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.”