Ron Sexsmith: Leaving Toronto has been good for the singer-songwriter
New album has all the melodic beauty and subtlety fans have come to expect
Ron Sexsmith seems, on the whole, more comfortable in his skin these days. Photograph: David Wolff – Patrick/ Redferns
Canadian singer songwriter Ron Sexsmith is on the phone from his home in Stratford, Ontario pondering the response to the pandemic in his home country compared to neighbouring North America.
“There are a lot of people not taking it seriously there,” he says of the lockdown restrictions. In Canada, by contrast, he reckons the response has been “pretty good”. It reminds him of an old joke: “How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘everybody out’.”
Sexsmith has a toothache. Apart from the discomfort of not being able to see a dentist and relying on over-the-counter pain relief, he is sanguine about the situation. Like many musicians during lockdown, he’s been doing performances from his home, playing a song each night from each of his 16 albums, to upload to his YouTube channel.
The 56-year-old says he feels “like Bob Hope” entertaining the troops, keeping spirits up with songs and “stupid jokes on Twitter”.
He’s not wrong about the stupid jokes. His penchant for groan-worthy puns is legendary: “If I owned a donut shop, I’d call it Hole Foods” being a recent classic example.
Sexsmith left Toronto for Stratford a few years ago. He has never owned a house before buying the one he’s lived in for the past few years with his wife, Colleen. “When my wife showed it to me, I said I think that’s our house. I just sort of knew,” he says of the home he describes as “a bit like Downton Abbey” set in a town that took its name from Shakespeare’s birthplace.
The setting is pastoral, the house surrounded by trees and hedges. He says he feels like Huckleberry Finn with the rabbits and squirrels sharing the sprawling, grassy lawn “which,” Sexsmith adds, “I have to cut”.
I wanted to look like Elton John cutting the grass . . . some really big celebrities live in this area and I’m not one of them
There is a picture of him mowing that very grass wearing sunglasses and a pink feather boa on the cover of his new album Hermitage.
“I don’t usually wear sunglasses to mow the lawn,” he clarifies. In Stratford, when he moved there, locals started calling his place “the celebrity house”. That influenced the cover photo. “I wanted to look like Elton John cutting the grass . . . some really big celebrities live in this area and I’m not one of them.” (Stratford is also the home town of Justin Bieber.)
“I didn’t want to move out of Toronto, I was sort of resisting it. My wife was working on me for a few years, actually.” He says he’d been “slowly going insane in Toronto, I felt really out of place” and that when they did move “I just felt this enormous stress cloud kind of disappear . . . I started to feel like my old self again. And I started writing these songs like crazy, I went into a songwriting frenzy for a while.”
When he finally got around to leaving, going from renter to homeowner for the first time, he knew he wanted to live in a house that people would look at and think “yeah, a rock and roll star lives there”. In Toronto he says his house would have gone for millions, but in Stratford this was “an old farmhouse nobody wanted” and the price was right for the couple. “It’s my Graceland,” he says. He and his wife converted the attic into a master bedroom “so it feels like we have a tree house”.
At first his wife was concerned about the move. “She worried I’d get here and be bored or just miserable. It’s been quite the opposite. In Toronto I’d mostly be hanging out with other musicians but here we have a whole array of people from all walks of life we’re socialising with. It’s been good for my head, my state of mind, a good, good move.”
I’m glad to hear he’s in a good place. I’ve met Sexsmith a few times, the first was more than 20 years ago at a music festival outside Dublin when I ended up catching a lift back with him to the capital. We sang Gilbert O’Sullivan songs – he’s a big fan of the Waterford music legend – in the back of a car. After a gig at a venue on Dublin’s Camden Street years later, I persuaded him to get up on stage at a rock and roll karaoke night. To the delight of the crowd, he did a rip roaring version of Burning Love sung by one of his heroes, Elvis.
He spent years as a teenager playing crowd-pleasing covers in his local bar before starting to write his own songs. One of the first was Speaking With The Angel, written about his first child, a son, with a former partner. He became a father of two very young, in his early 20s. He didn’t get a record deal until he was nearly 30 and with it came something previously unfamiliar: attention from female fans. He has spoken about “stupid stuff” he did before meeting his second partner, now wife.
