and has often wondered about the cult following he seems to have evolved, and which is explored in the documentary Love Shines, which was completed over seven years, and finally released last year.
Directed by Douglas Arrowsmith, the film concentrates on the period around 2008’s Exit Strategy of the Soul, where an understandably depleted Sexsmith, frustrated that the record kind of “came and went and nobody knew about it“, doesn’t think he will make a record again, but tries to focus on the possibility of making one. In an unexpected twist, he starts working with the producer Bob Rock, which led to the creation of this year’s brilliant Long Player, Late Bloomer which resonates on so many levels. It features contributions from people who have worked with him, and who admire him such as Steve Earle, Daniel Lanois and Elvis Costello, and is an interesting document of absolute perseverance.
His collaborations are numerous, from Don Kerr to Feist, and Emmylou Harris to Leonard Cohen; and in a charming testament to his songwriting talent, his own songs have been covered widely by people he admires, including Steve Earle, which adds to the idea that Sexsmith is an important part of a lineage that he probably never thought he would be part of, but which ultimately proves that sometimes love does shine. Siobhán Kane talks to him.
The documentary Love Shines was seven years in the making. How did it come into being, and were you a little nervous of it at first? Did you think it would take so long? The whole thesis around it is interesting, and explores so much darkness after Exit Strategy in 2008. I remember you saying in an interview that it often got frustrating getting great reviews, but not the sales to match, and so many of your heroes such as Leonard Cohen have had big hits and success. How do you feel about the documentary now?
To be honest, I have a difficult time watching the documentary because it seems so downbeat to me. I also feel it solidifies this sort of sad sack image that has been following me around for years that I believe is inaccurate. When they started filming me seven years ago, I had no idea what sort of film it was going to be, and a part of me felt it would probably never see the light of day. It was only when Bob Rock came into picture that they were around all the time and the movie became this “making of the record” type film. It captured me at a time when I think I’d lost my confidence and was trying to make a record that would connect with more people. I think overall they made a decent documentary but it’s only half of the story and it never fully explains how grateful I am to have a career at all.
You admired Elvis Costello from a young age, and he features in the documentary, and has been a huge admirer of yours from the earliest of days, is that a little surreal for you?
Yes, it’s been surreal in my life to have met so many of my heroes and I certainly never expected that. I’ve always been drawn to writers who were good melodically as well as lyrically and Elvis is right up there with the best of them.
Working with Bob Rock was an interesting choice,since his work has often been known for much heavier, harder sounds and “bigger” somehow, if that makes sense, like his work with Metallica and Skid Row, and then more recently taking a different turn and producing Michael Buble. How did it all come about, and how did you find the experience?
I didn’t know who to work with to be honest. It was Michael Buble who suggested Bob. I had seen Bob in the Metallica documentary and took an instant liking to him. When I met him, I realised we had a lot of common ground, and that I felt very comfortable around him. We’re both big fans of English rock and pop artists like Elton John, The Kinks, Bowie, Deep Purple, and of course The Beatles, so I knew he was the right guy for me.
You are such a private person,so it must have been a difficult journey at times doing that film, as it is such a vulnerable process. It reconfirmed my initial sense that you work largely in solitude and privacy. Even though it spans those years where you were feeling quite fallow, it captures a moment in time, not all the time.
Yes, I was horrified to see myself up there on the screen. It’s mostly vanity that comes into play, especially when I see younger photos of myself next to how I look now. I realise this is all superficial stuff but it makes it hard to watch. And of course it’s so unnatural to have a camera in the studio when you’re trying to do something that is essentially a private experience and you’re trying to capture something magical in the studio
You have been doing this for a long time, do you think you have gone through many different phases in your relationship to music?
Well, I still love music as much as I did when I was a kid, and I guess I still gravitate towards the same things. I’m not sure how to describe it in terms of phases. I’ve just tried to improve in my writing and in my singing.
You also seem to have different relationships to different parts of the process, I believe you are not a huge fan of recording.
That’s true. I find recording to be the most stressful part of my job, but when it’s going well there’s nothing like it. I’ve always tried to make good records and to do something different each time.
Long Player Late Bloomer is really beautiful, do you think you see yourself in those terms?
I see myself as a late bloomer but not so much in terms of my appearance, but more in terms of getting more confident or comfortable in my own skin, and perhaps being less naive about things.
I think of the record as quite melancholic, but at the same time there are elements of hope, for example on the song ‘Miracles‘, do you still believe in the magic of life? Is music what carries you through?
Well, during the course of the day we’re confronted by all sorts of emotions and obstacles, and it becomes this daily ritual of trying to keep away the bad feelings of doubt and insecurity. Music has always been my best friend and superhero in that regard.
How do you find living in Toronto? You have collaborated with so many Canadian musicians in different ways, from Leonard Cohen to Feist – there seems to be a softly supportive sense of community there. On a travel guide note, where is your favourite cafe in Toronto? Or any other place you like?
I love Toronto. It’s a great town for music and walking around. The Canadian music community is a very supportive one, and there’s a feeling that everyone is rooting for one another. There are many places I like – the Dakota Tavern is one off the top of my head, and one of my favorite cafes is The White Squirrel.
Would you say that your music shifted in a way with Cobblestone Runway? There seemed to be a sea-change of sorts around that time in terms of sound.
Yes, I think it shifted in terms of the production mainly. I was trying to find a way to update my sound a bit. The songs on Cobblestone Runway are all essentially folk songs, but I wanted to put them in a different frame. I was trying to round out my vocals too, because I felt my voice was still a work in progress. I guess it still is.
You are on the road with a full band this time, which must be very pleasing for you. You really love the live experience don’t you? Did you find that a balm when you were feeling disillusioned, that performing live had a renewing quality about it, as you sing “I’m a long player, my song is my saviour”?
This tour has been great so far. Playing with a band really does wonders for my self-confidence, and I think it makes for a more enjoyable show all around.
Do you find a similar thrill with writing? That sense of completing something that stands alone as this thing, or do you view songs as complete things?
Yes. I find song-writing to be the most rewarding part of the job for me, but I do pull my hair out over it. I try to finish every idea I start, and I try to spend a little time each day writing, even if I’m not getting anywhere.
As much as anything, you seem to elevate the word- who are your favourite writers, in terms of musicians, and wider afield?
I like all the usual suspects – Dylan, Cohen, Lightfoot, Lennon and McCartney Ray Davies, Tom Waits, George Harrison, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Nilsson, Warren Zevon, Pete Townsend, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly on and on. In terms of other writers I love Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, Steinbeck, to name a few.
Would you say the content of the new set of songs you have been working on is markedly different from Long Player, Late Bloomer, or that the songs survey some similar territory?
It’s a bit early to say. I’m excited about the new batch though. I hope to get around to it soon.
In all the collaborations you have done, which have meant the most to you?
I loved writing with Glenn Tilbrook, Andy Kim and Feist for various reasons.
What are you listening to and reading at the moment? What is inspiring you?
I’m listening to Paul Simon’s new record quite a bit. There’s a great new album by Kyp Harness, also. I’m reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories these days. I love mysteries. I’m inspired by life in general, and human beings.