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Interview with Ron Sexsmith                return to previous page

RS: I don't know what to think. I mean, my kids are 15 and 11, so I hear all that music. I've got a pretty good idea of what's out there. Like anything, I think some of it is really quite good. I do feel that there's a kind of, umm... I don't know if it's a dumbing down, or whatever. But, especially in the boy bands, the songs just all sound the same to me. You can't really tell one from the other. I don't see a lot of character in the writing. Those type of complaints I have. I try not to get too negative about it, because I can see that it's striking a chord with my kids, for whatever reason.

PM: The music that struck a chord with us at their age had a little bit more going on.

RS: I think so. It feels like they're going backwards, in a way. In the early 60's, there was a lot of bubblegum stuff, and singers like Frankie Avalon. They had their moment, and then out of the blue came Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles, and everything changed. And pop music started to get taken a little more seriously. I felt like it was moving along quite nicely. Every now and then it would have to reinvent itself, like the whole punk thing, because things were getting a bit out of hand. And that was great, that was healthy. And I think that hip hop was a healthy thing to happen, too, when it came on to the scene. But now I find it's getting a bit tiresome. Did you ever see those horrible talk shows where they have the teenagers that the parents can't control?

PM: Jerry Springer.

RS: Yeah, so they send them off to boot camp.

PM: I've seen that very one.

RS: And the army guy comes out and yells at them. To me, a lot of the hip hop around sounds like that. Like some guy yelling at me all the time. But I have to say I think that Eminem is really quite brilliant. I don't agree with everything he has to say, but when my son has his record on, I find it really compelling, I can't really turn away from it, you know?

PM: Well, that's the first thing I ever heard that made me want to listen to an Eminem record.

RS: I mean, obviously he's purging a lot of stuff, and just laying it all out there. And, like I say, a lot of it's a bit over the top, but at the same time, I think that he's doing it in a way that's exciting. But a lot of that stuff just seems to be bragging.

PM: Sexual bragging.

RS: Right, sexual bragging and macho posing, that kind of thing. But my whole thing has always been about melody. So that's what I'm trying to do in my own little way. Trying to get these melodies out there. That's always been the thing that's drawn me to music, and I'm still looking for it. I'm hoping maybe there will be a turnaround, where things will get less groove oriented and get back to quality songs.

PM: Your lyrics are great, but many of us feel that as a melodist, if you will, you're truly rare. Is it just a natural facility, or do you work hard to craft and create that aspect of your songs?

RS: Well, melody is always the easiest part for me. I tend to come up with them just walking around. I tend to hum to myself when I walk around. So the hard part for me is finding the words, and fitting them with the melody. I think the best songs are kind of a seamless marriage of words and melody.

PM: Sure, the words have to roll.

RS: They have to roll with it, and they can't set off the cringe mechanism, or they can't get in the way. I'm pretty old fashioned that way, and I work hard on that part. Generally what happens is that I'll get a melody or I'll get a phrase, and everything kind of opens up, I can see that there's potential there for a song. And that will take you so far, maybe you'll get a few lines, and the rest is, relatively speaking, hard work. You're thinking about it, and you're scribbling stuff down. There have been times when I've started with a complete lyric, too, and I've had to craft the melody. But in general, the melody seems to come first.

PM: What are you listening to lately, and what might you be reading?

RS: Well, I'm reading my first Dostoevsky book. He's someone that I always wanted to read, and never got around to it. I'm reading Crime and Punishment.

PM: That's a mouthful.

RS: Yeah. Well, I always loved Dickens, he's probably my favorite. I think I have four more books to go, and then will have read all of his works. And I heard that Dostoevsky was a big Dickens fan.

PM: Really?

RS: Yeah, apparently he was his favorite writer. So it made me curious about checking his work out. He's a little darker than Dickens. So, I've been reading that. And what have I been listening to?...let's see, there's a songwriter up here in Canada who's one of my favorite writers, his name is Kyp Harness. Actually, I recorded one of his songs on my upcoming album. But he's one of those guys, you know. He's made a few independent records, but the labels won't touch him. It's like Dylan or something, they don't think he can sing very well. But I love his voice, and I love his writing. So I've been listening a lot to his new record, it isn't out yet. He's trying to figure out what to do with it, or how to release it. So I'm hoping that my covering his song may turn some people on to his stuff. I'm listening to the new Steve Forbert one, I just saw him last night in Toronto. It was good to see him.

PM: He's really good on stage.

RS: Oh yeah. And he hasn't aged a bit, he still looks fifteen, or something. So I'm checking that out. I actually like the new U2 album quite a bit. Not everything on it, but the best songs, like "Stuck in the Moment," I really like.

PM: They seem to be back to a more essential bag.

RS: I think the last few years they've spent trying to shake that over-serious image that they were building with the Joshua Tree album. So they did all these experimental, Euro pop things. Some of that I thought was pretty good. I thought that Achtung, Baby was a good record. This one seems more like a return to what they are, a band playing songs. I've also been going back and buying some of my favorite albums on CD, that I never had before. Especially since some of my records are still in the old place.

PM: Yeah, they're always the first thing to go.

RS: So I've been trying to get some of them back, anyhow.

PM: Steve Earle is back on the road, and Brad Jones is in Spain.

RS: What's he doing in Spain?

PM: Producing some band, and then he's going to Italy. It's tough. You're my only hope of getting bumped a copy of that unreleased record. Any chance of that?

RS: What, my new record? You could probably get one through my manager, because I don't even have a copy right now of the final sequence. It's changed about four times, I think I'm driving everybody up the wall. You know how it is, when you have too much time to think. So I've been listening to it and worrying about it, and I kept dropping songs and adding songs. We finally put our foot down, and I'm waiting to get my copy of the final sequence.

