Discovering the Relevance of Words
Ron Sexsmith is 13 albums into his generous career as a singer / songwriter, but it’s quite possible that you have never heard of him. While his work is known throughout his home country of Canada, it’s been a battle to break into the United States. I’ve always considered him the Canadian Elliott Smith, with his melancholy vocal stylings, and beautiful guitar work. If you’ve never heard him before, do yourself a favor, and check out his work on his website. For now, please read this wonderful interview.
TPQ: What are your earliest memories as a reader? Were there books that you remember being read as a child? Was there a favorite reading moment? Maybe a light bulb moment where you realized that you were reading a text that would define your life?
RS: I loved book as a child. I remember having an abbreviated version of Moby Dick
with pictures that were exciting and very realistically drawn. Another book that I
loved was House On Pooh Corner with all the original drawings (not the DIsney versions)
but I think the first novel that I read would that really left an impression on me was Grapes Of Wrath in Grade 9 English class….later on I saw the movie which still one of my favourite films.
TPQ: Do you remember your first lyrics? How old were you when you started writing? When did you begin to develop the style upon which you’d build your career?
RS: I used to make up my own words to songs that were on the radio, mostly because
I couldn’t always hear what they were saying correctly. I started trying to write songs in my early teens because my friends and I had started a band but they were truly terrible songs.
When I was 18, I wrote two songs that made me think that perhaps I could be a songwriter.
One was a jazzy ballad called “On The Beach” and another one was called “Dream Car”
A few years later I was a young Father and I wrote a song called “Speaking With The Angel”
that I guess became the style that I would attempt to pursue and it also landed me a publishing deal almost 10 years after and I was on my way.
TPQ: Who were the lyricists, and singer/songwriters that most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?
RS: Well…..Ray Davies was the main one, but I loved Elton John,Nilsson and Lennon and McCartney. Basically anyone who was good with melody I was drawn to.
Leonard Cohen’s writing inspired my first batch of decent songs and so I definitely
rate him very high, lyrically and melodically.
TPQ: As a Canadian artist, how do you feel you’ve been received in the United States? You’ve had a fairly successful career, but was it difficult to break into the US market? How so? Why or why not?
RS: I haven’t had much luck in the USA and there’s probably a multitude of reasons why.
A lot of it has to do with just making music that was unfashionable and not connecting at radio. Along with that I’d say a big part of my “lack of success” would be my limitations
in a visual age. I’m terrible in all my videos and lousy with photo shoots and unfortunately that’s a big part of the music biz and it has been for quite sometime. So basically I’m just lucky
to have gotten in the door and that I have an international fan base that is small but loyal.
TPQ: Your lyrics have always – to me at least – felt very honest, raw in emotion, and seem easy for the listener to take on as their own thoughts. To me, this places them in a more poetic category. Do you consider your lyrics to be poetry? Are lyrics, in general, poetry?
RS: I’d have to say “lyrics” because I’ve never written anything that wasn’t meant to be sung.
I have so much respect for poets and authors..it’s a whole other discipline that I’m not sure I possess. Words have always been the hardest part for me but I work at it and I have a lot of respect for all the great lyricists like Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter etc etc.
I’m very old fashioned when it comes to lyrics and I try to keep it simple and I’m not a fan of
“stream of consciousness type lyrics” which seems to be rampant these days.
TPQ: Who are some of your current favorite artists, and what are they bringing to the music scene that feels new and inspiring to you?
RS: One of my favourite writers and somebody who I think is a real poet is a fellow named Kyp Harness. He’s not new though, he’s been around as long as I have but he hasn’t had the same breaks that I have had. He inspires me all the time. I like Feist, Super Furry Animals.
I’m drawing a blank at the moment.
TPQ: It feels like the singer/songwriter category has been pushed to the background a bit over the last decade, especially as hip-hop, and much more radio friendly pop has been driven further into the public eye. With that in mind, it’s becoming more difficult to find good singer/songwriters. Spotify has been a huge help because I can look at the “related artists” section, and begin to branch out a bit from there. How do you feel about the online music world? Do you think your genre of music is becoming more difficult to poke through to the ears of the mainstream public? Does that bother you?
RS: The kind of songwriting that I like has definitely taken a backseat but this has been going on for sometime. I’ve always had trouble breaking through to the mainstream and I don’t expect
that I ever will. The online world of music has good and bad things about it but I think it has done more harm than good.
TPQ: Have you read any good books lately? Anything we should be grabbing in the bookstores?
RS: I’ve been mostly reading old books lately and re-reading some Dickens books that I read
20 years ago.
TPQ: Since we are The Poetry Question, we can’t leave out an important question to us: What is poetry?
RS: It’s a very difficult question to answer….. but I think it has to do with having the ability
to choose the right words to clarify something we all feel but are unable to express in words.
TPQ: And finally, if you could sit down for a drink with one artist, or musician, or author, dead or alive, who would it be, and why?
RS: Um..probably Buddy Holly..he was the reason, I got into music in the first place.
He was just 22 when he died but he wrote so many great songs and it’s likely The Beatles
wouldn’t have happened without him.