Len, Joni. . . Ron: the cream of Canada
Regular viewers of South Park will know just how maligned Canada is in the popular imagination. But there's far more to the land of the Maple Leaf than the infantile fart jokes of the zip-mouthed Terrance and Phillip.
In fact, quite a few of the finest singer/songwriters who ever lived hail from that country north of Niagara Falls: think Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot ... (not to mention its resurgence as an indie rock Mecca, thanks to Arcade Fire, Feist, Broken Social Scene et al).
Ron Sexsmith, who hails from St Catharine's, Ontario, and currently resides in Toronto, is carrying on that honorable tradition.
"There's a small music community in Canada," says Ron, speaking from his hotel room in London. "We all pretty much know each other. I've been lucky enough to meet all the greats -- Lightfoot, Joni, Len, everyone except Neil Young. Somehow I've not crossed paths with him yet."
Ron has fond memories of meeting one of these giants in particular.
"I got to sing with Leonard Cohen in Toronto," he says. "It was at his book launch. There were other artists there too -- Indigo Girls and Barenaked Ladies. There was a reading in the basement of the book shop. Initially, he was just there to read. But we all hoped that once the music started he would get bitten by the bug and join us on stage for a sing-song.
"Sure enough, when it came time for me to go on and sing 'So Long Marianne', I could see him standing at the side of the stage. I waved him over to the mic. He came over! The funny thing is I had to whisper the first line in his ear. Then we sang 'Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye' together. A magical moment."
A recording artist for 20 years, Sexsmith has never really had the public recognition he deserves, despite releasing two of the finest albums of the 1990s -- his self-titled debut (1995) and Other Songs (1997).
Possessed of a warm, husky voice -- he sounds like Rufus Wainwright on downers -- and a novelist's eye for detail, Ron has been hailed by the likes of Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Ray Davies. He has worked with Steve Earle and duetted with Coldplay's Chris Martin and, most recently, fellow Canuck Michael Buble, who covered Ron's song 'Whatever It Takes' on his 2009 Crazy Love album, with Ron singing back-up.
So just how did Ron end up collaborating with the emperor of easy listening?
"I sent Michael songs to sing. . . but he never sung them," he says. "I didn't think any more of it until one day he rang me at home out of the blue. He asked me to sing with him. I was surprised at the song he wanted me to duet on (Sexsmith's 'Whatever It Takes') because my part calls for a pretty high falsetto and I figured a female vocal might fit better. But I flew to Malibu where I met David Foster, veteran writer/producer. And it all fell into place."
Could this be the break that has eluded Ron for so long? It's all well and good being hailed as a songwriter's songwriter, but critical adoration alone doesn't put food on the table. As he sings on his new album Long Player Late Bloomer: "Though our pockets are empty/We won't let it get us down."
But Buble's Crazy Love album went on to sell over five million albums worldwide, including 135,000 copies in Ireland -- going nine times platinum.
Ron says it was Buble who recommended he hire Crazy Love producer Bob Rock to oversee Long Player Late Bloomer.
The result is Ron's poppiest, most polished record yet -- it will likely surprise those used to the languid melancholy of his early albums.
If there's a more affecting, uplifting love song released this year than 'Heavenly' I'd like to hear it. "The morning wears her golden autumn dress/It's a heavenly love that you and I possess."
"I was looking for a producer to fit the songs," says Ron. "I wanted to have a bigger sound for this record and Michael suggested I work with Bob Rock. I was taken aback -- I knew Bob Rock as a hard rock producer. I had seen him in the Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster. It never occurred to me then that one day I might be working with that guy! I had to raise $60,000 to hire him, so I had to scrimp and save, but hopefully it will pay off."
Ron feels optimistic about how this new record will fare out -- more so than he has felt for a while.
"I had gotten good write-ups for my last few albums, but it seemed they came and went pretty fast," he says. It was particularly frustrating for the people around me. I guess I did get disheartened at times.
"You see, I look on my records as little babies that I send out into the world -- and you want to see them grow and prosper. You hate the idea of anything bad happening to them.
"For a while things picked up with Retriever, which had songs which made it into the Top 20 in Canada.
"But I could see that my career was slipping away, slowly circling the drain. I was bounced around from label to label. But I'm delighted to be back working with Cooking Vinyl again.
"It had been 10 years since we hooked up -- they released my album Blue Boy in 2001. I see Cooking Vinyl as an island for misfit toys."
Let's hope this is one misfit toy who doesn't get left on the shelf.
Long Player Late Bloomer is released on Cooking Vinyl on February 28. The single 'Believe It When I See It' is out now