Ron Sexsmith is sitting in a Paris hotel strumming a guitar and digging the grandeur below his window when my call comes. Maybe it was a new song he was trying to get some words around, or one of another artists’.
“I’m always learning songs — not always a new song, but it’s new to me or a song that I’ve always wanted to learn. I do that a lot when I’m at home. Or when I’m in hotel rooms,” the soft-spoken Canadian confides.
With his boyish looks, thick curly locks and obvious diffidence, it’s easy to imagine Sexsmith as the quiet, unassuming guy in the back of the classroom, a sensitive white boy taunted by bullies. He’s come a long way since the days that saw him as a 17-year-old, playing covers to barflies in his Ontario hometown of Saint Catharines. Ever eager to please, Sexsmith went out of his way to learn any song called out by the Lions Tavern’s regulars. So unfailing was his dedication, a local paper dubbed him the “one-man jukebox.” He didn’t mind. After going through high school “unnoticed,” he says, “for the first time I was popular.” Now, more than 20 years and seven albums later, he’s reached the height of his craft with his new album, Retriever.
“I’m very much reliant on the producers I work with to bring me into focus. And Martin has been able to, with just two albums, I think, help me make sense to more people,” Sexsmith says of Retriever’s producer Martin Terefe.
The hands-on producers Sexsmith prefers certainly have shaped each record’s sound. Sexsmith’s first three “proper” albums (excluding his self-released debut) were produced by Mitchell Froom, who pushed Sexsmith toward ballads, enveloping them in a glossy sheen that grew increasingly cold and unforgiving with each subsequent release. Coming on the heels of the Froom albums, his next record, the Steve Earle-produced Blue Boy, feels particularly alive and immediate.
“I put my trust in Mitchell. I appreciated his honesty because he heard lots of rocking songs and he would say, ‘I don’t think your voice is really suited for these songs.’ And that made sense to me,” Sexsmith admits. “Steve Earle, he’d seen me play in a bar in ’88 and wondered why I hadn’t recorded any of those sort of rocking songs. And so that was his mission, to bring that out more.”
Sexsmith’s abilities as a writer were apparent from the first, but Blue Boy established him as more than a sensitive, crooning songwriter. Still, his voice, while smooth and inviting like warm honey, sometimes came across as too fey. That changed with his new album.
“Mitchell Froom wasn’t really a vocal producer, so sometimes you do a take where the music was good but the vocal wasn’t that strong. But we’d end up using it because he felt the vibe was right or something. Steve Earle was kind of the same way, I would be kind of worried, like, ‘Does that sound okay to you?’ and they’d be, ‘Yeah it sounds fine,’” recalls Sexsmith. “Then after the record came out it would still be bugging me. Whereas Martin is a little bit more like, ‘I think you can sing that better. I think you should fix that,’ and as a result there’s less things on Retriever that bug me.”
Terefe also worked on Sexsmith’s last album, Cobblestone Runway, a quiet, acoustic-driven affair suffused with electronic textures. With Retriever, though, they return to the rich arrangements and electric guitar of his first albums, yet instead of smothering beneath them, Sexsmith’s voice pushes through with ardor and assurance. Terefe’s crisp, almost organic, production achieves great separation, leaving plenty of room for Sexsmith’s vocals, which, confident as they’ve ever been, drive each of the songs rather than settling in as a passenger.
But while his musical presence has matured, at heart he’s still that baby-faced kid. He brags about his backing band, claiming they’re ready with anything from his catalog, ’cause he may be almost famous, but, like that Lion’s Tavern teen of his youth, he still plays requests.
Ron Sexsmith is scheduled to perform with David Mead at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale) on Sunday, May 16. Call 248-544-3030.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org