Catching Up With... Ron Sexsmith

Music Features Ron Sexsmith
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Ron Sexsmith is an unassuming man.

Speaking with him, it’s easy to forget his sterling reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Idols idolize him, but even he seems to wonder where he fits in among the current pantheon. When I mention that Cat Power’s Jukebox is one of my favorites of the year, he tells me he’s met her “but I don’t know if she’d remember me.” But if Chan Marshall knows music, she knows Sexsmith, whose career got a kick-start with a very public endorsement from Elvis Costello. “That was a long time ago,” he says when I ask about his famous fans, which include Paul McCartney and his own hero, Elton John. “I was in the Elton John fan club as a kid,” he says. “So to get his support—we’ve talked on the phone a few times—is surreal.”

Sexsmith’s music is equally unassuming—his melodies effortless, his poetry direct. And on his tenth release, Exit Strategy For the Soul (out in the U.S. July 8th) he goes outside his comfort zone to punctuate his painstakingly crafted lyrics with gorgeous brass arrangements. The result is one of the finest Sexsmith albums since his 2001 classic, Blue Boy.

Paste: Your song “Fallen” is one of six songs I’ve given a five star rating to on iTunes. I have 36,000 songs. I’m a tough grader.
Wow. That’s quite an honor. What are the other songs?

Paste: “Waterloo Sunset,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” R.E.M.’s “Perfect Circle,” Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and “Fallen.”
Sexsmith: I always hoped that one would get covered more or something. So far, k.d. lang did it and that’s about it. But yeah, I’m glad you like it. It’s one of the more poetic ones. It’s still kind of a mysterious thing when songs come to me. That one came while I was walking through the park. I tend to write a lot while walking. The melodies tend to be clearer—not attached to a chord progression. But yeah, lyrically I was very pleased with that one. All my songs are my children, but there are certain ones…

This album seems to be another standout collection of songs. Where did that title, Exit Strategy of the Soul, come from?
Sexsmith: Well, with every record, I’m coming up with ideas for potential names during the recording sessions. And by the end of the sessions, I usually have 20 potential titles on the list. A lot of them are kind of stupid. But this time, I kept coming back to this ‘Exit Strategy’ idea. Things like ‘Exit Strategy of Love.’ With the war going on, I kept hearing them talk about exit strategies on the news.I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this but, I’ve found that when I’m walking over a bridge or am in a hotel balcony, I’ve always had this irrational pull to jump. Not a suicidal one, it’s more like you’re walking the dog and the dog’s pulling you ahead, and I’ve talked to other people who’ve felt it too. I’ve always believed in the concept of the soul and people having one, and I’ve felt like sometimes in those instances, it’s our soul wanting to get on to the next place, because it’s so close to going where it came from. It could just jump and have the answers to all these things we want to know. I feel like the soul is trapped in this flesh tuxedo and from the moment we’re born it’s plotting its escape.

Paste: This album is more spiritual overall than some of your other ones. With songs like “Thoughts and Prayers.” “Traveling Alone” and “Impossible World,” it’s a consistent theme.
Sexsmith: Even on my first record, there was stuff like that, but yeah. On this one, it’s a little more overt. I’m not a religious person, though as a kid I had perfect attendance at bible study. I loved the stories and songs, but it was a very watered-down protestant thing. I never understood a lot of the religious rhetoric, the way God is portrayed as some judgmental, angry thing. As a kid, I was very God-conscious. I thought God had something to do with the sun, like God was behind the sun, watching people. I know that sounds like the talk of a crazy person, but to me, it was always an ongoing dialogue. I always felt that the thing about religions is that they don’t really encourage forward thinking. They discriminate against certain kinds of people. So that never made sense to me. I don’t believe that God or whatever it is would just be some sort of judgmental force. “God Loves Everyone” [from Cobblestone Runway] says everything I’ve wanted to say about God. But I’ve always tried to write in religious terms. With certain songs, I felt like I was taking dictation. You know, where the words were coming at me in a weird way… and words are usually the hardest part.

“This is How I Know,” is part of that ongoing dialogue. I love the line, “Through the music on the radio / That came to set me free / This is how I know you hear me.” What role did music play in your spiritual development?
Sexsmith: Music was the gift I was given. I believe everyone is given a gift, and music was the one that was given to me. My dad left when I was really small and I never got to spend any time with him. It wasn’t like he was there and then he left. I never experienced him. So I turned to his records. He had a box of 45’s that he left behind and to me, those 45’s were kind of like my father figure. I just felt that music was always there for me. I was singing for a long time and I didn’t know I could write. Then I got this woman pregnant with my first child. I was young and I freaked out about the whole thing. But I made the right decision to have the child and that’s when I was given another gift. I felt that, for once I wasn’t doing something that was selfish and that’s when I started writing. I felt it was there for me in a big way. To open my own mouth and have my own voice come out was very special. As a kid, I’d listen to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and they had their own voices. I wondered if I had my own voice too.

Paste: You wrote “Poor Helpless Dreams” around this time, and it’s just now been recorded for this album. Why did you wait so long put it on a record, and how relevant are those lyrics to you today?
Sexsmith:Well, I kind of forgot about it for one thing. When I signed my first publishing deal, my producer was keen on it. He was upset that we didn’t put it on the record. We tried an Al Green approach and it didn’t quite cut it. But there was something about this new batch of songs that seemed to be coming from the same place that one did. I get down sometimes with the whole state of music, so a song like that comes along to remind me that I have promises I need to keep to myself or my dreams will die. While we were recording this record, they kept talking about exit strategies on CNN, ways to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq, and I feel like I need an exit strategy for my dreams sometimes, a way to withdraw from my own battles. But a song like “Poor Helpless Dreams” drives me to keep going.

Paste: How tough is the music business right now?
Sexsmith: I feel lucky that I got in the door when I did. Everyday I get people wanting me to listen to music—there’s just so much music out there right now. It feels like you’re in a little lifeboat and people are drowning all around you. I feel fortunate that I have a career and people want me to continue making records, but it gets harder. I remember my last record, Time Being. Trying to get a label was ridiculous. They’d say, “We love Ron, but we can’t sell his records.”One label said they’d quit signing people over the age of 24. It’s an interesting at this time to see where it’s going. Someone is going to have to figure it all out. It costs a lot of money to make these records, and somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it should be free.

Paste: This record gave you a chance to try some new things. I was surprised that you were hesitant when your producer suggested you record in Cuba.
Sexsmith: Well, I’m not all that adventurous in terms of my travel, so each time I get on an airplane, I get nervous. And I’d never been anyplace like Cuba before, so I had mixed feelings about traveling there. On one hand, I was very excited. On the other, I was scared. And I wasn’t so sure about the idea of incorporating Cuban horns. I’m not really doing anything Cuban with my music, so I was afraid it would have a forced Frankenstein experiment feel to it. My only thought going into the sessions was to just make a record by myself—just piano and voice. So I’m amazed that it became a big-sounding thing. It sounds closer to a Memphis thing, to my ears anyway. Who would have thought it would work with my music?But that’s what a record is—a collaboration. You go in and work with a producer and musicians and it takes on a life of its own. I try not to get to precious about it, because ultimately what a record is, is "this is how I sang my song today, and here’s who played it with me." It’s just a snapshot of where your song is at that particular moment.