He receives phone calls from Elton John. He’s eaten breakfast with Paul McCartney and later jammed together in the former Beatle’s home. He receives advice from Elvis Costello. And he can do all of this because they are all fans of his music.
So why aren’t more people tuned into the music of Ron Sexsmith? He’s been critically hailed by seemingly every media outlet for more than a decade and his songwriting ability is unmatched. Yet again and again, his albums fly by unnoticed by the majority of music listeners – the proverbial unappreciated artist.
In this interview, Ron was gracious enough to not only tell us about his upcoming album but also take a look back over a storied career full of highlights and lowlights. If you’ve never appreciated Ron Sexsmith before, this is a great place to start.
SSv: It’s been several months since Time Being, so I’d like to ask where you’re at musically?
Sexsmith: Yeah it’s been over a year now, I think. I’m almost finished with a new record. I was just over in England sort of fixing a few things and now I can mix it, so hopefully it will be done by the end of October.
I think with someone like me, you can't really write me off. You never know really. It's just such a mysterious thing. You write the song and somewhere in the production you get it right and it catches on. But it's nothing you can really plan for. I just gotta keep the quality as high as I can.
SSv: What’s the timeline on that project?
Sexsmith: It will come out in the spring if we get everything done and sorted out with all the label stuff.
SSv: Musically where is it at compared to past efforts?
Sexsmith: It’s quite different. I went back with Martin Terefe who did Retriever and we started in England and then he got this idea of going to Cuba, so we went to Cuba. We got all these amazing horns and stuff. Then we went to New York. We always track live when we’re playing and I’m singing. But initially, we thought we’d hit Cuba and that maybe I’d have another crack at singing the songs. But the equipment kept breaking down there. So I ended up going to New York and doing that there. Although we did keep a lot of the live vocals and stuff. Then we ended up in England to finish it off. So it’s ended up being an epic adventure. [Laughs]
You know, the work with Mitchell Froom was great on one hand, because he’s very methodical. You go into the studio with concrete ideas and arrangements. This record was the exact opposite. You’d come into the room, show the guys the songs and they’d just start playing the first thing that came to their head. Then some people would come into the room and we’d get them to play something. It was loose and the record feels that way. It feels rough, I would say.
SSv: Would you say that’s more of your own style?
Sexsmith: Not really. With every album, you have these songs and you’re trying to find a way into them. In the past, we’ve probably thought about them too much and this time around, Martin thought it would be good to not have a plan and just let the musicians bring the character to it. But I like working in all sorts of ways. But you’re always trying to take it somewhere else if possible.
SSv: You’ve been working with Martin for a long time, ever since the May Street project in 2001, I think…
Sexsmith: You mean Shea Seger? Yeah, but I’ve actually known Martin since 1994. We both have the same manager. For years, we’d run into each other but I never really knew what he did for the longest time. I knew he was into music somehow. I thought he was a writer or something, I wasn’t quite sure. Then one time we were in England and the first thing we did was this Kinks song for a Ray Davies tribute album. I said, “I’m in England on tour. How am I supposed to do this song?”
My manager told me to go to Martin’s studio. That’s when I first zeroed in on the fact that Martin is a producer. We finished that song in half an hour and I like people who work fast like that. Then we did the Shea Seger thing and then it made sense for us to do a record together.
SSv: When you work with someone so much, what becomes forged during that time?
Sexsmith: I’ve always gotten along with him very well. In many ways, it’s like my relationship with Mitchell. I really value his opinion. I think he has good judgment for the most part. We’re not interested in making records unless we do something different. Not that we want to do something radically different, but we want to approach things from a different angle each time. So this is only really the third record I’ve done with him, whereas I’ve done four with Mitchell. But he’s just someone that gets what I’m trying to do. And I’m not a producer so I need someone like him, so it might as well be someone you respect.
SSv: I’d love to go back a bit and hear your thoughts on a few albums. For example, looking back on Cobblestone Runway – so much was made of that album being such a transition. Was that purposeful?
Sexsmith: Well, that was my first album I did with Martin and I’d been listening to that Shea Seger record, which I thought was great, especially from a production standpoint. Also around that time, that guy from England, David Gray, had broken out on that one record. In fact, he’d opened for me when the album first came out and it blew up. I didn’t even actually like that record very much, but I was noticing how contemporary it sounded.
I felt the records I’d made until then, which I am still very proud of them, I felt they were coming from more of a classic pop place – the Kinks, The Beatles and all the things I love. And that’s when I started thinking that Martin might be the guy to take my music and maybe update it. I had all these folky songs like “Former Glory” and it could have been a country album.
The cool thing about that album is that I didn’t have a lot of time, I was on tour. So most of that stuff came by myself along with a click track and Martin came along and he went and added all the other things, not on every song. But a lot of that stuff I didn’t hear. I remember when he sent me rough mixes. It sounded like I was listening to someone else’s record because I didn’t know what was coming next. It was like, ‘Oh, wow! There are strings and all these other weird noises.’
I remember being a little concerned that people who liked my other stuff might not like this. And there were some complaints about some of that. But again, on every record you’re trying to find something that’s going to set it apart from the others and allow it to have its own character. And that one has its own character.
For the most part, the only problem I have with my records is my singing. And that record is something that, at the time, it was the best thing I’d done. But now when I hear it, I’d like another go at it. Except for “The Last to Know,” which I think is probably one of the best vocals I’ve ever done.
SSv: What about your self-titled album, going back a bit further? Do you ever go back and listen to that one?
Sexsmith: You know, I was just talking about that album yesterday with Nick Lowe because I’m on tour with Nick at the moment. Actually, I was talking with Neil, his producer. He was telling me that when he got that record and they took it home and were listening to it in ’95, he said he felt it had a lot of character and my memory of it is that Mitchell wanted the focus to be just my voice and my guitar. I think a lot of producers would want to bring in all the session guys. So I think we managed to have this sustained mood on that album.
I like albums. I know some people like to put things on random shuffle and stuff, but if you’re in a certain mood, you like to put on a record. And I think Mitchell is a great album producer. If I heard it now, I think my main problem again would be my singing, but I was still trying to find my voice then.
SSv: If I bring up Blue Boy, what are the memories that come up from that?
Sexsmith: That was a crazy time for me because my family was falling apart. Then while that was going on, I had to go to Nashville to make this record. It was the only time that Steve Earle was available. So it was a nice diversion in a way from the realities of my home. You know, at the label, I had made three records that hadn’t really sold that well. So there was some pressure for this record to be a big breakthrough record.
It’s funny… Steve and I were at odds on one hand, because I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to Nashville, so it’s going to be a country record.’ But Steve wanted Revolver or something. He wanted to make this a Beatles thing. So we had a constant tug-of-war on what was supposed to be going on and he would take one that I liked off, so I would take one that he liked off. Then he’d put it back on. And there was a bit of that going on.
But it was great. It was nice to have Don Kerr play on that one. Most producers I’ve worked with have their own musicians they like to use, so it was nice to bring Don down. He played great on that record. But yeah, I just remember that it was a good time in general. They had me staying this place where Elvis Presley had stayed and The Beatles and all these people. I had a grand piano in my room. So I didn’t want to leave. I had this real swinging bachelor pad and the studio was right around the corner. So it was Dickens – the best of times and the worst of times. [Laughs]
SSv: You mention David Gray blowing up and the pressure from Interscope. That’s always been something missing from your career is the giant sales numbers. How does that tension play out for you, even now?
Sexsmith: It seems to be something that’s more of a concern for other people. I have certainly felt the pressure at times, but it’s not something I think about that much when I’m writing or even recording. Sometimes I’ve made records where you’re thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a hit!’ But when you’re in the studio, you’re cut off in a way from the rest of the world. I remember Mitchell saying on my second album, we did a song “Average Joe” and when you hear it through the speakers, I was thinking ‘Woah, that’s a hit song.’ But Mitchell said, ‘Yeah, but what year is it?’
I am 43 and I come from another time, so what sounds like a hit to me doesn’t always match up with what’s going on. But at this point in time, the only pressure is now and then when we’re trying to get a new label on board, they look at sales. And even if they’re fans of my stuff, they will say, ‘Well, we love Ron, but we can’t sign him.’ But I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to keep making records. It’s changing a bit.
SSv: What’s changing a bit?
Sexsmith: I think the industry was uncertain for awhile and it feels like its starting to find its feet again. I think with someone like me, you can’t really write me off. You never know really. It’s just such a mysterious thing. You write the song and somewhere in the production you get it right and it catches on. But it’s nothing you can really plan for. I just gotta keep the quality as high as I can, I guess.
SSv: You said that you can’t write off Ron Sexsmith, but in a way, do you hate even being on that edge and having to make a statement like that?
