Can-rock curmudgeon strikes a new chord
TORONTO’S RON SEXSMITH TAPS HARD ROCK LEGEND TO PRODUCE DARING NEW DISC
A “disillusioned” Ron Sexsmith wasn’t even planning to cut another album after Exit Strategy of the Soul came out in 2008. But things took a twist when he was on vacation in New Mexico and his wife rented him a guitar.
“I really just fell in love with it,” he says of the borrowed instrument. “And I found myself writing all these songs. I hadn’t planned on writing any new songs. So naturally, you get excited.”
Sexsmith’s latest album, Long Player Late Bloomer (due this month via Warner), sees the veteran Toronto tunesmith returning to the kinds of melancholic pop melodies that have defined him as a singer- songwriter since he first emerged into the public eye with his self- titled major label debut in 1995. It’s also an exceptionally cathartic album, one which captures the thoughts and emotions of an artist who’s always had a complex relationship to the music industry. After all, throughout his career Sexsmith has gotten critical respect and good reviews to spare, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into record sales. It can be frustrating, sure. But on this record, Sexsmith expresses a refreshing comfort with how his career has taken shape.
“‘Late Bloomer’ was a song about being kind of a curmudgeon in my old age. I think, when I was younger, I was naive about everything,” he says. “Some people pretend that they don’t want to have success. But you make records and you want people to hear them. All my heroes made great records, but they also have made successful records. But they came up at a time when people actually bought records.”
Benjamin Boles, current music editor at Now Toronto, thinks Sexsmith has more staying power than the average musician, despite the number of record sales. “He holds his own as a songwriter, and he’s not attached to any trends,” says Boles. “His fan base built up mostly through word of mouth, not through MuchMusic or something.”
He says it’s “disheartening” that Sexsmith’s sales haven’t matched the “adoring” reviews his albums have received over the years but says it’s not a new concept in the music industry.
“You can probably even compare him to Tom Waits, who’s done well critically but probably makes more money off his covers.”
Indeed, many of Sexsmith’s musical heroes have doubled as his champions. In 2006, Sexsmith even managed to coax Leonard Cohen out of the audience and onto the stage during a performance.
“He had a book launch, and I was asked if I would go and sing some Leonard songs. He was originally just going to listen,” Sexsmith recalls. “Then, when it came time to get onstage and sing, it was funny, Leonard asked if he could come onstage. After I sang a verse, I waved him over and he sang the rest of the song ‘So Long, Marianne.’ I had to sort of feed him the first line of every verse. But people were just floored. It had been well over a decade since his last performance.”
Jamming with your heroes is always a blast. But for Sexsmith, influence has always cut both ways. His own songs have been covered and performed by everyone from Canadians Leslie Fiest (of Toronto indie collective Broken Social Scene) and Michael Bublé to Rod Stewart and Nick Lowe. Emmylou Harris recently recorded her take on Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain” for an upcoming album.
“It’s kind of the most exciting thing when that happens,” Sexsmith says. “I made my mom a CD of different people doing my songs this year for Christmas. It’s kind of cool.”
When he began thinking seriously about making a new record, Sexsmith made a bold move, bringing in legendary Canadian producer Bob Rock — best known for his work with Mötley Crüe and Metallica — to help. He says it was a tip from Michael Bublé, of all people, that gave him the idea. “I ran into Michael Bublé at the Junos, and he told me I should work with Bob Rock,” Sexsmith explains. “I found that interesting because I didn’t know Bob Rock did my kind of music. I thought he only did hard rock. I had met Bob Rock earlier in the evening and we had a nice chat. He was into it.”
Many might recognize Rock for his role in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, which sees him mediating the swollen egos of Metallica as they too struggle to make a real statement with their 2003 album St. Anger. “In the Metallica movie, Bob’s dealing with a band that’s going insane,” says Sexsmith. “But I liked him in that movie right away. He seemed like the only sane person. When we worked together, it was just great. He was just an enthusiastic cheerleader.”
In putting the record together, Sexsmith found himself working with musicians who had collaborated with many of his musical idols, including guitarist Rusty Anderson (who had worked with Paul McCartney) and former bassist to Elton John Paul Bushell. The collaboration between Rock and Sexsmith further inspired filmmaker Doug Aerosmith, who had been making a documentary about Sexsmith for some time. “He’d been filming me on and off for years,” says Sexsmith. “Then when the Bob Rock album started happening, a producer got on board and it got more intense.”
Love Shines premiered in October 2010 at the Vancouver International Film Festival and is scheduled to debut on The Movie Network later this year.
But Sexsmith remains as busy as ever, with a few Toronto concert dates already lined up. In March, he’ll be debuting tracks from the new album at First Canadian Place, with another concert lined up for April at Lee’s Palace in the Annex, before setting out on a cross-Canada tour. There’s plenty to be excited about. Long Player Late Bloomer may be Sexsmith’s most confident, mature and substantial album to date, very much the “musical statement” he set out to make. What’s more, the album gives ample insight into the dynamics of a gifted singer- songwriter and his take on his place in the pop music industry.
“I have absolutely no interest in being famous,” Sexsmith admits. “More than ever now, when fame is such a cheap commodity, everyone wants to be on a reality show or something. I’m always hoping that the songs will get out there and be heard. But I’m totally fine with the cult following thing, if that’s all it’s going to be.”