Ron Sexsmith is an unassuming anti-star: a consummate and critically acclaimed songsmith known for his low-key delivery and an ability to say more in one three-minute song than many people do over the course of an entire record. Sexsmith is also one of few artists who can count a number of iconic songwriters — some of them his own early influences — among his dedicated fans. But for all the critical recognition, multiple Junos, a Genie Award and a cult following that includes, most famously, Sir Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, widespread mainstream success has eluded him.


“I’ve always considered myself a pop songwriter,” Sexsmith says, speaking from his home in Toronto. “But for some reason I haven’t been able to make the record yet where that translates.” That may change with his latest release on Warner Canada. Entitled Long Player, Late Bloomer and produced by Bob Rock, the record marks a bit of a sea change for the St. Catharines, Ont.-born singer/songwriter. “It’s not a shy record. It kind of comes crashing through the door,” Sexsmith says. “I played it for Elvis Costello and he said it sounded like I had my head up for the first time in my career. That was interesting,” he adds with a laugh, “but I know what he means.”


Recorded in late 2009 at Sage & Sound Recording in Los Angeles, The Orange Lounge in Toronto and the Warehouse in Vancouver, the album is a departure from past records where, Sexsmith says, it might have appeared that he was trying not to call attention to himself. But the shift is more a matter of subtle changes in approach, rather than a deliberate attempt on Sexsmith’s part to reinvent or reposition himself. Long Player, Late Bloomer is a strikingly deep-sounding record. Still intimate, still characterized by Sexsmith’s ability to capture the heart of a sentiment or story in a few well-chosen words, but more lush than some of his past efforts — a result, in no small part, of Rock’s production.


“Working with a record producer is like working with a movie director. You have the same script, but it’s going to be a different movie, depending who does it. Bob was good at nudging me to get out of what I usually do,” says Sexsmith. “When I was singing, he would go, ‘You know, you’ve got to sell me this song. We need more William Shatner here.’ And I would try anything because I felt I was in good hands. I wanted him to be able to do the kind of record he would normally do.”


Prior to a chance meeting at the 2009 Juno Awards, Sexsmith assumed the kind of records Rock normally produced were almost exclusively hard rock and metal, and admits his first words with the producer were a bit flip. “I had these songs, but I didn’t know who to work with. I saw him on the curb and said, ‘Do you know any good producers?’”


Later that evening, conversations with artists like Michael Bublé — whose 2009 record, Crazy Love, Rock co-produced — prompted Sexsmith to rethink his initial assumption. “The first people I mentioned it to still kind of thought I was joking, but I sent him the songs and he was into it. With every producer I’m there to learn. He’s got a great way about him in the studio. He helps you frame the song in a way that brings it to life.”


Life is something Long Player, Late Bloomer has to spare. “Recently I’ve tried to write hopeful songs, just for my own head,” Sexsmith says, referencing tracks like “Miracles” and “Heavenly,” calling the latter “the equivalent of walking around wearing a pink shirt.” Largely written on acoustic guitar during a two-week period in early 2009 while Sexsmith was visiting friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the record certainly sounds hopeful, partly to its often upbeat feel and what Sexsmith terms the “fearless” contribution of the musicians assembled to record it. Among them were guitarist Rusty Anderson of Paul McCartney’s band, bassist Paul Bushnell, pianist Jamie Edwards and Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn.


But it’s not all sweet love and bright T-shirts. “One time we were playing the record for some people and they were saying, ‘Wow, I think this is your happiest record yet,’ and I was like, ‘Someone get that man a lyric sheet.’”


As proud as Sexsmith is of his last two records, the response to them and the current state of the music industry had him feeling a bit gun shy. Correspondingly, a number of songs on this new record are very much a mix of light and shade. “Michael and His Dad,” for example, on which Sexsmith tells a story of everyday struggle, relying on his own experience first looking for work in Toronto with his own son in tow, and “Believe It When I See It,” which is upbeat, almost Beatles-esque, but clearly reflects Sexsmith’s sense of disillusionment.


Other songs, he says, grew out of a feeling of being wounded. “Get in Line,” for example, suggests anyone looking to bring Sexsmith down should head to the back of what he calls “a very long line. It was fun to write a song with that kind of sentiment,” Sexsmith says. “It’s like that Bruce Cockburn line, ‘Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.’ That’s what I was trying to do in my mind. I was in a funk, but I was excited because I’m always excited when I have a new song. Because that’s when I feel like I’m making myself useful.”


