Interview with Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith talks to Folk and Tumble about his new album, the demands of touring, and amazingly for an artist admired by the likes of McCartney and Costello, his self-doubt.

FT: You’re a frequent visitor to Ireland. Do you have a soft spot for here?

RS:  Oh yeah, We love it here, It also helps that I do pretty well here. So it’s nice to come where your music is being heard, and being appreciated. I feel that way in the UK too and in other places. The gig in Holland has sold out, and in Spain, I do Okay there. But Ireland in general, has been great, right from the get-go. My very first show in Whelan’s in Dublin, I know it is not a very big place, but it was sold out, and everyone seemed to know all the songs. And I think because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been here in a long time, I know no one was playing at that time, but there just seems more interest in my music, more people seem to have gotten into my stuff. We used to do seven or eight gigs around the country, but in perhaps the last decade it’s been mostly Dublin and Belfast, so it’s been nice to get around some other places I hadn’t been before, but there’s still so many places in Ireland I love to play, like we’d love to do the West Coast. But it was over in this part of the world, that I first found my audience.

FT:  Last time we talked was some 15 months ago, and ‘Hermitage’ had just come out, and you were really excited about this new album, ‘The Vivian Line’. You said it was in a similar vein theme-wise, but with a fuller sound. ‘Hermitage’ was a more ‘Do-it-yourself’ album, whereas ‘The Vivian Line’ you are playing with a band. You were really looking forward to letting people hear it. How has the feedback been?

RS:  Oh, it’s definitely my best-received album, in a long time. Reviews have been good, and getting lots of radio over here. Way more than ‘Hermitage’ did for sure. It’s the most kind of buzz I’ve gotten since maybe ‘Long Player late Bloomer’. The people who were into me, stayed with the records in between, but they didn’t break through outside of my own little bubble, but this one did. ‘Hermitage’ was intentionally a sort of amateurism record, and it was fun to do. But this one is much more fully formed in terms of production, some of the best singing I think I’ve ever done. I was amazed with Brad Jones (Producer) and his ideas. Every step of the way, it sounded good to me. It’s done as well as I could have expected to do, because I don’t get a lot of commercial radio play, Over here the first couple singles got quite a bit of play, more so than even in my home country. I don’t know when I’ll get around to making another record, but I think when I get to look back at all my albums someday,  I think it will be one of my favourites.

FT: I remember you singled out ‘Retriever’ as your favourite album in the past.

RS: That will always be one of my favourites. Either my favourite or one of my favourites. Everything just seemed to be going our way in the studio.

FT:  There are so many of your classic songs on that album, ‘Hard Bargain,’ Imaginary Friend’, ‘Wishing Well’,

RS: Yeah, that’s the first record that I felt I sang good on. That I felt I had my sound together, and I had my thing going. I mean, I’m proud of all the albums, even ‘Exit Strategy’ I’m really proud of, which didn’t connect with anyone at all. Every now and then there is a record that does have a buzz.

FT:  This is album 17? Do you still worry or care about what critics or fans think about the music or albums as there are released?

RS: Oh yeah, I’m interested. And it’s not that I see a bad review, and it’s gonna change my feelings about it. Even the good reviews will have a little thing to slag off a certain song or whatever. Yeah I’m interested and people at the shows come and tell this song or that song was important to them, for whatever reason, they got married to it. Ultimately, It’s a body of work that I’m proud of.

There’s so much going on on a record, there’s the production, the songs, my singing. There’s a lot of it is out of my control. With some of the early albums, sometimes the production wasn’t right, and sometimes my singing wasn’t very good, but even so, the people who were into me, were able to look past that, and really liked those albums, and I get too. There are a lot of albums that I like by people that….. Gordon Lightfoot just died, and everyone talks about him as if he only happened in the 60s and 70s, but my favourite Lightfoot albums are 80s and 90s. I’m in a minority. If it’s a songwriter that I love, I can get past the production and just get the songs. There’s a trust that happens when you’re into a songwriter. It’s like ‘Oh I need to listen to this record before I buy’. If you’re a fan, you buy it, and even if you don’t like it initially, it’ll grow on you, hopefully.

FT: You mentioned the sad passing of Gordon Lightfoot. He was such an icon, not just of Canadian music, but of songs that are revered around the world. Can I ask what he meant to you?

RS:  He’s up there. For me, he was my hero. Dylan always talked about him as one of his favourite songwriters. It took me a while to get around to Lightfoot, because in my teens, I was listening to ‘The British Invasion’, I loved the Kinks and all those bands, and then, around 20, 21, I started getting into Gordon and Leonard and Joni, and that’s when I started writing. To me, my sound is somewhere around Lightfoot and Ray Davies. It’s the folky thing I have plus. It’s a hybrid of what they were doing. Lightfoot especially though, because he was Canadian. Going to see him in Massey Hall  was my favourite thing to do. I learnt a lot from listening to his songs and the structure of his songs.

FT:  There’s a rich seam of Canadian artists at present. We had Madison Violet play here recently, and Brenley and Lisa spoke in glowing terms about you.

RS: They did? What did they say?

FT: It was all good. They were very effusive in their praise for you, in terms of influence and working together.

