Lots of songwriters document bittersweet moments - life has its share of disappointments. But for the last decade, Ron Sexsmith has consistently brought an unusual eloquence to a string of melancholy moods. The forty-something Canadian has a knack for burrowing into the poignancy of romantic miscalculation. On his new Time Being he considers the onset of middle age. With gems like "Snow Angel," "Jazz at the Bookstore," and "Ship of Fools," it's one of his most inviting discs. Sexsmith recently stopped by to play our guessing game - we played songs and he tried to figure out who the artist was. He listened intently to 'em and offered some thoughtful comments.
I thought it was XTC for a sec. It is, yeah. I always loved XTC. I had Skylarking and a few of their singles. I like anyone who can write a decent melody and Andy certainly wrote his fair share. Sometimes the records would take a few listens to get into; they got more and more complex as they went along, [and] I admire that. They were so immediate - "Life Begins at the Hop" and those early songs. I was suspicious of some punk bands, but not them. I have to thank Andy Partridge for turning me on to a great artist I [had] never heard of, Judee Sill - she died in the '70s. She blew my mind. I always thought that Andy Partridge would be into the same guys that I'm into, the Beatles and the Kinks. But Judee Sill is different.
That's pretty. Sounds old and new at the same time. Is it Beth Orton? Love her. I always thought she'd be a good person to do a duet with. I remember when I first heard her voice, it was "Wow, Dusty Springfield and Sandy Denny rolled together." That track had atmosphere. I think records should be like movies - they have a vibe, a sound, a sequence. It should be cohesive. I've always tried to put myself in the hands of producers who have an idea of how to make a mood. Didn't she work with the guy from Everything But the Girl, and the Chemical Brothers, too? Well...I'm two for two. What's next?
That's my hero. For me, Gord is like Johnny Cash is for a lot of people - larger than life. He wrote so many great songs. I recently played a show at [Toronto's] Massey Hall, which I call the "House of Gord" because he's played there every year since the '60s. It was always my dream to play there - not as an opener, but a [headliner]. I finally did it in April, and just before I'm about to go on, I hear this huge ovation in the crowd - Gordon Lightfoot [had] just walked in. I was already nervous, but I became double-nervous. He came backstage afterwards, and it meant a lot to me that he came to root for me. My cure for homesickness on the road is having two or three Gord CDs with me. Gord's giving you something you can't get anywhere else, and when you hear him, he takes you to a certain zone. He's always been slightly square, which is another thing I like about him.
Tom T. Hall, "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)" Where Have All the Seasons Gone (1971)
Sounds like Tom T. Hall or something. It is! I got to see him one night at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Oh my god. He opened with "I Love." I had the single as a kid, and though it's a corny song, it's a great song. He played it and there wasn't a dry eye in the place. "I love winners when they cry/losers when they try..." Really beautiful. Then he played this new song "Ships Go Out," and it was so inspiring. When I was asked to do a Tom T. Hall [song on a] tribute disc, I chose that song. I wanted to show that he still had it as an older songwriter. He should do an album with Rick Rubin. Tom T's one of the greats - a storyteller. On my new disc I have a few attempts at narrative stuff. "Snow Angel" is my attempt to write "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe. "Grim Trucker" is a story song too. I don't have the discipline to write a novel, but I'd like to.
That's a piano that I recognize...this isn't Bing [Crosby] is it? Hoagy Carmichael? No. Oh, it's Duke Ellington, you say? I was always into vocal jazz, Bing and Ella, so I'm often stumped on the instrumental stuff. You're playing it because of my "Jazz at the Bookstore" song. Often times you go in those places and it's an education - you hear this amazing stuff.
Oh, that voice. Is that Leslie Feist? No. I know that voice. Iris Dement? Oh, wait, it's Rickie Lee Jones. God, her style of singing has influenced so many of today's singers; it's a jazzy, kind of coy feeling. I had an opportunity to tour with her, but it didn't work out. I'd love to watch her perform [over the course of] a week or so.
Some nice picking there, whoever it is...it's definitely a newer recording. It's not Bonnie Prince Billy. It's not Damien [Rice] is it? Am I closer or farther away? It's not Antony.
VH1: It's Devendra Banhart.
See, that's a guy I keep hearing about, but haven't heard. I'm always afraid of hearing the new songwriters because I get nervous. I remember when I first heard Elliot Smith, I got really nervous. It was, "Wow, this is what I'm up against?" Now there's this guy and Sufjan...I don't know how to say his name, Stevens. Sometimes I'm late to getting into people that others know all about. I like Josh Ritter a lot, I was a big fan of Beck for a long time. But I'm often looking for old stuff. Like Laura Nyro is someone I'm getting into. I got a few records for my birthday, and I'm obsessed with her now. I like the guitar playing on the Devendra track, and the lilt to his voice. I'd like to meet that guy.
That rings a bell. It's a roots rock thing... Oh, there's Lucinda - she's unmistakable. I love her. She's a character, [and] she's influential, too. I've toured with her. We started on September 11, 2001. I was in the air during that time, heading to Portland, Maine. We cancelled that night, but kept going the rest of the way. She'd come out and do [Bob Dylan's] "Masters of War" and it was really intense. We got close on that tour. I'd sing "Sweet Old World" with her. I just saw her in L.A. when I was finishing my disc.
It's got a good groove. Oh, it's gotta be Bruce Cockburn. I just sang on his latest album (Life Short Call Now). He's a legend in Canada, too. One of the best guitarists I've ever seen. He's like Richard Thompson or something. He must have an extra finger. He plays in all these strange tunings. And he's so rhythmic and percussive. We toured Germany a few years ago. He's really shy, as you'd expect. I'm usually shy, but around him I felt like I was this loud, obnoxious guy. I was honored to sing on one of his songs. It was called "Mystery," and it was one of those songs you hope Bruce Cockburn would write. Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen were the big ones for me. But I've always admired Bruce.