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The songwriter and the song
He is arguably Canada's best and most renowned songwriter, and has been feted as such for years by the likes of Elton John, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and Paul McCartney.
Only recently, however, has Ron Sexsmith started to receive the acclaim anyone who has heard his music insists he deserves. Though he regularly sells out shows in the UK and US, Canadian audiences are only recently starting to understand Sexsmith's international reputation as one of our greatest.
Sexsmith’s songwriting covers all aspects of the human condition. Lyrically, they are deceptively simple but crafted in such a way as to make them universally accessible. They can be melodically complex, drawing you in and rewarding you with something new with each repeated listen.
On the heels of the release of his 13th album — “Forever Endeavour” — Ron Sexsmith is stopping in Cranbrook as part of a tour across Canada. He is bringing his enormous repertoire with him, and hot touring band, and an opening act who is considered a rising Canadian star.
He spoke to the Daily Townsman last week from Toronto, shortly before heading west to start the tour, about the evolution of his songwriting, his approach to songwriting, and his thoughts on some of the heavyweights who’ve covered his songs.
“The great thing about a song … you may be going through a hard time, and then someone writes a song that expresses that in a way that you understand, and then the music combined with that can make it a really comforting experience,” Sexsmith said of his art form. “Music has that kind of power that when it’s done right it can really change things.”
Sexsmith started playing in bars in his Ontario hometown when he was a teenager. He acquired the reputation as “the human jukebox” for his ability and willingness to take requests. He says that repertoire gave him a base and an education when he set out on his own songwriting career.
“For about six years all I did was play cover songs,” he said. “I was very eager to please. It was helpful when it came time to write songs. I had this wealth of information — in terms of what you could or couldn’t do with the chords. It’s okay to go from C to E flat if you want to, ‘cause Paul Simon did that, you know.
“And it helped just in terms of performing. I was 17, 18, and playing in places that I wasn’t old enough to be in. You’re dealing with a lot of drunk and rowdy people, so it helped being able to just get on stage in front of people.”
The apprenticeship in the bars led to Sexsmith’s initial attempts to develop his own ideas around songwriting.
“For a while, when I started, I thought maybe I needed to be like Elton John and find a lyricist to write lyrics for me,” he said. “When I was trying to write songs as a teen I didn’t really know what to sing about. But it worked itself out, and I found my approach.
“I tried different things when I became a songwriter,” he said. “At one point I was trying to write these songs like Bruce Cockburn or Bob Dylan might, with a lot of verses. I realized I wasn’t good at that, poetically or metaphorically.
“So it’s around that time that I wrote the song Secret Heart (off his 1995 major label debut album), which I felt was so simple. And I thought, ‘I have to try to stay in this place, writing almost like a ‘50s songwriter.’ I could imagine Buddy Holly or somebody doing that song.
“So I’ve tried just to keep the words simple and conversational. And the melody will help that along. So that’s been my approach, is just to be really concise as much as possible.”
Sexsmith said that in general, the melody of a song comes easiest. “I get melodies just while I’m doing the dishes, or whatever. But usually it comes with or suggests a phrase or idea. But I’ve started many songs with just the lyrics. So it’s really a marriage. I spend the most time getting the lyrics right.”
Ideas for songs come at all hours of the day, or night. And one has to be prepared.
“Sometimes it happens during the course of the day, when I’m out and I need to scribble down something,” he said. “I don’t carry a dictophone so if I get a melody in my head I basically have to commit it to memory. Sometimes something sounds really good the night before, and the next it doesn’t sound half as enchanting.”
Sexsmith performs on guitar, but writes on guitar and piano. “Sometimes I’ll write the same song on both — I’ll start a song on piano and finish it on guitar. The piano kind of frees things up for me a bit. I’m not very good on piano, so I can tend to stumble upon things more on the piano than the guitar.
“I write a lot without an instrument too. Oftentimes it’s the last thing I’ll introduce to a song, is the instrument. I’ll have a verse or two with a melody and then I’ll just try to find the chords for it.”
While rock star fame and fortune has up until now eluded Sexsmith, the powerful and famous in the music industry are very much aware of him and his work. He is in that position where his songs may be better known than he is, for having been covered by the likes of Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow, k. d. lang, Elton John or Chris Martin of Coldplay. He was asked if there were any particular artists whose coverage of one of his songs most intrigued or impressed him.
“The first one was Nick Lowe (a pivotal figure in the British New Wave scene) — he did Secret Heart,” Sexsmith said. “I was in England and he performed it live on a radio show back in 1996. It was really early on in my career. I remember that was pretty special. Since then, we’ve toured a bunch of times and become good friends. But that was pretty cool, I wasn’t expecting that.
“Actually that song is probably my most covered song — Rod Stewart did it, Leslie Feist … it’s just weird, you know. Like I say, it was the start of a new approach for me, but when I’m in my grave people will say ‘He’s the one who wrote Secret Heart.’”
Sexsmith and Lowe eventually became friends and musical colleagues.
“Just from getting to know him I realized we had a lot of common ground, and people we admire. We’re both sort of craftsmen, try to be concise.
“The other one, recently, was EmmyLou Harris doing a song of mine. It kind of came out of nowhere. It was actually the title of her album — Hard Bargain. So that was pretty cool.”
Sexsmith’s tour started in Victoria on September 29, and hits the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Monday, Oct. 7.
He’s performing with a band, made up of musicians who’ve made their own mark on the Canadian scene — Don Kerr (former member of the Rheostatics) on drums, Tim Bovaconti (Bachman-Cummings) on guitar, David Matheson (Moxy Früvous) on keyboards, Jason Mercer (Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Ani Defranco) on bass.
Joining Sexsmith on tour is Juno nominee Jenn Grant, a singer-songwriter based out of Nova Scotia, who has released four albums and whose song “Dreamer” is featured as the theme song on CBC’s Heartland.