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A singer-songwriter acclaimed by a galaxy of artists from Bob Dylan to Elton John, Chris Martin to Michael Bubl�, Steve Earle to Lucinda Williams for his insight into the human heart and a melodic purity (to paraphrase admirer Elvis Costello) unheard since the heyday of Paul McCartney, you’ll find him straight after the Sex Pistols in any self-respecting encyclopedia of modern music.
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That’s as close as Ron Sexsmith has ever got to in-yer-face hard rock.
For his 11th album, Long Player Late Bloomer (COOKCD531), the award-winning troubadour has paired himself with a fellow Canadian, the producer of bone-crunching classics by Metallica, M�tley Cr�e and The Cult — the genuinely named Bob Rock.
“I’d seen the Metallica documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, and I got a good vibe from Bob; he seemed the only sane person working with a band that was falling apart. Even so, I only saw Bob as a hard rock producer.
“Then, a few years back at the Juno Awards… (Canada’s prestigious music awards; Ron so far has two Junos)… I ran into Bob at the curb waiting for a car to take us to one of the after parties. I never wanted the responsibility of producing my own music. I’m always looking for a producer who can help me frame the music in a way that people will get it. ’Know any good producers?’ I asked Bob jokingly. He told me he was a fan, but I hear that sometimes and I’m skeptical.
“But at the same party there was Michael Bubl�. Michael had just worked with Bob (on the multiplatinum-selling album, Crazy Love), which came as quite a surprise to me. He told me that Bob was a pop producer and that he would be great for me. That put the idea into my head of sending him the songs to see if there was any interest there. Bob’s assistant got right back to my management saying he loved the songs.
“The hard part then was how to do it, how even to afford it. Because from the movie, I sensed he was a good person and that I could trust him. And I was right.”
The reassuring news for Ron’s loyal international fanbase is that Bob Rock’s production does full and eloquent justice to another wonderful collection of Sexsmith songs. And the great news for everyone else is that every one of them sounds like an honest-to-God hit you turn up when it pops up on the radio.
“I’ve always been trying to make pop records, and all my heroes had hit records. When I was growing up, people I loved like Elton John and Joni Mitchell were essentially album artists who also had hits. My main objective was always to make cohesive albums but a lot of my stuff sounds like what I would like to hear on the radio. I was probably born at the wrong time!”
Born in a very good year, 1964, Ron grew up in St Catharines, Ontario, a paper-mill town 20 minutes’ drive from Niagara Falls. Ron was brought up by his mother in low-income family government housing, his largely absent father leaving behind a box of Johnny Cash and Little Anthony And The Imperials singles which were Ron’s songbook primers. A daydreamer at school, Ron was selected for a creative writing class and in his high school band played lead guitar.
Ray Davies was Ron’s first and most enduring songwriting inspiration, followed by Lennon & McCartney, Paul Simon, Elton John and, he says “about 19 I started discovering people like Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot.”
As a singer, Ron admires Harry Nilsson, Bing Crosby, Bill Withers and Charlie Rich, and places himself in that crooner tradition.
Moving to Toronto, Ron formed a band called The Uncool, and released a cassette, Out Of The Duff. To support himself, Ron got a job as a foot courier, as recalled on the Long Player Late Bloomer song ‘Michael And His Dad.’
“It’s a fictional account loosely based on me and my son, Christopher, when we first moved to Toronto,” says Ron. “He was two at the time and I was looking for work. He had to tag along while I was job-hunting. We’d be in the doughnut shop and I’d read the want ads while he was bored out of his mind, wanting to go to the playground. The story of this little urchin following around his dad is kind of a Dickensian story. I’ve accumulated quite a few story songs over the years.”
With the 1989 birth of his second child Evelyne, Ron found a second income to supplement the courier wage he earned for six years when, hungry for new talent, the label Interscope signed him to a songwriting deal.
In 1991, the limited cassette release Grand Opera Lane, an album recorded with the drummer of his Toronto band The Uncool, first attracted Interscope’s interest. Four years later, the label recognized that not only had they a great songwriter on their books but a singer and guitarist of rare accomplishment too. Ron Sexsmith’s 1995 self-titled ‘proper’ debut, produced by Mitchell Froom, represented the cream of nearly 200 songs that had been road-tested for years in the bars of Ontario and was acclaimed by fans from Elvis Costello down as an instant classic, with Rod Stewart one of several artists to cover the first song, ‘Secret Heart.’
What has followed is a body of work that very few songwriting recording artists, living or dead, can match for consistently sky-high quality. As legendary record producer to artists from Dylan to U2, Daniel Lanois, told Love Shines, the documentary about the making of Ron’s new album, Long Player Late Bloomer, “Not a lot of people have Ron’s gift: the ability to see a tiny snapshot of a feeling, then expand upon it and deliver a beautiful song. The songs are like Polaroids.”