He once told an interviewer: “I’m not like Brad Pitt or anything, but there would be girls in, say, Norway who had heard my record and already made up their minds that they liked me. So you show up there and there she is . . . this was kind of the situation everywhere I went. So for a while I had girlfriends in different cities and was juggling all of that. I mean, I’m glad I got to experience all that but it was very stressful.
Over the years he has also been equally and endearingly frank about the frustrations of his troubadour life, from the cost of touring, to the precariousness of a career which saw him being anointed with praise on the one hand by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, and on the other, scraping a living.
Michael Buble covered one of his songs Whatever It Takes – and moments like that have helped boost his bank balance – but his musical life has sometimes been a struggle.
Still, even with a global pandemic going on, his new album, Hermitage, is being released this month, while a planned tour has been postponed to later in the year, with a gig in Dublin’s Liberty Hall now slated for November. The writer of, in this interviewer’s opinion, dozens of perfect songs such as Strawberry Blonde, Secret Heart, Brandy Alexander and Still Time seems to be in another purple patch right now and the move to Stratford clearly facilitated that.
The new album has the vibe of a singer-songwriter enjoying himself, his relationship and his surroundings. Hermitage was named because Sexsmith thought his move to Stratford would herald his “Hermit Age”, meeting nobody, keeping to himself. It didn’t happen. His social life is busier than ever.
It was his long-time drummer Don Kerr who suggested he make “one of those sort of Paul McCartney type records, where he plays all the instruments”. So that’s what he did, except for the drums which he left to Kerr.
Sexsmith used to play bass in a cover band so he returned to that instrument, and his wife bought him “this real tacky Casio keyboard”. That’s where the banjo sounds on the album come from, but he also borrowed a friend’s instrument and “played along, to give it extra banjo. I felt like a kid in a candy store for most of this record.”
The album is a confident collection, with all the melodic beauty and subtlety fans have come to expect. Stand-out tracks include Chateau Mermaid which is a love song to his new house where he’s delighted to have space to accommodate friends and lounge around listening to records.
Small Minded World is full of hope and optimism – a perfect salve for the times we’re in. Lo and Behold is as catchy and charming as anything he’s written. It’s full of love, this album too. One song, Apparently AuPair, was inspired by his wife who he first met in the 1990s when she was an au pair for the likes of David Byrne and Rosanne Cash.
“She’s kind of a Mary Poppins,” he says affectionately of Colleen who travels with him on tour selling merchandise. “Kids flock around her.”
People get a million streams on Spotify and when you find out how much that earns, it’s pretty shocking. Before, if you had a song on the radio or you sold a million copies, you’d be set for life
Dig Nation, a bit of Sexsmith wordplay on indignation, is another great tune, about cancel culture and the rush to be offended on social media. “I just couldn’t believe how offended people could be about everything, you know? And it’s not only are they offended, but the minute they’re offended, they want to completely banish someone. It just felt like everyone’s tiptoeing around things, afraid to say anything. And I think that’s unhealthy; there’s no forgiveness out there and people just pile on you. It’s this sort of public shaming world. Nobody’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and I think people need to be a little more compassionate, because you know, it could happen to you too. Right?” Right.
When he looks back on his 25-year career, and the albums from Ron Sexsmith, to Cobblestone Runway, Carousel One to The Last Rider, he says he feels lucky “to have gotten in the door when I did”.
“I haven’t had any hit songs but I’ve had certain albums that have done okay. And songs that have been covered. But it’s harder and harder these days. People get a million streams on Spotify and when you find out how much that earns, it’s pretty shocking. Before, if you had a song on the radio or you sold a million copies, you’d be set for life.”
He has diversified a bit. He wrote a novel, a fairy tale, Deer Life, and is working on writing a musical based on the book. And when the pandemic has passed, he is looking forward to his tour, a solo one this time. He seems, on the whole, more comfortable in his skin these days.
“I am,” he says. “It’s a good place to be”.
Hermitage is released on April 17th