Search

REMEMBRANCE OF SWINGS PAST: RON SEXSMITH IN WIND BACK WEDNESDAY


There's a new album out this week from the great Canadian songwriter, a man I discovered in 1995 thanks to a Mojo cover photo of Elvis Costello holding up Sexsmith's official debut.

I badgered the local label to put the record out here and talked to him the next year for the start of a 21 year, so far, conversation.

This interview, from late 1997, was an attempt to get to the nub of his appeal and his emerging brilliance. Wind Back Wednesday gets on the bus with Ron Sexsmith.

YOU DON'T know Ron Sexsmith. You won't hear him on the radio, his pudding-bowl haircut over a soft round face won't have appeared on your television, and Savage Garden sell more in a lunchtime than he has in the two years since his first album was released.

But he has more to say to you than any teen pop sensation, more to leave with you than this week's dance club hit-maker. He is a troubadour, a teller of tales. Tales that fall somewhere between an overheard conversation and the confidences of a friend but with a grittiness underneath, the grit of real emotions.

He was a bike courier in Toronto, the sort of nondescript man who walks in and out of your day without leaving a smudge on your consciousness.

Yet he took away so much: his first, self-titled, album felt like a collection of the bits and pieces of lives people throw away thinking no-one will have any use for them.

Other Songs, album number two, is packaged with old photos - grainy black and whites that pitch an imaginary but believable life. A past you could well imagine for someone like Sexsmith . . . or you, reinforcing the sense of tapping into someone's day-to-day living that you have with his songs: a grandfather in stiff collar and boater; a baby boy with wide, almost wild eyes; a little girl with a furrowed brow, gingham dress and bobby socks.

There is the same unhurried reflection of his acoustic folk pop songs. A world where a ride on a bus finds you catching sight of a childhood love who was "not the girl next door but the girl from 'round the corner".

In this song, Strawberry Blonde, Sexsmith recalls the unhappy life of this girl he knew for a summer, but remembers that "if there was trouble at home, she kept it to herself".

His strongest memory of her is "her face framed in blue sky at the top of a slide coming down" on the day her mother's gin and sleeping pills finally did their work.

Now he watches her, saying nothing. There isn't any grand meeting, no throwing back the years on this bus. Life isn't that obvious.

“Then I heard Amanda say as she got up/`come on Samantha, girl this is our stop'/And they were gone, two strawberry blondes.” "There is a theme, I guess, for the album, of remembering how you felt, of trying to get something back that you lost," Sexsmith says. When he speaks, the high voice is quiet: not soft - for it isn't withdrawn; he is not mousy - but even and polite. There is no declamatory statement; he will not hector or lecture.

Instead he will look up from under a drape of hair that isn't so much infringing as taking up permanent squatting rights, and you can fool yourself into thinking of placidity, of another man with a raft of love-gone-wrong songs, a SNAG mentality and a collection of James Taylor records.

But it's an image that doesn't last long, for while his voice can sometimes recall Jackson Browne and the delicate guitar hums with chords familiar to a Neil Finn fan, the Canadian in him - the country that gave us Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen - is never far away.

As Mitchell herself once said (with words that could just as easily be applied to the darker poets of New Zealand music): "Canadians are a bit more nosegay, more Old Fashioned Bouquet than Americans. We're poets because we're such reminiscent kind of people."

There's a wistful quality in Sexsmith's songs so that even the upbeat songs leave you feeling there is something not quite complete in these lives. Although far from circling in blackness, there is no song of which you could say that is a song of pure joy.

He laughs: "I would love to be able to write a song like that that was just pure joy. I just want it to be real when it happens. There are songs [on my albums] which sound sadder than they are; it's something with my voice."

It's true that his voice colours these lyrics. In So Young he sings of a love that was "so strong that it left its mark upon our hearts" but the voice brings it back to a more fragile state, where even if this is happy now you don't know that it will last beyond the life of the song.

But they are not songs of depression; they are not the angst-ridden songs of the post-Nirvana sensitive boys.

"They are not cynical songs," Sexsmith says. "So Young was a song I wrote when I was at a playground. I hadn't been on the swings for a long time and I was just trying to go as high as I could without feeling sick.

"We get to a certain age where you don't feel right doing that any more and I was trying to get past that and I just started singing this song as I was feeling that I was getting something back. I was swinging and singing `so young, so young' and it went from there."

