Ron Sexsmith – Not lookin’ for a hit
Ron Sexsmith concedes right off the top he is “beyond tired,” and it’s easy to understand why his internal clock might be frazzled. He’s in a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing time before a show after leaving his home base in Toronto that morning at 5 a.m., which came hot on the heels of returning from a show in Ottawa three hours earlier. As if that weren’t enough, just a couple days earlier he was doing a promo tour of Japan, where he witnessed something akin to Sexsmithmania.
“It is the only place where I sort of get mobbed,” Sexsmith says with a bewildered chuckle. “It is always crazy when I go to Japan. I guess it is my fourth time there. It’s always really intense.” He’s enough of a cause celebre in the land of the rising sun to warrant a jam-packed interview schedule, followed by radio shows and in-store performances. Wherever he goes, he meets journalists and fans who have pored over the translation of his lyrics with the intensity of Talmudic scholars. “They are really thorough….All the records come with Japanese lyric booklets. They know what you are singing.”
Whereabouts, Sexsmith’s third album, came out in May; working once again with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, he has crafted a 12-song cycle so finely wrought, the tunes sound like standards on the first spin. Where his 1995 self-titled Interscope debut was a deeply personal, diaristic collection and 1997’s Other Songs deliberately moved to a more observational style, Whereabouts defies such categorization.
Sexsmith’s palette is as colorful and varied as life itself, filled with simple joy and sadness and irony. He moves deftly from the uplift of the opener “Still Time” (“We may never win/But where there’s hope/There’s still time”), through the steep pessimism of “Must Have Heard It Wrong” (“It’s time I got used to it/We’ve all been left behind”) and “One Grey Morning” (“You follow up all the leads/That lead nowhere”), to the character sketch “The Idiot Boy”, to the unspeakably lovely lullaby “Seem To Recall”.
Yet Whereabouts was very nearly consigned to oblivion several months ago amidst the major corporate merger between Polygram and Universal, the parent company of Interscope. The album was finished in September and originally scheduled for release in February, but got held up for so long that Sexsmith began to wonder if it would ever come out.
“That was my Christmas, just worrying. We couldn’t get an answer from anybody,” he says. “It’s frustrating. You work hard on something and you are excited about it, and it tends to suck the life out….I was away from it [the album] for quite a while because I did this tour with Elvis [Costello] in Europe. I didn’t bring it with me. I didn’t have a Walkman or anything. I didn’t hear it for a month. It was nice to be able to have that distance from it. If I was home, just listening to it and fretting over it, it would drive me insane.”
Sexsmith was raised by his single mom in St. Catharines, a blue-collar town outside Toronto. When he was 10, his mother remarried, to a car plant worker. His early songs seem haunted by memories of childhood.
“St. Catharines was a good place to grow up. I don’t know what it is like now. Every time I go back now, it seems like a bit of a ghost town,” he says. “That’s a big part of writing — looking back. Especially having kids. You see things they are going through and it almost sends you on a flashback.”
As a toddler, he figured out how to work his mom’s record player and pawed through her collection of 45s, memorizing Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and trying to sing like Tammy Wynette.
“It has just been this kind of tunnel vision, every since I was really small. I was just really hooked on music,” he says. “It has just been this one thing I have focused on. Even when I got into high school it was all I could think of. All I ever wanted to be was the guy who held the microphone and sang.”
In his teens, he formed a band known at different times as the Scribes and Paper Moon, specializing in Kinks-inspired originals. Upon graduation, they dreamed of going on a “toilet-tour” of Northern Ontario dives, but were informed by agents that they’d have to put together a set of covers to survive the barrooms. Deciding on who to cover proved to be the group’s undoing, and Sexsmith went solo.
“Every weekend I just jam-packed this club. I wasn’t very good, but I was young and had all this enthusiasm, and it was just contagious or something,” he says. But ripping through Neil Young and Creedence covers got old fast, and Sexsmith relocated to Toronto, “where it seems they expect you to play original music.”