Veteran Toronto troubadour Ron Sexsmith has long been one of his own harshest critics. That makes it significant that he terms his new album, Forever Endeavour, one of his very best in a now lengthy discography.
Over coffee in a boutique hotel, Sexmith tells Music Express “when I’m on my deathbed one day, this is one I’ll be thinking of as one of the good ones. I am proud of the records I’ve made, but a lot didn’t turn out as good as I’d hoped. I am proud of all the songs, but not always proud of my singing or the production sometimes. I didn’t even think I started singing any good until my Retriever album and that was 2004. That was one of the first that I thought sounded like a proper album.”
Of course, his fans and most music scribes would argue with that. His first four albums (1995’s Ron Sexsmith, 1997’s Other Songs, 1999’s Whereabouts and 2001’s Steve Earle-produced Blue Boy) have stood the test of time, establishing Sexsmith both as an eloquent songwriter and a singer with real, if gentle, emotional power. “Thankfully, enough people liked the early ones that I had a career, but now I feel I am singing better,” says Ron.
[quote]I wrote the whole music in the taxicab from his house to my hotel room. I write without instruments, just in my head.[/quote]As an album, Forever Endeavour is being viewed as a kindred spirit to his first three records, in part because they share the same producer, American Mitchell Froom, known for his work with the likes of Crowded House, Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega. Sexsmith really turned heads with the choice of producer for his previous album, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer. Canadian hitmaker Bob Rock is known for working with the likes of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Metallica, not sensitive singer/songwriters. The result was a polished and more guitar-centred record, but it didn’t quite mark the commercial breakthrough Sexsmith has long coveted. The new disc finds him back in more familiar musical and lyrical terrain, and it is already pleasing his loyal international fan base.
We chatted just after Ron had returned from a promotional visit to England and Germany, and he was pleased at the initial reaction there. “Sofar the buzz has been really good. They are saying good things about it in the U.K.. In Germany I had interviews from noon til 10 at night, non-stop. There seems to be interest for it, and I certainly didn’t expect that. Last time I got a lot of interest, but it was quite a different album. I didn’t have my hopes up this time.”
It may be new to us, but to Sexsmith Forever Endeavour is now almost an old record. “I finished this album in early 2012, but the label thought it was too soon to put it out. All year I’ve been trying not to listen to it. I didn’t want to be obsessed about it, but I have just started listening to it again. When I got home yesterday the President of Warner Canada brought me a vinyl copy, so I got to check that out. I love the size of it on vinyl. All year I’ve been writing new songs and just trying to be patient.”
Sexsmith recorded the album in Los Angeles, with Froom bringing in the cream of L.A. session players. Horns and strings are used to give Forever Endeavour an orchestral feel, but in a subtle way. “I was suspicious with this album because everything was coming together so nicely,” Ron recalls. “Normally you get snagged on things, but this one was just really smooth. I think Mitchell really outdid himself on the arrangements. At the end of the day this is one I will be most proud of. I think it’s a real headphone album.”
He compares it to an album the two made together in 1999, Whereabouts. “To me Whereabouts is one of those disaster albums where I wish I could go back and salvage it. Re-sing it or dial stuff back. It had strings and horns, but it was almost over the top, and there wasn’t any room for the songs to breathe. On this album I feel we got another shot at making a very lavish record but in a way where it doesn’t overcrowd the songs.”
Sexsmith’s reference to his deathbed early in our chat was telling. You see, he had a serious health scare as he was writing songs for this record, and this is reflected in the philosophizing of songs like “Morning Light” and “Back Of My Hand.” “I had a few months of worrying ‘cos they found a lump in my throat. I had ultrasound and a CAT scan, all while I was recording. It turned out to be benign, but it was very stressful. I was just in a surreal state for a while. Still, I’ve written a batch of new songs and none of them are about death,” he says with a chuckle.
You know a recording artist has been prolific when they lose count of the number of albums they have made. Sexsmith was only recently made aware that Forever Endeavour is his 13th. “I didn’t know that until I was interviewed by The Guardian in the U.K. and that was the first question- ‘are you superstitious about releasing your 13th record in 2013?'”
