Sitting on the deck upstairs at Toronto's Drake Hotel, Ron Sexsmith talks about the Sadies, those rugged alt-country psychedelians. "I always felt I wasn't cool enough to hang out with them," says Sexsmith, a classic singer-songwriter who doesn't seem to know that being uncool is hip today. His new album is The Last Rider, a collection of wistful, melodic tunes he worries are out of fashion as well. "Maybe I'm square," he says with a shrug. Maybe. But low-key self-deprecation, like hummable Sexsmith, is always in vogue.
I've always found your mellowness incredibly comforting. That's your thing. But on this new album, you seem to be a bit more direct with your consoling.
I hope it's comforting. It's mostly for my own head, though. The first song, It Won't Last For Long, it's from a friend to a friend. I've always liked songs like that, like Lean on Me by Bill Withers. Worried Song, on this album, is the same. I think it's a general feeling that's out there now. It just felt better singing that song.
Take a sad song and make it better, right?
Yeah. Ever since Cobblestone Runway [from 2002], I've tried to write more hopeful songs. I was getting labelled as a sad sack, which I never really felt was accurate. But I wanted to write songs like Former Glory and things that were for my own head.
But your fans, in a way, see you, with your music, as a friend, don't you think?
Well, for myself, when I hear a new album from someone I admire, I'm always excited to hear how they're doing and what they have to say at that point in their life.
Okay, tell me about what's going on with your life. What's Shoreline about?
That one I wrote for my wife. We were having these conversations. She wanted to live by the ocean, and I thought, 'What am I going to do, I'm a city guy.'
So, the shoreline is literal? I took it as a metaphor.
It works both ways. It's trying to find a way you can exist where you're both happy. It's about trying to find a compromise, which is what we've done now, with our move to Stratford, from Toronto.
Let's move on to the song Radio. You're disillusioned with pop music, is that fair to say?
I hear a lot of affectation in the way people sing now. It all sounds clubby. It doesn't move me in any way. There's nothing nourishing about it lyrically. But maybe I'm not supposed to like it.
So, what do you listen to instead?
My favourite music is probably '50s rock and roll. I don't sound like that, but I'm mostly listening to the '50s channel on my satellite radio. I love Buddy Holly records and all the doo-wop stuff. It swings. It's unpretentious. And it sounds better to me than some of the '60s stuff did. In the '50s, they had the lab coat guys. They knew how to mic things. In the '60s, the drugs came. Things got loosey-goosey.
So what about the future, with your line, 'they've picked all the berries that grew on blueberry hill.' Do you believe that, no more berries left?
I was just happy to get Blueberry Hill in a song, you know. I listen to Fats Domino, but the late '60s and the early '70s was my sweet spot. Those are my wonder years. Jimmy Webb's Wichita Lineman. You're not going to get that from Katy Perry. But, yeah, Blueberry Hill. I think there are some blueberries left. I actually do.
Ron Sexsmith plays Danforth Music Hall on April 28. Tour info: ronsexsmith.com/tour