19 May 2011

What Goes Around

Written by Published in Music Interviews

When Ron Sexsmith decided to ditch his rock band and become a singer-songwriter in the classic mould, it was a step that took a great deal of courage. In the late 1980s, singer-songwriters were still suffering from a severe image problem. They were seen as part of the post-1960s malaise – overgrown, would-be adolescents wallowing in egocentricity and spineless self- pity. Since the early 1990s, however, and thanks in part to Sexsmith’s sterling groundwork, singer-songwriters – the odder in looks and outlook the better – have enjoyed a renaissance. Today, Sexsmith counts artists as diverse as Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Feist among his fans, whilst Michael Bublé covered his song ‘Whatever It Takes’. The 47-year-old Canadian recorded his twelfth and latest album with legendary producer Bob Rock in Los Angeles – an experience documented in an affecting film, Love Shines.

Sublime: Your new album is called Long Player Late Bloomer. You're anything but a late bloomer, though, aren't you?
Ron Sexsmith: In some ways, I feel I am. Even with my singing I feel I’ve gotten better. I know what I’m doing, more so than when I started out. When I wrote that song, I wasn’t even thinking about that. It was more about not being so naive. Especially in the early days, I had the idea that people in the industry would actually care about what I was doing. The song is more about a scepticism taking shape that wasn’t there before, a healthy scepticism.

S: Do you think the naivety led you astray? 
RS: I fooled myself many times with that way of thinking. I was signed to a big record label, Interscope Records, and there were a lot of really successful artists on the label. I was thinking I was sort of the ‘cred’ guy, that my music meant something to the label execs. But after a while I realised that wasn’t the case.
Jimmy Iovine, I think it was, said that he didn’t want to make art, he wanted to sell records so he could buy art. That was pretty much the reality.

S: Did it make you bitter for a while? 
RS: Bitter isn’t the right word. The last few years, I got a bit disillusioned. I hadn’t had much luck. The last two records came out and died the next day. I started to feel that my career, or whatever you want to call it, was slipping away from me. I was definitely thinking a lot about packing it in and maybe disappearing. But I was never in a situation, financially, to do that, so I had to keep working. Also, whenever I feel like giving up I write a whole bunch of new songs and then I get excited again. It’s an endless circle. And what else am I gonna do? But yes, I’m feeling a lot better about things lately.

S: So basically you can't stop writing songs? 
RS: It’s like a disease. And I’m really not very good at anything else. It’s the one thing I discovered that I was able to do. But even songwriting sometimes makes me feel kind of foolish. In general, on a good day I’m pretty confident that I can take an idea and follow it through and make a song out of it.

S: Your choice of producer this time round is a bit of a surprise: Bob Rock, previously responsible for albums by Bon Jovi, Metallica and Aerosmith. Why him? What did he bring to the record? 
RS: Years of experience. The main thing with Bob was, he surrounded me with some really great musicians. We were working in the best studios in LA. Everything felt like I was in the big league. I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time. And he just knows what bass and drums should be doing, knows about tone and all that. He’s a good person to be around in the studio because he’s not a stressed-out sort of maniac. I trusted him. He really liked the songs. When I wrote the songs, I didn’t know who I was going to work with. But there was something about them that felt like they could benefit from a bigger production, and you don’t get a much bigger production than Bob Rock.

S: It is a strange thought, Ron Sexsmith sharing a producer with Metallica. 
RS: Bob had just done Michael Bublé’s record, and I thought if he can do Bublé, he can certainly produce me. I knew I was not gonna sound like Mötley Crüe. When I met Bob, we had breakfast together and we talked. We’re both big fans of English rock. We talked about The Kinks and Bowie. We’re both big fans of Deep Purple. In fact, the singer of Metallica, James, bought me a DVD collection of Deep Purple when Bob told him I was a fan. That was the kind of stuff I wanted to do when I started to play music. I had a rock band, but I didn’t have that kind of voice. I was trying to be the lead guitarist, but I just wasn’t any good at it. For me, making this record with Bob was almost a second chance.

