Take a pinch of Ray Davies, a slice of R&B, and the essence of Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot.
Ron Sexsmith is a singer and a songwriter who excels at both functions. He didn’t release his official studio debut album until his early thirties and is now releasing his seventeenth album, ‘The Vivian Line’, which is a companion to 2020’s ‘Hermitage’. He has achieved this while still remaining a Canadian resident and recently moved from Toronto to a more rural part of the country, a move reflected in his recent songs. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ron Sexsmith over Zoom at his Canadian home to discuss ‘The Vivian Line’ and what songwriting means to him. He discusses his own aging and shares he is keeping an eye on his friend Nick Lowe to learn how to do it properly. While he is a much covered songwriter’s songwriter with Elvis Costello being an early champion, he also states that he believes he is a better singer now than he has ever been. He explains that the relatively late start to his career was due to him working on what his own style would be, which he describes as a mix of Ray Davies, melodic R&B, and the influence of fellow Canadians Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot. He also thanks the UK and UK audiences for picking up on his 1995 debut ‘Ron Sexsmith’ which kickstarted his career that was at the time going nowhere in North America.
How are you, have you got the pandemic behind you?
I’m fine and doing quite a lot of Zooms around the new album. I’m afraid to say about the pandemic because we went into so many lockdowns and I’ve been very lucky that I never had COVID, not even once, for the whole time, and we toured over in England and Ireland. So I’ve been lucky, knock on wood, not to get sick, but every day you hear rumours there is another strain and it is coming from China or somewhere. You would go crazy worrying about it so you are best just to get on with it. Many of our friends have had it, even that thing they call long COVID which is horrible, so it is no joke, but I tend to think I have a very good constitution in that I don’t get flu bugs or things like that. So, we are just proceeding as if the world is back to normal, and it does feel like that.
You have a new record ‘The Vivian Line’ which I think is your seventeenth release, what keeps you wanting to make new music?
The songs keep driving me, the only reason I have to make a new record is if I have enough songs that I’m excited about. There are many times when I didn’t want to make another record, and then I started getting song ideas and you just give into them, you get excited again, and get your hopes up. These songs hit me by surprise, you know, because I’d just been sitting around the house because of COVID and I didn’t intend to make another record, and I then found myself with three or four new songs and it just started from there. I do feel I’m slowing down though, it is now usually two or three years between records, whereas it used to be one a year for a while, ‘Blue Boy’ was in 2001 and ‘Cobblestone Runaway’ was in 2002, but now it is a little bit more spaced out.
How do you go about writing a new song, how structured in a Brill Building-type way are you or do you just wait for the muse?
All of those things, really. I’m just fascinated by how people do it, and I think I could have been a Brill Building songwriter if I had been around back then because I know I can really focus and do it like a 9 to 5 job, but I generally I don’t work that way. For me, it generally starts with a walk, a walk around town and I get a melody in my head and sometimes the melody seems to go with whatever has been on my mind at the time. So there could be a phrase that I just keep singing and singing in my head, and I just have to keep returning to that until it somehow takes shape. Other times I will just be sitting at the piano and I will just stumble across something that has potential. I have done it every which way, sometimes I will have a complete lyric with no music, and other times I will have the complete music but no words. I just try to be open to whatever idea comes my way.
You managed to maintain a remarkably consistent level of quality over the years, how do you maintain a level of quality control from record to record?
I’m pretty critical about my stuff, and I’m always pulling my hair over the structure of the song and the words because I don’t want to have filler on my records. Sometimes it can be really boring to be consistent, you know, haha, sometimes it is good to fail spectacularly, haha. After my first album, when a lot of the world press was saying nice things about my songwriting it put pressure on me because I thought I’d better be good, I had better do my work and I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan type thing. So I’ve always stockpiled songs so that when it is time to make a record I don’t just have one decent song, and the rest are kind of questionable. I will have maybe Fifteen or eighteen songs going into a record, and a producer will have his A and B list, and sometimes there’s a tug-of-war going on between those lists. That helps with the quality control because sometimes when I don’t think a song is so great the produce will have a vision for it, and that can be exciting for me.
Why record it in Nashville with Brad Jones?
