The morning I spoke to Ron Sexsmith, he was in the pensive frame of mind I might have expected.
Despite leaving his adopted city of Toronto for a new base 90 miles away in Stratford, Ontario, barely a week before, Ron happened to be back on the street where he had lived the previous 15 years, across the road from his old place, house and dog-sitting for a former neighbour and their Pomeranian.
“We’ve only really been gone a week and a half and now we’re back on our old street again. It’s kind of sad actually. So much living was done in that place. Now it’s sitting there empty.”
Ron’s more reflective mode seemed in keeping with the public persona of a gifted singer-songwriter currently caught somewhere between urban and rural living and hovering between past and present, as heard on the three albums he’s made since 2011’s higher-profile Long Player Late Bloomer.
After 2013’s more low-key yet just as engaging offering, Forever Endeavour, Ron veered off into more solid Ray Davies and Paul McCartney territory on 2015’s wonderfully-wistful Carousel One, wearing his influences on his sleeves. And the 53-year-old’s 14th solo album, The Last Rider, takes that approach on again, its laid-back feel somewhat fitting bearing in mind the recording location, a studio on the banks of Lake Ontario belonging to homegrown Canadian success The Tragically Hip.
“It was a band album, so I wanted to find a studio where we could live and party and record, and there was this place, The Bathouse, in Kingston. I guess having the band around too is maybe why it has a laid-back feel. All my albums have been done with session musicians, but this time I’m in a room with my friends playing music, a lot more relaxing.”
Over the course of 15 new tracks – most clocking in around the three-minute mark – we get a neat snapshot of this Canadian treasure today, its songs ‘by turns happy, sad, romantic, bittersweet, uplifting, spiritual and witty’, as his press people put it. More to the point, we find Ron at one with his surroundings and his trusty band, all stress at the machinations of the music industry brushed aside.
While Carousel One was laid down in less than a week in Los Angeles with a host of the city’s top session stars – and to great effect – this time the pressure was off, the artist and his co-musicians closer to home for what turned out to be one of his more personal albums. As he rationalised, ‘I didn’t plan on it being that way, but as we were assembling the songs, this theme did start to emerge about leaving the city, and other big life changes.’
Before we got going, I told my esteemed interviewee I’d had a life-affirming Ron Sexsmith start to my day, having cranked up the volume first thing that day for the awesome Lebanon, Tennessee, a song that still pulls all the right strings for this scribe, as is the case for so many of his numbers.
“Oh thanks,” he replies, in that somewhat under-stated yet genuine manner I recall from past media interviews.
First though, a brief history lesson for the uninitiated, letting on how Ron started his own band when he was 14, and was playing local bars at 17, earning a reputation for being able to play plenty of inspired requests at the Lion’s Tavern in his hometown of St Catharines, Ontario.
He released recordings of his own material for the first time in 1985, aged 21, just after the birth of his son, and a year later moved with his family to his state capital, Toronto, where he worked as a courier and recorded in his spare hours, having befriended Bob Wiseman, who agreed to produce and arrange the next release.
Bob’s busy schedule meant that album’s completion was stretched out over several years, overlapping the birth of Ron’s daughter in 1989, Grand Opera Lane finally appearing two years later. And apparently every Canadian label the producer took it to rejected it, before that eventual independent release, credited to Ron Sexsmith and The Uncool.
On the strength of that release and the attention garnered by the song Speaking with the Angel, Ron finally earned a contract, leading to his self-titled album in 1995, one receiving wider attention when it was endorsed by Elvis Costello, for whom Ron later opened.
While I missed the very early years, I tell him how my friend Jim’s recommendation led to us catching him live in a crowded Adelphi pub in Preston, Lancashire, in the summer of 1999. I was subsequently hooked, feeling slightly possessive about his work ever since, starting with the glorious Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs and that year’s Whereabouts. Does he remember any of those early UK shows?
“I remember that vaguely, but just remember the time in general, because the UK the first place to take notice of me. My debut record had been out for a whole year in North America and was dying a slow death. To actually go somewhere where people seemed enthusiastic was just such a relief.”
Of course, interest generated by a certain Declan McManus helped.
