by Eric Broome for The Bob magazine [written: November 1997, published: March 1999]
A man utterly without pretense or flash, Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter who stands equally in the past and future. The gentle reflections of his 1995 self-titled debut may not have set sales charts ablaze, but he immediately charmed a devout cult of fans with his sweet melodies and economical storytelling. Meanwhile, the critics were breathless, quickly comparing him to classic folk stylists like Tim Hardin, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen. Yet Sexsmith is wary of such mixed compliments -- he's much happier to be linked with contemporary artists like Elvis Costello (a known Sexsmith admirer).
"I'm definitely part of the modern world," says the Toronto-based singer, calling from an industry convention in Washington, DC. "I would get compared a lot to Jackson Browne and people like that early on, and I didn't feel I deserved those songwriting references. It just wasn't where my head was at. I'm much more of a pop songwriter, you know? I guess the singer-songwriter tag has a lot of baggage to it that I'm uncomfortable with. I think people get thrown by the fact that I play acoustic guitar, so automatically they start comparing me to that James Taylor kind of thing. All that stuff is fine, but it's just not what I listen to. So that makes me uncomfortable."
Sexsmith's new album, Other Songs, takes decisive strides to move his sound into the '90s. More upbeat and glossily produced than the debut, this 14-track collection has less of a rustic, sentimental tone. Instead, Sexsmith adopts a cooler observational approach, sketching quiet portraits of love, lost innocence and the cycle of life. His fragile murmur of a voice remains both an asset and a liability, but its emotional pull is undeniable on powerful songs like "Thinking Out Loud," "Nothing Good," "Average Joe," "At Different Times" and "Thinly Veiled Disguise." Returning producer Mitchell Froom adds sweetening here and there -- the horn section of "Clown in Broad Daylight," the unmistakable Pet Sounds treatment of "Average Joe" -- but is unusually restrained, otherwise. No gimmicks here, just a polished songwriter's showcase.
"This is more of a pop album, I think," Sexsmith says. "There's a lot more story songs or vignettes on this one, and the music is a lot more sure of itself and more outgoing. My playing and singing came together with all the touring I did on the first album, and the sound's a little more defined, more fleshed out. The first album is quite sparse, and on this one, just by nature of the songs being more pop, we were able to bring in horns and that kind of stuff and the songs could survive it. But it's just an extension. I'm not out for any radical departures. It always begins and ends with the songs. You hopefully come up with 12 or so good songs, and then you try to figure out the best way to record them."
As before, it's the evocative brevity of Sexsmith's lyrics which is most striking. Few writers can communicate so much in so few lines. In "Pretty Little Cemetery," he sings, "Pretty little monument/Beneath a shady tree/For a little boy/Who died in 1943/But still in the air this lingering grief." Five lines is all he needs -- the scene is complete. "I'm really particular about the words, and I want them to be as direct as they can," he explains. "I always get put off a bit when it seems like someone's going out of the way to say something really simple."
This knack for compact imagery comes in handy on Other Songs, in which narrative songs become more dominant. "Strawberry Blonde" studies a young girl with an addicted mother. "Nothing Good" cautions a promiscuous rogue. "Child Star" looks at an aging child actor in transition. "Clown in Broad Daylight" portrays a hired clown, promoting a car wash from the streetside. Such material contrasts sharply with the first-person musings of the debut.
"It just happened," Sexsmith says about his changing perspective. "I accumulated these songs, and as I started writing them, it seemed to take shape what kind of record it was going to be. You know, I'm working on all these songs now, and none of them are story songs. It's sort of out of my hands. It's just whatever is on my mind. I guess when I was writing those story songs, I was traveling around and seeing things and overhearing things. I'm hoping to come up with a couple of them in time for the next record, but I never know for sure."
He admits that songwriting remains a labor. "It's hard. Music has always come pretty easy to me, the melody and all that, but I always get stuck on the lyrics. Like 'Strawberry Blonde' took me almost two years to finish. That was like pulling teeth. 'Thinly Veiled Disguise' was a really hard one to write. Again, the lyrics. But now and then, there's a song that doesn't give you much trouble. Like 'Secret Heart' on the first album came really easily to me. 'Thinking Out Loud' was quite easy too. It's this thing where you get an idea, and you just try to get as much down as you can when you're right there in the moment. Just take it as far as you can. But sometimes, you don't have time to do that. You get an idea, and then you're distracted by something. I have a whole bunch of songs that I'm working on now that would be finished, if I could just think of a second verse."
Given such an arduous writing process, it's not surprising that Sexsmith is a bit of slow starter, careerwise. He spent several years working as a messenger in Toronto (indeed, many of his past song ideas came to him while walking the streets), and at 33, he's far older than most second-album artists. Having a wife and two kids, he's relieved that his perseverance is finally paying off.
"I remember being about 28 or 29, and I was starting to get a bit anxious," he says. "I mean, I had a family. You start thinking, 'It's not gonna happen.' I don't know, it's weird -- there's this thing that just sort of keeps you going. You have this idea that it's meant to be or something, and it keeps you from packing it in. I didn't really have anything to fall back on, anyway. I'm pretty useless at everything else, so I'm happy that I have this ability. I think it's just that basically, the nature of my music doesn't hit you over the head. It's going to take longer. Even with my albums, I think they need to be listened to a few times before they sink in. If at all."
Age often becomes an issue when talking about Sexsmith. The Other Songs cover sticker even quotes a review which misstates his age at 29 (he swears this was an innocent mistake, not a marketing move). Some critics wonder why he's such a late-bloomer, others dwell on his incongruous baby-faced appearance. Sexsmith doesn't let such comments bother him.
"It's kinda silly. For the type of stuff I'm doing, it doesn't matter. It's not based on youth. It's not about jumping up and down. When I started really writing for the first time in my mid 20's, I was trying to write songs that I could sing without embarrassment as I got older. That's the thing I always like about Dylan and all those guys. They can still get onstage and do their songs, because it's not based on upholding some kind of danger or energy or whatever. They were always old souls. That's where I'm sort of coming from.
"These days, when you turn on the radio, all you hear are these young Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. It's all music for 10-year-olds. I can't hope to get that young audience, so it's something I can't really compare myself with. I'm just trying to be relevant to myself."
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