A Canadian tunesmith with an all-star fan base mulls music, mortality and the quest for hits
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
In the world of pop music, Ron Sexsmith is a bit of a misfit toy. Since his 1995 self-titled debut album, the Canadian singer-songwriter's gorgeous, smart confections have been lauded by the likes of his musical heroes Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Ray Davies and Elton John, and his younger contemporaries like Coldplay's Chris Martin, yet he's never come near a Top 40 hit in the U.S.
On "Forever Endeavour" (say it fast), he and producer Mitchell Froom, working together for the fifth time, surrounded Sexsmith's often bittersweet songs with string and woodwind arrangements, though the album never sounds slick or overly fussy.
Sexsmith's uncommon candor and self-deprecating, humble manner has endeared him to his passionate followers. During a recent Q&A at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where he debuted songs from the new album, a concerned woman stood up and asked Sexsmith if he had any idea how much his music means to his fans and how much they care about him. "I was blown away," he told MSN Music the next afternoon, admitting he still gets down on himself. "I'm a person with low self-esteem. A lot of people are insecure about something. Who isn't, right?"
Sexsmith plays selected dates in the U.S., including the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, throughout the spring.
MSN Music: With titles like "If Only Avenue" and "Nowhere to Go," "Forever Endeavour" seems to be from the vantage point of someone in midlife who sees the mistakes he has made and hopes he doesn't make the same ones again.
Ron Sexsmith: Well, I'm going to be 50 next year. You always think, "50. ...Well, you've lived more years than you have left." I don't really know why I got onto that sort of theme, but I just realized after I had a bunch of songs that were finished that it seemed to be, I would say, wistful. ... I know that Johnny Mercer, when he got older, he would write songs like "Days of Wine and Roses," and maybe that's just a part of it. But I do have a lot of regret about the way things were handled in the whole broken-home thing and my kids. [Editor's note: Sexsmith and his ex-wife have two children]. It's a lot for people in my life to deal with, and I think now maybe there's enough distance for me. I have written about it in the past, but this record seemed to be a little more confessional.
Yet the album is never maudlin.
That's always something I avoid. I have a low tolerance for that. When I hear a song like "Butterfly Kisses," I just think "Noooo." It's hard because you don't want to write a song that's so personal it's claustrophobic. That's really what I think my job is -- for most songwriters -- to be able to articulate universal emotions. That's the thing with a lot of modern music these days, there's not a lot of subtlety, everything is histrionic, kind of dumbed down. I've always tried to avoid that kind of approach.
Some songs for "Forever Endeavour" were written while you were concerned that you might have throat cancer or voice problems or both. How did that influence you?
It was while I was touring [2011's] "Long Player Late Bloomer," I think I was somewhere in the States. I was lying in bed and every time I swallowed, I thought, "What's that?" I'm one of those guys: I'm not a hypochondriac, but whenever I have some strange mystery pain, I run straight to the doctor; like Warren Zevon should have done that. He didn't see a doctor for like 30 years.
So I went to my throat doctor and he didn't see anything, but he sent me for an ultrasound and, sure enough, they said there is something there. That's when I started going, "Oh, crap," because you don't know if it's nothing or if it's something they got too late. They had us schedule a CAT scan, but in Canada, I love our health care system, but sometimes you wait for weeks to get an appointment. So it was just this period of wondering and waiting for test results and then finally we got the good news that it was a benign tumor. It's funny: They didn't take it out, but I haven't felt it anymore. There were songs like "The Morning Light" and "Back of My Hand" and "Deepens With Time," which I originally wrote for Faith Hill that got rejected. I refashioned it to fit me, so toward the end of the writing process, I came up with these songs. It was on my mind.
Bing: More on Ron Sexsmith
You've talked about walking away from music because you're been through so many ups and downs. After the scare, did making music become more precious to you?
You get frustrated. It's just this sort of knee-jerk reaction you have, and I've thought at different points in my career, "Oh, it just wasn't happening." I didn't want to keep showing up and striking out. I felt like a loser or felt I was perceived as a loser. ... But, definitely, having this little health scare, I love music so much, I can't imagine ever giving it up even if I wanted to.
Is there a dream person you'd like to have cut your songs?
Tony Bennett. A lot of those people are dead that I would have liked, [such as] Dusty Springfield. I remember trying to get a song to Anne Murray and she really liked the song, but she said she wasn't making records anymore. Dionne Warwick, people like that.
You're picking primarily classic song interpreters, people who don't write their own material. Why?
[They're] people who don't ruin songs by over-singing them. There's not a lot of singers like that left. There's a great singer from England named Rumer and I sent her a song recently. I love the way she sings because it's in that Karen Carpenter [style]. ... If you're Karen Carpenter, it's just so pure. She sings the melody and there's none of this sort of gratuitous, "Look at my great range and I can do all this or that."
Celine Dion is an amazing singer, but singing is about more than you're pipes; it's about judgment and your good taste. It's not acrobatics. Bonnie Raitt is a great singer. I would love if she would do one. Leslie Feist has done a few, and I think she's great. She's done "Secret Heart," and then we wrote one together called "Brandy Alexander." I hope she'll give me a call one day and we'll do more.
Part of your story is the whole tip of the hat Elvis Costello gave you by holding up your first album on the cover of Mojo in 1995. Other huge artists have similarly heralded you. Would you trade any of that praise for a multiplatinum album?
[Laughs] No, I don't think so, because at the end of the day, I was on Interscope and I saw lots of platinum artists who have no careers anymore or people like Deep Blue Something. They had a big hit ["Breakfast at Tiffany's"]. It was cool, and still when that song comes on, people remember it. I remember thinking at the time, I wish I could write a catchy song like that that would get on the radio, but then maybe I'd be in the same boat. You can have a hit record, but it doesn't mean anybody cares about you. I always wanted to have longevity. I've always seen myself as an album artist anyway. Maybe having a big hit record would have made certain things easier because I have a lot of financial stress sometimes, but ultimately, though, I don't think I'd change anything.
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.