I’ve always just gone where the producer is, and we had fallen out of touch over the years, Brad had played on some of my earlier records. We got back in touch and he was still in Nashville and he still had his studio, and I had these songs and I demoed them and sent them to him. Fortunately, the pandemic opened up and there was a period when I was allowed to travel to America, so we got in, did the record, and got home before everything shut down again, crazy really. Brad really excited me on the phone talking about the songs because he was hearing strings and harpsichord and that sort of stuff, and I thought that’s a cool direction. I’d made a record like that called ‘Whereabouts’, which was like baroque pop back in like ’99, but not since, and I can sing way better now than in the beginning, so it was like a chance to remake ‘Whereabouts’ only better, haha. So, I went down there, and we had to work fast because we only had a small budget so we didn’t have time to work everything up in the studio. For example, we only had the drummer for three days so we had to get everything with him done in that time, but with good musicians, you can just get in and get out.
What is the main theme of ‘The Vivian Line’ from your point of view, what story were you trying to tell?
I think it was an extension of my last record, ‘Hermitage’, which was all about my new life out of Toronto, which has been happier than Toronto was. The last album was flowery and romantic, I’m even wearing a feather boa on the cover, haha, this album is still a happy record but it is a bit more wistful, there is a little bit more looking back and a bit more sadness on it. Maybe that is just me growing old or something, with songs like ‘Powder Blue’ about my childhood. It is not as upbeat as ‘Hermitage’ but it still sings about a new place where I’m beginning to be more comfortable in my own skin. These two albums are almost like from the same series, like a TV series
You are coming up to 60 years of age, has that changed your mindset in any way?
I’m definitely going to have the breaks on all year because I don’t want 60 to come too fast, haha. It is a big number and I remember dreading being 50, I couldn’t believe it and it just seemed horrible. I’m feeling the old man kind of creak, everything is stiff in the morning, and my hair is falling out a bit on top. It is humbling because you are trying to figure out how to go forward because when you are in this line of work they don’t want you to change, they want you to look and sound a certain way, but every decade an adjustment has to be made, well what do you do now. Like I said, I think I’m singing better now, and we just did a tour in 2022 and I think they are some of the best shows we have ever played.
So if I can maintain that side of things because I can’t do much about my physical appearance and life is going to take its course, I will look in the mirror at one point and an old man will be looking back at me, haha. I will just have to accept it and hope people do as well because I looked young for the longest time, when my first album came out I was 31, but I looked 21, and I was wondering when that age thing was going to kick in, the greys, you know, haha. I have to accept it but it is a beautiful thing because it is what is supposed to happen, and Coleen and I are both feeling our age these days, and we are in this beautiful town here where I don’t feel judged by all the hipsters and things. I feel I can walk around the river and I’m in a good place, and I’m trying not to let vanity get in the way of things.
You’ve remained loyal to Canada, and resisted the pull of the US. What do you like about Canada?
There was a lot of pressure early on in my career to move to Los Angeles, and I said I don’t drive a car what am I going to do in Los Angeles, then there was a period when people thought I should move to England because it seemed to be one of my best markets. I loved going there but I just thought I would be a fish out of water. I’ve always admired Gordon Lightfoot because he never left Canada, he had a really big career like Joni, Leonard, and Neil, but he stayed in Toronto the whole time. These days it doesn’t really matter where you live, there was a time when you could say I should be in New York because that is where all the action is, but like I say, by the time I got signed I had two kids and I wasn’t really free to pick up and go, it would have been a bit irresponsible I think. So that’s why really, and I love Canada, and these days I don’t really like to go anywhere because I’m a nervous traveller, and since the pandemic, I’ve really become a homebody, I love being home and listing to records, and that is what I like to do.
I’ve noticed you are always posting on Twitter the albums you are listening to.
That’s because oftentimes I’m by myself here and it is like having a listening party with other people, even if they are not listening to the same record, haha. My Twitter Channel has become a bit of a variety show because of the way I have jokes and songs, and archival photos as well. I try to make it a fun place where I can interact with people who are interested. I’m old, so most of the albums I listen to are older stuff, haha, and that’s OK. I mean, I don’t own any Billy Eilish albums but I listen to a lot of songwriters, I actually love a lot of hard rock but I don’t know how to write that kind of music.
I noticed the other day you had put up the first Brinsley Schwarz album, and while it is far from their best album it is one of my favourite album covers.
It was my birthday recently so a friend of mine bought me that record, I didn’t have any Brinsley Schwarz records, but of course, I have a lot of Nick Lowe records. It was certainly cool to hear Nick at such an early age, and it has a kind of Crosby, Stills & Nash sound to it which took me by surprise because I didn’t expect that, I thought it would be more of a hard rock thing.
You’ve been friends with Nick Lowe for some years, do you see much of him these days?
