Ron Sexsmith – Love Shines

5 Mar

There was a fascinating documentary on BBC4 last night (repeated tonight and tomorrow) about Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith.

Eleven albums into his career, Sexsmith is the ultimate critics’ favourite starved of commercial success. Championed by the likes of Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, and covered by Michael Buble, Rod Stewart and Feist, Sexsmith’s wife explains that he still uses the launderette because they can’t afford a washing machine.

Shy and lacking in self-confidence, Sexsmith doesn’t drive a car or own a cell-phone but compulsively creates beautiful melodies and says he feels surrounded by light when singing. The film – ‘Love Shines’ – focuses on his bid to make a hit record (‘Long Player, Late Bloomer’ released last week) with legendary Metallica producer Bob Rock – an unlikely pairing which actually seems to work. There’s a telling point when Rock questions whether Sexsmith hasn’t hit the big time because the singer is afraid he won’t be able to cope with it. Later we see Sexsmith’s manager trying to hawk the album to a major label and fear the inevitable results.

More moving still is the brief interview with the songsmith’s grown-up son who was left with his mum when Sexsmith’s first marriage broke up. He just wants his dad to know that he ‘loves and respects him’.

It’s a brilliant, sensitively-made film which spotlights the desperation many artists feel when they can’t stop doing what they love (often as they have no real alternative) but wish that more people could be exposed to their creations.

The same themes explored in the documentary surfaced in an interview I did with Sexsmith 12 years ago for the Wolverhampton Express & Star (see below). I saw him perform at the Birmingham Songwriter’s Festival a few months afterwards – his music as understated and timeless then as it is now.

Ron Sexsmith

Wolverhampton Express and Star, July 1999

Baby-faced singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith shares a label with Marilyn Manson, has been championed by Elvis Costello and had one of his tracks covered by Rod Stewart – but he still sometimes suffers stage-fright.

“I’m a naturally shy person but it’s different every night,” he says in his subdued Canadian tones. ”There’s nights when I’m on stage and I can’t open my eyes for a single song and other nights when I’m a rock star looking around at people. I’m affected by everything. It makes a big difference if people are getting into it.“

People have been “getting into it” ever since he released his first self-titled album for Interscope in 1995 – which Costello labelled the best recording of the year.

Four years later, the Toronto-based troubadour has just let loose his third LP, Whereabouts, and embarked on an extensive UK tour with his three-piece band which stops off in Wolverhampton on Saturday.

The carefully-crafted Whereabouts sees the singer’s sweet vibrato vocals cushioned on a lush backdrop of strings and horns, the subject matter taking in both God and fate.

Yet, Sexsmith, who continues on a Canadian musical path trod by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, remains a well-kept secret – though that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t love to be a household name. “All my heroes have been pop artists who have had lots of success like The Kinks and Burt Bacharach,” he says. “When I write a song, in my head it always sounds like it could be something on the radio. Sometimes I get labelled with the folk tag but what I write is just pop music. I identify with people like Beth Orton, Wilco and Beck. I don’t think me and Beck are too far apart in terms of where we’re coming from.”

“I think I could have a hit single eventually.”

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