RR LogoRon Sexsmith Talks About the Exit Strategy of the Soul

Ron Sexsmith photo oneI sat down with Canadian recording artist Ron Sexsmith, at a hotel in downtown Vancouver, Canada, just a few hours before he would perform in concert at the Chan Center for the Performing Arts, and in his typically humble way, Sexsmith talked about his music and more specifically his new album Exit Strategy Of The Soul.

As we sat on the sofa, Sexsmith said, “I think that singer / songwriter is the best job description for what I do. I am in that tradition of singer / songwriter. This is the first album on which I have had a co-write (“Alexander Brandy”).  I have always prided myself on the fact that on the back of the other albums, it said all songs by Ronald Sexsmith. I think that the people who are into my stuff expect that. There have been a few exceptions, like I did a Leonard Cohen song on my first record.  In general, I try to stick to that (writing all of the songs), because I am old fashioned. I like to buy a (Bob) Dylan record and find out that he wrote all of the songs, or Joni Mitchell or whoever it is. It’s romantic for me to think that at some time, they sat at a piano, or in a room and that, they wrote this thing, and they didn’t have any help. I would say that being a singer / songwriter is what I do and that’s pretty well who I am.”

After thoughtfully pondering my question for a few moments as to whether or not Canadian songwriters possess a unique quality when it comes to their music, something which distinguishes them from their contemporaries in other countries, Sexsmith responded, “I think so. Wherever I travel in the world, people are always asking me about that. People are always asking me what it is about Canada, that we are able to produce Leonard Cohen, the Neil Youngs, Joni (Mitchell) and Lightfoot.  I think that it is a subtle thing, and it is because we are a Commonwealth country, and it is also because we are so close to America, that we are getting the best of both worlds in a way.  We get the rootsiness of American music and we also get the pop and the melody that comes from having close times with the British. Our music has always been an attitude free zone. There seems to be less of a rock star thing going on and perhaps more humility, if that makes any sense. When you hear Neil Young sing a song, maybe a country song, you know that he is not from the South, because it’s in his accent, in the chords that he uses, and it’s in the melody. It’s a subtle thing that you can’t quite put your finger on.”

One of the things that has distinguished Ron Sexsmith’s music over the last two decades, is his ability to weave lyrics that speak to the heart of the guy or woman on the street as they go through their everyday lives, so it is surprising to hear him say, “Lyrics are the toughest part for me, so it is partly by choice and partly because I had to find the most direct way (to communicate with his audience).  I have tried to keep the lyrics conversational. I find that when I hear a song, and I don’t know what they are going on about, I can’t really engage. When I started playing on the open stage in Toronto, I would hear all of these songwriters who had really good lyrics, and it shone a light on my weakness as a lyricist. It forced me to go the other way. “Secret Heart,” was the first one that I really felt like it was what I should be doing. It is very simple and sometimes it seems disarming when you hear it. There are some people who want to go miles out of their way to be clever, and I don’t really have the equipment to be clever all of the time, so it just seems to work for me to be that way.”

He says, “I think that my strengths are as a balladeer, but I have stuff that is up-tempo and it rocks in its own way. I love The Kinks and Dylan. I think that my forte has been with the melodies, so whether it is a fast song or a slow song, I like the songs to be melodic. That is what I have always tried to do.”

If Sexsmith’s impressions of his earlier songwriting were that lyrics did not come easily to him, he has done a lot to dispel those notions during the past thirteen years. For one, his song, “Secret Heart,” to which he alluded, has been covered by the likes of, Rod Stewart, Feist and Nick Lowe. In 1995 when his former label released Sexsmith’s self-titled CD, things were not looking too good and it appeared as though the record company executives were trying to bury his album. Then like one of those bright shining lights that appears during a dramatic scene in a movie, he was thrown a lifeline, when Elvis Costello proclaimed that Sexsmith’s album was the best record he had heard that year.

Sexsmith recalls, “It was a huge relief, because things couldn’t have been worse for me at the label. The record came out in April of ’95 and I had this endless slew of opening for people, but I didn’t really exist, because nobody knew me. I wasn’t being played on the radio. The record company didn’t like the record and they kept saying to me, ‘You should have listened to us. You blew your big chance.’ I was starting to think that maybe they were right when out of the blue, in December Elvis Costello held my record up. The next thing you know, it was like the shot heard around the world. Journalists from all over the world wanted to hear the record and wanted to review it. Some of the people at the record label were kind of mad. Now all of a sudden I was on the end of the year list for all of these critics and big people like Paul McCartney started saying nice things. They (the label) reluctantly had to give it a second chance and it was released internationally. That is where I got a foothold and I found my audience. It was relief, because I was about to be dropped (by the label), and I didn’t know if anyone else would have given me another shot.”

