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Ron Sexsmith - The Triste Interview
|The Canadian Ron Sexsmith is very much a songwriter's songwriter; respected by his peers and a cult following of music lovers, but unknown to the pop masses. Triste interviewed him in July of 1999 just before playing to a capacity crowd at Preston's Adelphi. He was touring in release of "Whereabouts" his third and final album for Interscope. In many ways his uncertainty about his future with his record label was proven to be correct, and he parted company with them to work with Steve Earle on "Blue Boy" for Cooking Vinyl and then make "Cobblestone Runway", a return to form, for Nettwerk in 2002.
Triste: You were brought up In Saint Catherine's Ontario. What kind of place was that?
Ron Sexsmith: It was a mid-sized town. I wish I knew how many people lived there.
Triste: About Preston's size?
Ron Sexsmith: Yeah. I suppose about 100,000. It was a good place to grow up. It felt like a small town. It had a lot of industry there - car factories, paper mills and stuff.
Triste: So was it a place you had to leave to really make it?
Ron Sexsmith: I started playing music there. It's the kind of place where you pretty much have to play mainly cover tunes. I played at all the bars and I kind of wore out my welcome there. I just had to move on. I saw a lot of others who started playing at the same time as I did, it was a kind of dead end.
Triste: In the mid seventies what kind of things were being played on the radio on the radio?
Ron Sexsmith: Well in the early 70's you'd hear like Badfinger and all that stuff, like Bill Withers. Around the time the 80's kicked in I found it hard to relate to the stuff on the radio. It got very cold sounding to me.
Triste: You mean New Romantics and synth pop?
Ron Sexsmith: Then the videos and MTV came in. It was just an era I couldn't RELATE to. I spent the 80's trying to get a record deal off the ground as a songwriter. It was a really bad time for a male singer songwriter. When the 90's started up - as I was entering my 30's - it seemed anything could happen.
Triste: What stuff were you playing? Were you still in the bars?
Ron Sexsmith: It was all the usual stuff. I was 17 when I started playing and my older brother had been playing bars before then and he told me I was going to have to learn some Neil Young songs. I was going to have to learn CCR. So all that standard stuff that people are still playing in the bars today. I was eager to please, so I'd learn every song and every week people would come in with requests.
Triste: Was that the same time as you were being called the human jukebox?
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh, There was an article written about me. I'd only been playing for about a month and I was getting quite a buzz in my local home town. I remember there was this article, underneath which was a caption - "The One-man Jukebox". Which at the time I thought was pretty cool. So I remember really going out of my way to learn whatever song anyone wanted to hear. But that kind of lost its charm after a while too.
Triste: Was it a case of slipping in your own songs while the audience cried out for Neil Young?
Ron Sexsmith: It was a bit frustrating. I had some of my own songs and every now and then I'd try and throw one in, but looking back, you know, they weren't very good songs and so it would kind of sting a bit when I'd play one of my own songs and people would go back to talking and stuff like that. But I did that for about four or five years and towards the end I started writing things which I thought were pretty good and I was just developing this bad attitude where I didn't want to play all the favourites any more and my taste was getting a little more defined you know, and I'd be playing all these obscure Dylan songs or stuff by the Kinks that nobody knew, so my audience was dropping off pretty fast. I think everyone was sick of each other at that point you know.
Triste: Was it pretty much the usual incestuous small town scene?
Ron Sexsmith: Well I pretty much played the same bar. I played this place called the Lion's Tavern for two weekends in every month and occasionally I would go to Niagara Falls and play a gig. I was pretty much like the house band at this one place and, as I said, I did that, on and off, for 4 or 5 years. I did pretty well. What I prided myself on was - it was a time when a lot of the solo artists were bringing in beat boxes and stuff like that - I never used any of that stuff you know. So I kept things pretty minimal.
Triste: How did you cope with hecklers in the early days. When say you were in the middle of a quiet piece?
Ron Sexsmith: I think I was pretty lucky because I was so young I never really had that problem. People were really rooting for me. Initially, that was the attraction, I had all this enthusiasm, and so the people took really good care of me. They were sneaking me drinks when I was under-age. It was a great learning experience. Whenever something like that happened I'd have to grow up really fast. I'd have to learn how to deal with that or deal with drunks or sometimes fights would break out. It was just a good time for me. I'd spent my high school years going unnoticed. This was the first time I ever felt popular - I was being invited to parties and stuff. Yeh it was a good time for me.
