Guided by voices

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith
It is a sunny Saturday morning in Hampstead, and Ron Sexsmith is politely contemplating my questions in his hotel room when he should be finishing his packing. His tourbus leaves for Wolverhampton in half an hour. I’ve barged in on the mop-topped Canadian singer/songwriter the morning after a packed and enthusiastic Queen Elizabeth Hall witnessed Ron and his band showcase his second album, the modestly titled ‘Other Songs’. Quite wonderful it was, too, as well as being the latest stop-off point on a long and winding road of live shows. Success has been steady and audiences slow to catch on, but finally the Sexsmith sound - rooted in acoustic folk and the pick of 70s singers such as Nilsson and James Taylor - is wowing those lucky enough to be in the know. Even Rod Stewart has reportedly recorded one of Sexsmith’s songs. And that’s got to be a good thing.

At the ripe old age of 33, Toronto-based Ron is a latecomer to the big time, despite having been working seriously on his music since high school. He explains: “This is pretty much all I’ve been doing. When I got out of high school, even when I was in high school, I was putting bands together, and when I left I went straight to the bars and started playing as a solo act just doing cover songs. Its just been this tunnel-vision kind of thing I’ve been working on since about ’81.

Since his first album came out in ’95, that’s a bloody long time indeed to be out in the wilderness without a royalty cheque. Thankfully, perseverance (as well as a job as a courier) was the key, and it landed Ron a publishing contract with Interscope Records, which eventually graduated into a full record deal. Pretty soon after, Mitchell Froom was sent in to twiddle the knobs on what turned out to be ‘Ron Sexsmith’, a beautiful collection of songs that was sadly overlooked until a certain Mr. Elvis Costello announced it as his favourite album of the year. Since then, live show after live show has built a small but loyal following. Having gigged his first record round the houses for the best part of two years, he admits to not listening to the album anymore: “Its weird, you make your record, and you really concentrate on it, and then you finish it . . . I listen to the music at first, but I haven’t really heard either of them for a while because I’m playing the songs every night. I’m proud of the stuff, though.”

And rightfully so; there is wistful nostalgia and pathos and a sense of loss emanating from many of Sexsmith’s titles, counterbalanced by a good deal of comfort and humour in songs such as “Thinly Veiled Disguise” and “Clown In Broad Daylight”. Add to this a deftness of touch in his acoustic guitar playing to rival that of Nick Drake and a knack for heartwrenching melodies delivered in a powerful yet fragile baritone and you have something special. However, Sexsmith himself seems to be less at ease with the idea of himself as ‘special’: there’s a song on his new album called “Average Joe”, which casts him in the title role: “In all the store front windows I see my face/ And the lame expression of this Average Joe”, he sings, downheartedly. Does he have a humble opinion of himself?

“Well, I got the idea for that song when I was touring the first album. The first year, you know, that was kind of depressing. I was always away from home and I was always opening for somebody and I didn’t really feel like I was even part of the show. I was walking round Nashville, feeling kind of depressed, and that’s when I saw this tourbus come down the street which was a bit of comic relief as it said ‘Nobody You Would Know’ on the side. Because it is kind of a humbling thing to be an opening act. I’m happy to be finally graduating to the next level, even though its still sort of small-scale.”

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