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Country Life Suits The Artful Folk Of Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith

The song “Secret Heart” is now a classic of Canadiana, covered by Feist, Rod Stewart, Raul Malo and others. But there was a time after its original release in 1995 when the song and its creator Ron Sexsmith were perilously close to being passed over by history.

“The label wasn't happy with me or the record. And I was on shaky ground,” says Sexsmith about his early days in Episode 237 of The String. “But in December of that year, out of the blue, MOJO magazine in England did an annual issue called Best Thing I've Heard, or something like that. And on the cover, there's Elvis (Costello), holding my record. And that was like the shot heard around the world for me. If Elvis hadn't done that, I don't know if I would be talking to you right now.”

Sexsmith would have other issues with record labels, because he’s brilliant and independent and unusual. But in the 25 years since that close call, he’s become a cherished artist in Canada and beyond. He won the JUNO Award as the country’s best songwriter in 2005 and has been nominated for that honor eight times. His 17 albums have included acclaimed projects like 2001’s Blue Boy (produced by Steve Earle), 2002’s Cobblestone Runway (Martin Terefe) and Long Player Late Bloomer (Bob Rock). His latest, issued in mid February, is The Vivian Line, produced here in Nashville by indie rock visionary Brad Jones.

Ron Sexsmith

The title refers to the geography around Sexsmith’s home in Stratford, Ontario, where he and his wife moved about five years ago after decades as urban dwellers in busy nearby Toronto. It was “a huge upheaval” he says, but ultimately a “really really good decision.” The quiet country life has agreed with Ron, especially during the pandemic when he took long walks and conjured songs. The resulting collection is upbeat, pastoral and offers still more evidence that Sexmith possesses a mighty gift for sentiment, language and melody.

“Every album, you want to find a way into it, you know, because you don't want to keep repeating yourself,” Sexsmith says when I ask him if conceiving of albums has grown easier or more challenging with time. “ Like last time, (on his 2020 album Hermitage), I didn't play any acoustic guitar. And that was the first time I'd ever made a record like that. These little things give each album character - where you record it, the people you work with, the instrumentation.”

He sounds deeply content on the serene opener “Place Called Love,” followed by the snapping and nostalgic “What I Had In Mind.” For me the album really sets its tone with the lovely “Flower Boxes,” an homage to a Stratford handyman who became a friend over time and who then passed away suddenly. Ron’s wife Colleen had taken many photographs of him working and the fruits of his labors, and she compiled those into an album for his family. “She asked me if I would write something,” Ron tells me. “And I wrote ‘Flower Boxes’ originally just as a poem to include in this collection of photos. But you know, I can't leave anything alone, and I just started putting music to it. And so it's a close to home kind of song.”

In the hour, we talk about Ron’s relationship with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, about the legacy of the recently departed Burt Bacharach, whose artful pop was a key influence, and about Ron’s journey with his luminous voice.

Also, not to be missed, we talk about Ron’s rather hard core Twitter habit. In contrast to photographs where he maintains a studied deadpan expression, his abundant tweets are full of playful verse, mini-sketches, and puns from the brilliant to the cringe (which is the point of puns after all). “In the old days you had to use an outhouse In loo of a washroom,” he tweeted just yesterday, on his way to 145,000 tweets since he was reluctantly (so he says) coaxed into social media by his artist team. And ever the auteur, he signs them all, RS.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>