Ron Sexsmith is a badass.
I can’t say I’ve heard him described that way before. He’s not a badass in the sunglasses-indoors kind of way or beating up bad guys by night kind of way. He doesn’t rock a Mohawk or chew tobacco. Hell, he describes himself as a St. Bernard. He’s a badass because he’s authentic. In a music industry full of one-off songs, over production and shallow lyrics, Sexsmith’s music stands as a gleaming beacon of hope for those who still believe in the art of songwriting and melody. In a world full of edited selfies and statuses, Ron is authentically himself, unapologetically melancholy one moment and full of dry humour the next. He is kind and talks to fans as equals. He takes time to meet with them. Ron Sexsmith is a badass.
For those who have never checked out Ron’s music, what are you waiting for? While Ron hasn’t had much commercial success or many radio hits (a frustration he’s mentioned many times over the years), his body of work is hard to ignore. His lyrics range all emotions- heartbreak, despair, joy, mischief. There are clever turns of phrase (as his Twitter followers can attest to), deep observations on life and stories we can all relate to. Long credited for his songwriting, Ron’s melodies often go unmentioned which in itself is an injustice. Reminiscent of Don McLean or Joni Mitchell, Ron has a strong style that’s pleasing to the ear.
How it Starts
Long praised for his songwriting skills, it is a wonder how Ron creates the lyrics and melodies he does. For Ron, his song writing is most influenced by the phase of his life. While his most recent album was inspired by a nostalgia for his childhood, others have been influenced by the death, romance, spirituality and his children. While these threads may seem obvious looking back, it’s only afterwards Ron explains, that you actually see what’s taken shape.
“Every song has a certain thing that triggered it- little things I’m reminded of or a feeling I had about something…a lot of times it’s almost impressionistic. It reminds you of something else, any little seed where you think ‘ there’s a song in there somewhere’”.
Seems simple enough but Ron assures me every song takes months to craft and while most are his own observations on things he sees, others relate to Ron directly. Sneak Out the Backdoor on the Forever Endeavour album for example, was written right after the album Long Player Late Bloomer was made with Bob Rock and was being brought around to labels. One label would say it was too mainstream and others not enough. In response to that hopeless frustration, Sneak Out the Backdoor tells of the desire to quietly disappear from social situations (something Ron says he’s always done). Then, with self-deprecating humour, when the time comes to leave the earth, sneaking out the back door sans fuss sounded appealing to Ron too. Just like that, a song was born.
These days, Ron writes about 50/50 on piano and guitar. Given a piano for his 40th birthday from his drummer, Ron finds it easier to not have to take his guitar out every time he gets an idea. The piano is always there. That being said, he’s much more comfortable on guitar. Regardless of what he’s writing on, Ron has crafted and studied songwriting well. Learning from the greats before him- Randy Newman, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen. When asked how he learned his response is definite and confident:
“Just from learning all those songs in bars [referring to his time covering other people’s music as a teen], listening to singers as a kid, being totally obsessed with music and melody… Just being a music freak, being obsessed with music until the point where it worked its way into my DNA. I think a lot of people don’t take the time to learn their history. I want to know how Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer wrote Moon River…You listen to all these great songs and they’re great for a reason. That’s the kind of songs I wanted to right.”
What He’s Chasing
Sexsmith has expressed frustrations with a lack of commercial success for a long time. He’s an extremely accomplished musician. He’s shared the stage with the likes of Robert Plant, Emmy Lou Harris and Elvis Costello. Gordon Lightfoot, David Bowie, Steve Earle and Paul McCartney are all big fans and yet, he’s never had a real radio hit. Therefore, Ron doesn’t feel completely successful (although he assures me that meeting his heroes are priceless life moments).
So what is he chasing?
For Ron, it’s never been about superstardom. It’s about creating a sustainable career and the little things that would make a big difference: being able to sell out all his shows, making money on tour rather than losing or breaking even, not having to worry about financial stress. Basically, he wants what most of us want from our careers. Who can blame him?
Despite his frustrations, there’s no doubting that Ron has a highly accomplished musical career marked by many fantastic milestones. One of these, Ron notes, was playing at Massey Hall in 2005. Being a courier in the area when he was younger, Ron passed Massey Hall every day and always thought he could and would play there. His absolute favourite venue, Massey Hall was a big deal in his books.
Other huge milestones in Ron’s career include playing at Royal Albert Hall and meeting many of his own heroes including Elvis Costello (who Ron toured with), Gordon Lightfoot, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Robert Plant among many others. Ron even tells me with a grin about meeting Elton John for the first time whose fan club he used to be a member of.
In every interview I do with a Canadian musician, I like to make mention of the “Canadian Sound”. What is it? Who is it? Does it even exist? Some have said it’s our tie to the landscape as is prevalent in the works of The Tragically Hip, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. Others have said it’s the authenticity of the music.
For Ron, The Canadian Sound exists in the music of the “old guard” as he calls them but isn’t really present in the up and coming Canadian stars whose influences seem to be more American.
“…whether it was Neil or Joni
12, they had something that was hard to put your finger on. It was just something about…well their accent for one thing and something about their melodies as opposed to the American sound. It wasn’t as rootsy for one thing. I think it had a little more to do with being a commonwealth country.”
So where does that leave Ron? From our meeting, he will go on to continuing the tour for his latest album, working out the kinks and enjoying the time with his band. He and his wife have left the hustle and bustle of Toronto for the quieter, artsier town of Stratford and everything seems on the up and up. When will we hear from him next? Time will tell.
Peace, love and history.