The title track itself, “Late Bloomer,” was meant as a bit of a joke, Sexsmith says. “It’s a song about cynicism taking over, but in an ironic way, where I’m listening to these wide-eyed people talking about how everything is going to be great and I’m this curmudgeon in the corner.”


That cynicism may be partly a result of Sexsmith’s reverence for the idea of a record as a collection of closely related material, and the fact that music is increasingly being marketed and consumed as single songs and EPs. “The Long Player part is that I really love albums. None of these songs existed as an idea before I went to Santa Fe. The thing I love about records is they’re not just 10 songs unrelated to each other. You’re going through something. They belong together.”


Like other artists’ records that Sexsmith himself is fond of, Long Player, Late Bloomer demands repeated listens. “That’s what you hope for,” he says. But ultimately what is most important to him is that he be remembered for his songs. “You want to make good records, but they’re more of a document so people can hear the songs.”


The hard part for Sexsmith now is just that, waiting for people to hear his new material. Since January he’s been in what he describes as a holding pattern. He’s been writing plenty, he says, generating a good portion of the material for his next record and co-writing with other artists for their projects, but performing only sporadically, mostly the occasional guest appearance at the shows of friends and peers in Toronto.


When it comes to his records, however, he prefers to write alone. One notable exception is “Brandy Alexander,” a track he wrote with Leslie Feist, which appeared on both Feist’s 2007 release, The Reminder, as well as on Sexsmith’s 2008 album, Exit Strategy for the Soul. “I do a fair bit of co-writing,” Sexsmith says, “but I like to steer clear of it for my own records.” Currently he has been writing with a variety of artists, among them British folk singer Linda Thompson and Canadian jazz sensation Nikki Yanofsky.


On this record Sexsmith’s lyrical sense is as acute as ever and his voice has never been stronger. That, combined with Rock’s talent for capturing the essence of where an artist is at a given moment in life — as both a songwriter and an individual — while simultaneously honouring the artist’s history should appeal equally to existing fans and new listeners alike. Clearly that’s something Sexsmith also hopes for. “One of the things I wanted to get out of Bob was to make a record where people who never got me before would hear it, you know? This whole record was about me dreaming big.”

Regardless of the outcome, Sexsmith’s legacy is already impressive and assured. Not because of the endorsements from his well-known friends and fans, but because of his unique voice as a performer and songwriter and commitment to his craft. The support of artists like Sheryl Crow, Costello and McCartney was “encouraging,” he says, “especially early on when I didn’t have a lot to show. There was a feeling that I was doing good work, but that’s a bonus. I’d still be doing this if nobody had said anything. It’s just the thing I’m obsessed with and what I work on all the time.”


“Here in Canada, I’ve started to think differently about my origins,” says Ana Sokolovic, over breakfast in a Toronto café. “I think you have to be physically separated from your country to have this kind of reflection. You will find yourself.”

These words of wisdom come from a Serbian-born composer who has called Montreal home since 1992. And they also say much about her approach to her music: on one hand, Sokolovic enjoys the cultural freedom that comes with living and working in Canada; on the other, she has a clear sense of who she is and where she’s from.

Why did she choose Canada? “My decision was mixed with a lot of elements. I wanted to go far away. And I have a friend of Yugoslav origins who was a filmmaker, but was born in Ontario.” And why Montreal? “I’m a huge francophile, and I’ve always been attracted by French culture and language. I still think it’s the most beautiful language. Isn’t it wonderful to live in a country with two languages: the most important and the most beautiful?”

While some immigrants have a hard time adapting to this country, Sokolovic took to Canada like a fish to water. She quickly mastered French as her third language (after Serbian and English). She wasted no time obtaining a master’s degree from l’Université de Montréal, and soon started to make her presence felt artistically. In the 1990s she won three prizes in the SOCAN Awards for Young Composers (now the SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers), took a first prize in the CBC’s National Radio Competition for Young Composers and represented Canada at UNESCO’s International Rostrum for Composers.

