“It’s hard to write a song about dog that isn’t cheerful…” hmv.com talks to Ron Sexsmith
Right now is an excellent time to be Ron Sexsmith.
The Toronto-based singer/songwriter – who counts Sir Paul McCartney, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Elvis Costello and Elton John as collaborators and/or knock-kneed fans – is perched comfortably on multiple milestones. Chief among them, Carousel One (which hits stores on March 30th), easily Sexsmith’s sunniest and most accessible record to date.
Carousel One’s upbeat tone may reflect the year that was, which saw our man collect his third JUNO Award (Canada's equivalent of the Brits, he won for Best Adult Alternative Album for 2013’s Forever Endeavour) while being named Honorary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Those never-ending songwriting royalties from Michael Bublé and Feist records aren’t half-bad, either.
As always, though, Sexsmith is most notable for his self-deprecating humour. Isn’t it a pleasure that some things never change?
This time around you worked with producer Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters) adding to an A-list that includes Bob Rock and Mitchell Froom. What does a guy like you need most from a producer?
“It’s always nice to bounce stuff off of people. I am writing these songs in a bubble and hearing in my head how they could go or should go. But a Mitchell Froom or Bob Rock or Jim Scott will have additional ideas that might not have occurred to me. Sometimes it’s about the instrumentation. With this record I had to step up a little bit because Jim’s strength is as an engineer. And he surrounded me with really great musicians.”
There seems to be a lightness to this record…
“You mean the cover photo maybe? When I was making the record it felt kind of upbeat so I wanted to find an album cover that reflected that. That picture was an accident I took with my computer and a graphics guy messed around with it and made it into something. It could also be because of (the album’s first single) ‘Saint Bernard’ which is a cheerful song. It’s hard to write about a dog in a way that isn’t cheerful and that kind of set the tone for all of the other songs. Honestly, I feel like I was painted with the melancholy brush years ago and it’s never really been accurate. I’ve always had lots of humour on my records.”
When you’re picking songs to include on a new record, do you think much about playing them live year in and year out?
“Not really. Usually I am just trying to find a good sequence. I typically know what the first song is going to be. For this record we picked from about 25 songs. Jim put together an A list and a B list and we were mostly on the same page. And it feels like it will be a fun record to play live. I hope so… I haven’t actually played it yet.”
The songs ‘Loving You’ and ‘All Our Tomorrows’ are very twangy… have you had any love from country radio?
“I’ve never really had much love with radio in general (laughs). I had an album a few years ago that I made with Bob Rock (2011's Long Player Late Bloomer) that had two songs get in the top 10 in the UK but that was largely because he has that kind of production. I mean, radio doesn’t play anything these days that isn’t super-polished. As for country, I think it’s a suspicious scene; they want to know that you are country all the way. I love old country. All these songs sound to me like they could be on the radio… but they’re my babies. Maybe we’ll have a little more luck with this one on those Americana stations.”
What album of yours are you most fond of?
“Probably Retriever from 2004. That was a record I didn’t even want to make. I was in Australia, I was exhausted and I just wanted to go home. But my manager convinced me to go to England to work with this producer, Martin Terefe (who also produced Sexsmith’s Cobblestone Runway from 2002), who was available for two weeks. So I went there and the whole process was effortless. I really liked the way it turned out and it did pretty well for me, too. When people ask which record they should start with, I always say that one. Maybe next year I’ll say this one. We’ll see.”
Social media – yay or nay?
“I got talked into going on Twitter in 2012. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I mean, I don’t even have a cell phone. But I remember when I first got on there I had 600 followers because my management was running it. I had no idea what to say. I was looking at what other people were saying and it was like people talking about what they had for lunch. So I started messing around with it, tweeting all these jokes…
My Mom once told me that I was a real messy baby Of bib-lical proportions RS— Ron Sexsmith (@RonSexsmith) March 24, 2015
I buy shirts like they're going out of style And turns out, most of them already have RS— Ron Sexsmith (@RonSexsmith) March 24, 2015
“Now two years later I have close to 20,000 Twitter followers. I know that’s not so much compared to other people but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy you can resume contact with people. Like Beth Orton. I used to see her a lot in the 90s. She was the first person I tweeted and in less than five minutes I got a message back from her saying, ‘Hey dude!’ I mean that’s pretty cool. But there is a downside.
“I used to like the days when you made a record and nobody heard a note of it until the day it came out. Now you have to roll it out. I much prefer the idea of someone listening to a record in its right order. I sequence my records in a way that’s important to me and I want it to unfold that way for other people. But I am just a guy in his 50s complaining…”
Tell me something your fans would be surprised to know about you?
“Oh man. I might have to wait until everyone’s dead first (laughs). I mean, I’m a big weirdo and I always have been. People might be surprised to know that I do yoga five days a week. I’ve been trying to manage my weight which seems to go up and down. I’m trying to have some discipline for a change… at least in time for the record’s release.”
Ron Sexsmith's new album Carousel One is released on Monday (March 30th).