“That totally helped, yeah. That saved my career. I was just about to be dropped when that happened. Also, this year is the 20th anniversary of my second album, Other Songs, which was very well received over there too. So we’ll probably have to play a few more of those songs on this tour.”
Since then, Ron has worked with some of music’s most celebrated producers, including Daniel Lanois, Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Ray Kennedy, Martin Terefe, Bob Rock and Jim Scott. But this time it’s a ‘Ron and Don’ production, in tandem with long-time collaborator Don Kerr, who just happened to have featured on drums with his band The Uncool on that 1991 debut recording too.
Rightly recognised as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation – as far back as his self-titled major-label debut LP in 1995 – it stands to reason he’s learned a thing or two over the years about making records. But only now has he decided to take matters into his own hands as a producer. And as he put it, he can’t blame anyone but himself this time.
He reckons en route he’s discovered a ‘wealth of knowledge about recording’ he hadn’t realised he had, taking his lead from Don’s studio craft, confidence in his abilities slowly growing after all these years.
“I’ve never produced anything before so that’s a new thing for me. But Don has done many records so I felt he had my back. It was good teamwork overall. Don and I go back to being couriers together, with my bass player Jason (Mercer) playing on and off with me since 1996, and I opened for my keyboard player Dave Matheson’s band, Moxy Früvous, in the ‘90s. We all go back quite a way.”
As well as the three band-mates already mentioned, there’s also some nice touches from Kevin Lacroix on guitar. So did it just feel the right time to do the band thing this time?
“It did, but it was also partly financial. This is where my career is at. Labels don’t have the money. I don’t know how anyone makes records anymore.”
I admit to Ron at this point a rather selfish assertion that I don’t mind so much that he’s not as big a name as he deserves to be. That way he at least retains an intimate touch, one I’d be scared of losing if the world and his wife got to know him better.
He laughs at that, while I continue to dig a hole, saying that as long as he’s getting by and can afford to record and tour, I’m happy enough. Besides, those occasional royalties from the likes of Rod Stewart (Secret Heart, 1998), Michael Buble (Whatever it Takes, 2009), Katie Melua (Gold in Them Hills, 2011) must help.
“Yeah, it’s almost a living. I just bought a house. I never owned anything like that in my life, so that’s pretty huge. I have a lot of financial stress, and some records have done better than others. But every now and then you get something like Buble doing a song. I hope to get a few more of those! In my situation I’m living off publishing advances, but haven’t got one in a few years. I’m ‘unrecouped’, you know. I’m ready for another Buble cover!”
On the opening track of the new album, It Won’t Last For Long, Ron sets the tone for what follows, reflecting that ‘Everything in life is passing through’. And at the other end there’s a similarly deep sentiment on Man at the Gate (1913), another poignant moment, one perhaps suggesting at its core a need to make the most of our relatively short spell on this planet, and a song borne out of the day Ron spotted a postcard of an old photo of his local park in Trinity-Bellwoods.
“In the photograph, there’s a man walking by the gates of the park, and you can barely see him, but that’s the kind of thing I easily get obsessed about. I couldn’t stop thinking that the guy could be me 100 years later, and really could be all of us. We’re here for a certain amount of time, and we leave behind these traces of who we were that have the potential to inspire people who come along after we’re gone. To me, that’s really beautiful.”
While the melancholic is as much a staple of Sexsmithery as the melodic touches, there’s plenty of upbeat sentiment on the new album. A few of the songs would have sat just as well coming out of a tinny radio on those long hot summer days of my mid-’70s youth. It’s just the right side of intelligent pop, I’d say. And – as with The Sun’s Coming Out on Carousel One – his more ‘guardedly-optimistic’ side is showcased nicely on tracks like Evergreen, Our Way and Worried Song this time around.
There’s certainly plenty of that supreme Ronald Eldon Sexsmith songcraft and no less sunshine on the lovely West Gwillimbury (‘a metaphor for heaven’) too. And while I don’t want this critique of the new album to drag on too long, it’s fair to say The Last Rider has much in common with Boo Hewerdine’s new LP Swimming in Mercury, both albums reflective affairs with a ’70s touch that have the power to pull me right back. Who We Are Right Now is another fine example of that, caught somewhere between The Carpenters and The Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight on that retro radio playlist.