Fast forward to 2008 and over the past decade and one half, Ron Sexsmith has risen to iconic status as a singer / songwriter. His new record Exit Strategy Of The Soul, explores similar motifs as his earlier songs, “Strawberry Blonde,” and “This Song,” as he serves up a combination of tunes about self-discovery, people that he has encountered, and he takes a closer look at things that people encounter in their daily lives. Ron Sexsmith Photo Two

Ron Sexsmith’s song, “This Is How I Know,” which comprises the first vocal track on Exit Strategy Of The Soul, is one of the prettiest songs that you will hear. The melody flows easily, the arrangement is lush, and Sexsmith’s phrasing is sensitive.

He explains how, “This Is How I Know,” came to be, “Usually with every record, there is a song that triggers the rest of the songs, or that sets the tone, and (for this record) that was, “This Is How I Know.” For the longest time, the only lyric that I had for the record was that line, “this is how I know.” I kept singing it, but I asked, this is how I know what? What am I singing about? I kept going back to it. It’s about the evidence that you are gathering throughout your life, about something bigger than yourself. It’s like when I was a kid and I thought that music was my dad in a way, because my dad wasn’t around. All of these things were affirmation for me, that there was someone who was watching over us, and taking care of us. That is what it is all about.”

The title of Sexsmith’s current album may raise some eyebrows, because depending on your perspective, it can sound incredibly profound, very philosophical, or perhaps contain some hidden meaning like spinning the Beatles’ Abbey Road record backwards and getting it to play, “Paul is dead.” 

“I have always believed in the concept of a soul, because I think that you can hear it in music, you can see it in art, you can feel it in people, and you notice it when it’s not there. I think that when a person dies, that’s what is missing. That’s what animates us, is our spirit. When it’s not there anymore, we don’t know where it goes, and that’s the mystery. I think that from the time that we are on this earth and while we are walking around, the whole time that we are here, our spirit is planning its escape, to get on to the next thing, which is what I think that it really wants to do,” says Sexsmith, as he slips into something that you sense is deeply personal to him.

The twelfth track from Exit Strategy Of The Soul is a song of hope, “Brighter Still.” Sexsmith says, “It is the last song that I recorded for the record, and I wrote it on the airplane, while on the way to Havana, Cuba, where we recorded all of the horns for the album. It is a song about trying to maintain your dignity in a world that is filled with reality shows, and it is about leaving that behind while weaning yourself off all of those things. It is about moving towards something that isn’t all bad, something more hopeful and brighter.”

“Brandy Alexander,” stands in contrast to the more introspective, “This Is How I Know.” He says, “I wrote this with Leslie Feist. We met at a party in Ottawa, and I was drinking a Brandy Alexander, which is my favorite cocktail. When she asked me what it was, I told her that this was the famous drink that John Lennon was drinking in the seventies, when he got kicked out of The Troubadour. That was pretty well it. A few days later, she emailed me this lyric for, “Brandy Alexander.” I went right to the piano and I wrote the music. I ran into her about a year later in LA and I said, ‘Remember that song that you emailed to me, I wrote music for it.’ I played it for her backstage. She recorded it on her album, and it is very different. Her version is a lot more elegant and it is a lot slower, but I heard it as more of a party song, almost like a drunken sing along. I had that vision of it and I wanted to get that side of it. That is more of what we were going for. It is basically a song about temptation.”

Early in his career, Sexsmith reached back to another era to tap into the music of Buddy Holly and Bing Crosby.  “I just love singers, and when I was a kid, I was fascinated with singers, and how all of the great ones have their own voice.  Ann Murray doesn’t sound like anyone else in the world. It’s the same thing with Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash. I remember when I was a kid I asked my grandmother who her favorite singer was, and she told me it was Bing Crosby. I was like, that’s interesting, so I investigated, and I became a big fan of him.  Maybe I was born at the wrong time. I think that maybe sometimes, that’s why I am not more successful too, because I do have such an affinity for music from that era. Buddy Holly was the reason that I started making music, because I related to him, he wore glasses and I wore glasses, when I was a kid. I related to him more than I did to Elvis Presley, because he seemed to be a little awkward. I was also aware that he had died, so it was eerie to listen to his records in the sixties, knowing that he wasn’t with us anymore. It gave the records an added dimension. It was kind of spooky.”

Ron Sexsmith is no longer an awkward boy, and although we are not about to suggest that he belongs on the same pedestal with Buddy Holly and Elvis, he has long ago left behind any notion that as a songwriter, he does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, as those he admires so much, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. Canadians have a tendency to qualify their own by saying things such as he or she is a great Canadian whatever, and that is wrong in any conversation and no more so than when it applies to the music of Ron Sexsmith, for he is a great singer / songwriter and that is something that the rest of the world knows too. 

Interviewed by Joe Montague, October 2008   Return to Our Front Page 

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