Here Sexsmith, 33, married with two young daughters, touches on the appeal of his songs for those outside the viewing audience of Video Hits.

These are songs of adulthood, of the time when you are no longer "partying like 18-year-olds on 30-year-old wages", as the English author Colin Batemen put it.

We all like to think our lives are unique. Even more so, that our lives are changing, that we are constantly dealing with new problems. Sexsmith knows this isn't true.

In his songs the lives have constant themes: honesty, loneliness, love, memory and dreams. The differences are in how we rework these, how we react depending on where we are, who we're with, what we gain or lose. How we are as adults.

A father shuts the door to keep out the noise of the ice-cream van because he can't afford to buy any for his children; a man watches his friend commit adultery; a couple fall apart because they don't know the words to keep themselves together.

Would these songs have as much appeal to a twenty something? Their beauty may attract but the resonance would not be the same.

"A lot of teens and early 20s are looking for aggression and I can't give them that," Sexsmith sighs. "[What I do] is something that is for down the road. When I was a kid I couldn't listen to Frank Sinatra; I just didn't get it."

In your 20s it's more attractive to indulge your own melancholic mood with an artist who is completely given over to melancholy, a Nick Drake for example: more extreme in their emotions, more dramatic in their reactions.

A decade later the shift in life is to more complex emotional terrain, more grey, without the "easiness" of wallowing in one answer.

"It's just more subtle, more complicated [in your 30s]," Sexsmith agrees.

At the same time he feels no pressure to succumb to this age of impatience. We want our artists to be now and new immediately and to opt for revolution rather than evolution with each successive album.

Sexsmith had to weather criticism that Other Songs was not a stylistic leap from the first album. Once again we had ballads mostly accompanied by acoustic guitars (though this time with fuller arrangements and backing vocals).

Here once more were vignettes of small lives.

"I'm really not interested in any kind of radical departures or anything like that," he says. "I'm just trying to write good songs. I just think people like Tom Waits or Scott Walker were doing their own thing all the time and they just let the whole world and the fads and trends just keep coming and going. Because it really amounts to very little.

"I think of Van Morrison; he's made so many albums but in a way he's made one album; it's like the whole thing is just one body of work. Every album you can tell it's Van right off; he repeats himself a lot and that's the way life is, you know; everything keeps coming round and round."

As with Morrison, what distinguishes Sexsmith is a combination of a deeply affecting voice (this time a fragile high tenor) and phrasing that renders prose as something approaching poetry.

He has the ability to hit notes of such exquisite beauty but, as with his songs, there is a vulnerability in that voice. It could crack at any time, something that would frighten many singers.

Yet when he performs live it is clear that this "weakness" does not worry Sexsmith, who ponders that "most of my favourite singers, the crooners, have a lazy approach to singing: you take your time, slide to the note. It's all I've ever listened to so it's second nature."

Possibly on an unconscious level, that is what appeals to fans about his voice: not that it cracks (because it doesn't that often, really) but that as with some of the "lazy" crooners he refers to, the singers who affect you the most aren't necessarily the people who hit it perfectly every time but the people who are singing the emotion, not merely singing the note.

"I've always been attracted to singers who are limited, like Leonard Cohen, who in his prime had a very soulful voice," Sexsmith says.

"I get really frustrated with what they pass off as soul nowadays. It's a lot of vocal acrobatics, technically great singers, but they totally bore me because they've lost sight of what it is. They aren't listening to what the words are; they are in love with their own voices."

It's no coincidence that these contemporary soul singers are failing at conveying real emotion. They are not songwriters, they are not singing their words, telling their own stories, and eventually we tire of hearing these emotions second hand. It's why singer-songwriters are back in vogue for a discerning audience, even if the prevailing mood is for constant change.

"I'm just trying to bypass that and get that loyalty that I have with my favourite songwriters," Sexsmith says. "I want to hear what's on their mind, and when they make a record it's like getting a phone call from an old friend; you just want to hear what they've been up to, a one-on-one thing."

"Thinking out loud, is all I'm doing/ Trying to raise my love above these ruins/With each song I kick it around."

#RonSexsmith

This website and its content is subject to copyright - © Bernard Zuel 2020. All rights reserved. Except as permitted by the copyright law applicable to you, you may not reproduce or communicate any of the content on this website without the permission of the copyright owner.