The Canadian artist continues obsessing over the small picture with his new album The Last Rider as he continues creating a career that is big-picture perfect.
That story has already been written. Far too many times.
But you can understand why Ron Sexsmith thinks that’s where the line of questioning was headed.
Q: Do you sometimes feel like you’re not in the right time?
“I have wondered about it,” he says from his new home in Stratford, Ontario. “There’s always this question, ‘Oh, maybe if I’d been living at this decade maybe I would have sold more records or something.’ There’s no way of knowing.”
That’s not really a necessary question to revisit this long and far into the incredible career one of Canada’s artistic treasures, arguably its greatest contemporary singer-songwriter. Talk of sales and hits and riches is gaudy, tacky and rather insulting when it comes to Sexsmith and his art and craft, and the rich, timeless canon he has created over 16 years, 13 remarkable albums.
No. Actually it was meant more of query about himself as a writer and, well, a human being. The way he looks at life, the way he chronicles what he experiences, what he sees, what he feels, and how he expresses that — it all seems the stuff of a slower, quieter, simpler, more contemplative, cerebral and emotionally honest time.
Not today, not now.
“Oh, I see, you mean more just like.” He pauses. “I do feel a bit that way.
“I don’t have a cell phone, I do feel a little bit out of step. I always have. I love listening to records. I don’t know. I do feel a little bit like, I don’t know what word you’d use, like a luddite or something.
“But at the same time I think I was born at the right time to hear all the music that I heard that shaped me.
“And I still remember when the milkman came to my house and put bottles in my little milk container. There are things like that that are just so antiquated, but I feel really lucky to have been around for that, or to remember black and white TV and all that stuff.
“So I feel mostly lucky to be born when I was born and to been living now during this time, too, because there’s obviously lots of exciting things happening now.”
That includes his latest album The Last Rider, which was released late April and which local fans will get a sampling of this Wednesday when Sexsmith and his band will perform an intimate show at Mount Royal University’s Bella Concert Hall.
Surprisingly the record marks a pair of first for the 53-year-old Sexsmith, with the songwriter producing himself for the first time — with an assist by longtime collaborator Don Kerr — and his touring players recording with him for the first time, something that was facilitated by the fact that it wasn’t done in a studio in L.A. or across the pond but at the Tragically Hip’s Bathouse recording space just outside of Kingston.
“You get to record there, sleep and eat there, so it’s like this fun camping trip,” he says of the house and studio.
And the results are, without sounding dismissive or lazy, typically Ron Sexsmith.
Sublime stick candies of bittersweet melodicism and observations on our condition.
It’s lovely. Really, really lovely.
“The end result, I was pleasantly surprised,” he says, typically understatedly. “Not that I didn’t think we could do it or anything, but I guess my main concern was because my last album was so retro sounding, (2015’s phenomenal) Carousel One, that I wanted this one to be a little more contemporary sounding …
“But I think we managed to do that somehow. I don’t even know how it happened.”
Maybe sonically it’s contemporary — there’s a crispness in the production that hints at modernity.
But it still can’t shake that not-of-its-time feel.
A song like Breakfast Ethereal, with its strings and kaleidoscope headphone experience, is something right out of London’s not-quite swinging ’60s and the track that follows it, Worried Song, could have come from the ’70s West Coast of the U.S. of A.
If he made an EDM album it would probably still sound as if it was recorded on an acoustic guitar in his bedroom with The Kinks songbook and playbook open in front of him — and Sexsmith is fine with that.
“That’s just sort of where I live, in a way,” he says.
“The stuff that I grew up listening to, it’s part of my DNA now. I don’t think about Ray Davies when I’m writing or even recording, but he’s such a big part of my who I am. And not just him but Nilsson and Lightfoot and all those people.
“So, yeah, you just try to get to this place where it feels like it was meant to be.”
Perhaps it’s also the subject matter that keeps The Last Rider smaller and more grounded than anything else of this day.
Take, for example, the track Man at the Gate (1913), which close out the album. It finds Sexsmith obsessing and wondering over the silhouette of gentlemen photographed at “the turn of the century” in front of Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods park. It’s four minutes of him dissecting this, to others, inconsequential person at this inconsequential moment featured on a postcard that he happened upon at a shop.
He compares it to Davies’ Waterloo Sunset.
“Listening to the song it just sounds like paradise, but it’s not the prettiest place in the world. But he writes about it in such a beautiful way. What he was fixating on was something that everyone else walking across that bridge may not have even noticed.
“That’s part of being a writer I suppose.”
He pauses. “I think I’ve always done that as well, I’ve always found myself — there’s a big picture, but I’m looking at the little stuff. Even if I’m looking at the Mona Lisa, I’m actually looking at the house behind her. Like, ‘Who lives there?’ ”
He laughs. “I’ve always done that.”
Sexsmith continues, expanding on his life’s work that has been about taking the time to appreciate or, at the very least, bring the minutia to the forefront, make all of the details — physical, emotional, musical — matter as much as the greater and supposedly grander.
“That’s sort of my job in a way, too — I’m an observer and I walk around thinking about things and obsessing about little things, which I guess is part of my job description, too. But somebody’s gotta do it,” he says.
“If I’m at the doctor’s office and they have it on current music station, I don’t get a lot of nourishment from that music. Even just from a lyrical perspective.
“When I was growing up, to hear a song like Galveston or something on the radio, it was just intriguing. There were all of these different subjects that you could sing about and it would be a hit song, too. It wasn’t all about ‘I want your body,’ ‘let’s dance’ or something, there were bigger issues being addressed. Even if it was love they were being addressed in a deeper way or a more grownup way.
“So I still look for that in music, and the stuff I do I want it to reflect where I am, I don’t want to pretend I’m in my 20s.”
He continues. “But I’ve always been sort of an old soul, even when I was a kid. I don’t know, maybe I was dropped on my head or something.”
If he was, that would make his story all the more notable, make what he’s accomplished and been allowed to accomplish on a major label all of these years more astounding.
It’s not even close to being over, certainly not the final ride for him, but in the history of Canadian music, of music, period, the scope and influence and meaning and genius of Sexsmith’s career will be one of the more important and heartening entries you could thumb to.
“I’m just happy to be a Canadian story at all,” he says. “I was 31 when my first album came out and I was just so relieved that I got in the door. Ever since then I’ve been trying to have a body of work, because that’s what my heroes did, they are prolific and they made records …
“It’s amazing to me every time a record comes out. It’s like, ‘Wow.’
“I feel very fortunate.”
Ron Sexsmith performs Wednesday night at the Bella Concert Hall. For tickets please click here.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.