The earnest work of boyish Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith won acclaim not from only critics but from fellow performers like Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and John Hiatt - some of the same artists, ironically enough, who initially inspired Sexsmith himself to become a musician.
Born in 1964 and raised in the Niagara Falls area, he started his first band at the age of fourteen, and within a few years earned his first regular gig at an area club. Influenced by Pete Seeger, he began making the rounds on the folk circuit, but soon decided to focus his attentions on becoming a songwriter. After moving to the Toronto area, Sexsmith formed the Uncool and began issuing his own material in 1985 with the cassette Out of the Duff, followed a year later by There’s a Way.
He continued performing while maintaining a day job as a courier but did not release anything more until 1991’s Grand Opera Lane, recorded by Blue Rodeo’s Bob Wiseman. The collection of songs helped earn Sexsmith a songwriting contract and eventually a recording deal with Interscope Records; teamed with producer Mitchell Froom, he released his self-titled debut in 1995. A follow-up, Other Songs, appeared two years later. In 1999, Sexsmith returned with Whereabouts, again produced by Froom. Three years later, Sexsmith inked a deal with Nettwerk and released Cobblestone Runway in October 2002. His seventh album, Retriever, followed two years later. In 2005, Sexsmith shifted creative gears with Destination Unknown, a primarily acoustic album recorded in collaboration with longtime bandmate Don Kerr. Time Being arrived in 2006. Two years later, Sexsmith released his ninth studio album, Exit Strategy of the Soul, which was produced by Martin Terefe. His tenth album, Long Player Late Bloomer, produced by Bob Rock and recorded at Sage and Sound Recording (Hollywood), The Orange Lounge (Toronto), and The Warehouse Studio (Vancouver), appeared early in 2011. Sexsmith returned to producer Mitchell Froom for his next release, Forever Endeavour, which arrived early in 2013.
In a world of workaday singer-songwriters mired in vacuous self-regard, news of a new Ron Sexsmith record can only gladden the heart of those who care about deftly poetic, gently affecting songs that perfectly distil the pitfalls of being human - especially when that record pairs him again with the producer who, for two decades, has framed his music in its most sympathetic surroundings.
In the late summer of 2011, Ron bumped into Mitchell Froom in Los Angeles and gave him a CD of demos he’d been working on over the previous few months. His 2011 album Long Player Late Bloomer had been a liberating pop-rock breakthrough for Ron, but when Froom - producer of Ron’s first three albums and of 2006’s Time Being - began talking of string and woodwind arrangements, the singer was instantly intrigued.
“Mitchell’s someone I’ve always looked up to,” Ron says. “They don’t really make producers like him anymore.”
The songs Ron had written in the wake of Long Player - returning him as they did to the bittersweet melancholia on which diehard fans have feasted since 1995 - seemed to cry out for a softer, more orchestrated treatment than the gleaming electric sheen of its predecessor.
“With Long Player, I wanted to make something like Tapestry - just sort of catchy from start to finish,” Ron says, “but these were perfect songs to work on with Mitchell. It’s probably the most personal album I’ve made, too, so it felt appropriate to do it with him.”
The two set to work in November 2011 at Froom’s Santa Monica studio, temporarily dubbed “Froom and Board” by Ron. Assisting on the sessions were engineer David Boucher and a clutch of seasoned West Coast players that included drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bob Glaub and pedal steel prince Greg Leisz. Strings were overdubbed afterwards using LA’s feted Calder Quartet.
“There isn’t anything on the record that hasn’t been written,” says Ron. “The bass parts are written, the drums are written, so there was no point at which musicians were just jamming along to songs. I thought that was pretty cool, because I’d never made a record like that before.”
The album’s earliest song - and coincidentally its opening track - was written in the immediate aftermath of the Long Player sessions, when for a terrible second it looked as though the record might not get a release at all. Setting Forever’s downbeat tone, “Nowhere to Go” was Ron doing the only thing he knew would help - giving sweet voice to deep despair and finding redemption in that process.
The second track’s title also starts with the word “Nowhere” but is implicitly a more hopeful articulation of pushing up from rock bottom. “‘Nowhere Is’ reminds me of one of those old Neil Diamond or Glen Campbell songs,” Ron says, “and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in that sort of territory. There’s something about the congas and the guitar and the strings, it’s a sound you don’t often hear anymore.”
The heart of Forever Endeavour (2013), though, is a batch of songs sparked by an unexpected health scare in the summer of 2011, and it’s these tracks that give the album its sorrowful gravitas. “In the middle of a tour last year, they detected a lump in my throat, and I had an MRI and the ultrasound,” says Ron. “And in the middle of recording this album, I had a CAT scan to see if everything was okay. So I had this period of a few months where I was freaking out about everything, and that probably explains why some of the songs are so philosophical. It was like, ‘Either next year I’m going to be battling something or this is the last record I’m going to make’.
