Ron Sexsmith

Finding Gold In Them Hills

Let's set the record straight right away, Ron Sexsmith is a successful musician. While many of the press stories surrounding the release of his latest album, "Cobblestone Runway", have attempted to determine if he has sold enough units, garnered enough praise from famous fans and filled enough venues to match his obvious talent, Sexsmith continues to get a lot of attention from music people wondering if he gets enough attention from, well, other music people.

"Cobblestone Runway" is the sixth release from the Canadian native, currently living in Toronto, since he fronted a band called The Uncool on his first disc, 1991's "Grand Opera Lane". His music mixes a strong pop sensibility and a gift for crafting catchy and memorable songs, where their complexity is masked by a virtual wall of singer/songwriter sincerity. While Sexsmith's latest may contain a few more sounds and beats than his past works, the essential magic that captivates his loyal fans is pervasive throughout.

Lost love never sounded so promising.

In our interview with Sexsmith, Chorus and Verse caught the singer at the start of his latest major tour, opening for Coldplay, whose lead singer Chris Martin, is a fan and supporter. Martin also plays a guest role on "Cobblestone Runway", providing vocals on the disc's finale, "Gold In Them Hills". We touched on Martin's contribution to the album, the process that led to its creation, and being successful by doing what you love to do.

You're in the middle of touring the United States with Coldplay. How has the tour been going, and what's been the reaction to your music by the fans in attendance?

Actually, I'm just now beginning the Coldplay tour, first show tonight. I'm hopeful that we'll be received well.

Some of the areas you've visited on this tour are new ones to you. How do you enjoy your time in the United States, and have any cities on the tour so far stood out as being memorable?

I played a solo show in Athens, Georgia, the other night. I've always wanted to go there, it's a beautiful town and Michael Stipe [lead singer of the band R.E.M.] came out to my show as well, which made it even more special for me.

Fans often talk about how they are moved by your music. When you're writing new material, do you find your emotions determining what you decide to use and what to discard? Do you get inspired to write by whatever mood you're in at the time, or does writing allow you recall and express feelings that you've gone through in the past?

It's a combination of all that. Generally, if a mood has inspired a particular song I try to stick with that. Sometimes it's hard when you have to step away from the song, to get back to the original mood.

You've traveled extensively on recent tours, through Europe, Australia, Japan and North America. Do you tend to write more while on the road, or do you prefer creating when you're at home in a quieter environment? Is writing ever a way to escape from the rigors of the road, or do you tend to prepare new music only when you're thinking of a new album?

A lot of my records have been written on the road just by force of nature. I don't need to be any place in particular to write. I just need some space.

Your latest album, "Cobblestone Runway", was recorded in London over a period of just seven days. That sounds like a pretty break-neck recording session for laying down 13 tracks. What was the pace of recording during those sessions, and did you already know which songs you wanted to record before entering the studio?

The bulk of the record was done in five days, which is quite fast, although on the "Blue Boy" record we did 17 songs in six days. I'm talking basic tracks; vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. I tend to go in the studio with complete songs, so it's just a matter of finding the right arrangement and getting a good take.

With "Cobblestone Runway", it was the first time I not only knew what songs I wanted on it, but I knew exactly what order they needed to be in as well.

You actually recorded the album in the midst of touring, and only planned to do a few songs in what turned out to be a very productive series of sessions. You then went right back to touring while producer Martin Terefe did his thing. Did the quick schedule and the fact that you didn't fret too much over recording and production help give the album the relaxed vibe that it has? Do you feel that since the album sort of just happened made for a better final product?

It was a nice way to make a record. To be honest, I've never been that fascinated with studios or all the knobs, etc. So, it was good to let Martin do his thing.

I trusted his judgment, and I was there for all the important bits.

You've said that "this is the record where I've really got it right." How do you feel about your previous records when you look back now, and how have you evolved as a performer and songwriter since your first release, 1991's "Grand Opera Lane"?

Well, first of all, I'm proud of all my records. I believe they turned out exactly the way they were supposed to, and I've always tried to make the best records I possibly could. Having said that, they're all flawed in different ways. My vocals bother me at times and there are tunes on each one where the production wasn't quite right or it was a bad take. It's hard to tell sometimes in the midst of it all, but I'd like to think with each one I've gotten a little more confident.