Sexsmith: It’s a parallel universe in a way. There’s people everyone knows around the world and they fill stadiums and things like that. But there’s also people like me and Nick Lowe. We’re travelling around packing them in everywhere in our own way. Even last night, I’m just the opening act and people everywhere are yelling out songs. It’s not like I’ve had a Greatest Hits Volume Three. [Laughs]
To the outside world, I’m someone they haven’t heard of, or maybe they have but they’ve never really checked me out. And there are people who sell lots of records who are great and people who do and are terrible. Then again, there are people under-the-radar who are great and people who are under-the-radar for good reason. [Laughs] It’s just this thing where I’m just trying to be grateful. I’m lucky I got in the door when I did and there’s enough enthusiasm in what I’m doing to keep going.
SSv: On the other side of that, you have Paste listing you as the #75 of the Top 100 Living Songwriters. Several reviews and features label you a “songwriter’s songwriter.” What level of validation does that bring for you?
Sexsmith: It’s a journalistic saying. It’s a bit of a ghetto as well. I know what they’re saying because when I was growing up, they were saying that about other people. ‘Oh, he’s a songwriter’s songwriter.’ They used to say that about John Hiatt. I guess it’s like saying you’re not very successful or something. [Laughs] There are actors like that, too.
SSv: The actor’s actor. [Laughs]
Sexsmith: Yeah and they aren’t household names. That’s not a bad thing. I’ve heard it said about a lot of people.
SSv: Are you comfortable in that place?
Sexsmith: Yes, it’s nice to be known for being good at something. I take it seriously. Not too seriously, but when I make a record, I feel it’s another shot at making a first impression. Every album I’ve done, there are new people finding out about me. So I don’t want to get lazy about it and put out stuff with only two good songs and the rest is filler. So it puts pressure on myself to do a good job.
SSv: There have been a lot of moments that I would think would be highlights, but what is the highest level of validation you’ve received?
Sexsmith: The whole Elvis Costello thing…
SSv: When he’s holding your discs on the cover of NME?
Sexsmith: Yeah, because people don’t realize how close to oblivion I was at the time. I had made my major label debut and it’d been out for six or seven months. It was completely ignored. I was about to be dropped by Interscope. You know, when you make a record on a major label that nobody buys, you’re toast in a way. It got good reviews, but people don’t really read reviews. Only music fans read them. So when Elvis did that, it was a vindication and created this buzz for my record.
At the time, Interscope started thinking differently about me, that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. The people working there at the time didn’t even like the album and, for a time, it wasn’t even going to be released. So I was on thin ice. So that was a pivotal moment and they left me alone for the next few records. They just thought, ‘Ron’s this sort of cred guy on the label.’ That’s the word you threw around back then. You could have a lot of successful artists and then you could sort of carry along a bunch of cred artists if they were bringing in good reviews or whatever. But after a few albums, it didn’t mean anything anymore.
SSv: So is that just an insane moment when you look at this magazine cover and this musical icon is holding your album?
Sexsmith: Yeah and it’s weird also because it still comes up. I didn’t expect it to come up in this interview but it comes up all the time. And I’ve toured with him and even for Time Being, Elvis is the first one to hear the songs. I was worried about them and I talked to him sometimes online. So he sends me his notes on every song and what he thought. So he’s always been very helpful. But sometimes I wonder where I’d be if that never happened. There have been other moments, but that’s the main one.
SSv: Are there moments when you’re thinking, ‘Paul McCartney is a fan. Elvis Costello is a fan. Numerous other high profile people are fans, but what about the average guy?’
Sexsmith: Sure it makes you wonder sometimes. It is interesting sometimes when someone like Elton John or whoever would be too busy to notice someone like me. But yet he takes the time to call me and say nice things. But that just means they’re music fans. Elton especially, he always listens to new things. So that’s inspiring. And I still listen to his records. I was a member of his fan club when I was a kid.
He’s called twice now. He called around the time of my Blue Boy album and then he called just a few months back when Time Being came out in the U.S. It’s a strange thing to hear his voice on the answering machine. It is surreal. But I basically learned to sing from all his albums, so it’s a huge honor for me.
SSv: Let’s hit the new album. What’s the title and what themes are pervasive on it?
Sexsmith: It’s got a lofty title. It’s called Exit Strategy of the Soul. It’s a spiritual record in a way, lyrically, but that term with the war – exit strategy – keeps coming up in the news. I don’t know if it’s suicidal tendencies or not but sometimes if you’re walking by train tracks, there’s this weird pull I find sometimes to jump. And I think a lot of people experience that. And I think that’s the spirit trying to get on to the next place. It’s plotting an exit strategy. So that’s where the title came from. I had other ones, but I kept coming back to that. It’s a crazy album and I think it needed a title that was big.