Everything you wanted to know about Sexsmith, but were afraid to ask

By Kevin Rothbauer

One day after returning from a press tour of Europe and two days before beginning a concert tour of Canada, Ron Sexsmith is trying to enjoy his brief time at home. Unfortunately, he’s also doing a full day of interviews with media from across his home country.

“Europe was just really full-on and I had really early flights, which kinda did a number on me,” explains the veteran singer-songwriter. “I was getting so overtired toward the end that I kept trying to take naps between interviews. I was so happy to finally make it home last night and get a good night’s sleep. It’s nice to be in my own home and drinking my own coffee and everything.”

Just over a year after the release of his last album, Blue Boy, Sexsmith unleashed his sixth recording, Cobblestone Runway. The new album came to existence spontaneously, while Sexsmith was still in the process of promoting his 2001 release.

“We recorded Cobblestone Runway in London. We actually recorded it in the middle of my Blue Boy tour. It was kind of unusual to do it that way but I had a few days off and I flew to London and I worked with this guy, Martin Terefe, who I’ve known since about ’94. In the last year or so, I’ve worked on a few things that he was producing, and I sang a duet on a record by this girl Shea Seger. [Seger’s 2001 album] was one of those albums that came out and got a lot of really good press but didn’t sell a whole lot and I just loved the production. I had heard the rough demos and I didn’t quite get it, but when I heard the finished product, I was really impressed. We just started talking then about trying stuff out, maybe doing some demos. When I went to London I didn’t know we were gonna make a record, but we kinda found ourselves in the zone or whatever you call it. We did about 12 songs in about five days with all

Swedish musicians.”

Putting down a dozen

songs in less than a week of studio time hasn’t happened much since the days of the Beatles. Still, Sexsmith is very pleased with the way the album turned out.

“I probably got more excited about this than almost anything I’ve done before. We just kinda did something right.”

Blue Boy represented a notable departure from Sexsmith’s previous two albums, Other Songs (1997) and Whereabouts (1999). Sexsmith and producer Steve Earle experimented with a variety of musical styles and created a record with a different feel from his previous, more mellow works. Cobblestone Runway is something of a return to the mellow sound, although Sexsmith believes it has something that none of the previous albums had.

“It’s a lot different from Blue Boy, that’s for sure. With Blue Boy, we were trying to make a rock album. This one is a lot prettier. It’s very acoustic, but at the same time it’s probably my most contemporary-sounding record. It’s got some grooves on it, it’s the first album that you could actually dance to. It’s got some really lovely strings–probably about eight or nine of the tracks are strings. All-in-all it comes across as a nice Sunday-morning sort of record. It’s very mellow, in general.”

After a period of relative tumult in Sexsmith’s life, the song writing process that ultimately led to the creation of Cobblestone Runway served as therapy, which might help to explain the mood of the album.

“The songs were all written while I was waiting for Blue Boy to come out. I had this eight-month period or something. I wrote a lot of these songs then. It was kind of an unusual time because I had just split up with my wife of 15 years, so I was living by myself for the first time, so that was kind of unreal. I moved in with my accountant and he was never there, so I’d spend every day just pacing around in this big house and playing the piano and drinking coffee and writing these songs. It was nice, in a way, to be so productive at that time because obviously my mind was wandering off to certain times or certain episodes. This album may sound like a sad album, but I think it’s the most hopeful album I’ve made.”

It might take a while for Sexsmith to figure out exactly what kind of album he made. The input of his audience helps him to figure out exactly what he has done, which is what happened with his last release.

“Blue Boy was kind of made right in the middle of all the craziness. There is kind of a chaotic thing about that record that I like, but some people treated it kind of like the ugly stepchild of my record collection ’cause it was a bit noisier. And there were these dark songs–there was this one about a guy contemplating murder–that I hadn’t really written about before. It’s hard for me to know, really–it’s usually after they come out and people say, ‘oh, that’s a sad record,’ or ‘that’s a dark record.’ I have a hard time telling.”

