"The song is my saviour. I've got to raise it up, as far as my spirit can reach, that everyone might see." - Ron Sexsmith, from Late Bloomer.
Ron Sexsmith was in a coffee shop when he heard a song of his being played. The counter girl said she loved it, and that she was a big fan of Rufus Wainwright. "But the song is mine," Sexsmith protested.
"Who are you?" the girl asked.
Sexmith, the mellifluous singer-songwriter heralded by the Steve Earles and Elvis Costellos of the world, is relatively anonymous to Meghan at Starbucks. The gentle-soul songster can fill Massey Hall, he's won a Juno award, his songs have been recorded by Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé, he's collaborated with Leslie Feist and Coldplay, and he's even sipped tea with Paul McCartney. And yet, at Second Cup, he's just the next guy in line.
Perhaps Sexsmith is three minutes and 30 seconds away from a wider pop-music audience. A songwriter with famously laudable talents for concise, reflective lyrics and melodies that are admired by breezes and a former Beatle, Sexsmith has toiled since 1991 without a signature radio hit. It is one of life's cruel jests that one-hit wonders live richly, while the sad-eyed songster with wonderful tunes by the dozen struggles along.
Love Shines, a new documentary by Douglas Arrowsmith airing on HBO Canada on May 14, considers Sexsmith's situation, zeroing in on the making of his 12th album. The just-released Long Player Late Bloomer was produced by Bob Rock - the Hawaii-based Canadian hit maker of Aerosmith, Metallica and Bon Jovi - and could be seen as an attempt at brass ring-grabbing and mid-career commercial viability. The film isn't so much The Rise and Fall of Ron Sexsmith as it is The Sad Modesty and Underappreciated Success of a Hitless Songwriting Icon.
Sexsmith is a sweet guy, but also meek. Sitting in a Queen Street café, the father of two children (with his first wife) speaks honestly and in mellow tones about reachable aspirations, laundromats and the quest for semi-fame at age 47.
"The one good thing I can say is that every record I make feels like my first album again," explains Sexsmith, who looks oddly cherubic for a man his age, his brown eyes cast to the side. "I'm not that well known. I always feel it's another shot at making a first impression again."
With material marked by introspection and romantic melancholia, and a soft voice and soothing melodies to carry them, Sexsmith has been making favourable first impressions since 1991's Grand Opera Lane, recorded while he worked in Toronto as a courier - a job referenced in his 2002 song Dragonfly on Bay Street. His eponymous major-label debut in 1995 earned praise from Costello, the first of many high-profile artists who would champion the savant singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Ont.
"His main ambition back then was to simply work regularly as a songwriter and as a performer," says former Toronto promoter Elliott Lefko from Los Angeles, where he is vice-president of Golden Voice & the Concert Connection. "I look at the venues these days being played by successful artists like Jesse Winchester or Graham Parker or Steve Forbert, and Ron is playing those same places. He's realized his ambition."
Speaking about his early days with Interscope Records and the 1995 album, Sexsmith, in his self-deprecating way, places some of the blame for his lack of mainstream success on himself. "I think everyone had the best intentions at Interscope," recalls Sexsmith, who's had the same manager, Michael Dixon, since 1994. "I just didn't make the record they wanted me to make. They wanted me to be like Christopher Cross or Don Henley."
When asked if he's been pro-active in achieving something bigger over his career, he admits "probably not." He's worked with different record labels - he's now with Warner Canada - and questions whether his lack of commercial success is someone else's fault. "I wonder if somebody's dropping the ball," he suggests, adding that he's nevertheless pleased with his label and his manager.
His general doughy appearance and withdrawn demeanour might suggest depression, but in conversation Sexsmith doesn't come off as morose. And despite the dark rings under his eyes and the weary tone to his voice, he seems more fragile than unhappy.
By many measures of success, Sexsmith is a winner. Indeed, the dichotomy between the glowing admiration of his peers and his relative lack of radio play isn't without precedent. The late Townes Van Zandt is another highly-respected but unmarketable singer-songwriter; tune-smithing nuances revered by peers often don't tickle the ears of mainstream listeners.
Still, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams thinks that his albums could have had more traction. "I don't think his albums were any less commercially viable than my Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was," she says in a telephone interview.
In Love Shines, Costello suggests Sexsmith's quietness might work against him: "He has chosen a path of less aggressive presentation, less aggressive representation. Those who have tried to champion him are faster, louder talkers like myself and Steve Earle. That doesn't necessarily mean we're better songwriters."
The new album encapsulates Sexsmith's current career, with an arc that begins sorrowful - his last two albums were well received critically, but not commercially - and grows in hope. Songs are arranged with a brighter production, giving a firm bed to the trademark even-tempered melodies and insightful thoughts.
