"The song is my saviour. I've got to raise it up, as far as my spirit can reach, that everyone might see." - Ron Sexsmith, from Late Bloomer.
Ron Sexsmith was in a coffee shop when he heard a song of his being played. The counter girl said she loved it, and that she was a big fan of Rufus Wainwright. "But the song is mine," Sexsmith protested.
"Who are you?" the girl asked.
Sexmith, the mellifluous singer-songwriter heralded by the Steve Earles and Elvis Costellos of the world, is relatively anonymous to Meghan at Starbucks. The gentle-soul songster can fill Massey Hall, he's won a Juno award, his songs have been recorded by Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé, he's collaborated with Leslie Feist and Coldplay, and he's even sipped tea with Paul McCartney. And yet, at Second Cup, he's just the next guy in line.
Perhaps Sexsmith is three minutes and 30 seconds away from a wider pop-music audience. A songwriter with famously laudable talents for concise, reflective lyrics and melodies that are admired by breezes and a former Beatle, Sexsmith has toiled since 1991 without a signature radio hit. It is one of life's cruel jests that one-hit wonders live richly, while the sad-eyed songster with wonderful tunes by the dozen struggles along.
Love Shines, a new documentary by Douglas Arrowsmith airing on HBO Canada on May 14, considers Sexsmith's situation, zeroing in on the making of his 12th album. The just-released Long Player Late Bloomer was produced by Bob Rock - the Hawaii-based Canadian hit maker of Aerosmith, Metallica and Bon Jovi - and could be seen as an attempt at brass ring-grabbing and mid-career commercial viability. The film isn't so much The Rise and Fall of Ron Sexsmith as it is The Sad Modesty and Underappreciated Success of a Hitless Songwriting Icon.
Sexsmith is a sweet guy, but also meek. Sitting in a Queen Street café, the father of two children (with his first wife) speaks honestly and in mellow tones about reachable aspirations, laundromats and the quest for semi-fame at age 47.
"The one good thing I can say is that every record I make feels like my first album again," explains Sexsmith, who looks oddly cherubic for a man his age, his brown eyes cast to the side. "I'm not that well known. I always feel it's another shot at making a first impression again."
With material marked by introspection and romantic melancholia, and a soft voice and soothing melodies to carry them, Sexsmith has been making favourable first impressions since 1991's Grand Opera Lane, recorded while he worked in Toronto as a courier - a job referenced in his 2002 song Dragonfly on Bay Street. His eponymous major-label debut in 1995 earned praise from Costello, the first of many high-profile artists who would champion the savant singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Ont.
"His main ambition back then was to simply work regularly as a songwriter and as a performer," says former Toronto promoter Elliott Lefko from Los Angeles, where he is vice-president of Golden Voice & the Concert Connection. "I look at the venues these days being played by successful artists like Jesse Winchester or Graham Parker or Steve Forbert, and Ron is playing those same places. He's realized his ambition."
Speaking about his early days with Interscope Records and the 1995 album, Sexsmith, in his self-deprecating way, places some of the blame for his lack of mainstream success on himself. "I think everyone had the best intentions at Interscope," recalls Sexsmith, who's had the same manager, Michael Dixon, since 1994. "I just didn't make the record they wanted me to make. They wanted me to be like Christopher Cross or Don Henley."
When asked if he's been pro-active in achieving something bigger over his career, he admits "probably not." He's worked with different record labels - he's now with Warner Canada - and questions whether his lack of commercial success is someone else's fault. "I wonder if somebody's dropping the ball," he suggests, adding that he's nevertheless pleased with his label and his manager.