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With The Angels - An Interview with Ron Sexsmith
The Canadian singer songwriter Ron Sexsmith has released five albums to date. Their names are Grand Opera Lane, Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs, Whereabouts and Blue Boy' This night, he and his band played a selection culled from all of these records, and teased us with a snippet of Destiny's Child's “Survivor.” His lyrics are poetic and his guitar playing is beautiful. That should be enough.
Ron Sexsmith has been making records for what seems like the best part of my life, and each album has improved on its predecessor. While he has experimented with other kinds of style and instrumentation, his music has always been based around strong songs, a tactic that many over-ambitious songwriters ignore.
One need only listen. There is the fragile delivery of “Secret Heart,” one of the earlier songs, or the sublime backing vocals on “Thirsty Love,” one of the most recent ones. Or “Foolproof,” which sounds like country music as sung by Chet Baker.
Sexsmith’s lyrics have long fascinated me because they frequently allude to spiritual themes and concerns. For example, there is the song “Strawberry Blonde,” which superficially seems like a jaunty, poppy number. Underneath, however, it tells the story of a schoolgirl whose mother suffers from depression and eventual suicide. This compassion for the lost and the lonely in life is characteristic of Ron Sexsmith's writing. By writing songs about the weak, he is not only creating art, but also being charitable, turning the listener's attention to those who need help in our own community.
The conversation went something like this:
Tollbooth: I know that this is a rather inane question, but how did you get interested in music in the first place? Do you come from a musical family, or was it something that you picked up for yourself?
Sexsmith: My family wasn't very musical, but there was always music being played around the house. On the radio, records etc. I was just drawn to it. I loved to hear people sing. And I would try to mimic them.
Tollbooth: You have worked with such diverse artists as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and the Fountains of Wayne. I know that after your first record, Costello quite rightly sang your praises. How did it feel to receive an accolade from such a prolific artist?
Sexsmith: It helped a lot. My debut record was dying until he spoke up about it. It was also a huge and unexpected honor.
Tollbooth: What other artists would you like to work with?
Sexsmith: I'd like to work with Ray Davies, Beth Orton; I like Beck a lot too.
Tollbooth: Who would be your main influences, and who are your favorite musicians of the moment?
Sexsmith: Main influences, I guess would be artists like Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Ray Davies, Elton John, Charlie Rich. Currently, I'm really enjoying Elton John's new record and I've become a huge Eminem fan as well.
Tollbooth: If push came to shove, what would be your favorite Saturday night record?
Sexsmith: Chet Baker Sings.
Tollbooth: Sunday morning?
Sexsmith: Smiling Face by Davey Johnstone.
Tollbooth: One of the most noticeable aspects of you is that you often tell the stories of the quieter people in life: the man dressed as a clown, the boy asking his father about the cemetery, the Idiot boy, the strawberry blonde girl whose mother takes her own life. I think that this perspective shows a real affection and empathy for those who have a rough deal. Where does this approach come from? Are you interested in such characters?
Sexsmith: Well, I came from a poor background, and in many ways I'm still there. I'm also a huge fan of Charles Dickens who also wrote a lot about the underdogs of the world.
Tollbooth: “Child Star” is a particularly chilling song, reminding me specifically about the likes of Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and perhaps even Drew Barrymore. If you add that to “Thumbelina Farewell” on the new record, one could argue that you are quite skeptical of the entertainment business. Would it be fair to argue that?
Sexsmith: That could be true... I think when I first got signed I was quite naïve, like a lot of people who enter into this line of work. But I think there really is a cruel, tragic side to it that we've seen time and time again. It was originally written for a child star named Dana Plato who was on a popular series when she was a kid and then wound up out of work, on drugs etc. She died a few years ago. I think she was only 35.
Tollbooth: Secondly, your songs often incorporate religious, if not Christian, phrases and imagery. Are you simply attracted to the language and wordplay of Christian writing, or do you have an interest in spiritual things?
Sexsmith: I would say my songs have a spiritual aspect not a Christian one. I was raised Protestant, and I love Christ and what he had to say, but I find that most organized religions of the world are always trying to make heaven seem like an exclusive club.
Tollbooth: Were you raised within a religious environment, or again was it something that you picked up for yourself?
Sexsmith: I had a very watered down religious upbringing so I've thought a lot about it over the years and came up with my own conclusions.
Tollbooth: Would you say you had a "faith" of any kind? (I realize this may be too personal a question, and if so I apologize) I guess I ask this question because I have a certain George Harrison quote revolving in my head just now: "The three questions that people ask are who am I, why am I here, and where am I going?"
Sexsmith: I don't really have a specific faith, though I do have a lot of faith in the idea and energy of God.
Tollbooth: In particular, I refer to the lovely song “Speaking with the Angel,” which has been covered by a wide variety of artists, both secular and Christian. I think the lyrics to that song are subtle yet profound, but who is speaking with the angel?
Sexsmith: I wrote it for my son, when he was 3 months old. My wife had said that babies can see angels, and that's why they make "baby noises". So, the song started there, and then it became a song about parenthood I guess.
Tollbooth: So, what does the future hold? Is there a new record on the way?
Sexsmith: I've just finished
a new record that I'm really excited about. I'm hoping it'll be out next
summer. It's probably my most spiritual record yet.