Triste: And then you moved to Toronto. Was that for the music or for a job?
Ron Sexsmith: For the music. What happened was that I had my first child in '85 and I just started writing songs. It was different you know. For the first time I was writing songs in my head. And it was the first time I felt that maybe I was songwriter and it seemed to me very clear that I had to pursue it. And in Canada there's only a few cities where you can do that. There's Toronto or there's Vancouver maybe, but it's mainly Toronto. So we did the big move and it took us two years just to save up all the money to finally get there.
Triste: So the courier job was just to earn some money?
Ron Sexsmith: I needed to do something and the job required very little experience. I had a high school diploma, that's all I had. I didn't want a job that would be too cushy so that I could fall back on it I'd have benefits and so on. I did that for about six years that courier job.
Triste: You got signed to Interscope first of all as a writer rather than a performer didn't you?
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh that's right. What happened was that I was working in Toronto with my band, "The Uncool", and we had an independent tape that found its way down to Los Angeles and that took a long time and that's when things started to go my way. I can remember one night when Geffen Records flew all the way from LA just to see me play. The verdict was generally that I was a good songwriter, but I wasn't a very good performer. (laughs).
Triste: Was that with a band or solo at that stage?
Ron Sexsmith: With the band. The guy who came down to see me ended up at Interscope music a year later and I think I was the first person who they signed to the publishing side. Then things started to open up. But even then I thought that was all it was going to be - a publishing deal.
Triste: The album Grand Opera Lane. Was that before or after this?
Ron Sexsmith: That was the tape that got their notice. We put that out in '91 in a very limited way.
Triste: Was that a band record or a solo Ron Sexsmith thing?
Ron Sexsmith: They were all my songs and Don was the drummer and so I suppose yeh. The song that really did it was "Speaking with the Angel" which was on Grand Opera Lane. I'm still, at this moment, trying to find some way of making it available, because it's a pretty good tape for what it is. It's pretty lo fi.
Triste: And then a couple of years later you release your first "proper" album where "Speaking with the Angel" reappears. Were the songs on the first album from a long way back or written specially for the album?
Ron Sexsmith: All the songs on my first album were written when I was a courier. It was kind of insane. We had maybe close to 200 songs to go through. The newer songs from that album are I suppose "In Place of You", which was written shortly before the album and "There's a Rhythm" but all the other songs had been around for quite a while and I'd been playing them in the bars. But it was tricky. Mitchell Froom helped me kind of narrow it down because he felt there were certain kind of things that my voice seemed to be better suited for - the ballads and all that.
Triste: How did you manage to get a big-name producer like Mitchell Froom when you were a relatively unknown singer-songwriter from Canada?
Ron Sexsmith: You know He had actually heard Grand Opera Lane when I first signed my publishing deal. My publisher, my ex-publisher now, sent Grand Opera Lane to a few tastemakers to get some feedback. And Mitchell, for some reason, was one of the people he'd sent it to, and he'd apparently contacted him straight away and said that it was really good. Even then it took a while because I met around 25 producers Hugh Padiham and T-Bone Burnett and everybody and I just didn't know who to go to, but when I met Mitchell I just felt straight away that he didn't seem like he was just out for the gig and he had some real good ideas too. A lot of the other producers were just - "It's going to be great you know" - but they were very vague, where Mitchell had these comment about my voice and the way to approach it and so on. It seemed like I could trust him and I was in good hands.
Triste: Is he a real hands-on producer? He plays keyboards and all kinds of things on your records.
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh he's a real old school producer. He's very hands-on. We'll actually sit close together both of us and go through the songs and he'll suggest ways to make the chords richer or something, or he'll suggest a change in key or tempo and he's helped me a lot in terms of the structure and so on you know. We've done three albums now and I find with each record I've gotten a lot more "dominant" in the studio. Where with this new album I'd come in with string ideas and stuff like that.
Triste: So did he come up with the idea like on the second album where the tuba plays a riff all the way as a bass.
