Ron Sexsmith: The Long Game

Music Features Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith strides into his local downtown Toronto coffee shop looking much the same as he does on the cover of his latest album, Forever Endeavour. It’s Jan. 8, his 49th birthday, but his tussled mop of brown hair and plump cheeks have remained virtually unchanged over the 20 years since the world first began discovering his extraordinary songwriting ability. Despite his reputation, he hardly stands out from others lined up at the counter; in fact, Sexsmith’s standard singer/songwriter uniform of a dark wool coat and multicolored scarf is rather sedate within this thriving enclave of Toronto hipsterdom.

Somehow managing to succeed at being himself has been the storyline throughout Sexsmith’s career, dating back to his early days fronting a band called (not at all ironically) The Uncool. His eventual signing to Interscope Records in the mid-‘90s seemed a triumph of substance over style, and there was plenty of “who is this guy” reaction when Sexsmith’s eponymous debut arrived complete with advance praise from Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello.

Cut to 2011: Sexsmith has released a half-dozen more albums on various labels and remains a songwriter’s songwriter. He teams up in the studio with fellow Canadian Bob Rock, the master at making everyone from Metallica to Michael Bublé palatable for mainstream radio. The result is Long Player Late Bloomer, Sexsmith’s most commercially successful album everywhere but in the U.S., where finding someone to release it is like pulling teeth.

For this reason and several others, the ensuing year became one of the most tumultuous of Sexsmith’s life. His search for stability spurred the creation of Forever Endeavour, a reunion with producer Mitchell Froom, and a humble gem of an album that builds on their previous work together. It also finds Sexsmith reunited with a former label, Cooking Vinyl, and back in a more comfortable position of not having to deal with the ever-present pressure of “making it” in the too-often confounding world of American pop.

“The first song on Forever Endeavour, ‘Nowhere To Go,’ came out of me feeling so good after we finished Long Player Late Bloomer, only to have it rejected by every label we shopped it to,” Sexsmith explains. “People who for years were telling me my records weren’t radio-friendly were now telling me I sounded too commercial. It made me feel that I couldn’t do anything right, and I went back into this depression I was in before. I was trying not to be all doom and gloom, but feeling like there was nowhere to go but down was honestly how it seemed. So in that way, this album is an extension of the last one.”

Sexsmith adds that he had every intention of working with Rock again based on the overall success of Long Player Late Bloomer—it was short-listed for the Polaris Prize, Canada’s equivalent of Britain’s Mercury Prize—but a chance encounter with Froom changed his plans. “It seemed sort of fateful,” Sexsmith says. “Mitchell was doing a record with Susanna Hoffs that had a lot of orchestration on it, and even before I talked to him I had an idea to make a record that sounded like a classic Neil Diamond or Glen Campbell album—really warm with strings. When he started telling me what he was doing with Susanna, I kind of got excited and gave him the demos. I think every few years it’s good for me to work with Mitchell anyway. It’s just good for my wellbeing.”

Within a week of hearing the demos, Froom responded with arrangement ideas, which further boosted Sexsmith’s confidence. The common goal became to make an album that echoed some of Randy Newman’s best work—sonically at least—an easy decision considering Sexsmith’s admiration of Newman and the fact that Froom produced Newman’s last three albums.

“Mitchell gleaned so many things working with [Newman],” Sexsmith says. “The album Mitchell and I did together in 1999, Whereabouts, had strings and woodwinds on it, but he’s working on a whole other level now. He’s gotten a lot more elaborate and cinematic after working with Randy. There was just a feeling making this record that we were both doing what we do best. Some of the rockier stuff on Long Player Late Bloomer was maybe not what I do best. I love to do it, but I don’t know if I’m exactly cut out for it.”

Further reflecting on the Long Player sessions with Rock, Sexsmith says, “I was a little intimidated, but I felt comfortable around Bob when I first met him. We had breakfast a few months before we started where we sort of figured out our common ground. I talked about how I wanted my first band as a teenager to sound like Deep Purple but we weren’t that good. Really, my biggest concern going into that project was that I would be the weak link. I was surrounded by great musicians, and he was challenging me. I have a comfort zone when I record. I like to map out how I’m going to sing something, because I’ve been working on it for so long, and Bob would start saying things like, ‘give me some more William Shatner.’ The music on that album turned out to be a lot bigger than I imagined it would, so I had to readjust what I was doing. But that whole experience was good for my self-esteem.”

Although Sexsmith didn’t feel the same sort of intimidation while recording Forever Endeavour, dark clouds nevertheless lingered over the sessions. One night while on tour for Long Player, Sexsmith swallowed and felt a lump protruding in his throat. Immediately fearing something serious, he went to his doctor who recommended a barrage of tests. For the latter half of 2011, Sexsmith endured ultrasounds and CT scans, waiting weeks in between for the results. Thankfully, the lump turned out to be benign, but that news only came after six months of what Sexsmith describes as lying awake at night worrying. Not surprisingly, many songs on Forever Endeavour reflect this experience.

“There’s a song on the record called ‘Back Of My Hand’ that grew out of me walking around and thinking about all the possible scenarios, from ‘This could be nothing,’ to ‘This could be something I’m going to have to fight with everything I’ve got,’ to ‘They’ve caught it too late.’ On top of that, I kept running into people I hadn’t seen in years and they were all saying really nice things to me. That’s when I really started to think I was dying. Everything felt nostalgic. A couple other songs, ‘The Morning Light’ and ‘Deepens With Time,’ came out of those thoughts about death that I’d never had before. I’m going to be 50 next year, so it was probably time for me to face all of this stuff. I feel like I won a small battle, but inevitably something else is going to get you.”

Although it was written prior to the health scare, “Sneak Out The Back Door” is another of Forever Endeavour’s tracks that illustrates Sexsmith’s state of mind at that moment. A jaunty, almost country blues number performed solo, its message revolves around exiting this world without any fuss, certainly a noble thought until one is faced with the harsh reality as Sexsmith subsequently was.

Like most of his songs, it suggests many options for sonic interpretation. The choice to record it as a solo piece shows the complete trust Sexsmith has in Froom as a producer since it wouldn’t have necessarily been Sexsmith’s own preference to do it that way. Sexsmith has put his faith in a few other producers over the years, such as Steve Earle and Martin Terefe, but acknowledges that he and Froom have a special relationship.

“Working with Mitchell and all of the great musicians he brings in, like Pete Thomas and Bob Glaub who played on most of this album, also means you can get things done quickly,” Sexsmith says. “That’s ideal for me, because I’m not a technical person. I’m not interested in what the knobs do, and I don’t really like waiting around and feeling like we’re making a movie. Because of Mitchell’s vision for this album, we had to record things in sections. So for the first week it was basically me singing all the songs by myself with just a percussionist. After that, there wasn’t much for me to do except listen and give my opinion as all of the other parts were put on. It was kind of strange; I’ve never made a record that way before.”

It’s a rare artist who can put himself in a new recording environment with each album and not have the quality of the songwriting suffer. Ron Sexsmith is one such artist, and his catalog shows it. He himself admits that Forever Endeavour will not likely be one of his big sellers, but that no longer seems to matter, neither to him nor the fans that have stuck by him. In March, he will perform for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and for many in Canada he has already earned a place among that country’s songwriting legends, alongside Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. That elusive U.S. recognition would be nice, but as Sexsmith departs with coffee in hand, blending inconspicuously with the general downtown Toronto population, it’s hard to imagine him feeling at home anywhere else.

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