On the Lightfoot

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

Sexsmith's first two albums won him much acclaim, including gushing praise from Elvis Costello, who held up a copy of Sexsmith's debut album on the cover of Mojo magazine and called it his favorite album of the year. Costello had heard the disc through Mitchell Froom, who's produced all of Sexsmith's Interscope records and who's also worked with Costello.

"Mitchell was in England working with Tasmin Archer," Sexsmith says. "I don't know what happened exactly, but I think they went out for drinks, and Elvis just happened to be at this bar. And they were talking shop, and Mitchell just said, 'I just finished this record with this Canadian guy.' Anyway, he lent Elvis this cassette copy. I was pretty sure that he was gonna hate it. So I was quite surprised when he came out so strongly for it."

Whereabouts finds Sexsmith making a confident leap into the realm of bigger production. Whereas his first two releases were generally built around a basic three-piece instrumentation, the new album includes touches of strings, horns, timpani, organ and banjos. The result feels like a natural evolution, a carefully considered attempt to make Sexsmith's musical settings as vivid as his songs.

"The tunes themselves seemed to suggest that we needed a more lavish production," he says. "The chord progressions are more elegant and all that. I think the melodies are a little more elaborate. I kept trying to sing higher. So Mitchell just heard right away that this record was going to require more planning or more arranging."

One of the album's centerpieces is "Right About Now," a lush R&B ballad that finds Sexsmith in the unlikely role of soul croooner. "Mitchell wasn't sure I was going to be able to pull that off," he says. "I really wanted to do it, because I'd never written a song like that before.

"Mitchell liked the song a lot too, but he was afraid that it was gonna come off like I was trying to sound black. And I can't do that anyway, because I've got a pretty white voice. But I always loved Bill Withers and all that, and I guess in my mind I was writing kind of like a Bill Withers song, or Curtis Mayfield or something. That's my favorite kind of R&B. The stuff they call R&B today, I have a hard time relating to, because the grooves are a bit heavy handed. So we kind of approached it in a way as if maybe John Lennon was doing a soul tune or something, which I could get behind."

Besides its sonic adventurism, Whereabouts is unique for Sexsmith because its songs seem tied together by distinct themes. The album opener, "Still Time," recounts personal disappointments, but insists, "Where there's still hope/There's still time." The urgency of time pops up again with "In a Flash," in which Sexsmith thinks of all the strangers he's encountered in subways or cafes and sings: "In a flash, in a flash/There one moment and gone in a flash."

The album's other theme centers on a God who has abandoned us. "Must Have Heard It Wrong" is described by Sexsmith as his most bitter song, but it's deftly balanced out by the album closer, "Seem to Recall," in which God responds that he recalls a time when the song's protagonist was more content and didn't ask for so much.

Sexsmith says he didn't notice the connections between these songs until he and Froom started sequencing Whereabouts. At that point, he was struck by the fact that the first half of the album is much sadder than the second half, creating the sense of emerging from a dark emotional tunnel.

"It's hard to even talk about it without sounding like some kind of new-age guy, but I always found the whole songwriting thing kind of mysterious, 'cause you get these ideas, right, and you never know where they're gonna come from. It could be anything. Someone will say something to you, or maybe you'll overhear something on a streetcar. For some reason, it's like this light bulb appearing over your head, or whatever."

Although he's not religious in a conventional sense, Sexsmith says that as a child he developed what he thought of as a kind of "friendship" with God. "I always thought God was in the sun. When I was really small, like first or second grade, I used to talk to the sun all the time." It's a ritual that Sexsmith often revisited when he worked as a courier in the financial district of Toronto from his early to late 20s.

Sexsmith never may have gotten a response from God, but three years ago, he did jam with Paul McCartney at the ex-Beatle's kitchen table, and Sexsmith has a way of making the experience sound like a religious experience.

"I was touring with Squeeze over in England, and we had a day off, so Chris Difford invited me to spend the weekend at his house in Sussex," Sexsmith says. "So we were driving home after a gig, and he pointed up at this road and said, 'Well, you'll never guess who lives up there.' And I just said, 'McCartney.' First guess, right? And then he just said, 'Well, maybe we'll go over there tomorrow.' And I was like, 'What, are you kidding?' And he said, 'No, I've been there a few times.' So the next morning, he just phoned [McCartney] up and said, 'I'm here with that Canadian songwriter that I've been telling you about.'

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