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh, that was Mitchell's idea. He's very into much into bass and a lot of times when we're working out the music he's got this little Fender bass keyboard so he's coming up with potential bass-lines and that was definitely one of them I remember him thinking that would be a good one for tuba. But sometimes I'll have the bass-line it's alike half-and half. In general the songs come in pretty much fully formed and he'll help me out with finding the groove. Like "Words We Never Use" on the first album for example I never thought it could have drums on it. That was the first song where we really got excited that we were onto something that I could sort of call my own thing. That was all in that drum pattern that starts it off.
Triste: But Don, who's played with you for years doesn't play drums on your albums he only songs backing vocals. was that Mitchells idea?
Ron Sexsmith: Well the thing is when I was making the record even though I'd been playing with him, we weren't really a band any more - he was playing with other people - so I didn't have any band loyalties? When I went in with Mitchell, he's very particular about drums and bass you know, and I didn't want to be like "It's got to be this guy and that guy" I was there to learn. and I mean Mitchell's played with us live and he likes Don's drumming and that, but he's still I guess still has these drummers Pete Thomas and Jerry Marotta and he uses them a lot because he's feels really comfortable with them. And I didn't want to put Don in the situation where he's in the studio, and maybe it's not going well, and Mitchell's not happy with it or something. Because that could have been awkward too. But I'll probably make my next album with my band I think?
Triste: Changing topic a little as regards songwriting, do you regard yourself as an artist or a craftsman? Is it more great art vs inspiration or sitting round with a guitar fingering chords and chopping and changing?
Ron Sexsmith: Well it's kind of all that because I never sit in the room and try. I never think I've got to write today from nine to five. So generally, you get an idea and that can come anywhere you know. When I was a courier I wrote hundreds of songs just walking around.
Triste: Do you ever carry a dictaphone around with you and sing melodies and lyrics into it?
Ron Sexsmith: No, if I did that I'd probably never think of anything, but I carry a scribble book around with me. I would have these tunes and ideas in my head. The last thing I would do when I had the verse and main theme of the song then I had a minute, cos it was hard with the kids and stuff, I would break out the guitar and try and figure out what chords might go with it. But there is a bit of that cos you generally start of with this thing I don't know if you call it inspiration or what, but this initial idea, that will take you some far. Sometimes you will get maybe the whole verse, sometimes the chorus or sometimes just the title. and whatever you get it's up to you to take that and live with it for while. Like "Strawberry Blonde" took me almost two years to finish. because the lyrics I got really snagged on.
Triste: It's quite a structured song with a definite narrative, so you can't just fudge it and make it vague.
Ron Sexsmith: That's the thing and I'm really picky too you know. Cos I figure this is my job in a way, so I'm just trying to make every song, if possible, is as good as can be. There's always going to be a line you give up on that and that case I can't think of anything better.
Triste: I was about to ask do you ever get a song to being 95% completed and find the urge to keep tinkering with it rather than finishing it off?
Ron Sexsmith: There have been songs which I've had to give up on and some songs that sound like they'll be really good but they never turn out how you hope for. But with Mitchell you know, the main things is that I write a lot, so we've been able to pick and choose. Each album we've started with about 30 or 40 so it makes it easier to narrow it down and to make sure that hopefully we pick the best ones. All I'm thinking about now is my next one cos I've got a lot of new songs that I'm excited about.
Triste: Do you ever work songs out on tour beforehand, trial them and then if they don't work, then change them.
Ron Sexsmith: On each album we've written a lot of the songs on tour cos we've toured so much like with "Other Songs" for example we were playing "Strawberry Blonde" and a lot of those songs live before we got around to recording them.
Triste: Was that with radically different arrangements and styles?
Ron Sexsmith: Sometimes. Nothing too radically different because generally the songs go a certain way. With this album we were doing "Still Time" and songs like that on our last tour and it was good to get some feedback.
Triste: When the songs are recorded do you tend to play them the same way on stage or do you adapt them?
Ron Sexsmith: There is a bit of that. Like I switch a lot on "There Is A Rhythm" I'll play an acoustic or electric depending on the night. They change a little bit.
Triste: So you're not tempted to do a Dylan and reinvent your songs live?
