The Canadian singer songwriter is soon back on our shores to play some shows – including a solo gig at London’s famed Union Chapel. To cover matters not embraced in the artist’s 20 Questions set for us, Pete called Ron to fill in the gaps
JLTT : Greetings, Ron – I think you are in Toronto right now?
RS : That’s correct, yeah
I think you have some band shows and some solo ones due?
Yes indeed, in the UK..then I think we are heading for Japan..I am just trying to get my head around it..I haven’t played a solo show in a while. It’s a bit more work playing a solo show, y’know? Every note they hear, it’s just you! And then sometimes people will start yelling out for certain songs..Union Chapel is great though and I have played there before…however with a band that place could be quite disastrous, the drums ricocheting everywhere….
Yep – it’s tall! But there’s a kind of respectful air that goes with that place and its audiences
Yes, sometimes with a church you may get an overly polite crowd, y’know …something about the setting and the ambience might make people a little more reserved..but going by last time the audience goes there for kind of a special night..makes you want to rise to the occasion, as it were
The place does have a special vibe about it – it’s where people go to actually listen to music, not just hang out and talk over it!
Yeah exactly..but I’m not too precious over the range of venues they want me to play over the next twelve months, chapels, halls, theatres..they all have their own character
Now you were in a band around age 14 and then started doing own material very early twenties
To start it was doing cover versions. Yes my first encounter with a band or group was 14, 15 years old ..but I don’t know whether you could really call it a band…we literally did not yet know how to play. By 21 though, I was coming up with my own songs, some are on my first record..I felt then I could do it, if I worked hard enough
Thing is, you are not doing all this just for the admiration…what Captain Beefheart called ‘The Spotlight Kid’…you are doing this because you are a creative soul in your own way, is that fair to say?
Yeah…that’s true. I do worry about the other thing a bit – y’know, to put on ‘a good show’ and you want it to be a successful event for everyone. But in terms of the writing and everything, it’s always been coming from a place where although I have respect for the maybe commercial technique of songwriting, for me it’s that I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life ..but I found out that I could write songs, so it became ‘the thing’..since then I have always tried to just get better at it
I suspect that you were not a musician and writer, you may have been a painter
Ah! Now that’s one of those things I would love to try. I mean, I can draw..as a kid I would draw, mostly cartoons ( this sounds awfully familiar, to me – PS)..I can’t really do anything artistically serious, but I enjoy drawing and caricatures and writing stories, creating, so there is a bit of me that would want to pursue art, in the wider sense.But I’ve ended up for now doing this sort of thing for a living
‘Sneak Out The Back Door’
Well.. I made this record ‘ Late Bloomers’
With Bob Rock?
We made this record and I felt pretty good about it, but then when my management was playing it to different labels, we just kept getting rejection everywhere we went .Nobody wanted it..taking me from being comfortable with it and excited and enthusiastic, to having all the wind knocked out of me by all the rejection we were getting from the labels. So I was sitting on my front porch and started writing the lyrics to ‘Sneak Out The Back Door’ , that being where my head was at, at that point. Nobody seemed to want what I had just put together..so maybe I should just..disappear ! So it’s a kind of ‘woe is me’ song. To make me feel better, get something out of it
The lazy comparisons about you always seem to be Elvis Costello and Nick Drake, but I think what you do is much closer – let me risk offending you – to Randy Newman
I love Randy Newman! And I’ve got to meet him a few times. So ‘Yes’. All those artists you mentioned are great. My biggest influences really however are people like Ray Davies. And I like Buddy Holly a lot. Gordon Lightfoot, from my own country. But most definitely Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, those were the people from the West Coast that I related to the most.- the sense of humour and something Old School about their approach, really. Almost like Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter.I have always gravitated to artists like that
We are an amalgam of what we hear plus what we come up with ourselves..our twists…Now what about ‘Gold In Them Hills’? Puzzles me slightly
Family situations there, Pete – when my first own family situation split up, I ended up living for a while with my accountant! (Laughs) with everything I owned cramped into one little room and it was like ‘where did my life go? what happened?’ I was worried about a lot of things as I had just been dropped by my label. But one of the things that happened was my accountant had a piano in the house and I was trying to teach myself how to play it, ‘Gold’ was one of the first songs I wrote on the keyboard. I was trying to write like an old Bing Crosby-style number. Like ‘Pennies from Heaven’ or something..and writing the song made me feel better about everything
That’s the essence of the blues. Turn pain into a positive thing..I was talking to Peter Tork about this, he has an R&B band on the side and he says it gets it out of your system, cleanses you to a degree
Yes! Some people that don’t have an outlet or art of some kind, I wonder how they ever work out, get through troubles. I am very lucky to have this thing where I can pour any emotion in to it, compose words and then put a melody to it. It seems to help, get it out of my system
I write comedy, it’s a valve for all my poisoned thoughts
Great! I have Twitter page where I write jokes and puns every day, for the very same reason..wordplay…it’s great to have reason to do it, it’s fun.. I love people like Bob Hope (Hope once told me his home in Eltham was bombed in the War….by the RAF – PS) and Groucho Marx
‘Brandy Alexander’ – are there two levels to that?
