Singer, songwriter, guitar
Hailed as “one of the best songwriters alive” by Washington Post writer Eric Brace, Toronto-based singer, composer, and acoustic guitarist Ron Sexsmith has earned a slew of critical accolades throughout his recording career, yet has never seen the same success in album sales. Regardless of the unpredictable record-buying market, Sexsmith refused to give up on songwriting, penning hundreds of songs at a fluid pace. Referring to Sexsmith’s undeniable musicianship, Billy Altman noted in People magazine, “Ron Sexsmith’s voice hovers so gently around a melody that it’s hard to believe his tough-minded lyrics could emanate from the same person.” Although Sexsmith admitted that some of his pieces take years to complete, he nonetheless experiences trouble picking from his bag full of songs when it comes time to enter the recording studio. “With the first album there were 80 songs, and the last two have been like 30-something,” Sexsmith told Rob O’Connor for a Launch.com interview. “We recorded 17 this time around [for Sexsmith’s third album, 1999’s Where abouts ]. I’m really inspired by Tom Waits, Elvis and his thing with Bacharach, Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo. My thing is I’m afraid that it’ll stop.”
The Canadian singer, born in Ontario around 1964, started out working as a messenger in his hometown of Toronto before breaking into the music business. In 1991, he produced his first recorded work under the name Ron Sexsmith and the Uncool, a self-released cassette entitled Grand Opera Lane. Ira A. Robbins in the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock characterized the tape as “a concerted effort to gumbo up syncopated rhythms and spark up what could fairly be described as a small-scale northern John Hiatt vibe.” Backed by an overly energetic drummer and bassist, as well as unnecessary horns and guitars, the singer’s compassionate vocals appeared intruded upon by his band and producer Bob Wiseman. Nevertheless, Sexsmith’s tape managed to provide evidence of what was to come, exemplified by the roomy, acoustic “Speaking With the Angel,” the only fully-developed composition. “The similarly intimate Trains, ‘the joyous romantic declaration of Is This Love’ and the country sweetness of ‘Every Word of It’ all shine with the raw ingredients Ron Sexsmith [the musician’s major-label debut] burnished to such glowing power,” concluded Robbins.
Before long, Sexsmith’s songwriting and vocal gifts caught the attention of a host of record labels. Despite his knack for composing and singing classic songs, Sexsmith opted to sign with Interscope Records, a label dominated at the time by the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Primus, Bush, and rap artist Snoop Doggy Dog. However, Interscope, with its focus on these and other harder rock acts and pop sensations, never
Born c. 1964 in Ontario, Canada; wife: Jocelyne; two children: born C 1985 and C 1990.
Signed with Interscope Records; released major-label debut, Ron Sexsmith, 1995; released Other Songs, 1997; toured with Elvis Costello, the Chieftans, the Cardigans, and Radiohead, 1996-97; released Whereabouts, 1999.
interfered with the inherent loveliness of Sexsmith’s music. In fact, Sexsmith originally took a job with Interscope Music Publishing to write songs for other artists. But once Jimmy lovine and Ted Field, two Interscope executives, heard Sexsmith’s own recordings, they offered him a contract on the spot.
In 1995, Interscope issued Sexsmith’s major-label, self-titled debut, an album that centered around “Sexsmith’s limber, well-oiled tenor and inspired phrasing,” remarked Bud Scoppa in Rolling Stone. “He just may be the most fluent balladeer to come along since Tim Hardin (whose-hushed, bittersweet soulfulness is strikingly evoked on the exquisite ’Several Miles’).” In comparison to Sexsmith’s tape, his new producer Mitchell Froom—former member of Crowded House who also worked with Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega, and his own Latin Playboys— added sparing instrumentation that avoided sentimentality. Rather than allowing the music to overpower Sexsmith’s vocals and skillful acoustic guitar, Froom instead employed a subtle rhythm section and occasional keyboards and cello. “No matter how delicate the sentiment,” wrote Scoppa, “Froom delights in setting it off with some element of ironic noise: compressed, tinny drums and spooky, B-movie keyboards.” Sexsmith, aided by Froom, was able to stretch his creativity to accommodate several musical styles. Tracks like “Summer Blow-in’ Town” and “First Chance I Get” illustrated Sexsmith’s rock and roll tendencies, “In Place of You” came to life with a hint of gumbo, and “Wastin’ Time,” a love song, swooned with classic pop stylings. Slower-tempo renditions included the lamentful “Secret Heart” and the lullaby “Speaking With the Angel,” a song Sexsmith composed for his then infant son.
Sexsmith spent most of 1996 and 1997 promoting his music, touring with the likes of Elvis Costello, a fan himself who considered Sexsmith one of the decade’s most talented songwriters, the Chieftains, the Cardigans, and Radiohead. Also in 1997, the singer released his second album, Other Songs, “a perfectly shaped 14-song gem without a false or stray note anywhere and it remains his peak achievement,” according to Rob O’Connor in Audio. Joined again by Froom, Sexsmith managed to create songs that were romantic without sounding too sentimental. As People’s Altman noted, “as hard on himself (‘It Never Fails,’ ‘Average Joe’) as he is on a universe that never quite adds up (‘Strawberry Blonde,’ ‘Pretty Little Cemetery’), Sexsmith presents a wise and witty worldview that makes him a somewhat wanly smiling optimist.”
After another round of performances, Sexsmith returned in 1999 with his third album, Whereabouts, produced by Froom and Tchad Blake. The singer said that most of the songs arose from his own self-scrutiny during a difficult year in 1998; seven months of constant traveling and touring had strained his 15-year relationship with wife Jocelyne, his mind became overwhelmed with uncertainties about his musical career. He worried that Interscope, then in the midst of a corporate rearrangement, might not release his new songs. “I found myself depressed a lot of the time last year,” Sexsmith told Los Angeles Times writer Mike Boehm. The singer further revealed that his wife “finds this record a kind of difficult album to listen to. I don’t want my songs to get so personal it’s like a diary, a claustrophobic sort of thing. I wasn’t trying to write these little messages, although even she thinks that sometimes. She definitely had a lot of questions about certain songs.”
However, Sexsmith need not have worried over how critics would receive his latest collection, described as “a marginally bolder record than 1997’s lovely Other Songs” by Rolling Stone reviewer Barney Hoskyns. Tracks such as “The Idiot Boy” and “Beautiful” view were commended for their resemblance to the Kinks and Harry Nilsson, while the ballad “Right About Now” sounded reminiscent of a tune that “Boz Scaggs might have sung back in 1976,” concluded Hoskyns.
Despite all the praise, though, Sexsmith’s third release failed to translate into record sales. He asserted that he doesn’t need sympathy from others and cherishes the loyal fans that follow his music. “A lot of artists are struggling to get off the ground, and a lot of songwriters who sell more than me don’t have the profile I have,” Sexsmith told Boehm. “People who do like it are into it in a big way. They’re not coming just to hear one [hit] song.”
Ron Sexsmith, Interscope, 1995.
Other Songs, Interscope, 1997.
Wherabouts, Interscope, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90 Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Audio, September 1999, pp. 119-120.
Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1999.
People, July 21, 1997, p. 23.
Rolling Stone, September 7, 1995, p. 72; June 10, 1999.
Spin, August 1999.
Washington Post, June 4, 1999.
“Sexsmith the Songsmith,” Launch.com: Discover New Music, http://www.launch.com(December 3, 1999).
”Ron Sexsmith,”Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com(December 3, 1999).
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