S: The record company must have come up with a really nice budget for you. 
RS: No, that was the hard part! We had to ask my publisher, and we got some money from the record company in Canada. We didn’t have a label anywhere else. There was not a lot of money around. These days, producers have been forced to come down with their price. It’s very humbling. The main thing with Bob was that he just wanted to do it. He’s not hurting for money, either. We had to come up with the money initially just to pay the musicians and the studio. Bob didn’t take any money up front. We’re paying him in instalments, whenever we have it. He’s not in a hurry for it. He’s just been a total prince about it. He really bent over backwards to make it happen.

S: Why are the producers in trouble? 
RS: The record industry is in trouble. The money’s not there any more. My first three albums cost $250,000 each. That was back in the days when they had catering in the studio. You’d fly to New York for three weeks to record, all the musicians staying in hotels, and then you’d fly to LA to mix. It was a really decadent time. The labels had so much money, they just threw it around. Now the budgets are much smaller.

S: When you abandoned the rock band, singer-songwriters were pretty badly out of fashion. You were swimming against the stream. How hard was that? 
RS: It was difficult when I started. In the 1980s it was all hair and make-up. I credit Nirvana, in a way, for breaking that down. I see them as the anti-80s band. They came in at the end and destroyed the 1980s with this new thing that wasn’t glam, wasn’t ironic. It created the space for someone like me to come through, even though my music is nothing like theirs. All of a sudden there I was, just me and my guitar. In the 1970s, singer-songwriters got a bad reputation for being sensitive, or something. But I loved that period. Bill Withers, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson. Dylan.

S: That's interesting; you were saying you were really into English rock, but all the singer-songwriters you mention are American. 
RS: My first influences were English rock, when I was a teenager. But when I was getting into songwriting in my 20s, which was the 1980s, I discovered Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen. I thought I’d try to make music I could grow old gracefully with. But at the time, this kind of music wasn’t at all cool. In fact, my band was called The Uncool. But in the 1990s, all of a sudden it changed. At the time, Ryan Adams was still in Whiskeytown; Elliott Smith was in Heatmiser. Not that anybody really noticed, but I was kind of the first guy of the new breed. Then all the other songwriters came and did better than me: Bright Eyes, Rufus. They were able to project an image, something I was never able to do. That’s an art in itself. When you see someone like Ryan Adams with that cigarette dangling from his mouth, in front of an old typewriter – that’s quite a thing to pull off, being so very self-aware. Being from Canada, we always sort of laugh at people who do that. We see Lenny Kravitz with sunglasses on and we think that’s kinda ridiculous.

S: Do you see any other Canadian characteristics in your songs? 
RS: Canadians do have a bit of an inferiority complex. It’s growing up so close to America, where they tend to make a bigger noise about everything and they’re very patriotic, whereas Canada tends not to want to call much attention to itself. That’s sort of in our personality. Even though it’s a big country, it’s a small music scene and we all know each other. We keep each other in check if we see someone acting like a rock star. Hey, come on now, you’re from Hamilton, Ontario! Even when I see Daniel Lanois, I can never forget the fact that he grew up 20 minutes from my place. It kind of takes away the mystery. I’ve always put the music first. Maybe I shot myself in the foot in some ways; maybe I should have been working a little more on the image, or something.

S: Is Toronto good to you as a musician? 
RS: It is now. When I moved to Toronto in the 1980s to make it, I couldn’t get very far. No one was coming to see me play. All the record companies said no. I got signed in Los Angeles. Now that I’m established in Canada, it’s great. We have a nice house downtown, just renting, but it’s in a nice area and we’re near all the clubs. There’s a bar nearby called The Dakota. If you ever get to Toronto, it’s one of the best places for live music every night. A lot of musicians hang out there, like Feist, and it’s a really supportive community.

Ron Sexsmith, Long Player Late Bloomer (Cooking Vinyl Records)

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