In the 11 years since the release of Sexsmith’s debut album, he has always remained somewhere just under the mainstream music industry’s radar. Despite critical praise and hearty endorsements from the likes of Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow, the music-listening masses haven’t taken to his albums. While this doesn’t exactly bother him, he doesn’t object when a few more people decide to purchase his records.

“I’d love to have a breakthrough of some kind. Every one of these records, we’ve tried to make albums that would break through or that would reach a wide audience. I’ve always hit a brick wall, though, with every album. They’ve all been received pretty well but they always get shut out by radio or television, things like that. Fortunately enough for me, there’s been this word-of-mouth thing that’s happened with each record, where people seem to find out about it. I get e-mails every day from people all over the world [saying] ‘I just heard your second album’ or ‘I just heard your third album’ or whatever, and they’ve gone back and got all the other ones. It’s nice to know that the records are still living.

“With each one, it does pick up a bit, and I’ve found the audience has gotten quite bigger. I think this record is my best shot at having that elusive breakthrough. It’d be nice to happen, I’m 38 now and it’d be great if all my hard work wasn’t totally in vain. It’s not something I obsess about and it’s never the motivation for it or anything, but all my heroes obviously had some big hit records. I think that the thing with a record that breaks through, there’s kind of a mysterious thing about it, it’s kind of a combination between having the right song and the right production and the timing; all these elements have to come together. I think maybe we’ve done that. Most of my favourite records haven’t been hit records either, like Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits. I’m happy with all the records I’ve made, but this one does seem a little more accessible somehow.”

The tour for Cobblestone Runway will feature Ron with a three-piece band, including long time collaborator Don Kerr. While Sexsmith can appreciate the benefits and detriments of a full band, he doesn’t like to be restrained by outside factors when determining what kind of tour he’ll take.

“For me, often times, if I’m with a band or if I’m solo, it’s a financial decision. I hate that because I don’t want that to decide what I do artistically in terms of a live show, so I’m really happy that we were able to work it out in a way that I could have my guys along, ’cause it makes touring a lot more fun.”

Sexsmith is also eager to point out why he enjoys touring solo, when it’s necessary.

“One of my favourite tours of all time was an Australian tour of about six cities, and it was solo, and I was playing these really nice venues with grand pianos. It was so leisurely–every town I had a day off in, and I’d come and play the show, and I had this beautiful little venue, and I got to switch from guitar to piano. It was just a low-maintenance kind of tour. With a band, there are other personalities and sometimes you get on each other’s nerves and what have you, but ultimately it’s nice to experience stuff with other people.”

Being alone has helped Sexsmith rediscover some of his own favourite artists. Some of Sexsmith’s influences might be obvious, such as Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, but his contemporaries also provide listening material as well as a place where he can get feedback for his own work.

“Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve been going out and buying records that I used to have, and some of them I never had on CD. I recently picked up the record Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan. I like Neko Case’s new record. I really like the Super Furry Animals’ record that they put out last year. Kyp Harness is another one–he just finished a record last year. He’s one of my favourite songwriters and he’s always struggling for recognition. He just finished a double album that’s coming out soon, so I’ve been listening a lot to that. He’s also one of my best friends, so whenever he has a new batch of tunes or I have a new batch of tunes we’ll get together and have some beers and play them for each other. He’s a good person to bounce things off of, and he’ll tell me if a song is crap or something like that.”

Ron Sexsmith will appear in Calgary early in a tour that will take him across Canada, then to Europe, Australia and Japan. He has mixed emotions about embarking on such a long tour.

“You have to kind of psyche yourself up. I’ve really been enjoying being home, ’cause last year we toured for seven months, but the last few months, since this record started coming together, I get all excited again. When you walk out on stage, that’s what it’s all about for me. So I’m excited that it’s starting up again, but I do feel at the same time that, ‘Oh my god, I’m looking out at about seven months now. It does freak me out a little bit.’”

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