Elling Lien chats with songwriter’s songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
I have to tell you the truth: I’m a Ron Sexsmith virgin. (laugh) I just started listening to Time Being just a couple days and really enjoyed it.
Thanks. That’s like number ten or something. (laugh) Well, it’s always nice to have new listeners.
When I was telling people I was going to get the chance to talk to you one person was so excited that I tried to get her to do the interview. But she was so nervous she couldn’t even bring herself to do it.
Holy jeez! I never knew I was so intimidating.
She has happy memories of falling in love to the tune of one of your albums.
She was telling me the story last night. She remembers making love with this person to the tune of one of your albums.
Oh my god. That’s great. That’s wonderful.
She said you name was very appropriate.
It’s a hard name to live up to.
I wanted to ask you a bit about writing songs for Bing Crosbie and writing songs for Johnny Cash. Do you write songs with other people in mind very often?
Not that often. Bing Crosbie has been dead since the seventies but he’s always been one of my favourite singers. Sometimes I’ll be working on a tune and I’m in that sort of Bing zone where I’ll write it almost as if its something he would have recorded. When Johnny Cash was still alive, I remember he was making these albums near the end and there’s a few songs I was hoping I could get to him that I thought were totally up his alley. No such luck there. Normally I just write for myself.
There was a period around 2000 when I was dropped by my label. I didn’t know if I’d get another chance, if I’d be signed again. There was a period where I thought maybe I should try writing for other people. That’s how a lot of songwriters make their money. I did a song called “Foolproof” that I wrote for Diana Krall that I ended up recording. And another one called “These Days” that I wrote for someone in
So what is the approach you take?
As a writer you’re on 24 hours a day. You could be in a coffee shop and you overhear someone say something and it’s like the light bulb comes on over your head. You realize there’s an idea there or a potential for a song. That’s what it’s about. Being open to whatever is around you. There is a lot of eavesdropping involved and looking at people and thinking. If there are a lot of thing going on in your life and your mind your songs come from that too. It never really sleeps. When you’re not coming up with ideas you’re walking around trying to get further with existing ideas, trying to finish them. My head is constantly filled with these things. That’s why I don’t drive a car. I don’t want to be running people over.
You should carry some paper around with you!
Well, I do. But sometimes it’s just a melody and I have to keep singing it so I don’t forget it.
I heard an interview where you talked about that happening in
Yeah, that’s a really good example. I’m sitting around, waiting for the cab. Just played this little thing on the piano and thought “oh, that sounds like something.” Then the cab arrived so I had to go. I just kept humming that little melody until I got out of
How do you know when a song is really good?
There is something about the song that makes you want to pursue it. But sometimes a song doesn’t turn out as good as you hoped.
And the opposite is true as well. There’ve been songs where you don’t really think that much of that people really respond to. You start changing your mind on it. You just sort of have the feeling that it’s worth recording. I’ve never made a record where I didn’t believe in every song on it. I think all my records are flawed. Sometimes I don’t think I’m singing so good or sometimes the production isn’t right. But I’m proud of every single song.
But is perfection even possible?
There are different kinds of perfection. I’m not into the sort of perfection where you’re tuning everything and botoxing every note. It just becomes a kind of freak show. But there is a kind of perfection when you capture something that’s real or true. “That’s how I sang it on that day, and that’s how I played it at that time.” That’s a kind of perfection. It’s the only kind I’m able to achieve. Like Michael Jackson doing Thriller. Everything is just so perfect it becomes almost boring. But then again, that record did very well. (laugh)
You don’t like Thriller!
I’ve never liked it to be honest. Off the Wall was amazing. That was kind of a perfect album too.
Once you have the idea, how do you build on it from there?
I write a lot when I walk around. I get out, I walk, get a coffee, go to the laundromat. That’s what I do. I’m thinking the whole time about the idea. Every song takes, I’d say, a few months, sometimes two years to finish. And you finish them all at different times. I’m usually not writing one song, I’m writing a batch of songs. And that’s when you realize you have a record, when six or seven months down the road all these song ideas become complete. And you think “oh it’s time put these down on a record.”
Ron Sexsmith will be sharing the stage with Jill Barber on Friday, October 19, 8pm at Holy Heart Theatre. Tickets available at the Mile One Centre box office (576-7657) and online at www.admission.com. Doors open at 7:30pm.