Artists like Beck, Steve Earle and Tom Waits undoubtedly rank among the greatest within the American songwriting tradition, but their art is helplessly entangled with (and buoyed by) their respective wunderkind weirdo, recovering outlaw and boozy troubadour images. While discriminating music fans might like to believe that their admiration of certain artists is founded firmly on the integrity and artistry of their music, our attraction to an artist’s unique persona plays a crucial role in the music toward which we ultimately gravitate. Such musicians represent, both through their art and their perceived characters, a mysteriousness we don’t see often in contemporary American life. In short, we want our artists to be more interesting than we are -- individuals in whose personal riddles lie a world of inscrutable genius and obscure truth if only we were able to unravel the layers of their art. And in a world where the entertainment dollar is stretched in more directions than ever before and style usually triumphs over substance, simply writing great songs may not be enough. Just ask Ron Sexsmith.
"Obviously, these days there’s a lot of people doing really well who aren’t that talented, but they know how to work the camera or push people’s buttons, and they can project themselves or this image," says the shy singer-songwriter with the wonderfully mellifluous warble and a seemingly inexhaustible resource of melodies. "And that’s an art in itself, I guess. But that’s not where I’m coming from, and I don’t know how to do that," he finishes without any sense of malice. Finishing up the eastern leg of his North American tour, he’s not the type of guy to go after newspaper headlines or pop up in gossip columns. "I don’t put across a huge image. I’m not having temper tantrums like Ryan Adams or whatever. I don’t think it’s that necessary if the music is good."
As a purportedly great, yet perennially under-the-radar songwriter, he seems to be the type of artist destined to release his "best of" collection before the general public takes notice of him. Still looking every bit the scruffy kid who began on the Canadian folk circuit, the now 38-year-old tunesmith has incorporated a lifetime of melodies into his six critically lauded but commercially overlooked albums. His latest, Cobblestone Runway, a potentially disastrous meeting of Sexsmith’s classic pop sensibilities and lyrical strengths with modern studio techniques and subtle touches of Euro-pop, is his first distinct step away from the enduring aura of his previous releases. Whereas production previously had been a non-factor (or at least not a dynamic presence) on his earlier albums, this release is almost self-consciously contemporary. And yet, it’s still a Ron Sexsmith album, featuring all of the impossibly perfect melodies and pristine arrangements that are not only consistent with his body of work but also the hallmarks of classic pop songwriting in general.
A distinct step away from the grittier tones of the Steve Earle/Ray Kennedy produced Blue Boy (2001), Sexsmith enlisted the help of Swedish producer Martin Terefe to add the subtle contemporary flourishes that might resonate with an audience resistant to his music in the past, while retaining the timeless quality of his songwriting.
"I’m always reaching to have a breakthrough album, an album that people can hear. And for some reason radio has always shut me out," he says, explaining that he’s willing to allow a slight change in direction at this point in his career. "And if having more modern elements is going to help get the record played alongside whoever else is getting played, it’s going to make me happy because my songs are really kind of like my babies." So far, the critics have made him a proud parent, hailing it as his best work to date.
Fortunately, Sexsmith had some of his strongest material yet to use for the project, yielding potential hits like the majestic "Former Glory," the dreamily fragile "God Loves Everyone" and the surprisingly danceable drum loops of "Dragonfly on Bay Street," possibly the only track in his catalogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in a disco.
"That was the one song where [Terefe] kind of removed everything that we’d done, except for my voice and guitar, and built a new track around it. So, yeah, I was pretty shocked and didn’t know what to think," he admits, later explaining that he didn’t take long to warm up to the track. Another first for a Sexsmith album is his duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin on the album’s standout ballad "Gold in Them Hills," an addition made while Sexsmith was on tour and couldn’t be reached. "I’m a bit leery of cameo appearances, in general, because I’m a bit of a purist," he explains, "If I’m listening to a Bob Dylan record, I don’t want to hear Bono come in, even though I love Bono," he finishes, acknowledging that he’s a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to his albums. He ultimately decided that he liked the Martin version enough to include it as a bonus cut, complementing the original solo version.
Over the years Sexsmith could have had more than a few potential duet partners had he wanted. An enigma since his 1995 self-titled debut, he made few immediate waves outside of critical circles but wasted little time in winning over his peers, with Elvis Costello appearing on the cover of Britain’s New Musical Express clutching a copy of the disc.
"Every album you do, you’re always really excited about it. I know I didn’t feel that way, even with the first album," he reveals with typical forthrightness. "I remember thinking ‘Everybody is going to hate it’...I was amazed when the press got behind it and people like Elvis started saying nice things about it."
It wasn’t long before artists like Bob Dylan and Elton John were offering their own superlatives, and he found himself in England having breakfast with Paul McCartney, the man whose example serves as a primer for anyone in Sexsmith’s line of work.
"Meeting McCartney was exciting for me because I never expected to meet any of the Beatles," he says rather matter-of-factly. "So, to have breakfast at his house was unreal, and to play guitar with him was really exciting." But as much as the support of such artists has given him leverage with record labels, the reality of the music industry is an ever-present factor. Sexsmith knows that the applause of his peers won’t pay his bills. "It’s important, but I’m also struggling to continue. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sometimes, because how many times can you put an album out that doesn’t sell?" Despite winning the commendation of legendary craftsmen of the art, record sales and chart success hasn’t followed.
"It makes you feel like, ‘What’s wrong? What am I missing here?’" he admits. "And there’s people from my old label who would say, ‘You just haven’t made the right record yet,’ and maybe that’s true," he says, referring to his notorious problems with Interscope. When the label didn’t see much commercial success from Sexsmith, they were unwilling to make him a priority on their star-studded roster.
Amazingly, Sexsmith has retained a healthy perspective and has avoided becoming jaded, despite watching similar (and arguably much less talented) songwriters find large audiences. "A lot of my favorite albums weren’t hit albums," he muses. "Like, I’ve never heard [Tom Waits’] Swordfishtrombones on the radio.... So I didn’t feel bad on one hand because I know how it goes. But it was frustrating because, obviously, I’d see other songwriters, like David Gray breaking through and I’d be like ‘When do I get my turn?’ Or maybe I don’t get a turn," he finishes good-naturedly.
Impressively, given everything that he’s been through -- both battling with record labels and watching his marriage fall apart -- the strong undercurrent of optimism that runs through Cobblestone Runway ultimately becomes its thematic arc. "I wrote [the songs] as I was waiting for [Blue Boy] to come out, and it was kind of a weird moment in my life where I was on my own for the first time in years, and I didn’t know what was going on," he says, describing his period spent in personal and professional limbo. "I felt like I was starting over in every way," he says. "I didn’t even know if my record was going to come out. So I was trying to reassure myself, and I think that is where the guarded optimism [comes from]."
And even though there may be no kiss of death worse for an artist today than to be a nice, normal guy, Sexsmith remains undeterred in his hopes of continuing to make a living through his music. In moving to the indie label, Nettwerk America, his chances of being the proverbial big fish in the small pond are much better. "I try not to obsess about it too much because it’s out of my hands.... All I can do is try to focus on the music," he says, rallying a little realistic optimism. "I’d like to think that I’ve seen other artists who’ve had breakthroughs later on, like Lucinda Williams and people like that. So maybe mine is just around the bend."