Not since the pandemic, but in 2019 I think he was playing a show in Toronto, and I went to see him and got up to play a song with him. That’s the last time I saw him in person but we email all the time. It was funny during COVID I started calling people out of the blue who I hadn’t talked to in a long while like Mitchell Froom or different people, I emailed people, and I emailed Elton John and Elvis Costello. So it is kind of amazing to reach out to some of my heroes and they responded. But I’ve done three tours with Nick, and I really hope we get to tour again, but he is pure class, he is one of my favourite people.
He is also someone who has managed to get better the older he has got.
I think since the ‘90s and the ‘Impossible Bird’ and all those records, he has really found a way to do it, he even had that album ‘At My Age’ , and a way to do it gracefully that is still cool. I think we have a lot of similar influences, I hear a lot of Sam Cooke and stuff in his music, Buddy Holly. Anyway, I think he is a great role model of how to do it. I’ve just remembered, I did see him last March at the Cadogan Hall as well.
When did you know you wanted to be a songwriter, and who were your early inspirations?
I think I can pinpoint it to around age 15 when I heard The Kinks for the first time because before that I was a member of The Elton John Fan Club since about 10, and my dream was to be a singer and it never even occurred to me that I could write songs. I loved The Beatles and all that, but it wasn’t until I heard Ray Davies that something he was doing brought the songwriter in me out. I wrote bad songs for five years as a teenager, but what I think happened was when I was 21 and my son was born I started listening to Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot a lot and hearing those guys combined with the Ray Davies stuff helped me figure out what my sound could be, because it is this marriage of the Commonwealth of the English music I love and the Canadian folk music I love, and somewhere in there is where I exist.
You’ve identified the English musicians who have influenced you, and they are largely English musicians who have been noticeably influenced by American roots music.
I also love the British invasion stuff. Melody is what reached me from a very young age, and as a kid, I loved Gilbert O’Sullivan, and we’ve been in touch recently because he has been over here touring. I love Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and all that stuff is in my DNA, and even the R&B music I love is the more melodic R&B, stuff like Smokey Robinson and what The Temptations were doing. So melody was always it for me, but when I started getting into Leonard and Gordon and I saw they were making music that wasn’t just about jumping about on stage, and you could just stand there and sing your song. When I was 21 I was already a kind of old soul and I thought that is the kind of songwriter I want to be, I don’t want to be jumping off amplifiers and stuff like that. I then wrote my first song called ‘Speaking with the Angel’, which in a roundabout way got me my publishing deal and my record deal. So it all happened when my son was born.
Do you have a favourite cover of one of your own songs?
I’ve always liked Leslie Feist’s version of ‘Secret Heart’ because people who have done that song have done it fairly faithfully, Rod Stewart and whoever, but she did almost a Euro-pop version, something like ABBA, so I really liked it when it came out. Some famous people have covered my songs, but some of my favourite versions of my songs are by people you will never have heard of. I remember this girl in high school sending me a cassette of my song ‘Thinly Veiled Disguise’ and it was just beautiful, there was no affectation in her voice it was just straight up. I will have to dig that out sometime, it is in a box somewhere. It is always flattering when someone does one of your songs because that is really the purpose of a songwriter, they may come from your experience but you want them to resonate sufficiently with someone else enough for them to want to give it a try.
Do you have any plans to tour in 2023?
It is coming really fast, we are leaving in early February for a tour in America, and we haven’t toured America since 2015 so I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m also a bit nervous in case nobody remembers me down there. I don’t want to know how the tickets are selling, I just want to show up, and I’ve always had kind of a cult reputation in America, like everywhere, and there are certain cities I do fairly well in and others where they haven’t heard me. After America, we are touring England and Ireland, and we are still deciding whether we will do some European shows, and it will depend on the offers we get because it is so expensive to tour, and even though you want to go everywhere you don’t want to lose your shirt. We are just going to do what we can, and it is all solo and my wife is now my tour manager so when we go together we have a good time. I do hope in 2024, when I turn 60, to do some band shows and I’d like to call it Sexsmith At 60, haha, and do a show at Massey Hall and London, but that is just a dream at the moment we will have to see what happens, build it and they will come. It looks like I will be pretty busy in 2023, starting February I’ve got fifty shows, and I’m already exhausted thinking about the shows we have to do, I’m just hoping everything goes well and we don’t get sick and we get home in one piece.
Solo shows can be hard work.
