Pop survivor: the songs of Ron Sexsmith continue to shine

By Mark Guarino

A snapshot illustrating the chaotic state of affairs that is the American recording industry is this: until recently, Ron Sexsmith had no home.

Sexsmith, a Canadian pop songwriter known for his indelible melodies and the gentle croon in his voice, is the type of artist who defines integrity and craftsmanship, once sacred commodities in the days before Britney. When he released his first album in 1995, he enjoyed critical acclaim and an invitation to release three albums for Interscope, a major label. After that, despite continual accolades from industry heavyweights like Paul McCartney, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Bono, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter and a track record of cover versions of his songs from The Brodsky Quartet to Rod Stewart, Sexsmith found he had to hopscotch to different labels for each successive album. The industry changed and Sexsmith — like so many other songwriters of his generation — became a casualty of global marketing.

“When my first album came out Interscope was with Warner and then they abruptly changed to Universal. There’s a merger almost every time I put out an album. By the third album Interscope had become this three-headed monster and I had become even less a priority. So I was kind of really glad to get off there. I always wanted to be like (Bob) Dylan who had the same home his whole career but it just doesn’t work that way anymore,” he said by phone from his home in Toronto.

Outside the U.S. is a different story. In Canada, Sexsmith is considered a national treasure, recording for Warner Bros. and receiving numerous Juno awards and enjoying two top ten singles off his last album, 2004’s “Retriever” (Nettwerk). He also reaches a global audience outside the U.S. and Canada thanks to V2 Records, the formidable British indie home to The White Stripes and Aimee Mann.

Yet to American ears, Sexsmith remains a cult favorite. His recent album, “Time Being” (Ironworks), almost never made it across our borders. It arrived in stores this week only thanks to an unexpected benefactor: Kiefer Sutherland.

The “24” action star (and Canadian native) also happens to be a passionate music fan. In 2004 he and singer-songwriter Jude Cole started Ironworks Music, an independent label and production facility designed to promote artists they both felt deserved notice outside the flagging industry system. The label is distributed by Fontana Distribution, an independent arm of Universal Music. Despite his star power, Sutherland is determined to prove Ironworks is not a vanity label. In early November Sutherland showed up at the Hideout in Chicago, lugging gear into the club for a show by Rocco DeLuca & the Burden, Ironworks’ first signed artist, while crisscrossing town to promote the label in every way possible.

“It’s strange, the whole climate,” said Sexsmith. “We had lots of interest but ultimately everyone kind of chickened out. It was getting kind of depressing. Then we heard that Kiefer Sutherland wants to sign me. I didn’t even know he had a label. That kind of saved the day.”

“Time Being,” Sexsmith’s sixth proper album, is a reunion with producer Mitchell Froom (Sheryl Crow, Los Lobos), who headed his first three Interscope albums. “I was always hoping we could work again, I never knew what could make that happen,” said Sexsmith. “When making those albums, it was kind of in the decadent days of enormous budgets where you’d fly to New York and mix in L.A. I’m glad I got to experience that but my biggest fear was I didn’t know if I could ever afford to work with him again. These songs were up his alley, so to speak, so it was just really about the details. Mitchell bent over backwards to make it happen financially.”

Froom accents Sexsmith’s songs of mortality and loss with uplift. Condensed guitars buzz through “All in Good Time” while others such as “Reason For Our Love” just requires the spare union of guitar and brushed drums. Elegant doom is a Sexsmith signature and in these songs the sobering transience of the lyrics is often treated by the gentle affection the musical setting. In the spirit of The Beatles and other pop originators of the 1960’s, the songs present complicated emotions with artful simplicity.

Re-connecting with Froom felt like home since Sexsmith credits the producer for helping him stay true to his more unusual sensibilities. “I remember on my first album the publisher at the time was really trying to control the songs. If it were up to him, it would have been all love songs,” he said. “I remember Mitchell saying, ‘what other kinds of songs do you got?’ And I would say more than half of the songs that ended up on the record like ‘Lebanon, Tenn.,’ were a little more narrative. Mostly because that’s what I thought that’s what he was into. And I think it ultimately saved my career. Because I think we made an album that really stood out at the time. And although it didn’t sell a whole lot, it put me on the map.”

Sexsmith grew up in the town of St. Catherine’s in Ontario, directly over the border from Buffalo, N.Y. One of three boys, he credits his mother’s 45 record collection for turning him onto music. “Like finding a box of pirate treasure,” he said. At age 15, he remembers riding in his stepfather’s car and hearing “All Day and All of the Night” by The Kinks blast through the radio. Ray Davies became an instant hero. “His voice was a bit flat and he seemed awkward,” he said. “He was the first rock star I could relate to.”

Although he admits that Canadians tend to be “low key,” Sexsmith’s songs frequently bare bold melodies, a lost art in an era dominated by rhythmic hooks. At 43, he lives in downtown Toronto with his girlfriend. Two children by a previous marriage, ages 22 and 18, live nearby. His income comes through the countless cover versions of his songs. Although marquee names like Rod Stewart and K.D. Lang recorded his songs, his favorite of late has been a euro pop cover of “Secret Heart” by Feist of Canada’s Broken Social Scene.

Despite waiting for “the big one,” Sexsmith says he mostly writes for himself. “Usually after the fact I think ‘this would be good for so and so’,” he said. “I’m always conscious it is a song and not a diary and I have to create some kind of distance so people can relate to them. I like songwriters who have their own melody more than just notes. That’s kind of what I hope for.”

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