Q&A: Ron Sexsmith and the Last Rider
Photos courtesy of Warner Music
“To use a tired cliché, my career has been a roller coaster,” says Ron Sexsmith a few weeks after releasing his 15th album, one that showed hints that the 53-year-old singer may be looking to sidle off into the sunset, just a singer with his song.
The Last Rider may give it away in the title and with songs like “It Won’t Last for Long”, “Worried Song” and “Dreams Are Bigger” one can assume what the reflective threads are sewing together. On the first single, “Radio”, the often melancholy musician sings a peppy refrain for days gone by, scrutinizing a music industry he’s always struggled to find solid footing within.
“The clowns are running the circus. The show is run of the mill. They've picked all the berries that grew on blueberry hill.”
Sexsmith, probably his own harshest critic, looks over the slumps and highpoints of a career still feeling as though sometimes he failed at what he set out to achieve. His basket isn't quite full just yet, however, and he still feels like there are some blueberries out there left to pick.
Though his critical acclaim hasn’t been rivaled by commercial successes, Sexsmith’s fanbase is a loyal one that returns for the familiar lived in qualities of his songs, the deeper pools the singer wades in with his ruminations and maudlin melodies.
“At this point, it’s just second nature for me to write short, melodic songs that say everything I want to say,” Sexsmith tells Ottawa Life before a Saturday night show with Lori Cullen at the National Arts Centre. He's long come to grips with the fact that he’s not your typical radio friendly musician and, these days, he seems fine with this. There may be patches on the wardrobe but at least it all fits.
Last Rider, the first album he’s made with his touring band, is one of his most personal offerings. There’s the usual wistfulness here but coating the album is a stronger sense of introspection.
“It's a very Ron-Centric record. So if somebody happens to be a fan of mine I think they'll be very happy with the results,” says Sexsmith before swinging the pendulum in the other direction. “If they're not a fan, then it's just another horrible Ron Sexsmith record.”
Considering the contemplative nature of this release, let's look farther back. I read you got your start in a bar called the Lion’s Tavern. You were, what, just shy of sixteen? What are some of the experiences there you feel best shaped your coming career?
Well, I was just playing cover songs then which I believe was a great wealth of knowledge to have when it came time for me to write my own songs. Also, I think it helped me get better on guitar as well and get over my shyness.
Not just covers. A lot of covers. You were called “The One Man Jukebox”, seemingly able to play any tune they hollered out to you.
I was just very eager to please. People would give me requests to learn for the following week and I would go learn them. Mostly I would figure them out from my brothers record collection or if he didn't have them I'd go to the library or buy them. I was always mishearing the words and singing the most ridiculous stuff.
Ray Davies was a huge inspiration to you. What was it about his work that you related to that motivated you to pursue music more seriously?
His gift of melody and lyric, mainly. To me he was like Lennon and McCartney rolled into one person. I loved his voice as well. It was a little flat but in a cool way and The Kinks always sounded less polished than the other U K bands and that appealed to me too.
There’s a lot of songs in your back catalog but “Speaking With The Angel” is one of the tunes you've said is the first you really enjoyed. I’ve read interviews where you said that song came out of a stressful time in your life concerning new parenthood. What does that song mean to you now and what does singing it evoke?
It's the song that started it all for me and opened all the doors. I actually didn't think very much of it at first. It was only when I started singing it at open stages in Toronto and began getting all this great response that I took a second look at it. It was the song that led to a publishing deal with Interscope and ultimately a record deal there. I don't sing it on every tour, but when I sing it now I mostly think about my son who was only a few weeks old when I wrote it.
You said you’ve never set out to become the songwriter’s songwriter but it’s an accolade that comes up a lot when reading about your work and its influence on others. What does that mean to you these days?
I think it was a nice way of saying that I wasn't very commercially successful. I'm only a good songwriter if you happen to like the songs I write and that goes for everybody who does this. I'm good at writing "Ron Sexsmith type songs" which are rooted in all the music I loved growing up but that's not gonna' be everybody's cup of tea.