Yeah, so much more than band shows, I get more nervous for one thing and every note is coming from you. I don’t know, but when you come off stage you just feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, you’ve got hopefully a room full of people who have paid good money to see you, and at the end of the night you just hope they had a good night and enjoyed themselves. I put a lot of pressure on myself, as I said, I don’t run around I just sing them my songs and that’s what most people come to hear, my songs. I sing as well as I can, and every mistake I make you will hear because it is just me, haha, and you aren’t covering anything up with drums and bass. There is also a real sense of pride after a good show and you are like, wow, I did all that by myself. I hope people understand that, and I think there are a lot of pop stars today who couldn’t do that, I mean, Nina Simone could just get up there with a piano and blow your mind with just talent, Dylan can, but I’m not sure how many pop stars could without the support of all the backing tracks and stuff. I feel like an old-time troubadour in a way, with a direct channel from me to you. It is exhausting and nerve-wracking at the same time.
How do you select a playlist for a solo show, you’ve obviously got the new record to pick from?
It is hard because I want to play at least one song from each record, you never know who is going to be in the audience and so many times in the past, someone has come up to me and said I hadn’t played anything from whatever. I will obviously be doing quite a few from the new record, and then there is a handful of songs I’m expected to play, ‘Secret Heart’ and things like that, and then there is the stuff I’m maybe into at the time and stuff I haven’t played in a while, and then there is also the fact certain records did better in different countries, you know, to adjust to. It is easy to adjust though when you are playing solo. I was playing kind of the same set each night, with a few substitutes. It is a good feeling when you know what your set is and you just have to go out there and do it. I’ve been practising in my living room, trying different songs, so I don’t know what my set will be yet, it depends on whether there is a piano, and some of the venues have a piano. If there is a piano I tend to play up to eight songs on the piano, and that changes everything as well. It is a bag of mystery coming up because I have just been so nervous about the flights and that, I haven’t had much time to think about which songs.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
As we said, I’ve just got this Brinsley Schwarz album and I don’t know it well enough to give you a song title, but I’ve been listening to that, and it is a double album so I’m looking forward to hearing what is on the next one. I’ve always been interested in Lowell George, and recently I got his album ‘Thanks I’ll Eat Here’, which everyone told me was a great album, so I really love that one, and there is a song on there called ‘Twenty Million Things’ and I really wish I could have written that song. It is such a great song and he is so soulful. Another guy who really helped me get through the pandemic, and has recently risen in my list of favourite songwriters and is kind of at the top, and that is Warren Zevon. Like mine, some of his albums only came out on CD in the ‘90s, but I was really excited when they put out ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ on vinyl, and I had it on CD, so I’ve been listening to that. It has some really great songs like ‘I Was In the House When the House Burnt Down’ and ‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’ and he has become someone I have become a little bit obsessed with. I didn’t really start listening to him until he died, you know, and I’m kind of ashamed of that, but he is someone whose music makes me feel heroic or something. There is this whole swashbuckling thing about his persona that I love. So there are three albums there, I guess.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I don’t know if I would have had a career if it wasn’t for the UK. My first album in ’95 was dying and had only been released in North America, and my label was getting ready to drop me because so few copies had been sold when Elvis Costello held it up on the front cover of Mojo and that changed everything for me and there was interest for my music outside of North America. I remember coming to the UK and playing at The Borderline and Squeeze opened up for me as surprise guests, and I met McCartney, and it was just so crazy. All these people I had loved and admired my whole life were saying nice things about me, and that sort of eventually bounced back to North America, that buzz that was happening in the ‘90s over there. It went quiet over there for a bit, but with ‘Long Player Late Bloomer’ it reignited, and we were able to play bigger venues like the Barbican and The Royal Opera House.
The UK has always been a really good base for me, and not to overgeneralise, I think they love songs and melody over there. When you look in the audience over there, you will see an older gentleman and he is there with his grandson, and they still seem to like albums over there, and the music press still seems to be alive. Whereas over here I think there is only one working music critic in Canada, haha, there was a time when you could become well-respected as one such as Bob Hilburn or whoever. I think in the UK the press has always taken it seriously, you know albums and things like that. So, I have just always been grateful for what Elvis did which saved my career I believe, and now seventeen albums later I have a body of work and I’m very proud of that. I am glad they added a few UK shows because originally it was only going to be Ireland, and I know I was only over there in March 2022 and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I hope people check out my new album because I think it is one of my best, and it is my best-sounding album, Brad Jones did an outstanding job on the production.
Ron Sexsmith’s ‘The Vivian Line’ is released on February 17th on Cooking Vinyl.