Yeah – there is the drink and a person, here..I actually wrote that song with Leslie Feist, another Canadian artist and what happened was I was at a party and I was drinking Brandy Alexanders because that apparently was Harry Nilsson’s favourite drink. So she was asking me about it and I told her that this was the drink Harry and John Lennon were having when they got thrown out of the Troubadour! The very next day she sent me an email with this lyric ‘Brandy Alexander’ and I thought ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ that’s a great idea for a song. So I basically wrote the music to her lyric, though by the time she recorded it and I recorded it, we had both changed the lyric so much there were two quite different songs there. So I kind of took her idea and then ran with it. But it’s about a temptation or a bad influence on somebody. You get too many drinks, bad things can occur…
Is ‘Strawberry Blonde’ a song you might still do, sometimes?
Oh I do that one pretty much every show. Like all songwriters, there are four or five songs that you just have to play, that the audience always wants, it’s sort of a fictional tale of a girl but it is based on three or four people that I knew in my life. I felt like a bit of a novelist doing that song…
Did you in the past ever read the works of G K Chesterton or Charles Dickens?
I read everything Dickens ever wrote! I was obsessed with him, his characters..the lesser-known books…
Yeah ! The Old Curiosity Shop…Barnaby Rudge…in fact I have just written my first novel..finished it two days go. So I am taking in to a publisher who’s interested here in Canada. I am influenced by Dickens and Dahl
Ron, do you ever think that some of your songs are really night-time listening? Maybe written at night and to be heard at night? As opposed to the daytime radio sound?
Well a lot of people here said about my first ever record that it was night-time listening..I don’t know whether that was because of the songs or the production of it-my voice was kind of up high but all the instruments were down low. There have been songs here and there that are night songs – like ‘FoolProof’ maybe? It’s hard for me to say, really – when I am in the studio, I am listening to a lot of the music on headphones and then after that I don’t listen to those recordings any more
When I say night-time, I am probably thinking of a record Don Fagen made – ‘The NightFly’ – about a radio DJ. It makes perfect sense at night, if you listen to it then
I know that record, yes I can see that..
Fans – do you take requests?
Yeah – if I am coming to their town, I might get a message saying ’Please play this’or whatever per the website. Usually I try to make note of these things and not forget…I had one at Royal Festival Hall, but only remembered during the encore, so retroactively sent it out, to try to save the evening for them! Sometimes they request a song that’s so obscure..you never played it live when the record came out let alone since… it’s easier in a solo show to get to some of them
Maybe if you are too close to your following it can perhaps dilute your art a bit, you step through that door and become ‘an Entertainer’.
I am always most excited about the new material..and then I try to find songs from my back catalogue that will enhance the overall show
What are one or two things that you would like to change about our world, if you had the power?
That’s a big question ! there’s so much going on at the moment, it’s scary to even be IN the world…obviously though it would be great if just somehow the whole Middle East debacle…if in Syria and so on, things would just calm down..maybe we just can’t put the genie back in the bottle..that whole part of the world seems inflamed all the time
Shale gas will change everything, it will take The West’s reliance upon the Middle East right away…now powerful countries will take a huge tumble
I wouldn’t want to be in politics..I am amazed anyone wants to be The President or The Prime Minister! – even if you are the most idealistic person, you get to these jobs and you can’t get anything done….
Words Pete Sargeant/Visuals Kieran-White.com
Ron Sexsmith’s new album ‘Carousel One’ is out now. In addition, Ron Sexsmith will be embarking on a special 17-date solo tour of the UK and Ireland in Autumn 2015 at the following venues:
Wednesday 7th October – The Pav, Cork, Ireland
Thursday 8th October- Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick, Ireland
Friday 9th October- Roisin Dubh, Galway, Ireland
Sunday 11th October- Glee Club, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Monday 12th October- Glee Club, Nottingham, United Kingdom
Tuesday 13th October- Memorial Hall, Sheffield, United Kingdom
Thursday 15th October- Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Friday 16th October- Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, United Kingdom
Saturday 17th October- Arts Centre, Pocklington, United Kingdom
Sunday 18th October- Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, United Kingdom
Tuesday 20th October- Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Wednesday 21st October- Glee Club, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Thursday 22nd October- Junction 2, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Saturday 24th October- Union Chapel, London, United Kingdom
Sunday 25th October- Joiners, Southampton, United Kingdom
Monday 26th October- Komedia, Brighton, United Kingdom
Tuesday 27th October- St Mary’s Church, Ashford, Kent, United Kingdom
For more information visit: http://www.ronsexsmith.com/
(Thanks to Lewis Fromberg and Dan Deacon at Deacon Communications and thanks to Ron. Feature image by Kieran White)