Ron Sexsmith looking to change his tune

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By Mark Guarino | Chicago Sun-Times

Last Modified: Mar 20, 2011 02:16AM

“Long Player Late Bloomer,” the title of Ron Sexsmith’s 12th album, could be a description of the singer himself.

The Canadian singer-songwriter is 47 and for almost 20 years has remained shy of breakout success outside his native country. Strangely, the same is not true of his songs. Michael Buble, Rod Stewart, k.d. lang, Feist and many others have recorded Sexsmith compositions over the years. “Hard Bargain,” a Sexsmith song, is the title of Emmylou Harris’ upcoming album, due next month.

Sexsmith, who plays Schubas on March 22, has not made it a secret he yearns for an audience as expansive as his admirers. After leaving Interscope Records earlier this decade, Sexsmith released a string of albums that, for anyone else, would be considered major achievements in songcraft, pop melody and vocal delivery, but to Sexsmith failed to fully hit their mark in one way or another.

“They were on these small labels and it seemed that nobody knew they existed,” he says in conversation by phone from Halifax last week.

Widening the circle is the reason he hired producer Bob Rock, a fellow Canadian and mastermind behind Metallica’s greatest albums, to direct his latest album, the process of which is documented in “Love Shines,” a film that is currently rotating through the festival circuit.

In the film, Sexsmith and Rock are positioned as stark opposites: sheepish and broke artist vs. the confident and coiffed superstar rock producer. On film, Sexsmith admits to Rock that if the results of their collaboration don’t pan out, he might retire, an admission he says today came from an especially downbeat time in his career and life. In fact, he says that today he has a new set of songs written for a next album.

“I think the movie caught me at a time when I was feeling, ‘Where did my career go?'” he says. “People were really rooting for me and I felt I was letting everybody down. I was getting really heavy in terms of my weight. I didn’t like being onstage. I didn’t want people looking at me. It was downward spiral in my mind. There are always things to be grateful for, but it’s hard to see them in that state.”

Rock hired A-list West Coast session musicians, such as drummer Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails) and guitarist Rusty Anderson (Paul McCartney), to play on the album. The sessions started with Sexsmith playing frail versions of the songs on his acoustic guitar, which then allowed Rock to prune and suggest embellishments, such as stacking harmony parts and introducing moments of tension. Sexsmith says he appreciated Rock for being “a very calm, good cheerleader … he would get me out of a routine.”

“All these producers, they all have a bag of tricks, they’re like movie directors. … I looked at this record as my action movie,” he says.

The new album is certainly the most accessible and polished of Sexmith’s career. Not only do the songs re-establish his gift for writing gorgeous melodies, the production enhances them with elegant but strong pop flourishes. Unlike the production of some of his previous albums, which tended to settle for lighting a warm glow around his naturally mellow croon, this album is about establishing dynamics that jump out of the speakers. On “Believe It When I See It,” the natural tension between Sexsmith’s coolly delivered vocals and the urgency of Anderson’s slide guitar and Freese’s drums keeps the song on edge, driving forward.

Sexsmith’s tunefulness, serene vocal tone but often sophisticated phrasing have earned him comparisons to U.K. pop music titans such as Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. The praise at times comes directly from them, as well.

“I think Ron is slightly cursed with being born out of time. The quality and nuances of his songs would have been greatly appreciated, and is greatly appreciated by people like myself who grew up with people like Tim Hardin and Paul McCartney,” Elvis Costello says on film. “I think Ron has got some of the purest seams of melody that he has access to exclusively since Paul McCartney. That sounds like a pretty big thing to say but I actually think it’s true.”

Being born out of time also means confronting the difficulty of creating pop music in a time when the pop world is increasingly fragmented. Commercial radio has shifted to concentrate on Disney stars and hip-hop, while the “American Idol” mind-set is succeeding in positioning songcraft and original visions beyond mimicry and fame adulation.

So when Sexsmith says he wants a “hit” from what is probably the most accessible album he’s ever made, he’s facing the realization that it now means “making a record that people that never got me before would get.”

For now, he would like to get to the level where he’s playing larger stages to support a bigger band that would create the full sound he imagines in his head. Writing songs in his third decade also positions him alongside his heroes, who continue to evolve writing songs that channel deeper themes but with a simple touch.

“I’m really fascinated with the later works of artists. I love to hear just how they age and how their voice changes and their point of view,” he says. “I would rather listen to some older person like Tom Waits, to pick up some poetry and some wisdom that speaks to me. I keep waiting for it to change. In the ’60s, when people talked about an artist, they asked, ‘Do they have anything to say? Where do they stand?’ That’s what I look for from people making music. Are they a full-fledged human being or not?”

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