Ron Sexsmith: No. I don't want to do it in a way that it's unrecognisable. I don't listen to the records that much so I don't really get tired of playing the songs. Every night I get up there and it's kind of different and also, especially on this album, we've had to think of creative ways of putting the songs across without the strings and the horns and stuff and that's been kind of fun. Often times I find out on every record that there songs which I could sing way better now. And it just comes from doing it live where you really have this time to get inside it. I'm sure that there's a better version of "Secret Heart" for example that was done on stage somewhere without any tape-recorders around.
Triste: And inspiration for songs? Does real life play a part in that. I'm thinking of "Pretty Little Cemetery" kind of thing, where you, or rather "You" as a character, and your son sound as if it were.
Ron Sexsmith: That was very literal. That whole thing happened pretty much on the bus verbatim. I didn't plan that I was writing this song, because we lived across the street from the cemetery when we first moved to Toronto and we'd go for walks there. My son always had a lot of questions and stuff. I mean somewhere along the line I guess I started singing "Pretty Little Cemetery" I just remember, at a later date, this other thing happening with this on a bus. And I was thinking maybe I should try and get that into a song - because you're not going to write more than one cemetery song in your life. So it seemed like, That's what happens. You get this initial idea and then you kind of live with it, but moist of the songs, I don't want them to be like confessional, like my diary, sometimes you can't avoid it. A lot of the songs on the new album are quite personal but I guess I don't analyse it too much. I just try to be true to the song. Sometimes when you start a song you feel a certain way, and you're not going to feel that way all the time. So when you back to work on it and try and finish the song you have to go back to that frame of mind or at least try to pick up the thread. And sometimes that's a little different.
Triste: Broadly, your first album had a lot of love songs, the second one was more short stories, whilst the latest one is more personal. Was that deliberate in any way?
Ron Sexsmith: It's never intentional. You just find yourself in all the middle of all these songs. It's like you go through phases all the time. The new songs I'm writing are a mix of all three. There's little parables and some, I don't know what you'd call it, more soul-searching kind of songs. I think people can tell if you know what you're singing about it or if it's real or not.
Triste: "Real" doesn't have to mean "reality" of course.
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh, there's some great writers who have really broad imaginations and can just make it up, like Robyn Hitchcock or someone like that.
Triste: I know you've had a few cover versions done now, but do you ever get proprietorial over your songs? Do you pass all responsibility onto the artist?
Ron Sexsmith: I try to write in a way that my songs I don't want them to be so personal that nobody understands them. You know every song I write there is a craftsmanship (I love Hoagie Carmichael and those kind of people) I try to write songs that people can relate to and cover. Obviously as a songwriter its hard to sell records so in terms of financial security it would be really great if someone would do one would do which would lead to some money so I wouldn't have to worry about it in future.
Triste: Rod Stewart covered "Secret Heart".
Ron Sexsmith: It didn't amount to anything. I mean it's a good calling card, it had potential, but when I heard his version I thought this doesn't sound like a single. It didn't have drums and stuff on. I mean Eddie Reader did a song and it'd be great. If there was a possibility of someone totally wrecking your song that would be a drag but That's the thing. I don't know if it bothered Tim Hardin that Rod Stewart had a big hit with his song. I'm sure he didn't mind too much.
Triste: Looking at your guitar - it's a Taylor isn't it. Is that your main writing guitar as well.
Ron Sexsmith: No, not really when I'm at home I rarely break it out of its case. I have a little nylon string guitar at home that I tend to do most of my writing on. But I don't really use an instrument when I'm doing my writing. Generally, I write when I'm walking around and doing the dishes or something, but that's the guitar. Some times I use a piano.
Triste: Do you ever fall into the pattern of re-writing songs based around the same chord shapes?
Ron Sexsmith: You'll notice, if you see me play, that I play a lot in C position and move the capo up and down the neck, but I guess that's all right. I don't want to worry about it too much or else I'll feel like using ninth chords and augmented chords and all that stuff. That's why I like to write away from a guitar too, cos I find the melodies become a lot freer and then I'm always happy to find that I have this really elaborate melody and then when I go to work it out, it'll have only two or three chords. So I think that's good to keep it's innocence.
Triste: How to you manage to write your more upbeat rocky stuff when you're picking arpeggios on a little acoustic guitar in the kitchen?