“‘The spectre of death was sort of in my head and I was thinking about it all the time until I got the good results. Not that I was panicking, but time started to force itself into my thoughts because I wasn’t sure how much of it I had left. There are a few songs that look back, but the big ones are obviously ‘Deepens with Time’ and ‘The Morning Light.’ For a period of maybe two months I’d be lying in bed wondering if I had this thing inside that was growing and that was going to get me. I felt like Johnny Mercer, writing all these ‘Days Of Wine and Roses’ type songs.”
The songs are different responses to the alarming chance that Ron had less time left on earth than he’d assumed. “Deepens With Time” looks back affectingly at childhood memories that make us who we are but also “wound and leave us scarred”. “Snake Road” and “If Only Avenue” use the same metaphor to gaze back on paths not taken - or choices not made - but the latter is mid-tempo and boomily regretful where the former is defiantly resolute in its horn-parping blues-rock strut.
“‘Snake Road’ is just sort of beating myself up about my behavior at a certain point in my life,” Ron says, “but in a good-natured and hopeful way. I love how it turned out and I loved Mitchell’s arrangement, but sometimes you write a song where you wish you had a different kind of voice - more like a John Lennon or something.”
“Back of My Hand” is Beatlishly beautiful in its evocation of d諠 vu, whereas “Sneak Out the Back Door” - the only solo turn on the album and its most instantly ingratiating tune - is a finger-picked front-porch sing-a-long about exiting the world with no pomp or ceremony.
“‘Back Of My Hand’ sounded almost like something the Rutles might have done,” Ron remembers, “so I thought we should try and get it out of that Beatles zone and put it back into whatever my zone is. I started playing it on the Reso-Phonic guitar and it started to come back to my side a little bit more. Again, I was writing it at the time when I had that cancer scare, and people I hadn’t seen for a while kept coming up to me and saying hi. And I started to get this weird feeling that I’d been there before and I wondered, ‘Is that how it feels when you’re dying?’ It was the last song I wrote for the album.”
Another of Forever Endeavour’s peaks is “Blind Eye,” a dreamy reflection on empathy whose spacey strings-and-French-horn intro could have come from Jimmy Webb’s “Land’s End.” “The song isn’t pointing the finger at anyone,” says Ron. “I just think sometimes, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky to have ended up in this country that seems relatively sane compared to some parts of the world where there’s all this craziness going on.’ So the song is trying to be aware that people are struggling.”
“Lost in Thought” is dreamier still, cut from the cloth that gave us “Doomed,” “Child Star” and so many other Ron masterpieces of serene stillness. Lightening the sometimes sombre mood are “She Does My Heart Good,” a bouncy song of marital endearment, and “Me, Myself and Wine,” a lighthearted track about what Ron gets up to when Mrs. Sexsmith is not around.
“‘Me, Myself and Wine’ is mostly just about my love of listening to records while having a glass of wine,” he says. “I remember when people would buy a new album and they’d say, ‘Hey, do you wanna come over and listen to it?’ People are so busy or so distracted now, but I don’t have an iPhone or any of that stuff and I like to get into albums as a whole. There still seems to be this need to document a collection of songs and present them in album form, so I don’t know if it’ll ever go away. I always tend to write in batches, and it always feels like these are songs that belong together in some way and in some order.”
Ron often saves his best for last, and “The Morning Light” - a magical yoking-together of each day’s rebirth with the shadow of the memento mori that none of us can escape - is no exception to that rule.
After the sugar high that was Long Player Late Bloomer, Forever Endeavour is all about slow-energy release, a collection that sits more seamlessly next to earlier Froom productions like Other Songs (1997) and Whereabouts (1999). Melancholy without being maudlin, spare without being simplistic, Ron’s songs are invariably underpinned by an acceptance of life as it actually is.
“There’s so much out there that’s really frivolous, and from my very first album I’ve always tried to write about things in a way that was realistic and grown-up,” he says. “Whatever subject you’re on, you want to try and tackle it head-on. I think that’s how a song is able to resonate with people. If you’re going miles out of your way to say something to people, or you’re trying to be clever, you’re setting yourself up for a letdown.”
“With every album you do, it’s just a new batch of songs and you try to find your way into it and find what the best surroundings would be for them. For people who’ve been following my career for all this time, I guess it will seem like a return to Other Songs or one of those sort of things. But I think I’m a better singer and I think I’ve gotten a little more accurate with the songwriting. There’s a lot of stuff Mitchell used to help me with that I can do myself now.
“I really do think this is the record I’ve been trying to make my whole career, but for some reason either I wasn’t singing good enough or didn’t have the right songs. It really came together this time with the songs and the production and my voice, where I was singing the way I heard in my head. When I handed in the record, the label folks were talking about an ‘angle’ for the record, and I don’t think in terms of ‘angles’. I’m just really proud of it.”