The pleasing, easily listenable Late Bloomer, in particular, reveals a veteran artist gently persevering in the face of change: "I'm a small player, with a tall order/ To come out on top, without selling my soul."
Rock describes Sexsmith as self-effacing. "I don't want to say he's a beaten man, but he's at that point where he's tried and it hasn't worked."
It's possible, of course, that Sexmith's critical acclaim might be overrated. "Ron has won high praise from some heavyweight songwriters and this fact may have coloured reviews of many of his albums that, to my ears, lack a visible and distinctive edge," veteran music-industry journalist David Farrell says in an e-mail.
"I would venture a guess that Ron's thirst for greater success has allowed him to stray off course as an artist. He's a songwriter first and foremost. He does a good business on the road. If he focused on his craft, and relied less on adorning himself with studio ploys that are meant to bring him commercial success, he might find the two become indivisible."
Sexsmith's wishes are realistic, mind you. He's mostly satisfied - "I'm doing okay," he answers when asked about his bank account - but would like the reasonable luxury of full-time sidemen. "Sometimes I can't afford to bring my band on the road," he says. "In my mind, I have a vision of a bigger show. I'd love to be able to pay my band more, and to be able to offer them more work."
When fans and music journalists see Sexsmith on the streetcar or at the laundromat, there's invariably (and unjustly) a sense of judgment that comes with it. What in the world is Ron Sexsmith doing mixing whites and colours at the local Suds Are Us?
"I like going to laundromats," Sexsmith says. "I've written a lot of songs there."
In the film, Sexsmith's partner Colleen Hixenbaugh is overcome with emotion when speaking about how the musician was without a piano until he was given one for his 40th birthday. He had to borrow a vintage acoustic guitar for the recording of Long Player Late Bloomer. Speaking with him, there's the sense that if he's without some of the finer things in life (or even essential tools of the trade) it may not be a lack of money but because he doesn't make a point of treating himself.
Whichever, the fact of the matter is, Canadian artists don't sell a lot of albums. Sexsmith had to hustle to scrape the initial $60,000 together for the recording sessions in Los Angeles. "People see us on the red carpet," says Sexsmith, "but then we go back to our rented houses. It's like we're Cinderella or something."
Actually, Sexsmith's story is more Cinderella now than ever, his prince being Rock. But the album has yet to find a home with a U.S. label. "Really, the success he wants, I don't even know if that's possible any more," Rock says. "The business has changed so much."
Perhaps Sexmith is chasing something unachievable - throwing punches while fate mockingly holds him away with longer arms. "The days of the great singer-songwriters singing on the radio are over," says Lefko. "I watch performers at places like the Hotel Café in Los Angeles who would be Jackson Browne in the 1970s. But you see them now and think, 'It's not going to happen.' "
Still, the swelling and spiritually cynical Believe it When I See it is in heavy rotation on BBC Radio 2, and Warner Canada continues to promote Sexsmith, even in the States.
What happens now? Rock, who's acted as a life coach to Sexsmith, has no guesses. While he sees Long Player Late Bloomer as a firm step in a better direction - "This is a starting point, to what he can achieve in his career and what he can do with his life" - he knows there are no guarantees. "I've made really bad records that really have sold a lot, and I've made amazing records that nobody even noticed."
As for Sexsmith, what can he say? "All my songs sound like hits to me," he says with a shrug. His fans agree (as do his songwriting peers) and he follows his dreams. We should all be so lucky.
Songwriters and singing praises
A collection of opinions, some from the new Ron Sexsmith documentary Love Shines, offer insight into the mellow Canadian troubadour.
Steve Earle, singer-songwriter: "Ron, I think, sometimes underestimates how lucky he is that anybody knows who he is, as good as he is. I think it's unjust, but it's not unprecedented."
Pop star Leslie Feist: "He's greater than his doubts. But I guess that's ultimately part of his charm ... that struggle. He breaks your heart with his reality, and he does it within a song."
Colleen Hixenbaugh, Sexsmith's partner and fellow musician: "He's special. He's very different. He can't hammer a nail; he doesn't drive a car; he rode a bike once. He's only here to write songs."
Afie Jurvanen, Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist: "You just want your peers to get what you're doing. In Ron's case, his peers very much get it. But, I guess after albums, you probably want something more than that."
Ron Sexsmith: "I don't know that I've been the greatest dad or the greatest husband or anything. But I don't think that's what I'm here to do. I did my best, but [songwriting]is what I'm supposed to be doing. It's easier for me to almost be a better human being in a song than in real life."