Ron Sexsmith: I'm not a strummer, but because I'm so used to playing by myself if I'm doing a song like "Nothing Good" when I'm writing it I'm trying to keep the rhythm going, I've got the bass going and I'm doing the riffs. That's something that's developed over time. But I love it when I'm in the middle of writing an up tempo song, because I don't have so many of them, and it's harder to write a good uptempo song I think.
Triste: Do you enjoy playing electric guitar? I've noticed that you seem to be playing more electric guitar on stage.
Ron Sexsmith: I've always played electric on the records. I always wanted people to know that I was a pop artist. I started playing lead guitar in a band in high school. I wasn't even the singer I was just the guy bending the strings. I love all that stuff, but I don't write too many songs where I can fit that thing in. I really enjoy having the variety of having the two guitars on stage.
Triste: You've played a few sessions where you've played electric guitar. Was this deliberate?
Ron Sexsmith: I played on a couple of things with Suzanne Vega. I don't know if I did a good job or not, I was just hanging around the studio, and on both occasions I was in the middle of doing my records and she was looking for an extra track for her greatest hits, and I was the only guitarist around so I was just try and rise to the occasion.
Triste: You tour quite a lot, so do you still enjoy it?
Ron Sexsmith: I do if it's going well, but I've had some vocal trouble and other things.
Triste: I noticed your amp was distorting at Manchester last week.
Ron Sexsmith: In Manchester the crowd was amazing, but I had a bit of a rough time the night before with my vocals. It's been hard too because the label hasn't been very supportive of us on this tour and we haven't been getting too much tour support.
Triste: I heard that two companies merged and they dropped some of the "surplus" acts.
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh that's the thing. And I was really lucky that they put the record out at all. It was looking pretty grim after the Christmas holidays cos we couldn't get anyone to return our calls. If someone wants to drop me I want it to happen before I make a record. That would have been hell - trying to find someone to buy it if off them and that could have taken a year or two.
Triste: So that was a real possibility?
Ron Sexsmith: Yeh it was real possibility they definitely dropped a lot of artists who had sold much more than I. They were keeping artists based on sales and credibility, mostly on the sales side, so I fell in on the credibility side, but even then they said, "We'll put it out, but there's no hits on here and we can't give you tour support" and gave me this big long spiel. I told them I didn't care and just to put it out so I could say the record existed and I'd do the rest.
Triste: Every record seems to get great reviews, but then your sales don't ever really match.
Ron Sexsmith: It does get frustrating. Every record you make you think there's another chance to bat and you're always striking out. So it is frustrating. I don't want to be like Nick Drake and Tim Hardin, they never really had much success in their life. I don't want to be like that - all my heroes had big hits and success. I see progress in the way it's building, but its not in the way the general public can detect. But I can't do much about it - it's out of my hands. I'm a 35 year old guy from Canada and I don't write groove oriented music, so I can't expect too much.
Triste: You should be able to earn a living for years to come - you've got yourself a little niche.
Ron Sexsmith: The thing I'm holding out for is that I write my own songs and I can sing them. and so you know if the worse comes to the worse I can always, look at Richard Thompson, just tour and play forever.
Triste: But even he gets stick from his record company for not selling more than whatever the magic number of records that he sells. He always sells the same number.
Ron Sexsmith: You can't break that that's the same with Elvis Costello too, who's got this "drop off" point, but with this version of "She" recently his profile has risen. That's the thing with me anything could happen. One of these songs could end up on a film and it could be big or someone could cover one. So there's always ways that it could have been a very lucrative thing. And that's the thing that the labels don't really know - if you're worth anything With me they could see something happening and they were almost afraid to drop me, perhaps I was on the verge and that's the thing. If you can have that question mark hanging over you, that maybe you can break through, then they'll keep on with you.
Triste: Did you have any Spinal Tap moments on this tour?
Ron Sexsmith: Well this tour's been crazy - we've had two flat tyres and one break-in into our van But there's been nothing too Spinal Tap on this tour. Did we have any Spinal Tap moments on this tour,Don?
Don Kerr: Just your haircut!
Triste: Does this irritate you that people always talk about your haircut or your boyish face?
