Canadian musicians tend to remain remarkably Canadian. There are a few exceptions. Neil Young is at ease in the lumberman's flannel of the Pacific Northwest. Bryan Adams wishes he were the son of a New Jersey mechanic. Who knows what the hell Loverboy was thinking.
But artists like Joni Mitchell, Rush, the Tragically Hip, and Alanis seem to be Canadians first, rockers second. Not that they're jingoists for their homeland, sickened at how we dispense health care and have yet to embrace the metric system, but one gets the feeling all would rather catch a Leafs game with their cousin Tibor instead of playing the big, bad rock star.
So too it is with singer/songwriter and Toronto resident Ron Sexsmith, who recently rediscovered the easygoing giant of Canadian music, Gordon Lightfoot. "I had always heard him, but I actually started listening to him," he says.
Sexsmith was born in 1964 in St. Catherine's, Ontario, a town where most of the boys grew up thinking they would take a job in one of the local paper mills. Not Sexsmith. "It's been kind of tunnel vision all my life," he says of his career choice as musician. "It's the only thing I've been interested in since I was five. My mother had a box of 45s. Maybe it was because I could put them on myself, but I just loved doing that."
Sexsmith's mother was fond of country music singers like George Jones and Charlie Rich. Sexsmith liked them too, but he would find his true fathers in the likes of Ray Davies, Nick Lowe, Harry Nilsson, and Elvis Costello. Though he normally does not like to open for other artists, Sexsmith recently completed an acoustic tour of Europe with Costello, and Elvis collaborator Mitchell Froom has co-produced all three of his Interscope records.
And Lightfoot? "It might be a purely Canadian thing," Sexsmith says. "His voice, I had heard it all my life. It becomes like an old friend. And his songs, he's got his own style and sense of melody. . . He's never been that hip. He just gets up there and does it."
Interscope was hip to Sexsmith when it signed him to a songwriting deal. Sexsmith had long been traipsing about Toronto clubs with his band the Uncool when he was discovered. Label head Jimmy Iovine thought enough of Sexsmith's tunes and his ability to sing them that Interscope issued Ron Sexsmith in 1995. The press was kind to the record's stark presentation, open heart, and Sexsmith's voice, which sounded as if it were trying to convince a weed to be a flower.
Sexsmith toured and released a second record, Other Songs, which carried on where his debut left off. His latest, Whereabouts, is a lush and pleasing hop forward. While Sexsmith's previous records displayed his appreciable powers over the singer/songwriter format, Whereabouts ornaments his basic material with the occasional background vocal, strings, and Froom's keyboard work. In this case, more is more. The decorative gestures enhance--not detract--from Sexsmith's songs. Whereabouts bears a better resemblance to the latest Wilco record than the songsters he's often compared to, whether they be Jackson Browne or Leonard Cohen. It's as if he is a star athlete who finally has a team he can compete with.
Sexsmith is a good student of his own work. Unlike a lot of songwriters, he doesn't dismiss his previous accomplishments in order to prop up his newest creation. Instead, he discusses his last two records as if they were necessary learning experiences. Of Sexsmith, he says: "Lyrically, I think I tried to be over the top. I'd have too many verses. The lyrics had too many images." On Other Songs, he thought his vocals were waterlogged. He tried to sing higher on Whereabouts because "I went back and I listened to my second record, and it sounded like I was singing in slow motion."
On the surface, Whereabouts is a poppier, more uptempo record. "I almost had to take a John Lennon approach," he says. "On the early records, his voice really pops through."
But underneath the keyboard chimes and string lifts is some of the darkest material he's ever written. "Right About Now" is the song of a road-weary man begging for a life preserver from home. On "Must Have Heard It Wrong," Sexsmith wonders if the chalice he's been chasing is made of rust and twine. "Doomed" would seem to speak for itself.
"It was just kind of a dark period," he says. "I was away from home for seven months. I was just frustrated with everything. I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I was working really hard touring. But nothing--home life or anything--seemed to be working out."
The songs took such a dire turn, Sexsmith began to question himself. "It was almost like an angry letter to God," he says of "Must Have Heard It Wrong." "I don't like to be that way."
Sexsmith wasn't ready to turn his back on the Big Guy Upstairs, as he's referred to God, and burden the listener with a collection of songs by a man debating cutting open his spleen for the crows. It finishes on a more upbeat note than it began. "I didn't want the album to feel like a sad album or a drag," he says.
Throw Sexsmith on the tall pile of artists who should get more attention than they do. He makes fine records that are written and spoken about more than played. And even when they do reach the CD changer, the listener is not guaranteed to get it.
"My son is fourteen," Sexsmith says, "and he thinks I suck."
Ron Sexsmith, with Mike Viola & the Candy Butchers. 10 p.m., Saturday, June 5, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $6 ($7 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.