Ron Sexsmith sings songs of succor.
On his latest album, the Canadian songwriter may address itchy subjects like the toll time takes, the sudden suicide of a friend, the malling of black culture and a world out of control. But he uses each sad refrain to confirm a hope no pain can erase.
“In these hours of serious doubt/through the coal black lonely night/something told me it’ll work out,’” Sexsmith sings in one of his typical spins. “All in good time/the bad times will be gone.”
“I don’t think cynicsm amounts to very much,” the songwriter explains. “It’s a very unstable and sarcastic world that we live in. I don’t want to add to that.”
Instead he has added a host of melodically firm and lyrically literate songs to the pop firmament, forging the kind of pieces other singers pine to cover. Everyone from k.d. lang to Rod Stewart to opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter have interpreted his work over the last 12 years. During that period, Sexsmith has released eight solo albums, including his latest, “Time Being.” Its double entendre title - acknowledging time as both eternal and transitory - telegraphs themes that have long haunted the writer.
“For this album, the idea of time just seemed to keep coming back,” Sexsmith explains. “Some of it was triggered by the fact that several high school buddies passed away during this period, so I was going to funerals of people that are the same age as me. I guess it’s inevitable, but it felt strange.”
In fact, Sexsmith is just approaching his 43rd birthday but, he says, “that’s older than Elvis Presley was when he died. And John Lennon, too.”
Then again, Sexsmith never had a youthful pop career. When his self-titled first major-label album came out in 1995 he was already 31. “These days, they sign people at 16,” the singer says. “There were some labels when we were shopping this album that said they weren’t signing anybody older than 25.”
Sexsmith’s first label, the powerful Interscope, made an unlikely home for him at the time, back in the mid-‘90s. Sensitive male singer-songwriters died a slow death at the end of the `70s. Through the `80s, they were pretty much nonentities. Sexsmith, a former mail carrier from Toronto, wound up issuing his earliest work, “Grand Opera Lane,” independently in 1991. “I couldn’t get arrested by the labels back then,” he says.
Ironically, Sexsmith credits the hard-rocking band Nirvana with starting a revolution in music that opened up labels to pretty much anyone. “Nirvana was the bomb that blew up the `80s,” Sexsmith says. “All of a sudden it was OK for someone like me.”
In the time since, more male singer-songwriters have broken through, from David Gray to Damien Rice. But Sexsmith’s career remains something of a struggle. He admits to being surprised he has sustained one at all, even if he has done so almost entirely on indie labels. (His latest appears on Kiefer Sutherland’s boutique imprint, Ironworks.)
Sexsmith credits other artists with spreading the word about him. Elvis Costello held up the singer’s first CD on the cover of the influential British magazine Mojo, and called the disc his favorite of that year, gestures that Sexsmith believes helped launch his career overseas. The songwriter has also been championed by Steve Earle, who produced the singer’s “Blue Boy” CD in 2001, and by Chris Martin, who invited him to open some Coldplay tours.
It’s easy to see what draws other stars to Sexsmith’s work. In his sumptuously romantic song “Fallen,” part of the lyric reads “you open your arms/like a school door to summer days/And open my heart/to rumors of a higher place.”
Singer lang offered a quintessential cover of that song on her 2004 CD, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel,” in which she interpreted only Canadian-born writers, like Joni Mitchell, Jane Siberry and Leonard Cohen. Sexsmith says he longs for other artists to cover his work, including Michael Buble and Diana Krall, though his favorite crooner, Bing Crosby, isn’t around to do so.
Sexsmith’s own versions of his songs benefit from the two-tiered tone of his voice, which is most often compared to `60s folk singer Tim Hardin. It’s a shaky instrument, with an unsure vibrato. But there’s a warmth to Sexsmith’s timbre that anchors him in the end.
There’s a similar dynamic to his lyrics, which locate optimism at the last minute. In his classic older song “Not About to Lose,” Sexsmith flinches from despair to announce, “I won’t be taking fear’s advice/not after all I’ve sacrificed.”
In another older song, “Hard Bargain,” he addresses a God-like figure with the wry assertion “Every time I feel like calling it a day/you send me back to the start/you drive a hard bargain.”
To Sexsmith, writing songs lets him work on not only his words but his attitude.
“A song can extend your best aspects,” he says. “It’s easier to be a better human being when you write.”
// Notes from the Road
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