Ron Sexsmith’s conversational pop wins over Elvis Costello and Interscope

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 5, 1997

The night before Ron Sexsmith calls from Norway, I’m giving the TV clicker a workout when some tabloid-style show appears, updating the lives of TV child actors who played roles such as the pointy-eared werewolf kid on The Munsters and the six-year-old twins on Family Affair. When the “Where are they now?” program mentions the 1976 barbiturate-overdose death of Anissa Jones—who played adorable little Buffy on the latter ’60s situation comedy—the opening lines of the new Sexsmith tune “Child Star” really hit home. “Child star, child star,” croons the Ontario singer-songwriter, “you’ve reached the end of the road. They only wanted you when you were good as gold.”

“I was definitely thinkin’ about her,” says Sexsmith when he calls from Oslo, a stop on a promo tour, the next morning, “but I was thinkin’ about a number of different child stars—like even Alfalfa, who I think was stabbed in a bar when he was 20 or something like this. And all those kids from Diff’rent Strokes and stuff. It just seems to be the oldest story, really, just part of the Hollywood business.”

Not all the tunes on Sexsmith’s new CD, Other Songs, are as downbeat as “Child Star”; some are fairly whimsical, such as “Clown in Broad Daylight”, a carnival-tinged ode to people who dress up as Bozo and hit the streets to promote car washes and the like. And then there are bittersweet compositions that fall somewhere in between, such as the eloquent “Pretty Little Cemetery”, inspired by the graveyard opposite which Sexsmith lived when he first moved to Toronto from his hometown of St. Catharines. But it’s the more sombre selections—like the opening track, “Thinking Out Loud”—that seem to stand out among Sexsmith’s new tunes.

“It’s probably the stuff that goes a bit deeper,” he agrees. “But ‘Child Star’ is a strange kind of song, you know. My brothers don’t like that one, for example, but Elvis [Costello], that’s his favourite song on the new record. So I don’t know what to think. I just write the stuff.”

Two music-industry bigwigs who do know what to think of Sexsmith’s poignant songwriting are Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, the heads of Interscope Records. Although he was originally signed by Interscope Music Publishing to write songs for others to record, as soon as Iovine and Field heard Sexsmith’s demos they flew the 33-year-old tunesmith out to New York to play for them in the company’s office. Following the audition Sexsmith was signed to his own recording deal on the spot, as he always knew he would be.

“I wasn’t really too surprised,” he says, “because I always thought if someone could hear me up close—in my kitchen or somethin’—I would get a deal. I had done some showcases in bars and stuff that never went very well, so I knew that it was just a matter of somehow getting an opportunity to play for someone up close.”

When the songs that immediately won over the Interscope bosses came to fruition on Sexsmith’s self-titled 1995 debut, they impressed critics and esteemed singer-songwriters alike with their seductive craftsmanship. Such venerable artists as Shawn Colvin and Nick Lowe have taken to playing his tunes in concert, and the aforementioned Costello raved of Sexsmith’s debut: “I’ve been playing it all year and could listen to it for another 20.” With his just-released sophomore CD garnering similar acclaim, Sexsmith is being touted as an heir to the Canadian songwriting heritage that includes Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot.

“Canada has some of the most influential songwriters on the planet,” asserts Sexsmith, “and there’s a sort of troubadour tradition that I guess I’m operating in. I’m very proud of that tradition, and I’m just trying to raise it as high as I can.”

Although he utilizes odd phrasing and skewed melodies in his work—which often brings to mind the lopsided pop of Ray Davies or Harry Nilsson—Sexsmith strives for clarity with his lyrics. “A lot of people go miles out of the way to say something simple,” he says, “and I try to keep it as conversational as I can.” But that goal isn’t always easy to achieve, as evidenced by the wistful-sounding “Strawberry Blonde”, which took Sexsmith a year and a half to write. For him, the hardest part of the singer-songwriter’s task is finding the right words.

“Sometimes I just get this tune in my head with no words,” he explains, “and I have to kind of sing strange noises to myself. So it’s always the lyrics that hold me up, you know. I’ve never been a good talker, but at least with songs I have time to get it right.”

Once Sexsmith has found the ideal words for his lucid tales of life and love and is ready to get them on tape, that’s when he relies on Mitchell Froom—who produced both his CDs—to help add stark elegance and depth to the proceedings. Froom orchestrated the horns, vibes, and steel guitar on Other Songs.

“He’s a real sort of old-school song arranger,” offers Sexsmith, “so he helps me with just the right approach for each song, you know, whether it’s a groove, or instrumentation, or tempo. It’s just good to have someone around who knows a lot about music and is objective and everything. He really helps me define what I do.”

Froom’s studio insight and music-biz connections were called upon during the recording of “Honest Mistake”, which Sexsmith says they were having trouble with. “It just needed somethin’,” he says. Froom figured accordion was the missing ingredient, so he asked David Hidalgo of Los Lobos to do the honours.

“He’s supposed to be a great accordion player,” says Sexsmith, “but he wasn’t able to do it, so [coproducer] Tchad Blake said, ‘Well, I think Sheryl Crow plays accordion.’ They had just finished workin’ with her on her last album, so they gave her a call, and she came down. And I enjoyed meeting her, she’s really cool.”

Sexsmith will be seeing a lot more of his recent acquaintance on the upcoming Another Roadside Attraction tour, which will have him sharing the stage with Crow, Los Lobos, Ashley MacIsaac, headliners the Tragically Hip, and others at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium on July 17.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” says Sexsmith, who gives Vancouverites a more intimate peek at his talents on Wednesday (June 11) at the Railway Club. “I’m sort of friends with a lot of people on the tour now. I mean, I’m getting to know Gord [Downie] a bit now—he lives not too far from my house in Toronto—and I know Sheryl a bit, and those Los Lobos guys I’ve met. And I’ve toured with Ashley before, too. So it should be a nice family kinda thing.”

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