Commissions and other awards followed, and today the list is impressive. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre baroque de Montréal and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra have all engaged Sokolovic to write for them. Chamber ensembles that have commissioned her include the Molinari and Bozzini string quartets, and the Adaskin, Phoenix and Fibonacci trios. Contemporary-music societies have beat a path to her door, and she’s created new works for the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, the Esprit Orchestra, Soundstreams Canada and Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, among others. In 2005, she won the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize from the Canada Council for her work as a composer, and in 2007, the Conseil québécois de la musique named her Composer of the Year. And in 2008, she won the Jan V. Matejcek Concert Music Award at SOCAN’s Montreal awards gala.

However, the story of Sokolovic’s development as an artist reaches back well before her arrival in Canada. While this country has done much to shape her professional career, her desire to become a composer is rooted in her childhood in Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia). “My mother is a dentist’s assistant and my father is a historian,” she explains. “But my father had a strong sense of art, he took us to concerts, the theatre and ballet. And I had an older sister who played the piano, so I wanted to play too.”

She began piano lessons at the age of eight. As well, there were classical-ballet lessons. She remembers the strictness of her Russian teachers — and also how she made her first attempts at composition. “At my dance classes,” she says, “I went to the grand piano during the break and played. I wrote little songs, little melodies, and I played them over and over.”

Ballet gave way to acting lessons a few years later, when Sokolovic enrolled in theatre school. “The teacher didn’t only teach us to act,” she recalls, “but to stimulate our imaginations. Later on, I helped her as her assistant in staging theatre pieces.”

It’s not unusual for an artistically inclined child to pursue several art forms before settling on a favourite. But in Sokolovic’s case, all three of her areas of study — ballet, theatre and music — have contributed to the artist she’s become: a composer who thinks about music from a theatrical standpoint. This is something she brought with her to this country. “When I came to Canada, at my first composition lesson my teacher asked, ‘What would you like to do for your master’s degree?’ This surprised me, because I was not used to being asked what I wanted to do. I was used to being told something like ‘This year you’ll write a string quartet.’ I chose to do ballet music.”

Sokolovic’s theatrical instincts soon came to the attention of Toronto’s Queen of Puddings company, which specializes in contemporary music theatre. Co-director Dáirine Ní Mheadhra vividly recalls how she first heard about Sokolovic — through a phone call to Véronique Lacroix, director of l’Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, in 1999. “I asked her who she thought were the best composers in Montreal and she mentioned Ana Sokolovic. So I called Ana and asked her to send me something. She sent me a tape of her chamber piece Pesma, and by bar seven, I was hooked. She clearly had something to say — her music connected emotionally.”

Queen of Puddings commissioned her to write Sirens/Sirènes, a bilingual work for six women’s voices, and staged it in 2000. That, in turn, led to Sokolovic’s most extensive theatrical work so far: The Midnight Court, a chamber opera also written for Queen of Puddings. Premiered in 2005 and remounted in London’s Covent Garden theatre the following year, it was based on an 18th-century Irish poem about sexual politics in Fairyland. The National Post called it a cross between Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Monty Python.

But even when her works aren’t written for the theatre, Sokolovic finds ways to bring her theatrical sensibilities to composing. Last year, when she was asked to write the Banff International String Quartet Competition’s “imposed piece” (which all competing quartets were required to play), she deliberately avoided writing the kind of abstract music-that’s-just-music concert work. “I thought about it,” she told the CBC’s Larry Lake in a radio interview, “and I had an idea do something which I like very much, which is commedia dell’arte. So I decided to have a little bit of a writer’s role — to write a play, and see how different actors will do the play. All the notes are written, but there is a place for different interpretation of the same notes, and the same story.”

This past September, Sokolovic’s commedia dell’arte — a 10-minute romp demanding advanced contemporary-music skills — was performed by competing quartets from around the world. Canada’s Cecilia String Quartet, which won first prize in the competition, also took the special award for best performance of Sokolovic’s piece.

While Sokolovic’s reputation has spread nationally and internationally, there remains a strong Quebec focus to her career. It’s in Montreal that her music has been most warmly received. And in the 2011/12 concert season, Montreal will be the epicentre of a year-long celebration of her music, organized by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec. The previous two composers honoured by the SMCQ with Homage concerts were Claude Vivier and Gilles Tremblay. They’re obvious choices: Vivier passed away in 1983 and today has an international reputation, while Tremblay is an éminence grise in Canadian new music. But a retrospective series on someone like Sokolovic — very much alive and only 42 — is a departure from the way things are usually done.

