Growing up in St. Catherine's, Ontario, about 12 miles from Niagara Falls, Ron Sexsmith's family had to make the obligatory visit to the tourist trap whenever his family had guests.
"Every time we'd have relatives come in from other provinces they'd always want to go see them," he says, phoning from Toronto, his adopted home. "It is pretty impressive to see all of that water coming down. You take it for granted. It's been a few years since I've been there"
Equally as impressive are the six albums of classic singer-songwriter fare that Sexsmith has released since the mid-'90s. They get taken for granted, and yes, it's been years since his type has been anywhere near in vogue, or in the pop charts, for that matter. Despite earning the public admiration of rock nobility such as Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, Sexsmith has yet to wade his way into the mainstream.
His latest album, Cobblestone Runway, released late last year, was greeted with the usual critical accolades and modest record sales. Hope for a spike in the numbers arrived when another famous Sexsmith fan, Coldplay's Chris Martin, sang on a remix of the album's sanguine "Gold In Them Hills." The alternate version, which appears as a bonus track on Cobblestone Runway, was released as a single.
"I heard through the grapevine that Chris was a fan of my last record, Blue Boy," Sexsmith explains. "I wasn't there, to be honest. Apparently, the producer of my record, Martin Terefe, was in Los Angeles working an album at the same time Coldplay was recoding there. Chris was curious about what we were doing."
Sexsmith was pleased with the result, ("I think he has a beautiful voice") and the recording excited many in his camp who thought the single would etch its way onto the charts. But Sexsmith wearily affirms that it's still not getting any airplay. He's beginning to speculate if a pop hit will ever be in the cards.
"Sometimes I think, has there been some decision made? ?We won't play Ron Sexsmith records.' Because every single we try just immediately gets shut out," he explains. "It gets a little personal sometimes."
It's telling that Sexsmith takes his heretofore unsuccessful quest for a smash so personally. In the manner that Keats was called the poet's poet, he is perhaps the songwriters' songwriter?constantly trying match melodies and lyrics to veritable emotions. Sexsmith's songs, however, do not exist in a world of their own. He is deeply concerned with the effect that music has on listeners?especially how his music responds when listeners look to it to articulate their feelings.
On the deceptively breezy "These Days" off of Cobblestone Runway, he examines the chasm that often exists between current popular love songs and expressing love honestly, with all its inherent complexity intact. Sexsmith sings, He said he'd never break you heart/ Now haven't you learned?/ You believed in the words/In all that they meant/ Oh but love is not some popular song/ Filled with empty sentiment.
The song was written in response to "the more juvenile pop songs," he explains. "I was aiming at an older brother having a talk with his younger sister who had her heart broken because she believed in the simplicity of those songs. Or Hollywood movies like in Jerry McGuire where Tom Cruise says, ?You complete me.'"
Sexsmith is forlorn that the more introspective songwriters he admires and emulates, such as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, have been made redundant by others' callow, superficially emotional songs.
"The last few years in pop music has been cluttered with all of these boy bands," he says. "You'd hear all these songs with titles like ?I'm Never Gonna Break Your Heart.' Well, as a guy in his 30s whose family has fallen apart, I've always tried to sing about love in a way that is real. I think that is the same thing with people like Cohen or Mitchell. It was never in a ?moon and June' sort of way. It was based on real emotions."
Now 39, Sexsmith readily admits that he "sounds like a fogey" when he talks about cotemporary music, but his passion for certain songwriters is genuine.
"You had people like Laura Nyro who were writing songs that were pretty heavy," he says. "They sounded like old souls even though they were young. Somewhere along the line something happened and all of that was thrown out the window. The craftsmanship was missing. There wasn't the type of chord progressions you'd hear with Randy Newman. Those are the traditions I'm tying to uphold."As was the case with his influences, Sexsmith's songs have been covered by a variety of artists. Rod Stewart does a version of the Cole Porter-esque "Secret Heart." Though, Sexsmith notes, "Nick Lowe does a version of it that I really love."
He says he recently sent multi-Grammy Award winner Norah Jones some songs to listen to. Yet, Sexsmith's favorite rendering of his music comes from an unlikely source?a 15-year-old girl who covered "Thinly Veiled Disguise" from his second album, Other Songs.
"I think it was her school project," he says. "She went into the studio with a couple of her friends and recorded it. She mailed it to me and I found it really moving. There was no affectation in her voice."
Sexsmith then takes a breath and says, "It was pure."