Certainly was a cup many other musicians were fine sipping from. Many have covered your songs. Do you have any particular favourites?
I really liked Feist's version of "Secret Heart". When I first heard it my manager told me it was an artist from France so I thought it was this very cool "Euro-Pop" version. Then I find out later that she's from Alberta! Anyway, I love everything she does and we ended up writing "Brandy Alexander" together.
You’ve touched upon a frustration on how the reviews and accolades haven’t always equated to record sales, even bringing up artists like Nick Drake who found success only after their death. That was back in 1999. What are your views on your own successes now?
I've had some albums that have done quite well and there were periods were I felt like I didn't even exist. In 2011 I did an album with Bob Rock (Long Player Late Bloomer) that sold well and even led to me headlining at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That came after a three album slump and did wonders for my state of mind. The two albums that came out after I was quite proud of but I was not able build on the momentum of "Long Player" and so I felt like I was back in a slump again. So this new album for me was an attempt to get out of it, so to speak.
Do you feel that less financial success has better shaped you creatively by allowing you more control over your work?
It's certainly kept me working away at it although I'm not sure if the financial stress has been beneficial or has helped my songwriting. I feel mostly successful to have a career at all.
I wonder, are you comfortable where you are now in your own skin?
I'm trying to be but it's not always possible. I feel at times that I've failed in what I set out to do. It's hard to know where I fit in in this whole "music world" sometimes. I'm proud of all the records though.
You discovered Leonard Cohen at a young age but have said, at the time, you couldn’t understand the music. Why do you think that was and when did you start feeling that connection to his work?
I think I was too young to get it at first. Even so, I was intrigued and it bothered me that I didn't get it. It was about 5 or 6 years later when I listened to him again and it frightened me. It was so powerful that it made me wonder if it was still OK to like The Kinks and Nilsson etc. It seemed heavier or more grown up I guess. I was just beginning to write songs and so it pointed me in the direction I felt I needed to go.
Where were you when you heard about his passing?
I was at home and strangely enough I was listening to his latest record when I heard the news.
As one of the many who felt such a strong connection to Cohen's music, how did his passing effect you?
It was saddening because I guess I was hoping to hear him live once more. At the same time, he had a life that was full and beautiful and made such an impact that I wasn't sad for long.
With such a massive output, are you always thinking about the next song?
Not really. I think it's more the other way around. The song ideas won't leave me alone.
Along those lines, I’ve heard you can write practically anywhere and, really, you just try to stay out of the way of what the song is trying to become.
Ideas can present themselves anywhere and at any time. So my job is just to make note of them somehow. I tend to write in batches so after awhile I find myself in the middle of about 15 unfinished songs and I see an album taking shape. I mostly walk around thinking about them, tweaking the lyrics and the melody. I try all the songs out on piano or guitar or whichever is closer to me. I'll try them out in just about every key as well. Anyway, it's drawn out process and harder than it looks and easier than it looks sometimes too.
The Last Rider was produced by yourself and longtime drummer Don Kerr. What was that experience like for you putting the album together with him?
It was amazing to have a project to work on together. Don's an actual producer so I felt I was in good hands. As for me I've been around so many great producers on other records that I felt I had this whole wealth of knowledge to draw from. After playing so long together, we're practically like brothers and we sing like brothers too. That was a big part of the record for me, just the harmonies.
This is album number 15. What was the inspiration behind this release?
It's a very personal album. It's nostalgic in places and wistful too. I think overall it's mostly an affectionate and light hearted record inspired by where my head is at now.
It’s also the first album to include your touring band. What was the thought process behind bringing them into the studio?
Having my touring band in the studio was very comforting. Most records I'm meeting the musicians for the first time and so it can be a bit awkward. This time round, it felt like a fun camping trip with my band. They're all great musicians (much better than I am actually) and they're all hilarious too so we're just cracking up most of the time. I think we were all rooting for each other to make a great album. I knew going in, that it was going to be a "band album" with a "band photo" on the cover too. I honestly don't know what took me so long to do one.