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."

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.'

"They were just sitting around having breakfast, so they invited us over. That was one of the most nerve-wracking car rides. And pulling up at his house, he was already at the door waving. I said, 'Oh, my God, that's McCartney waving at us!'

"We had breakfast, he played me some tracks from Flaming Pie, which wasn't out yet. And the most amazing thing was after that we went to the kitchen table, and he pulled out his acoustic guitar and started playing. He played songs from Flaming Pie, 'Calico Skies' and 'Little Willow.' And then at that point, he asked his son James to go fetch me a guitar. And I was like, 'Wow, what do I play [for] this guy? He's written everything.' So the only thing I could think of was to play one of his songs. So I played him 'Listen To What the Man Said,' and he sort of jammed along, and we were singing the harmonies, and it was great."

Even with respected icons in his corner (Sexsmith also toured with Dylan last year), Ron seems to recognize that his type of low-key storytelling may never be considered commercially viable. The recent Universal-Polygram merger, which has caused a shakeup at his label, only makes his situation more precarious. But Sexsmith's a pragmatist about such things, and that's why he held onto his courier job until his musical career wouldn't allow it. Oddly enough, the job actually benefited his songwriting output.

"I worked for a bike courier company, and I was one of the few walkers they had. I'd just be there with my walkie-talkie, and they would say, 'Go pick up this thing at this law firm, and take it over to this bank,' or whatever it was. Half the time, I didn't know exactly what I was delivering. I didn't really want to know. It all seemed very important--documents and checks and everything. And I just did that every day for six years, and I wrote hundreds of songs on the job.

"In fact, if I sit in a room with an instrument, I'll never get anything done. I have to be doing something mundane--walking around, cutting the grass, doing the dishes or something. That's when I start to hum to myself. And also, walking around outside, I was seeing things and things. So I was really productive at that point.

"I held onto that job as long as possible, because I was really worried. I'm still afraid this whole thing is gonna fall through. I always feel I'm on thin ice with every record."

Ron Sexsmith is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, June 22, at the Cajun House in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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