While it’s a wireless-friendly album for sure, if I’ve one criticism, it’s just a little too mellow for me in places, and I’ll certainly be interested to experience the live versions instead when Ron and co. join us next week. But for me one of the exceptions to that rule is the inventive, Squeeze meets XTC-like Breakfast Ethereal, seen as a companion piece to Galbraith Street on his major label eponymous debut 22 years before.
In fact, the biographical nature of that song got me thinking back to 2004 and Ron commenting how Dandelion Wine on the splendid Retriever album was more personal than he’d usually choose to be in a song. So does writing personal pieces get any easier over the years for this admittedly shy performer?
“I think that song was a little harder than most in a way. I was more or less beating myself up about a lot of misbehaviour and this and that. There was Secret Heart as well, and I think that’s always been a part of my writing. Even if it’s not such a personal song you want to be able to get behind it and understand it.
“With Dandelion Wine, my publisher didn’t want that on the record. He thought it didn’t fit with the vibe of a mostly upbeat record. But I was really proud of that song and thought at that point in the record it needed some gravitas, or whatever. And this album is also very personal but more wistful, more nostalgic, I guess.”
There’s certainly a dreamy, ’70s feel across the tracks, and that’s why I wondered if it was less of a city record, offering a more rural slant on life.
“Possibly, yeah. I remember going into it thinking I wanted the album to sound less retro than my last one, Carousel One, when I worked with legendary engineer Jim Scott. That sounded very ‘70s to me. I wanted this to sound more updated or something. But the first track, It Won’t Last For Long, I wanted to sound like Daniel by Elton John. That’s sort of what we were going for. It’s a very different song from Daniel, but seemed kind of easy and didn’t bash you over the head. I don’t like albums that bash you over the head right away.”
I’d heard the lilting, easy-going Evergreen a few times, but one other track that quickly jumped out was Dead End Dream, its title alone reminding me of that ever-present Kinks influence – as also heard on the evocative Radio, with its shades of David Watts – and that iconic outfit’s own Dead End Street.
“I think Ray Davies runs pretty much through all my songs. It’s half Ray, half Gordon Lightfoot. Whatever my sound is, it’s in there somewhere. I grew up loving all that British invasion stuff and people like Nilsson.”
When he mentions that, I tell him I can hear post-Beatles’ era John, Paul and George in places on Ron’s more recent albums too – Upward Dog on this latest LP having a very Wings-like vibe, for example.
“Well, I love all those guys too, and it affects me in my writing. I’m not thinking about those people when I’m writing, but …”
“Exactly, and with most of that you don’t realise that until you’re figuring how you’re going to record something, when you think you want it to have like a Badfinger feel or something. There are all those sort of vague pop references in my DNA. I definitely always loved George’s stuff, John Lennon … all those guys.”
Talking of influences, we lost a major one last year, fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, with whom Ron performed a live duet of So Long Marianne in Yorkville, Toronto, in 2006.
“Yeah, I got to sing once with him, and met him on a few occasions. He was always such a gentleman, and I was just honoured he knew my name. That was unbelievable to me. When he came into my life I was around 21, I had just started writing songs, and he had such an influence that it made me wonder if it was still okay to like Ray Davies and The Beatles.
“His stuff seemed so substantial and so heavy that I wondered if I could listen to Penny Lane anymore. But I realised afterwards it’s all great. I mean, I love Deep Purple too. Everyone’s doing their own thing and you gravitate towards people, whatever they’re doing, excelling in a certain genre.”
As Ron’s now recording and performing with his own band, I bring up the subject of the Love Shines documentary and a time when he was more reliant on session musicians. The Long Player Late Bloomer album it focused on was built up at the time to be his big breakthrough album. That film made for compelling viewing, and I’d say you come away loving Ron all the more, but the resultant LP – despite featuring so many great songs, not least the brilliant Believe It When I See It, No Help At All, and Love Shines itself – was a tad over-produced, I venture to add.
“Oh yeah … I totally agree, and I don’t like the film at all, to be honest, but I liked working with Bob Rock. I was looking for a producer to make me connect. I’m really proud of all the songs. All that sort of auto-tune you hear happened during the mixing process, which I wasn’t even there for. When I heard the finished record I was kind of horrified at the airbrushing that went on.