Ron Sexsmith: I guess people have to describe you. I've looked the same forever - maybe my weight goes up or down - but generally I've never had a "hairstyle" or anything like that. I guess that it's such a visual business now that there's certain things that I don't really know how to work it. Like photoshoots and things like that. I think that holds me back a bit too. If I luck out and get a good video then those things can make a difference too. But ultimately I want to make good records and write good songs and all the other stuff is something which I need to get better at, but ultimately I'm not going to judged on.
Triste: What about the packaging? The lyrics etc?
Ron Sexsmith: I'm not very good. I find it a bit confusing. This album was a real rush job, when they decided to put it out there was only two weeks and so we really threw it together fast and there wasn't a lot of time to say, "I don't like this" and "I don't like that". In general I'm kind of old fashioned. I always thought my albums should always have a picture of me on the front, like Dylan, but sometimes they get annoyed as they want to put some painting on the front. But for me, my only billboard is my record cover, as I don't get ads in magazines. The one thing I wanted to do was make the album cover look like the record sounds -so you can see it's gone from black and white to full colour even musically. In general, the graphic artists comes in with these ideas and I say yes and no. When you make record it's a document Its the way you sounded during that time period and that's the way you looked at that time period and I'm very conscious of that. As long as I can still look presentable I'm going to keep putting myself on the cover until my teeth fall out.
Triste: Touring do you get to see these places.
Ron Sexsmith: Well we do and we don't. I'm not much of a sightseer - my favourite thing is to sit in the hotel room and look out of the window and playing my guitar
Triste: It's a cliche‚ but don't you end up writing songs about hotel rooms?
Ron Sexsmith: Well I've never written one yet. Often times I'll be working on songs I've already started. It's the only down time I've got to get things a little further. Like there's one song which I'm working on now which is driving me up the wall because musically it's finished and I've only got two lines, so I'll be sitting in my room playing the chords over and over again and just thinking about what I can possibly be singing and that's what that time is for and that's what hotel rooms are for.
Triste: What about your influences? Ray Davies has recently been mentioned a lot.
Ron Sexsmith: Ray Davies is up there for me. He was the reason I started writing songs when I was in high school. On all three albums there is a big Ray Davies influence like "Summer Blowin' Town" or "Beautiful View". and all those British bands too. But when I was about 19 or 20 I started discovering people like Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. Gordon Lightfoot has probably become my best known influence.
Triste: He's a lot less well-known here than he is in Canada. He's an institution over there. He's written an incredible body of songs.
Ron Sexsmith: That's my goal to write songs that I can live up to and I can perform without embarrassment.
Triste: What about Tim Hardin?
Ron Sexsmith: Well I never really listened to him. When I've come from Canada I've never heard of him. When my first publisher signed me he thought that I sounded like Tim Hardin. He sent me The Best Of Tim Hardin then - after the fact. Cos when I heard him I thought he was really great. At that time songs like words we never use and secret heart I had already written so maybe after the fact he was an influence. People always mention Brian Wilson too, but he's someone I've never listened too until recently.
Triste: There's a lot of keyboard sounds on the second album and the vocal harmonies on "Average Joe" sound influenced by Brian Wilson.
Ron Sexsmith: That was Mitchell's idea, as I wrote that song as a country song like in Nashville-style. I was trying to write a yodelling style (Sings, "Tour bus ...") It was the same with "Summer Blowin Town" it was a ballad originally. Mitchell said it's got a really good pop melody let's do it a little bit faster and faster. And he kept raising the key too. So when I heard it in that way I could see what he was getting at and that was a really nice surprise. I always loved songs like "Don't Worry Baby" where the melody is really elaborate. When we heard the direction that it was heading we added the keyboard bits and thought lets go with it. I think it is Beach Boy sounding, but the track itself is more Kinks. The Beach Boys have always been slick with the music, but the Kinks are always a bit more spastic.
Triste: What about Dylan? You once said that you didn't like his earlier psychedelic period.
Ron Sexsmith: Well my favourite album is Shot Of Love but I also like New Morning too. I always preferred the more direct Dylan and I liked songs like "To Ramona" or "Love Minus Zero", but in general I love the stuff which is really in your face. But he's a guy who you forget how big an influence he 's been. there are not too many artists as cool as Dylan you know he takes the cake - except for John Lennon. He's just something that's hanging over everything you do.
Triste: It's the same with McCartney
Ron Sexsmith: You forget them as they're such a part of your life.