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Ron SexsmithIt's a singer-songwriter Industry Standard that the words 'Nick Drake' have to be summoned when fumbling for a reference point for any sulky old sod caught in possession of an acoustic guitar. The melancholic perfection of Drake's three albums make him- 25 years later- an unsullied touchstone among six-string introverts. It's fitting then that, as I arrive at the Mean Fiddler prior to Ron Sexsmith's recent appearance, he's occupied with a film crew, offering his thoughts on Drake for a forthcoming BBC tribute.
Like Drake, Ron Sexsmith's two albums (1996's Ron Sexsmith and 1997's Other Songs) have attracted a landslide of plaudits from the grown-up press, while conversely failing to instigate the sweet ker-ching of mega-sales that his record company evidently believe he was born for. Not possessing the stellar lineage of Adam Cohen or Rufus Wainwright (two fellow Canadians), and without the doomed sex appeal of Jeff Buckley or the martyred romanticism of Richard Buckner, there's little marketing value in Sexsmith's very ordinary-ness. In the end it all comes down to his songs - modest, melodic, politely downcast ballads that rarely waver from a moody- but never sullen- pace and tone. They're finely sculpted, literate songs from a man who honed his songwriting during a Bukowski-esque decade of post office work. And as the songs ooze a kind of plainspoken honesty, Sexsmith himself manages to be emotionally naked without being tortured, somehow surviving producer Mitchell Froom's best efforts to coat him in that glossy sheen of his. With public praise from luminaries like Elvis Costello and Reg 'Elton John' Dwight, and lucrative covers by Shawn Colvin, Joan Baez and everyone's favourite professional Scot, Rod Stewart, Sexsmith is perhaps damned by the faint praise of 'songwriter's songwriter'.
by Martin Williams / pictures by Sarah Powell
I really don't know how I'm regarded, he responds softly when I put this to him, his eyes fixed on the tabletop
. It's good to have that kind of respect but, at the same time, every album feels like it could be my last because I'm always struggling to get off the ground. I've been kind of lucky in a way, because even though I haven't sold enough records I still seem to be staying alive somehow.
Sexsmith touches on this perceived lack of sales regularly, as if he still hears the admonishing ring of a boardroom pep talk in his ears. Following his epoymous debut a certain sector of the British press fell over themselves to worship at his altar.
There's been some bad press too, he's quick to respond
. Though it has been pretty supportive. I think if you're doing something that's a bit singular or if you're kind of an underdog- like my stuff doesn't sell very well- I think they tend to be a little more on your side. I remember with the first album I didn't know if anyone was going to like it, and the second album certainly I was thinking that people were going to say that it wasn't as good or whatever.
With the aw shucks humility of one of his own songs he continues
, so far I just feel really relieved that they've both been accepted in a good way.
For Sexsmith's forthcoming (difficult) third album he is again paired with Mitchell Froom, his longstanding producer. Although it's hard to imagine the demure Sexsmith doing battle with anyone, it's a choice that has met with some resistance in the slippery corridors of Interscope.
With each record I've have had to make a bit of a stand. With the first album there was a fight after we finished the record because I guess they were hoping it'd sound more like Crowded House or something, and so there was a bit of a - not so much a fight - but I did have to put my foot down. Going into the third album, politically it's probably not the best move for me but we just really have a good working relationship. I send him my new songs and, I mean it came down to the songs, if he didn't like the songs I would've worked with someone else but he felt really good about the whole situation, he didn't think it was stale or anything.
The previous night Sexsmith had appeared on stage at the Kashmir Klub, a weekly open-mic session.
I arrived in around 10 o'clock, he explains
. And there was a fax from a friend of mine that said, 'if you get in early enough I'm going down to this place, it's a songwriter's night.' It was just very spontaneous and I didn't expect to play, I just went down to hang out.
Cajoled by the organiser, Ron gave impromptu renditions of Wasting Time from his debut and Pretty Little Cemetery from Other Songs.
I'm hoping to go down again, he says
. 'Cause I like places like that.
It's an affection for the informality and support of these open stages that was built up during his formative gigging years.
When I was starting out in Toronto I used to go to this place called Fat Albert's which was a place where songwriters hung out and played their new songs.
Supportive though these places are, it was the shock of comparison that forced Sexsmith to pull his socks up.
I remember thinking I was pretty good. Then I started going to these open stages and I just felt really kinda humbled by it, by how much work I had to do. Just by hearing these people I thought were great with words, it sort of shone a light on my weaknesses. I was trying too hard to be poetic, I was using too many images and stuff that has never really been my strong point. It kinda forced me to have a look at what I was doing and try to simplify it and try to write more like the way I talk, y'know, a little more conversational. Then I started writing songs I could feel good about.
Beyond twisted image criticism and any perceived lack of sales it's this simple laurel that Sexsmith is happy to rest on. And like a bashful mission statement he adds
, I've just been trying to get better at it.
CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue