Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Music

Is it finally Ron Sexsmith's time to shine? Add to ...

His general doughy appearance and withdrawn demeanour might suggest depression, but in conversation Sexsmith doesn't come off as morose. And despite the dark rings under his eyes and the weary tone to his voice, he seems more fragile than unhappy.

By many measures of success, Sexsmith is a winner. Indeed, the dichotomy between the glowing admiration of his peers and his relative lack of radio play isn't without precedent. The late Townes Van Zandt is another highly-respected but unmarketable singer-songwriter; tune-smithing nuances revered by peers often don't tickle the ears of mainstream listeners.

Still, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams thinks that his albums could have had more traction. "I don't think his albums were any less commercially viable than my Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was," she says in a telephone interview.

In Love Shines, Costello suggests Sexsmith's quietness might work against him: "He has chosen a path of less aggressive presentation, less aggressive representation. Those who have tried to champion him are faster, louder talkers like myself and Steve Earle. That doesn't necessarily mean we're better songwriters."

The new album encapsulates Sexsmith's current career, with an arc that begins sorrowful - his last two albums were well received critically, but not commercially - and grows in hope. Songs are arranged with a brighter production, giving a firm bed to the trademark even-tempered melodies and insightful thoughts.

The pleasing, easily listenable Late Bloomer, in particular, reveals a veteran artist gently persevering in the face of change: "I'm a small player, with a tall order/ To come out on top, without selling my soul."

Rock describes Sexsmith as self-effacing. "I don't want to say he's a beaten man, but he's at that point where he's tried and it hasn't worked."

It's possible, of course, that Sexmith's critical acclaim might be overrated. "Ron has won high praise from some heavyweight songwriters and this fact may have coloured reviews of many of his albums that, to my ears, lack a visible and distinctive edge," veteran music-industry journalist David Farrell says in an e-mail.

"I would venture a guess that Ron's thirst for greater success has allowed him to stray off course as an artist. He's a songwriter first and foremost. He does a good business on the road. If he focused on his craft, and relied less on adorning himself with studio ploys that are meant to bring him commercial success, he might find the two become indivisible."

Sexsmith's wishes are realistic, mind you. He's mostly satisfied - "I'm doing okay," he answers when asked about his bank account - but would like the reasonable luxury of full-time sidemen. "Sometimes I can't afford to bring my band on the road," he says. "In my mind, I have a vision of a bigger show. I'd love to be able to pay my band more, and to be able to offer them more work."

When fans and music journalists see Sexsmith on the streetcar or at the laundromat, there's invariably (and unjustly) a sense of judgment that comes with it. What in the world is Ron Sexsmith doing mixing whites and colours at the local Suds Are Us?

"I like going to laundromats," Sexsmith says. "I've written a lot of songs there."

In the film, Sexsmith's partner Colleen Hixenbaugh is overcome with emotion when speaking about how the musician was without a piano until he was given one for his 40th birthday. He had to borrow a vintage acoustic guitar for the recording of Long Player Late Bloomer. Speaking with him, there's the sense that if he's without some of the finer things in life (or even essential tools of the trade) it may not be a lack of money but because he doesn't make a point of treating himself.

Whichever, the fact of the matter is, Canadian artists don't sell a lot of albums. Sexsmith had to hustle to scrape the initial $60,000 together for the recording sessions in Los Angeles. "People see us on the red carpet," says Sexsmith, "but then we go back to our rented houses. It's like we're Cinderella or something."

Single page