RS: We toured together. They were on my longest tour, ‘The Exit Strategy’ Tour. They were real troopers, because that was a really punishing tour. Whilst we lived in Toronto, we socialised together. And they came over to my house to write with me. I think we wrote two songs, I think they ended up on one of their albums. It might just have been song-doctoring too. They had a song, and I’d say, well maybe you should put that there, little adjustments, that kind of thing. I miss those guys, because I haven’t seen them in so long. The last time I saw them, they played Stratford, where I live, and they came back and had some drinks. That is so nice to hear, because I really felt recently, not just by them, but by the Canadian music scene, I felt a bit, I don’t know, almost shunned or something, It’s weird.

FT: Is that because you moved away from Toronto?

RS:  I don’t know, I just don’t feel like people engage with me. I don’t know, it could be my own paranoia, Yeah, I mean we’re all in different places in our life I guess. So that’s nice to hear because I was beginning to wonder, it’s been so long since I heard from them.

FT: Just going back to the album, ‘The Vivian Line’. The title is taken from a route connecting your home to the road leading back to Toronto and the music scene. Did you ever find out, who Vivian was?

RS:  Yeah we only just found out who she was recently. She just died recently, a lady in her 90s. it’s not that big of a story, her father was a wealthy guy, who owned a fleet of school buses, and apparently, she was the first female school bus driver. So he named that route after her.

FT:  That’s a nice story. Always nice to find the story behind the title.

RS:  Yeah I’m always looking for an album title that’s not a particular song, or that sounds, like the way the music sounds. It’s fun for me to come up with the titles, I usually have about ten to choose from for each record.

FT:  The album starts with ‘Place called love’, which is a beautiful song to start any album. But I read somewhere, that it was partly borne out of the pandemic, but also out of some awful incidents, like the George Floyd killing. Some of your songs touch upon, or come from a place reflecting social issues, or injustices. ‘God loves everybody’ and ‘For the driver’ for example.

RS:  ‘For the driver’ was started from an article I read, about a boy chasing a ball into the street, and was hit by a car. And as awful as that is for the parent of the child, I found myself thinking about the driver, how do go on living with that? I know a friend from school, who was in a similar situation, and he was a good person. You think of all these people put in a situation they didn’t ask for. With ‘Place called love’, the George Floyd killing was all over the news. I just thought to be murdered by the person who was supposed to be protecting you, in front of everyone in your community. I remember thinking, this guy’s life has probably been this all his life, it’s probably been this hard station. And now, he has to suffer this as well. Maybe at the end, when it’s all over, there’s this place, and I wasn’t writing religiously, after the struggle and the hurt.

FT:  Coming from such a dark incident, it’s lovely that such a song of hope can come from such a horrible event.

RS:  Yeah, and also, everyone had been feeling so bad with the pandemic, I was thinking about that. Hold on, beyond hard times, better times are coming, sort of vibe. It felt almost like a choirboy song. That was the last song I wrote for the album. I thought it would be a nice ending; it was Brad Jones who thought it would be a nice way to open the album.

FT:  I was lucky enough to catch your gig last year in Dublin, and I thought your voice was as strong as I’ve heard it, but also as mellow as I have ever heard it. Can I ask, how do you think you’re sounding these days?

RS:  Oh, I think I’m definitely singing better than I have, even on this tour. I get up each night, and I try to sing my best, I think I can sing with more control than I used to. I hit the high notes a little easier. It’s just all experience. I’m still singing the songs for the most part in the original keys. Yeah, I think I’m singing better, and I’m playing guitar better. I’m definitely improving on the piano. I’ll never be great on the piano, but it’s definitely improved

FT:  Are you very self-critical Ron?

RS: Yeah, I think so

FT:  I think you’re very self-deprecating, and I really don’t think you get how much you, and your music are loved by people.

RS:  It’s hard to know, then you come to places like here, and people say all these nice things. I’ve been around long enough that people are coming to shows with their kids. It’s just hard to work out where I stand. People like Joni, they not going to be here much longer. I’ve been trying to follow in their footsteps, but I don’t know if that means anything anymore. I watched the Junos for the last couple of years, and I don’t recognise it anymore. We are in a different time, different place, and a different kind of music.  I grew up in a time when people of colour were not represented on the Junos. Now when I watch it it’s great, it’s way more diverse, but I don’t see myself in that equation anymore. And that’s probably as it should be. You know the world is evolving, and it should be more inclusive. I was in a Canadian music museum recently, and I was looking around and it was full of photos of all these people that I’ve worked with, written or toured with, and there wasn’t one picture of me in the whole museum. It is almost as if they are saying, ‘Whatever you did, we don’t care’, and that’s in my mind, and I not saying they are saying that to me. But it feels like they are saying, ‘We don’t value your contribution to Canadian song writing’. And Collen tells me that really isn’t so, and yet that is what my head is telling me sometimes. When you are living in your head all the time, and you’re not in Toronto, You think that everyone has forgotten about you or something. I’m happy that I have a body of work, and touring now, and it’s nice to useful again. I do feel time creakin’ in, and I do really want to spend more time at home. I’d like to be more surgical about touring in the future. I just know that after this tour, I’m going to want to do things differently.

FT:  Ron, thanks so much for your time, and good luck with the rest of the tour, and hopefully you’ll get Ireland in your future schedules!

RS: Oh for sure, Thank you.