It [has been reported] that your music is being shopped for placement in movies and television shows. Has there been any success in this area? Do you feel that promoting an artist through placement in other media, such as television commercials, is a viable way of getting the word out, or do you feel there is a "sell out" quality to such efforts? Is there a change in feeling these days since so many artists start promoting their music for use in other areas as soon as the material is released?

Yes, there have been efforts to place my music in movies and television [with] varying degrees of success. I think you have to be careful how a song gets exploited. There are tasteful ways and more crass ways. But, if one can get their music to a wider audience using one of these other channels, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The liner notes for [the October 2002 "CMJ New Music Monthly" compilation made] a point to compare the backing vocals for "These Days" to Lou Reed's infamous "do-do-doing" from "Walk On The Wild Side". Is there any influence there?

Not really. The vocals were added after I recorded it. I thought that they did sound a bit like "Walk On The Wild Side" when I first heard them but when I mentioned this to Martin, he didn't know what I was talking about. It's a very different kind of song, though. Much more influenced by Smokey Robinson than Lou Reed.

Much of the recent press about your music focuses on the amount of attention you receive, as opposed to the music itself. Does the focus on units sold, popular acclaim and level of fame take away from the goal of just making good music? Are you feeling added pressure to live up to all of the critical acclaim and media attention for your songwriting with greater recognition and financial success?

It bothers me that a lot of the articles tend to focus on these things. I think they're missing the point, even though they mean well. I try not to worry about things that are beyond my control. I like to keep it slow and steady, like that story of the turtle and the hare. There are many levels of success in this "biz" and I feel lucky to making a living, doing what I love to do.

Switching back to the music, talk a little bit about your gear. You play both electric and acoustic guitar on this album. What are your favorite axes to use while recording, and are they the same instruments you use to perform?

I love playing any instrument I can get my hands on. When I'm recording I tend to use whatever instruments are lying around the studio. I've seldom used my own instruments, except maybe my Telecaster. I love small-bodied acoustics in general, but I don't know much about model numbers.

You play upright piano on one track, "Gold In Them Hills". When you write, do you normally use a piano or a guitar for working on chord progressions? How does being able to play several different instruments help when arranging a song and trying to recreate the sounds you hear in your mind?

I write a lot in my head. Usually, if I have a tune or some lyrics in my head, that'll lead to me to pick up the guitar or sit down at the piano, whichever is closer.

I'm very limited on the piano, which can be a good thing, because it enables me to keep things simple and quite often I stumble on to chords that I may not even try on the guitar because I know better.

"Gold In Them Hills" is included twice on the album, the final track being a remix which includes beats and synthesizers. How did the remix version come to be included on the album, and how did the two versions evolve? This is an especially poignant song on the album. Does it hold any special meaning for you?

It's probably the song that I'm most proud of on this record. It's a very reassuring song and one that I think I not only needed to write but needed to hear.

The remix version came about when Chris Martin came in and sang on the second verse. I was in Austria at the time. Suddenly, I had two versions of the song; one, my original version which I was quite proud of, and the duet, which I loved and that the label was very excited about. I wanted to find a way to include both, so we set out to make the remix version as different as we could so everyone would be happy.

The liner notes for "Cobblestone Runway" acknowledge financial support for the album from the Government of Canada through the Canada Music Fund. This sort of support might sound odd, especially to American readers. Can you explain the mission of the Canada Music Fund and how it helps artists such as yourself?

Well, many countries around the world have such grants for artistic endeavors. In Canada, we have grants for touring, recording, making videos, etc. It's been very helpful and necessary to many Canadian artists who are struggling to get there music out there. The Canadian government feels it essential to aid and promote the arts and our identity.

In the United States, there is an ongoing debate about the role of government in supporting the arts and providing financing. Do you feel that governments have a role in promoting the arts? How would you address the fear that once the government is involved in such efforts, there is a risk that it can pick what is "art" and what should be censored?

I guess that's the danger. I'm not always sure what the political climate in the U.S.A. is. At the moment, it seems to be not very "artist friendly" but I could be wrong.

Canada has always been quite liberal, not only with the arts but with things like health care. Very little in Canada falls prey to censorship as well.

What are your plans for 2003 after the conclusion of your tour dates with Coldplay? Do you have any additional touring plans or future projects that fans should look out for?

We're mapping it out now. I have a whole album of songs written. I'm hoping to get started on that this year. Also, "Cobblestone Runway" is only a few months old, so I imagine we'll be touring it right up until the summer.

I've done some recording with the Brodsky Quartet as well, for a record that should come out in May, I believe. That's all I can think of at the moment.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.