Okay, dig: If you're in or around Los Angeles, the charming, smart and hella talented singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith plays Largo at the Coronet tonight, the 5th of June. They don't like it if you're late. Factor in traffic. Get there.
Ron Sexsmith. (Look out, Prince.)
Speaking of tardiness, I spoke with the "Long Player Late Bloomer" last Copernicus' Birthday -- a holiday not many celebrate, but I do: this year by interviewing a brilliant Canadian troubadour. Here, a mere few months later, we see the evidence. The occasion was made extra special because Mr. Sexsmith was (and still is) promoting his latest album, the rather wonderful Forever Endeavour. It's a poignant, beautiful collection of songs, and I started off by asking him about its gorgeous arrangements.
"The arrangements were all Mitchell's," says Mr. Sexsmith, crediting masterful producer Mitchell Froom. "I wrote the songs, and I had a vague idea that these songs might benefit from that sort of approach -- there were some of these songs that reminded me of those early singer-songwriter albums from the '70s: where there'd be acoustic guitar, and then on top of that there'd be horns and strings. Like Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, people like that. I ran into Mitchell in L.A. when I was playing, and he told me he was getting into orchestration -- I guess from working with Randy Newman so much -- so I sent him the demos of the songs, and he based his arrangements on what I had."
Music-wise -- and apart from Rush who are obviously from another planet -- I'm interested in what makes Canada different from America. Ron seems an ideal artist to ask.
"That's kind of a big question," he admits, but he's up for the challenge. "Canada is between two cultures: we're a Commonwealth country, so we have the whole British influence -- it's all over our money and everything; and being so close to the States, they have a huge influence on what makes up our sound. I think we have sort of a melodic side -- the U.K. or European music -- and also the rootsiness of the American music, that the whole world loves.
"Somewhere in there is the Canadian sound. And you can hear it -- you go back to people like Neil Young, there's something about the way he sings, his accent, his way with melody: even if he's playing a country song, you know he's not from the States. The same could be said of Joni, and Leonard, and Gordon Lightfoot.
"America is the hardest place to break out -- for me, even when my first album came out, I always felt what I was doing was really unfashionable. It wasn't really lining up with what radio was playing, but I'm just lucky to have any kind of fan base there at all. When we tour, of course, people show up at our gigs -- but it's still very much under the radar."
That's mysterious. Mr. Sexsmith's previous album (Long Player Late Bloomer) did very well around the world. Hello! -- and he recently played the Royal Albert Hall! Ron is great. Like: nuanced-great. Complex-great. Thoughtful-great yet also catchy-great. Paul McCartney, Elton John and especially Elvis Costello (with whom he's toured a bit) are fans. Ron's songs stay with you -- including the three-minute masterpieces "Deepens with Time" and "The Morning Light."
We speak briefly about the cockeyed documentary about him (Douglas Arrowsmith's 2010 Love Shines: "It sort of made it seem more desperate than it actually was." Ha. Movies.) Then I turn us back further -- to the beginning!
"When I started playing the bars, I was just playing cover songs, and occasionally I would try to throw one of mine in -- I had a few songs, and they were terrible, and people would just talk right through them," Ron frankly admits. "So for a while I didn't know whether I could be a writer. It wasn't until my son was born, in '85, when I wrote a song called 'Speaking with the Angel,' that I remember thinking: 'Oh, that's actually a proper song.' I started to get the feeling that I was a writer, because I would wake up with all these ideas in my head, and melodies -- and that hadn't really happened before."
I name-drop and mention asking Joe Perry of Aerosmith -- Aerosmith, Sexsmith; it's all music, right? -- how long he intends to carry on as a rock god ("This is it, man. I'm gonna do this until my limbs drop off." True: Hollywood Bowl openers this year.) And so what's the projected outlook for the perhaps more mortal yet divinely inspired Mr. Sexsmith?
"Well, I just saw Leonard Cohen in concert in December, and he's like 75, maybe even older. And he was great, he even went skipping offstage. I think when you're in this for a living, you're kind of in it for good -- it's like the Mob: you can't really leave!" he laughs. "As long as I'm in good health, especially in good vocal health, I don't see why I couldn't continue this until I drop dead. I think I'm always going to want to walk up onstage and perform.
"And that's why I called the album Forever Endeavour: because the art of songwriting is kind of a 'forever endeavour' -- you hope to write something that might stick around after you're gone."
Long may Ron Sexsmith endure, and tour!
As mentioned up top, he plays Largo at the Coronet in L.A. tonight.
Top photo: Vanessa Heins
Bottom two photos: Michael D'Amico