By BRUCE DENNILL
Ron Sexsmith is at home – the Canadian singer-songwriter lives in Stratford, Ontario – and in his words, “between records”. However his latest album, The Last Rider, was only released in April 2017, with a tour to follow. Even given Sexmith’s generally high productivity, that’s a pretty tight turnaround.
“It ended abruptly,” begins Sexsmith. “I was hoping to still be touring the record. The album didn’t do too badly; we even had a couple of songs in the charts in the UK.
“The thing is, I love playing with the band, but if I play with the band, we never make any money. And when we started getting bookings where there wasn’t even enough money to cover costs, we decided we’d stop it there. I’ve also just released a book [Deer Life – a fantasy fairy tale illustrated by Sexsmith himself], so I wanted a gap so I can take that to literary festivals.”
A useful bit of timing then, at least.
“Yeah, it’s a little disappointing, though,” says Sexmith. “With some albums, I’ve been able to tour for six or seven months. And on this tour, we were getting really tight. It’s always been a bit of a rollercoaster, I suppose, but in general, I’ve been very lucky, doing well enough to make a living.”
“You feel like a rug has been pulled out from under you when you have to stop like that.”
“It’s gotta be the same for guys like you, right? There’s no support for music journalists anymore either.I used to read all the reviews – not just my own, but all of them; out of interest, to get some insight. But all publishers want now is celebrity news.”
Has experience changed the way you deal with the now-inevitable unpredictability of your career? Or could you care less about the cycles in which others work?
“I’ve adapted to what has happened,” explains Sexsmith. “My wife and I used to live in Toronto, but we’re now in a small town – the house prices are much better here. After 20 years in the business, I would have hoped for at least one song that maked me feel better, financial security-wise.
“It’s been a funny process. I became established in the industry in Canada, so I could play gigs when I needed to. I’ve always had friends who are more popular than I am, so I was trying to do what they were doing. And the UK has always been supportive. I even headlined the Royal Albert Hall once. It was surreal: the idea of it is one thing, playing this amazing place. But I was paying for everything…
“I was 30 when I got my record deal – a bit older than most. So I was – I am – very grateful to be doing this.”
You’ve mentioned that the title of the album – The Last Rider – referred to a feeling that this album might be your last because of “how frustrating the music industry can be these days.” Is that still how you’re feeling, now that the tour is over?
Sexsmith chuckles dryly.
“I may resist the urge to make a record for a while,” he concedes. “My feeling going in was, ‘Let’s see how this goes’. Now? I don’t know. I may go away for five or six years; see if there’s renewed interest when I come back.”
You’re more of a self-contained industry nowadays. Does that make creating new music more satisfying or simply more hassle?
“If we’re talking about making an album, it’s hard to justify the expense. The label wants an album, but doesn’t want to pay. There are not a lot of incentives to get excited about making a record. Good reviews used to be be enough, but now publicity people only want an angle.”
The Last Rider is the first album Sexsmith has produced (or co-produced, with his touring drummer Don Kerr) himself. Why now, or at all?
“It was because I couldn’t afford a producer,” says Sexsmith. “I wanted to work with Martin Terefe [Swedish producer; has worked with Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, Train and others] again – he’s done a number of my albums – and he was bending over backwards to accommodate us. But his fee was still chewing up our budget. Then my drummer Don, who also works as a producer when we’re not touring, convinced me we could do it ourselves.
“It was good for me. I discovered that I knew what I was doing, so much so that I wondered why I didn’t do it earlier.”
Your established sound is distinctive and well-loved by fans. Did you feel any pressure to maintain the same sonic palette your previous producers had put together?
“Every producer I’ve worked with has their own sound,” suggests Sexsmith. “Mitchell Froome was different to Bob Rock, and Steve Earle made the record I worked with him on sound more like a demo than a finished product.
“I think I’ve become better at singing than I used to be. I’d love to go back and re-sing a lot of the early stuff. But I’m fairly set in my ways and my set of influences – plus, I wouldn’t know how to make a particular sound happen. To me, the previous album [2015’s Carousel One] sounded retro, and I wanted something more modern this time. I worked out what I wanted to do, but didn’t have the know-how. So we put together as we went. There was a synthesiser – I can’t remember what kind – in the room, and everyone in the band played it as some point during the recording. The record became what it is without really trying.”