“At the same time that’s probably my most successful album. So on one hand, I’ve worked with Bob Rock and that’s kind of what he does. Most producers come with their own bag of tricks, and that’s kind of what he does. When you work with Bob Rock you don’t expect it to sound like Daniel Lanois, right? Yes, I’m very proud of that record, but if I could change one thing I’d get rid of all that.”
Perhaps we just need a raw version.
Now there’s something to look for. Not the naked aspect, but …
“Ha! Well, with this album, because my last one didn’t do very well, I wanted The Last Rider to be somewhere between Long Player Late Bloomer and Carousel One, without the airbrushing, but slightly more slick than the last one, so we’d have more luck with radio and stuff like that.”
It’s not like he eschews all that box office stuff. Past collaborations have included those with Coldplay’s Chris Martin (another version of Gold in Them Hills), as well as less mainstream hook-ups with Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun, Dutch singer-songwriter Marike Jager, and Japanese pop punks Shonen Knife.
Meanwhile, famous admirers – as well as the afore-mentioned Costello, Elton John and Paul McCartney – include Steve Earle and Sheryl Crow, while Feist, Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris – who even named her 2011 album after Ron’s Hard Bargain – and Edmonton-born K.D. Lang have also covered his songs.
Yet it’s not as simple as just colouring him as a shy guy hovering in the wings, happy playing second fiddle. As early as the turn of the century, Ron was telling journalists he didn’t want to be seen like Nick Drake and Tim Hardin, another critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter more likely to be lauded beyond the grave.
That said, he clearly finds it frustrating having to pitch his talents and play the publicity game, acknowledging that he called the new LP The Last Rider – ‘a pun on The Last Supper, as opposed to a jockey who can’t get out of the paddock’, says his press release – as it might be his last for a while, due to on-going frustrations about the music business.
“Well, it was definitely on my mind. It’s so hard to get it together, come up with the money and all that. I thought after this record, if possible, I’d like to step away for a while. It’s not very realistic that I won’t make others. I’m sure I’ll make more. I’d like to just try and resist the urge for a while. It can be so discouraging to put my head through that every time.
“It’s like Charlie Brown when he tries to kick the football all the time. That’s how I feel with most of my records. You get excited that this one’s going to be the one. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s close to being the one, but I just have to see how this album is received and how it does before I make any decisions.”
Personally, I’m hoping that rather than being a last hurrah, this album’s message is more about making the best of things while we can. And perhaps now is the time to take his own advice on the penultimate track, because ‘If your dreams are bigger than your worries, you won’t have to worry about your dreams’. And as it is, the results of those Bathouse recording sessions left him feeling fairly chipper anyway, ruminating on ‘the way everything played out’, adding, ‘It felt a lot more free, so I guess we’ll see what happens’.
Soon enough, it was time to let him go, not least on the eve of a 17-date Canadian tour then his European dates. But not before I asked if he was a good traveler and if it’s easier knowing his beloved Colleen is on the road with him, ‘helping with the merch.’
“I’m a good traveler when we’re on land. I’m not good with airports and I’m a nervous flyer. I’ll be flying to the UK from Vancouver too, the other side of the country so it’ll feel like we’re flying to Australia. Normally it’s like a seven or eight-hour flight, but now it’s going to be probably 14 hours. That’ll be a bit nerve-racking, but once I land in the UK and we’re travelling around in a splitter-bus, that’s fun, right!
“You’re with your band and laughing your heads off most of the time. We all get on really well, and have a great driver, Terry, a former Mod who used to work with Rod Stewart and Tom Petty. We just love him and he’s funny. We have a really good time, like Robin Hood and his merry band most of the time!”
Ron Sexsmith and his band’s European tour starts this Sunday, May 21st, at Bristol St George’s Hall, carrying on to Wolverhampton The Robin 2 (May 22nd), Islington Assembly Rooms (May 23rd/24th), Chester Live Rooms (May 26th), Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (May 28th), Newcastle Wylam Brewery Palace of Arts (May 29th), Holmfirth Picturedrome (May 30th), Glasgow Oran Mor (May 31st), Dublin Academy (June 2nd), and further dates in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. For full details and all the latest from Ron Sexsmith, head to his official website or keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter accounts.