On the Lightfoot

Ron Sexsmith follows in the unfashionable path of his Canadian idol, and makes an art of understatement

No one would have blamed Ron Sexsmith if he'd decided to skip the Valley on his current tour. His last visit here, in July of 1997, qualified as a perfect disaster.

First off, Sexsmith and his two-piece supporting band played a heartfelt show at Nita's Hideaway to about 15 people. At one point, in that endearingly guileless way of his, the Toronto-based songwriter said to what passed for an audience: "I guess everyone's at the Muffs show. Are they good?"

Frustrating as the underattended gig must have been, it was actually the highlight of Sexsmith's Valley stay. After the show, the tour's bus driver kicked Sexsmith and his band off the bus, leaving them temporarily stranded in Phoenix.

"He was crazy," Sexsmith recalls. "There was this opening act, and he just didn't like her and refused to drive her anymore. We had one more gig to do with her, in L.A. Then she decided she didn't want to get on the bus anyway. So she was gonna fly, and we were gonna bring her equipment there. But he refused to take her equipment to L.A., and he said, 'Either the equipment comes off, or everyone else is off the bus.' So it was like 2 in the morning, and we were there on the side of the road with all our guitars and all our bags and everything, and we had to get to L.A. by the next day."

Sexsmith ended up calling his manager and catching a flight to L.A., but he admits that the experience left him with a "surreal impression of Phoenix." Nonetheless, the 35-year-old Sexsmith has decided to brave the desert air again for a stop to promote his wonderful new Interscope album, Whereabouts. Like his two previous releases on Interscope (1996's Ron Sexsmith and the following year's Other Songs), Whereabouts is filled with the kind of songwriting that practically no one does anymore: modest, compassionate, sharply observed and intentionally simple. Sexsmith's voice is the perfect instrument for these vignettes. He often sounds mournful, but never bitter or cruel. With little fanfare, he conveys an open-hearted, nonjudgmental world view that is rare in 1999 pop music.

He's one of the few people who could sing a song called "Feel for You," and actually make it sound genuine. It's telling that his musical hero is Gordon Lightfoot, a minor hitmaker in America but a national icon in Canada. Like Lightfoot, Sexsmith is almost defiantly unhip and resistant to fashion. Also like Lightfoot, but unlike Bob Dylan, Sexsmith rarely writes accusatory, finger-pointing songs. A more common sentiment for him is the following: "I see your face is filled with so much sorrow/Wish I could make it disappear before this night is through with us."

Rock has generally been a haven for either self-styled heroic figures or angry outcasts. In Sexsmith, rock may have its first true everyman since Ray Davies' late-'60s heyday. While his spare use of language is an artistic choice, Sexsmith says that it's at least partly motivated by his creative limitations.

"You know what it was? I was trying to write songs that had lots of verses and lots of metaphors, and I just realized that I was really bad at it. I used to go to these open stages in Toronto, and I started hearing all these amazing songwriters, people that you wouldn't have heard of down there, who were so good with words that I was just sort of humbled by it. It kinda made me rethink everything and sort of go the other way.

"The first song I wrote in that style was 'Secret Heart.' I remember thinking that it was too simple, that people would laugh at it. But I just found that there's a lot of power in being direct. If you listen to the songs of Irving Berlin or Hoagy Carmichael, there's wordplay, but you always know what they're talking about."

Sexsmith began playing in bands when he was in his mid-teens, but it was during a later stint playing cover songs in bars that he believes he earned his degree, "kinda like the equivalent of me going to college to become a lawyer or something." Sexsmith learned so many songs during his apprenticeship period, that in the mid-'80s, when he got serious about writing songs, he felt prepared.

In 1985, Sexsmith wrote "Speaking With the Angel," a heartbreakingly beautiful song about the innocence of youth being corrupted by adult rigidity. It's one of those rare tunes that can bring tears to your eyes even after countless listens. More than any other song, "Speaking With the Angel" put Sexsmith on the music-biz map, but he says that he really didn't think of it as a breakthrough at the time.

"I put out an independent tape in 1986, and that song wasn't even on it, because I didn't think it was good enough," he says. "It wasn't until years later, when I was playing this bar in Toronto, there was a guy there who used to come to all my shows. He kept saying, 'Play a new song,' because he'd heard all my songs before. And I didn't have a new song, but it occurred to me that there was this one song that he'd never heard. And people just went nuts for it, and it just blew me away, because I'd never thought much of it. It had always struck me as a bit self-righteous or preachy. But that made me take another look at it. That song ended up leading to the publishing deal and everything. So it just shows you what I know."

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