Your songwriting is classic in many ways – you’ve acknowledged Ray Davies as a particular influence – and you’re consistently able to create crafted three-minute pop tunes. Has there ever been, especially now that you’ve taken more control, a desire to change the model in any way?
“I don’t really think about it too much,” says Sexsmith. “When I first moved to Toronto, there were a lot of good songwriters at open-stage events, so you could get an idea of what worked and respond to competition. Me, I’m happy with two verses and a bridge. I have no ambition to expand beyond that, or to make a prog rock album!
“I’ve always been drawn to concise songwriting, where there was never a syllable out of place. On this album, I suppose Breakfast Ethereal is a little more expansive than most, though. I’m also writing a musical based on my book, which is taking me out of what I regularly do.”
You write and record a lot of songs – somewhere between 12 and 16 tracks a record. Not many artists can keep up with that sort of output. But what doesn’t make it onto the albums? What sort of attrition rate is there for new compositions, and based on what criteria?
“For The Last Rider, there were three or four songs that didn’t make it,” says Sexsmith. “Usually, I write more than I need. I’m usually actually aiming for between 10 and 12 tracks per record, but it becomes tough to cut them once they’re done.”
“I may seem like a writing machine, but I find it very tough to do. I usually stockpile ideas when I’m touring a record, which is when they all come out. Albums tend to present themselves. I recognise once the songs are written that there’s a record in there, or that the songs should be in a certain order and that they belong together. And then it’s difficult to whittle them down.
“I also think that, in the course of an album, you want some songs that aren’t that good. So have a substantial song, then follow that with a ditty. Cleanse the palate, if you will. I like them all, you know. I don’t want to be a snob. That said, I find that a lot of songwriters are the masters on one emotion.”
Your everyman appeal is not necessarily an easy thing to sustain. Is it something that’s designed in any way, or is it just particularly eloquent stream of consciousness stuff – normal notes on a normal life by a normal guy?
“Fortunately, my wife takes care of everything. My head’s in the clouds. I worked as a courier before my record deal, and I’d hum tunes and make notes while delivering packages. I don’t mean a physical notebook, by the way – just mental notes that I’d try to recal later. My musical memory is pretty good. I’ll also play others’ songs on my piano; get inspired by a progression here and there.”
“I can remember a full evening’s worth of Dylan songs, but I forget people’s names.”
Does the admiration of other hugely respected songwriters have any impact on how you create? Your vocal fans include Paul McCartney, Elton John and Elvis Costello…
“A lot of people said nice things when I first came out, and that was lovely in the beginning when I wasn’t selling a lot of records” recalls Sexsmith. “In 1996, I even had breakfast with Paul McCartney. But they haven’t said much since, so it’s a bit of a legend that has followed me around.
“At another phase in my career when I was not doing well, Chris Martin started talking me up. I toured with Coldplay a few times, and I’d listen to their songs unfolding into big choruses that everyone sang along to. I realised I wasn’t much good at choruses. My next album after that was Retriever, which had more choruses, and that record opened up Germany, Spain and a few other places for me.”
You’re not a formula guy, though?
“No,” agrees Sexsmith. “Guys like Max Martin and Mutt Lange had that thing they could do – modulate here, do that there – but that seems cynical to me.”
Your interaction with your fan seems to be the opposite of cynical – you give personal attention and are intellectual, warm and funny, as seen, particularly, in your Twitter account. Is there a strategy involved in that area or is it just an extention of your personality?
“It became natural,” notes Sexsmith. “My label in America talked me into it, telling me, ‘Go on there once a week; let people know what you’re thinking.’ I don’t even have a phone, so it took me a while to get up to speed, but the label – who were running the account up until then – showed me who was following me. There were people like Neko Case on there. It was interesting.”
Your one-liners on Twitter have become something of a trademark.
“I love Groucho Marx,” says Sexsmith. “I like the sort of wordplay that might make people groan. I also post cover version videos – I’ve done over 300. And people seem to like it. There were 600 followers when I took it over from management, and now there are 30 000 or something. Every day, I try to think of a new pun, which can be time-consuming. But I think it’s good for people to have somewhere to go to that’s fun.
“People seem to think I’m always melancholic. That’s never been true.”
Go to ronsexmith.com to buy music and keep an eye on tour details.