Music’s best kept secret: Northern Soul chats to Ron Sexsmith
Songs and artists come into your life in all kinds of ways. Ten years ago, I won a radio phone-in competition and received ten CDs. Most were dreadful and bound for the charity shop, but I flipped through each track just in case there was a hidden gem. As I listened to the last album – the soundtrack from little-known UK comedy Confetti – I stumbled upon a sublimely gorgeous song called Tomorrow in Her Eyes. The singer and writer was Ron Sexsmith and a new musical connection was made.
Ron who? Many people still ask this question even though the Canadian singer-songwriter has been writing and recording for more than 25 years, and has just released his 15th album The Last Rider. Often compared to the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Sexsmith has been honing his craft for considerably longer, yet remains unfamiliar to the masses.
“It’s not the career that I set out to achieve,” Sexsmith tells me. “I’m proud that I’ve managed to survive without having a huge selling record, and I see every new album as an opportunity to make another first impression. Being relatively unknown to a lot of people has kept me hungry. People come into the music at different albums, then tend to go back and check out the back catalogue. A lot of people say their parents used to listen to me so that’s how old I am now. I think more people may have heard of me than my music, so it’s hard to know where I stand in the grand scheme of things. But I travel the world and seem to have accumulated an audience wherever I go. I guess the longer I’ve stayed in the game, the more people have become aware of me.”
It’s a career that has earned Sexsmith some heavyweight admirers including Elton John, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. His songs have been covered by a range of artists like Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, Feist and K.D. Lang. Another fan is film producer Richard Curtis, one of several filmmakers who have including Sexmith’s songs on their movie soundtracks.
“I’m not even aware of Confetti,” says Sexsmith. “I usually find out later as those requests go through my publisher. Whatever way it happens is good for me as it makes my life a little easier, and it’s another entry point for people to get on board. Richard Curtis has been very supportive. He used my track Gold In Them Hills in his film About Time. He tried to get that song for Love Actually but I don’t know why it didn’t happen, I mean, it’s his film. When it was included in About Time, he invited me and my family to a private screening and it was exciting to hear it on the big screen. And again, a lot of people heard of me for the first time because of that.”
The Lost Rider is another collection of well-crafted, melancholic songs. Having been so prolific over the years, I wonder if the influences behind his latest music reflect Sexsmith’s place in the world today?
“You’re always in a different place in your head and your life so there are natural, subtle changes that affect the writing. Things never stop happening and as a writer, you pick up on it all. I’ve always had a liking for looking back but it cranks up as you get older. I’m 53 now so probably being a bit more wistful on this album. I’ve always been a little bit nostalgic and now, with the internet, I’ll think of a commercial I saw when I was nine and rediscover it online. It’s interesting the things we store and need to see them again just to confirm our memories.”
Touring is key when promoting a new album. Sexsmith’s upcoming UK shows include dates at the Live Rooms in Chester and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. It’s less stressful than the endless touring circuit in the States and Canada where an act can play 100 dates and still barely make a dent in public awareness. Sexsmith is aware of the slog involved.
“I love touring in my home country but it’s hard there, or in the States, because everything’s so far apart. We might not even go to America this time because I’m slightly disturbed by the politics. It’s also very expensive to get visas and you are often treated like criminals when you try to get across the border. In comparison, the UK has always been a fun place to tour and the drive between cities is relatively short. It’s the part of the world that first noticed me and where I found my audience. I didn’t have a career until back in the mid-90s when the likes of Mojo, Q and all those other music magazines started talking about me. Manchester was my favourite show from my last visit so we’re all looking forward to getting back there.
“The UK is a kind of paradise for songwriters. The art form is very much alive and well. Maybe it’s something to do with the long history of troubadours. I’m lucky that I got in the door when I did and that I’ve been able to develop this devoted fan base that seems to grow the older I get.”
For a songwriter, the state of the world is likely to creep into the lyrical content of new material. Does Sexsmith feel any pressure to write a politically motivated song?
“I would like to write something topical but I just don’t know if I’m the guy for it,” he says. “If I had a ‘state of the nation’ song idea, I would write about it, but I’m mostly just disturbed by things right now and that doesn’t inspire me to compose anything. I’ve always written on a universal level with lyrics about treating people the right way rather than doing political, sloganeering-type songs. I get melodies all the time and often they’re accompanied by a lyrical phrase that gives me something to work from. I’m a product of the things I heard growing up and melodic music is still what attracts me, although I don’t hear a lot of that on the radio these days. I still love what I loved as a kid because I find the lyrical perspective, the sound and the arrangements more nourishing. Friends turn me on to newer stuff I wouldn’t normally hear and I seem to have stumbled upon all of my inspirations in almost the same way people seem to with my music.”
After many years in the business, Sexsmith recently mentioned that he was considering retiring from the business. He was as surprised as anyone when he read the finished piece.
“It wasn’t meant to sound as dramatic as all that. I would like to resist the urge to make a record for a while. I’ll make more at some point but I’d like to leave it five years or so. I still write all the time but since the 90s it’s been pretty much an album every two years, so I’d like to step aside for a bit, stockpile songs and see where it’s all going. The music industry is in a strange place right now so to me it’s amazing that I’ve had 15 albums. I feel good about that achievement because every record has been hard, expensive and stressful to get out and garner attention. It would be nice to relieve myself of all that for a while.”
The Lost Riders is out to buy now
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