By David DeRocco
In a musical universe ruled by over-digitalized, over-processed, Auto-Tune filtered pop stars who take years to manufacture their quickly disposable products, it’s good to know an internationally respected singer/songwriter can step into a studio with some of the world’s most accomplished session players and roll off 16 tracks worth cherishing in just five days. Take that, Beyonce – you just got owned by Ron Sexsmith.
Carousel One is about as far removed from the Top 40 charts ruled by the likes of Queen Bey and her over-hyped colleagues as you can get. But the new release sees a return to familiar ground for Ron, the St. Catharines born singer/songwriter who’s climbed to the top of the “favourite songwriter” lists of major league artists like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello. The 2015 release – named for the luggage retrieval belt at Los Angeles airport where bags from Toronto flights are delivered – is probably Sexsmith’s most diverse album, which makes the old-school five-day recording marathon even more impressive. What did those jam-packed days in the studio look like from Sexsmith’s point of view?
“Well, the nice thing about this record is I was recording within the first 10 mintues of walking in the door,” says Sexsmith, who rolls into Molson Canadian Studio at Hamilton Place April 30th. “That’s never happened before. The producers and musicians were there the night before to set the mics and levels. When I got there (producer) Jim Scott led me right to the booth to record.”
Recording with Sexsmith on Carousel One were a collection of seasoned pros Scott had previously assembled for other recording projects: bassist Bob Glaub (whose clients have included John Lennon, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Dolly Parton, Graham Nash and hundreds of others); guitarist Jon Graboff (John Lee Hooker, Dr John); drummer Don Heffington (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Lone Justice); and keyboard player John McGinty (Dixie Chicks,Whiskeytown, Neal Casal, Matthew Sweet). While Sexsmith had worked with Glaub and Heffington on his last album, he says working with the talented collective took the stress out of the recording of Carousel One.
“They were so good, they’ve played on so many records. They knew what had to be done. It’s just that level of experience. They were like a band they were so tight. We were all playing in the studio, all seeing each other. And it’s just for me the fun part. It never felt like pulling teeth. Some sessions you try songs 20 times and can’t figure out what’s wrong. Playing with guys like that just makes you play better. We did four takes of each song, and one would always be the best take overall.”
Despite the blitzkrieg-like studio sessions there was a relaxed atmosphere throughout the recording, due in part to the soft-handed guidance of Scott, the latest producer tasked with capturing Sexsmith’s lyrical empathy and heartfelt sentimentality. He follows producers Mitchell Froon (Forever Endeavour) and Bob Rock (Long Player, Late Bloomer). The new producer meant new things to learn according to Sexsmith.
“Everyone I’ve worked with I’ve learned from. Jim was different, because he comes at it from an engineer place. He’s engineered so many great albums. With Bob, we spent three days, just the two of us, working on arrangements. With Jim it put me more in the producer chair, thinking about how the songs went. It was a different kind of experience.With the recent release of Carousel One, the inevitable press junket has started, and so too has the stereotypical labelling of Sexsmith as a “downbeat balladeer.” Sexsmith shrugs off the label, pointing to a catalogue of songs regularly laced with hope and humour. If there’s anything driving his emotional highs and lows the singer suggests, it’s the industry and not the music.
“I’m always relatively content. But the music industry is frustrating, a bit of a roller coaster. Before the album with Bob, I wasn’t happy with my career. I was at the point of asking if I should be making records anymore, they’re so expensive to make. Working with Bob, I got excited again. There’s so much up and down in the music industry. My records have always been pretty hopeful, there’s always been uptempo songs, and humour on my records. I’m often painted as melancholy, but it’s not true.”
One thing that would make Sexsmith extremely happy would be getting invited to open up the new Centre for the Arts nearing completion in his old hometown. The Tragically Hip recently opened the city’s new Meridian Centre arena, and Sexsmith would love to return to his old stomping grounds to be a part of history. “I’m excited about (the new centre opening). It would be great if they think I’d be able to fill it, it seems like a good fit for me. I always enjoyed playing the Brock Centre. I’m hoping to play St. Catharines this year.”
With 20 years under his belt since since leaving the Garden City to pursue his recording career, how does he view those golden days as a young musician unencumbered by the obligations of contracts, tours and career expectations?
“You know, it just seems kind of back then, you have this dream in your mind – I’m going to make it. I didn’t know what I thought that meant, to be a rock star or what. But I definitely had a dream. I got rejected so many times, I have so many letters from A&R people. I remember I wrote most of the songs on my first album working as a courier. I had so many songs pouring out, it was such an innocent time. Then you find yourself with a record deal, you’re under the gun in a way. My first record got great press, a lot of stuff gets written you don’t believe. But I just thought, if I’m supposed to be a good songwriter, I’m going to be a good songwriter. I’m not good at anything else. It’s something I love, something I understand.”
See Ron Sexsmith live April 30th at 8:00pm.