SMCQ artistic director Walter Boudreau offers a simple and direct reason for his choice: “She’s good — period.” He goes on to say that specifics about the series are still in the works, but the SMCQ intends to present four concerts featuring Sokolovic’s compositions, including Jeu de Portraits, Géométrie sentimentales, Nonet, Il divertimento barocco and Ambient 5, among others.

However, the SMCQ’s own concerts will be just the tip of the iceberg. Boudreau has been making plans for other ensembles in Quebec and across Canada to get involved. already, the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal and Montreal’s Nouvel ensemble moderne have programmed Sokolovic works, as have the Bozzini and Molinari string quartets and orchestras in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa. Boudreau hopes that about 60 performances of works by Sokolovic will take place in the 2011/12 season.

At present, Sokolovic has about 40 compositions in her catalogue, everything from large orchestral scores to solo works. “I work on several pieces at the same time,” she says, “but in different stages. One piece will be in the last phase, and another I’m just beginning. Right now I’m working on three pieces: a piece for violinist Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà, another string quartet for the Bozzini Quartet and a dancer, Marc Boivin, and Svadba, an opera about a Russian wedding for Queen of Puddings.”

Sokolovic’s life is entirely wrapped up in music: she’s married to another composer, Jean Lesage (they have two children, Gustave and Eva), and when she’s not composing, she’s teaching music at l’Université de Montréal. That’s the life she chose. But would things have turned out differently for her if she had stayed in her native Serbia? Her first reaction to the question is to point out that she has no way of knowing what direction her life would have taken if she had not left her homeland. But then she offers an idea. “When I was in Europe, I was very connected to the European tradition. I tried to compose as a European composer — whatever that means. But here in Canada, I feel free to do what I want.”

They were just kids from the ’burbs, but Burlington, Ont., outfit The Spoons found themselves at the centre of Canada’s burgeoning new-wave scene in the early ’80s. There would be a string of club and radio hits (“Romantic Traffic,” “Tell No Lies,” etc.), a high-profile ad campaign with the Thrifty’s clothing chain and shows with Culture Club and The Police. But it all started with a synth-pop song called “Nova Heart,” from the 1982 album Arias and Symphonies. On the eve of celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary, vocalist/guitarist Gord Deppe talks about bringing back those old emotions.


What is the origin of the phrase “nova heart”?

Well, a nova is an exploding star, an all-encompassing phenomenon. The song was written way at the beginning, when we were still pretty young. In university, I was reading science fiction, and was into this book by Arthur C. Clark called Childhood’s End. If people want to hear it as a simple love song, I don’t want to take that away from them, but it was about an idea in that book — that no matter what happens, we’ll be all right.


How did a guitar player end up writing a song that’s all about the keyboards?

I actually wrote the song on a keyboard. And I’m no keyboard player! But when you write on guitar all the time, your hands go to the same place, and I wanted something different. I had just seen OMD at a little club in Hamilton, Ont.,  and I was so inspired. I borrowed a lousy old String Machine, with fake orchestra sounds and not even enough room to move your hands on it. That was fine for me, I was just klonking around. Our keyboard player, Rob, said he could never have written it, it was too simple. That melody only has three notes.


How important was it to you that people could dance to this?

That was [producer] John Punter’s doing. He introduced us to the 808 drum machine, this little box that helped create the rhythm patterns, like those handclaps. There was no real formula for what works in the dance clubs in those days, but he knew what would be best. The song was originally just supposed to be a B-side to the track “Symmetry,” but half-way through recording, when the drums and the synths came together, we knew we had something.


Were you surprised by the success?

I never thought it would do anything, no. We just wanted to make it onto the chart at CKOC in Hamilton! That was a big deal. Then I remember seeing it on the CHUM chart, right next to Led Zeppelin and Queen. I think it hit No. 4. KROQ in L.A. had it on its Top 10 for the year. I was really surprised that it did what it did.


You still play the song live today. Considering how a lot of ’80s synth pop sounds dated, how do you think it holds up?

In the 1990s, we got rid of the drum machines and did pop/rock interpretations, with more guitar. But we’re appreciating the synths again. We realize that the drum machine sounds are key to it, and people can be disappointed when they don’t get what they expected, what they remember. They want the handclaps.


What do you think is this song’s legacy?

It really caught us when we were innocent, at our most creative and vibrant. We may have written better songs, technically, or improved on our instruments, but you can’t capture that youth again. I like knowing that, in our small way, we were a part of a musical shift. People remember us, if not the cause of it, as a part of it.