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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Cheering up the blue boy

Special to The Japan Times

Ron Sexsmith is speaking on the phone from his hotel room in Chicago, where he's the opening act for The Wallflowers. The support gig has been shoehorned into a seemingly endless tour that started last fall when the Canadian singer-songwriter released his latest album, "Cobblestone Runway." He says he'll soon have two weeks off and go home to Toronto, which that morning was given a reprieve by the World Health Organization.

News photo
Ron Sexsmith

"I think people are making a big deal of SARS. It's really only dangerous if you're planning on hanging around hospitals," he says. "Elton John canceled a show in Toronto, which is kind of silly,"

But Elton John can afford to be indulgent. Sexsmith can't. He sounds resigned to the "marathon" of constant touring. After six albums and seven years of being cited as one of pop's finest songwriters (Paul McCartney and John Hiatt have sung the 39-year-old singer's praises, and Elvis Costello mentored him), he's also grown tolerant of the often senseless priorities of the music business.

He will, for example, be playing Madison Square Garden the night before he leaves for Japan in June. "I don't really enjoy playing such a large place, to be honest," he says, in his soft monotone. "But we're opening for Coldplay and their music is kind of mellow, too. With a band you can do it, even though my music is mostly acoustic and ballady."

On the other hand, the shows with The Wallflowers and the Japan concerts are solo acoustic sets. "Cobblestone Runway," with its horns, choral harmonies, tape loops and even funk, may not be properly served by a single guitar, and Sexsmith admits that he hasn't played many of the new songs on the Wallflowers tour. "But the Japan shows will be longer and freer. And I know both venues have grand pianos."

Pop goes the question

Name a record you love that's overlooked:
Bob Dylan's "New Morning": No one ever talks about that one, but it's one of my favorite Dylan albums.

A record that influenced you but sounds nothing like your music:
The Who's "Who Are You": It's a very dramatic record. Keith Moon was fighting for his life, and The Who were struggling to stay relevant.

A record you originally hated but now love:
"Knnillssonn": I bought it when it came out in 1977, not knowing who Harry Nillson was. I hated it immediately. Much later I listened to it again, and now it's one of my all-time favorites.

Lyrics you wished you'd written:
"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" by Leonard Cohen: That's probably how I rate a songwriter, by how many songs of theirs I wished I'd written.

The record's more experimental sound can be credited to Martin Terefe, a London-based Swedish producer whom Sexsmith met when he contributed a song to a Ray Davies tribute album that Terefe was putting together. At that point, Sexsmith already had the songs written and, not being a studio maven himself, gave Terefe free rein to do whatever he wanted with them.

But "Cobblestone" is different from Sexsmith's past work in another way. Though the songs retain the gentle specificity of theme and character that highlight his work, the mood is more buoyant, which is surprising considering how he felt when he wrote them.

"It was while I was working on my last album, 'Blue Boy' (2001) -- right after I was dropped by Interscope and about the same time my family was breaking up. Everything was falling apart," he explains. "But I didn't want to do a down album. I wanted something more reassuring, something I myself wanted to hear."

Some of the tracks are downright inspirational, especially "Gold in Them Hills," which is presented in two versions, one where Sexsmith accompanies himself on piano, and another in which he duets with Coldplay's Chris Martin. Spouting uplifting bromides without a trace of irony ("If we'd get up off our knees/we'd see the forest for the trees"), Sexsmith cheers himself up and, in the process, produces one of his most heartening tunes.

"It's sort of a gospel song," he offers, but denies that it has any overt religious meaning. "I'm not religious, but I think there's evidence that people have souls. You can hear it in music and see it in art."

This idea is crystallized in "God Loves Everyone," which is as close to a topical song as anything Sexsmith has written. Prompted by the murder of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student who was tortured and killed for being gay, and a placard Sexsmith saw on a TV news report saying that homosexuals are bound for hell, the song bluntly states that no one is turned away by God, even if the person is "the killer in his cell, the atheist as well/the pure of heart, and the wild at heart."

It's a theme he's explored before. but this time he says he received a wider range of responses: "People thanked me and some people got quite upset. They don't believe in the theology that everyone gets into heaven. They think heaven is only for certain people."

Another reason the album may be lighter sounding is that, while his parting with Interscope was traumatic, it was also liberating. "The first record for Interscope was a big battle. They let me do what I wanted on the next two. They didn't bother me, but they didn't do anything for the records, either. They didn't particularly like them."

Being on Interscope meant having to work with the worldwide Universal conglomerate. "It was different in every territory. Some places you'd have all this press to do and everything set up, and other places they didn't even want you to be there." Now he sells his music to individual labels all over the world, which means he can deal directly with companies "who appreciate what I'm doing."

He's also gotten over his aversion to being an opening act. As a headliner he's limited to small venues, but as an opener he gets to connect with a larger audience. To promote "Blue Boy," he toured with Lucinda Williams.

"She came to see me play in Nashville, and we all went out for drinks after the show. She said we should tour together. At that time, I hadn't opened for anyone in a long time, but I thought, Lucinda Williams, that would be a good tour. I was thinking of her audience. If I'm going to open for somebody, I want it to be someone who's a great songwriter. Like Aimee Mann. I toured with her, too. I think [the Wallflowers'] Jakob Dylan is a great songwriter. And Chris Martin. The audience has to be relatively intelligent if they get these artists. Maybe I'll win someone over."

Overall, though, Sexsmith believes quality has declined. "People are so desperate to get behind something that they settle for a tiny bit of quality and then blow it up as if it's the greatest thing in the world. It's very calculated."

In such an environment, Sexsmith is unapologetic about his love for the great rock artists of his youth. "I can play a lot of material by my favorite songwriters by heart. Someday, I'd like to go into a studio with an acoustic guitar and record a bunch of covers. That's what I do in hotel rooms. I play songs by other people." By now, he probably has enough for 10 cover albums.

Ron Sexsmith: June 17, 7 p.m., Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo (Smash, [03] 3444-6751); June 19, 7 p.m., Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka (Smash West, [06] 6361-0313). 6,000 yen advance.

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