Ron Sexsmith's old Portuguese landlord is to be forgiven for not having a clue what his tenant does for a living.
How could he possibly know that this 42-year-old man, forever clad in pajamas at his piano, drinking coffee, is an icon? Do icons live a full year shut inside their apartments hooked on The Amazing Race and Rock Star: INXS?
They do if they're Sexsmith, who does not have hobbies, and who spent last year getting caught up on things like TV. This year, he's off the couch and promoting his 10th album, Time Being, easily one of his finest works, marking a reunion with producer Mitchell Froom. And after 15 years turning out records of remarkably affecting bittersweet melancholy, Sexsmith is entitled to the icon title. His relevance as a songwriter, never mind a Canadian one, has touched fellow craftsmen like Paul McCartney, who invited him to his home, and Chris Martin, who asked to sing on his Cobblestone Runway album.Bob Dylan, Elton John and most famously, Elvis Costello, have sung his praises. When big names like Rod Stewart cover his songs, it helps pay the bills. He's got fiercely strong followings in Canada, England and the U.S.
Sexsmith is regarded by fans and famously talented songwriters as treasure in the attic, both prized and yet tucked away. That he remains largely commercially ignored is a long-established music world injustice. He's won a couple of Junos, but in a just world, he'd have picked up a couple of Grammys by now, too. (He's just got the one Juno now, actually. His ex-wife formed an attachment to the first Juno and Sexsmith didn't have the heart to take it.)
In a just world, he wouldn't still be playing small private shows, such as the one he gave after our interview that night at the Media Club, for a crowd of retailers who may or may not even know his work.
But Sexsmith hates such talk. Although he knows it's a relatively low figure, he's pleased with his worldwide sales of 100,000 or so for each record.
"I hear these articles about me sometimes that have a kind of 'Poor Ron' slant to them," begins Sexsmith, sitting inside a trendy, clinical-looking tea shop, a couple of weeks ago. "'Why can't he sell more records?'" he goes on about the stories.
"Like in Q magazine they gave my new album a really good review but the first line was, 'Poor Ron. Not even a duet with Chris Martin could pull him into the mainstream,' type of thing. They mean well but that doesn't help me at all.
"It's kind of crazy in a way, because I feel actually I've been quite successful. I've met most of my heroes and I feel like I exist. I don't know what it is about me that people think I should be playing the [Toronto] Skydome or that type of thing. My dream gig was Massey Hall and I finally played there a couple of weeks ago. My music isn't made for anything much bigger than those kinds of venues, anyway."
As well, Sexsmith is the humble sort who's grateful that anybody cares at all. For example, he recently performed at Leonard Cohen's book launch, and he makes it sound like it doesn't get much better than that.
"It's funny, Leonard signed a book for me that said, 'Fraternally yours,' I guess that means he sees me as a peer or something," he says, shyly.
And Sexsmith is an unlikely star, anyway. He's self-conscious and shy. His weight goes up and down, and he can't stand watching himself in his videos (the new one is animated, so he is pleased). Unbelievably, he is the father of a 20-year-old jock with washboard abs who's into hip hop.
"Very different from me," he nods.
Certainly no one would ever accuse Sexsmith of being perky, upbeat, jittery or prone to the giggles. No, Sexsmith is a serious, earnest guy with sleepy eyes and a monotone speaking voice with which he'll openly tell you how a failing marriage hung like a raincloud over earlier albums, how the love for his new girlfriend has informed his more recent albums, and how he worries about things like global warming.
He also happens to be a lot taller and trimmer than his heart-shaped face may project in pictures and video. On stage later that night, at the private performance, he even conveys a Johnny Cash sort of presence with his guitar slung across his body, wearing a dark sports jacket and shirt buttoned all the way to the top.
You'd never know it from the lighter sound, but death plays a central theme on Time Being. Sexsmith lost a couple of high school friends recently, and it's made him consider his own mortality.
"When I looked at these songs, I really liked them but I couldn't hear anything that radio would play," he says.
He may be referring to his inner skeptic. On the new record there is a lovely song called I Think We're Lost. Sexsmith, who "pulls his hair out over the lyrics," puts the song into context:
"I have a lot of anxiety in general about things ... you wonder sometimes how much time we have left here," he says. "In Canada, we've been spared a lot of horrible things in recent years -- They must be saving something really bad for us here."
For Time Being, released on Warner, Sexsmith had monetary concerns as much as creative ones.
"I didn't know what kind of budget we could come up with, and [producer Mitchell Froom] had to come down in price too -- like everyone in the record industry, it's all changing.
"I'm kind of glad I got to experience the decadence of those earlier albums ... You'd be in New York for four weeks recording and it was all catered, then we would fly to L.A. to mix. It seemed surreal looking back on it, the money they used to throw around."
Later that night, while Sexsmith played his heart out, the audience was respectfully still, except for a blonde-haired woman who talked to her friend loudly and continuously throughout the entire set.
Dirty looks would not silence this woman. If Sexsmith could hear her, which was most likely, he appeared oblivious, with his sad eyes prevailing over the stage, plowing through songs about death, love and crass commercialism.
So I pushed the "Poor Ron" thought out of my head for having to endure this woman. He'd want it that way.
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