PM: You've already accomplished so much, especially in the arena of the admiration of famous peers. What goals are still looming?

RS: Well, I'm always trying to just write better, you know? When I think of some of the great songs like "Stardust," I mean, I don't think anybody's come close to that song. I'm just trying to get better. I was at a friend's house the other day, and we were sitting around the piano, he had a Stephen Foster songbook. And it was so great to sit there and play "Gentle Annie" and "Camptown Racetrack," and all those songs. That's what it's all about for me, ultimately. When I'm gone, I hope that I leave behind a whole bunch of songs. Hopefully, there will be more good ones than bad ones. Maybe someday people will be sitting around a piano...

PM: And play a good old Ron Sexsmith tune.

RS: Yeah. I mean, I'm trying to make good records. But when it's all said and done, they're just moments in time. I did "Secret Heart" back in '94, and that's how I sang it, and this is who played on it, but it's never really been the same since. And some night in Pittsburgh years later I'll sing the best version of it ever, when there's no tape recorders around. So I just try to stay focused, and that's my main goal. And also, I would like to have more of a breakthrough with one of these records, so I wouldn't have to feel so insecure financially. But I'm not too concerned, I'm just trying to get on with the work, and hopefully everything else will fall into place.

PM: Speaking of "Stardust" are you getting that incredible Ken Burns series Jazz up there?

RS: Oh yeah, on the PBS channel. The photos are incredible. They'll be talking about something, and they'll show a photo that will emphasize the point. I don't know where they dug that stuff up.

PM: He's a rare historian. I thought Baseball and The Civil War were good, but this is the best.

RS: And that's another thing I've been listening to, the Ken Burns box set of American Music. It's the companion piece to the TV show. It's a five CD set, with a version of "Stardust" by Louis Armstrong. I've been listening to that quite a bit.

PM: Do you mind if I ask you about your spiritual life, do you have any special affiliations or inclinations in that area?

RS: It's something I'm always trying to work out, I'm not a religious person. I just don't really know what to think sometimes. When I was a kid, I went to Sunday school, and was a Protestant. And I used to have this idea, I was talking about this a bit on my last record, and I always felt like a total freak talking about it. But I used to think that God was in the sun, somehow, when I was a kid. And I used to talk to the sun all the time, on my way to school and stuff. And it's something that I've kept up throughout my life. I remember when I was a courier in my 20's, every now and then I would be reminded of it. I guess that's the important thing for me, to have some kind of dialogue with God. Not so much about going to church, or the guilt that goes along with most organized religions. Most of those churches, all they talk about is abstinence. I think, really, it's all about experience.

PM: Took the words right out of my mouth.

RS: Because most people, they don't want to find things out for themselves. They want someone to tell them the way. I think it's good to find out for yourself, and not take someone's word for it.

PM: Sure, I think life is a spiritual matter, not a religious one.

RS: Exactly. God certainly didn't make the churches. And there's so many different religions, and so many enlightened people that have come to earth [laughs] who inspired people and who were compelling. A lot of them got laughed at and were crucified, and all that.

PM: Mostly.

RS: Mostly, and I think that's true to this day. Every now and then there will be someone who comes along and changes the world, in a way, whether it's Charlie Chaplin, or...

PM: Mahatma Ghandi.

RS: Yeah. I think that's very inspiring. Someone like Christ, for instance. His whole message wasn't "I'm above everybody", he was saying "What I can do, you can do".

PM: Right.

RS: Or what I have, you can have. I think that's important. And his biggest message was Forgiveness, which I think is one of the greatest words in language. There's a lot of things that can be taken from each religion, you just have to find out for yourself.

PM: Are there other producers or musicians with whom you still hope to work?

RS: There's a Swedish producer, actually, that my manager works with, we worked on the Ray Davies song for the tribute album. I really liked working with him. He's very forward thinking. The Steve Earle album is very rock and roll, and very rootsy.

PM: Like Steve.

RS: Yeah, like Steve. And I just thought it would be nice, for my next record, to try something that's a little more...I don't know how to even describe it...something that's kind of in both worlds, you know?

PM: Sure.

RS: Because I'm coming from an old school approach, but I don't want to make retro sounding records. So I'm gonna check that out. I would definitely love to work with Mitchell Froom again. Daniel Lanois and I flirted with the idea.

PM: That would be a good record.

RS: We almost made this record together, the current one. The U2 thing was taking up all his time.

PM: Is there a question I haven't asked that you'd like to ask and answer for Puremusic?

RS: I'm not sure, really. I feel like I've been yammering away... [laughs] I can't think of anything offhand.

PM: It's generally a stumper, but I like to ask.

RS: Yeah.

PM: Lastly, you have management, friends, and associates here in Nashville. Can we hope to see more of you in Music City?

RS: Nashville tends to be a place where I get to quite frequently. I used to go down every year for that extravaganza, I guess they have a different name for it now.

PM: I missed the last one, I was in Philly. But yeah, they changed the name.

RS: It's in February, right?

PM: Yes, I think so.

RS: So it's possible I may make it down this year. I don't know if I'll actually play, but just to show my face around [laughs] or something. I'm sure I'll get there a couple of times this year, for shows or whatever.

PM: Well, I hope we get to have a cup of coffee or something.

RS: Yeah, no trouble. That'd be great.

PM: Thanks for being gracious with your time today. I really think you're one of our best songwriters.

RS: Wow, thanks. [laughs]

PM: And I wish you even greater success, for everyone's sake.

RS: Thank you. Well, we'll see. I'm not going anywhere. I keep working at it. Hopefully one of these records will take off. Thanks.

PM: Okay, Ron. Thanks so much, and take good care of yourself.

RS: You, too. Nice talking to you. Cheers.

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