Interview: Ron Sexsmith rises again

When Ron Sexsmith’s 11th album Long Player Late Bloomer was released earlier this year, FFS declared it to be the Canadian singer-songwriter’s “most exuberant album to date”. We’re sticking with that assessment, but the man himself told us it came from his darkest moment in 20 years as a musician.

Every music fan will have artists they love and can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t. But championing the cause of Ron Sexsmith has been a particularly frustrating exercise as even endorsements from the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle have fallen on the deaf ears of the greater record-buying public.

No one has felt that frustration more keenly than Sexsmith himself. He has spent a lifetime chasing a dream of aping heroes like Ray Davies and Joni Mitchell, and admits it has got him down when critical acclaim has not let to a breakthrough in sales.

It almost meant his new album was never made.

Throughout a career of false dawns, Sexsmith thought about quitting more than once, but never more so than after 2008’s Exit Strategy For The Soul.

“I’d had those feelings in the past, but after Exit Strategy, I spent a lot of time on the road and I just felt like I was touring a dead album. People would walk up to me at shows and ask when the record was coming out, even though it had been out for months.

“The record had all sorts of horns and instrumentation on it, but we couldn’t afford to put on that kind of show, it was just me and my bass player, and I was getting kind of embarrassed to be on the stage and not be able to put on the show we wanted to.

“I started drinking, I put on a lot of weight, and then I didn’t want people to look at me on the stage. We got to the end of the tour, and I thought, ‘What was that all about?’ We didn’t make any money. We didn’t make much of anything.

“I’d thought after Retriever (2004) that my career was finally getting off the ground, but by Exit Strategy, it felt like I was circling the drain and I was ready to pack up.”

But what happened, he said, is what had always kept him going.

“All of a sudden, you write a few songs, you get excited again and you get your hopes up again, and so you decide to give it a go again.”

The result, ironically, is an album that is getting as a good a reaction as anything the 47-year-old has put out to date, including some of that radio play he’d given up hope of ever achieving.

It’s unlikely to make him a household name, but that’s not something that worries him anymore.

“I guess I accepted it a while ago,” he said of his dream to tread the career path of his heroes. “It is what it’s going to be. Actually, most of the time I’m really grateful to have a career at all. I was 31 when my first album came out, which is kind of old for the music business these days, and the fact I’ve been able to continue to put out records and have a body of work is crazy.

“But every time I make a record, I’m hoping that this will be the one that connects and breaks through. It’s not that I want to be rich and famous, but you spend so much time on the songs, you want people to hear the music.

“All of my heroes did it. They were all ‘album artists’ but they still had hits on the radio. I know it’s a different time now, and everything on the radio is like robot music. I’m realistic, but I think it’s okay to go for something and try to reach out to people.”

To help that cause this time, Sexsmith recruited an unlikely ally – former Metallica and Motley Crue producer Bob Rock.

“I was really excited by the songs I had, but I didn’t know who to work with,” Sexsmith said. “I had a big dream for this record in that I wanted to reach people who hadn’t got me before. I knew Bob was a really slick producer and where Exit Strategy had been a warts-and-all sound, I wanted something smooth and something focused to see if we could get it on the radio.”

The move paid off as Rock helped Sexsmith engineer a speaker-filling record full of playlist-friendly tracks. The mood is upbeat, but scratch the surface, and a sense of Sexsmith’s desperation when he first started work on the album is there.

“It sounds happy, but the words are coming from a place where I was feeling a bit disillusioned with everything,” Sexsmith said.

“Songs like ‘Get In Line’, and ‘Believe It When I See It’, they’re humourous but there’s scepticism in the lyrics that maybe wasn’t there before in my career.

“But by the end of the record, it does get a lot more optimistic.

“When I sequence an album, I think of it like a movie. You want to come out the other side and I think this one does.”

Talking of movies, Sexsmith’s growing momentum this time has been further helped by the recent release of Doug Arrowsmith’s documentary Love Shines.

“This guy started following me round with a camera seven years ago,” Sexsmith explained. “I don’t think we knew what kind of movie he was trying to make, but once I started making this record all of sudden he got a production company interest and had a budget and it became real.

“I don’t know why he was interested in me, but I guess he was just a documentary maker looking for a subject. He looked at my career, saw all these people have said nice things but I’ve always been relatively unknown and he wanted to pursue that angle.

“As it was, he saw me down in the dumpster and trying to resurrect my career. That’s where the film starts. It’s downbeat, though maybe edited another way it could have been a comedy.”

And so Sexsmith is laughing again and looking to the future.

“We’re heading out on the road now, and this time we’re bringing a full band – I kind of put my foot down on that after the last time because I didn’t want to do another tour on the cheap,” he said.

Three years after almost jacking it all in, Sexsmith sounds as vibrant as ever.

“I already have songs written for my next album,” he said, “so I’m starting to think about how that might sound.”

Ron Sexsmith will tour the UK in June
16 June LONDON Royal Festival Hall (with ANNA CALVI as part of Ray Davies’ Meltdown festival)
17 June LEAMINGTON SPA Assembly
22 June HOLMFIRTH Picture Dome
27 June GATESHEAD Sage
28 June CAMBRIDGE Junction