He takes justified pride in this accomplishment. “I was kind of old when I started making records,relatively speaking. I was 31. To be making this kind of music, having a long career is something to be proud of, I think. To be able to hang in there. Some albums did well, some died right away. To me it is amazing I’ve been able to hang in there, to have a fan base that has stuck with me and has grown a little actually. I have lots to be grateful for.”
A major factor in sustaining Sexsmith’s career has been the appeal of his songs to other artists. The formidable list of those covering his songs includes the likes of Feist, Emmylou Harris, Rod Stewart, Nick Lowe, k.d. lang, to name just a few. Ron got a special kick out of country queen Harris not just covering his “Hard Bargain” recently, but making it the title cut of her hit 2011 album. “I never saw that coming,” Sexsmith says. “I’d actually sent her songs in the past that I thought would be more up her alley that she never did. ‘Hard Bargain’ seemed an odd choice to me, but her version is great and I got to sing it with her at the Mariposa festival.”
He is now excited about a collaboration with Don Black. “He’s a legendary English lyricist who is now in his ’70s. He wrote the lyrics to ‘To Sir With Love’ and ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Ben,’ the Michael Jackson hit. We wrote two bonus tracks that are on Forever Endeavour. It’s great to work with a lyricist. He sends you the lyric and it is so well-written, it has a meter to it. It’s not like scribbled-down high school poetry. It’s a proper lyric. For me it is easy to write a melody to something like that. We’ve written three songs now, and that has been cool.
“We just hit it off. The first day I met him, he gave me a lyric as a try out. It was ‘Life After A Broken Heart,’ and I wrote the whole music in the taxicab from his house to my hotel room. I write without instruments, just in my head. I had it all mapped out, got to my room, found the chords for it, recorded it on my computer and sent it back to him. He wrote back right away, saying ‘this is lovely.'”
[quote]The highest compliment you can get when you write songs is to have someone do one of them justice.[/quote]No surprise that Sexsmith would connect with someone old-school like Black. “I’m very old-fashioned,” Ron says. “I like lyrics that make sense. The kind of stuff you don’t find much in pop music these days. Don and I had a lot of common ground in terms of the songwriters we admire.”
A young English singer, Rumer, has also connected with Sexsmith songs. “She just recorded my song ‘Maybe this Christmas’ (also covered by another top English singer, Tracey Thorn), and is looking at some brand new songs she might record. She is amazing, with a pure almost Karen Carpenter voice. That’s a songwriters dream, she won’t bend the melody.”
Ron’s dream list of singers to do his songs includes Tony Bennett, while he notes that “a lot of the singers I’d like to have do my songs are dead, like Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield. That’s why I like Rumer so much, as she’s got that kind of voice. She could sing the phonebook. The highest compliment you can get when you write songs is to have someone do one of them justice.”
Sexsmith has become a very adaptable songwriter, working with artists in a wide variety of genres. “I’ll often get asked to write songs for someone, and it’s a different part of the brain. You have to think about the artist and what their style is. That’s fun. I wrote a bunch of songs for Blues Traveler, on their recent album [Suzie Cracks The Whip]. They were jamming in a farmhouse in Austin, Tecas. I didn’t know any of those guys and just a vague idea of what they did. I showed up with ten song ideas, and they liked everything. Four that I co-wrote with them made it onto the record.” BT mainman John Popper has said that “For someone we’d never met, Ron seemed to get us instantly.”
Given his reputation as a melancholy, serious and soft-spoken guy, news that Sexsmith is a closet hard rock fan comes as a shock. “When I do karaoke, I always do a Deep Purple or Van Halen song. That is the kind of music I wish I could make but I don’t know how to do it. I was recently asked to write with a Toronto hard rock band, Flash Lightnin’. We wrote a ZZ Top boogie thing, and that was fun!”
Look for Ron Sexsmith songs to remain an in-demand commodity. For many of us, though, the best singer of them remains the man himself. Forever Endeavour gives that claim real justification.