TORONTO — Over the past few years, Ron Sexsmith found himself mired in something of a funk.
He was disappointed with his last album, 2008’s Exit Strategy of the Soul. He was frustrated with his continued lack of widespread commercial success or radio support. He was finding himself increasingly unsure of his place in the rapidly shifting music industry, and his confidence — always seemingly in short supply with Sexsmith — was dwindling.
At the time, he questioned whether he wanted to continue releasing records, given the way they would almost instantaneously fade from view.
But as always, the songs kept coming. And in pop-savvy Canadian producer Bob Rock, he felt he had finally found someone who could package his songwriting gifts to the masses.
“I’m proud of my albums, but I’ve had a lot of commercial failure,” Sexsmith said. “The records have not broken through in a way.”
“Bob Rock was just — there’s a guy who’s had nothing but success in his career . . . . Everything was pointing me in the direction of Bob.”
And coming from Sexsmith — as harsh a self-critic as you’ll likely find in the world of Canadian pop music — that’s high praise, indeed.
The tunes he was hearing, meanwhile, comprise Long Player Late Bloomer, which hit stores Tuesday.
The album combines the top-notch songwriting that fans have come to expect from Sexsmith with a higher level of production value care of Rock, the Winnipeg native famous for collaborating with Metallica, Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, the Cult and Our Lady Peace.
The seeds of the partnership were planted after Exit Strategy. Sexsmith had felt that the album’s producer, Martin Terefe — who has worked with Jason Mraz, Train and Cat Stevens — was busy and distracted, and he thought the eventual result of their efforts fell short of his ambition.
Sexsmith seemed to struggle in the aftermath. Love Shines — a Sexsmith-focused documentary scheduled to air May 14 on HBO Canada — depicts the singer stuck in a rut, worried about his weight, pondering his future and lamenting his continued inability to score a breakthrough.
Around the same time, Sexsmith watched the memorable Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, which features Rock. Sexsmith got a “good vibe” from the producer. Later, he was chatting with Grammy-winning Vancouver crooner Michael Buble, who recommended that Sexsmith work with Rock.
They met up over breakfast in L.A. and bonded over a shared love of such classic English rock bands as the Kinks and David Bowie.
For Rock’s part, he was sold on Sexsmith as soon as he heard some of the songs he was writing.
On first blush, this set of tunes seems uncommonly upbeat for the typically more downcast Sexsmith. Still, he balanced the buoyancy of the music with some slightly bittersweet lyrical turns.
Aside from an improved vocal effort from Sexsmith, what stands out is the clarity of the production. In short, Rock helped polish the singer’s reliably well-crafted tunes to a radio-ready sheen otherwise foreign for Sexsmith.
“It’s a slick record, but that’s what I was trying to do,” he explained. “I’m in Toronto, which is a very kind of hipster town, it’s very alt and indie and I don’t really feel like I fit in in that world, although everyone’s nice to me and everything . . . . I don’t have that whatever it is — that indie cred thing that you can’t really try for.”
“So I was trying to make a record that was as far away from indie and alternative as I could possibly go.”
The credibility comment seems a bit strange, given that Sexsmith has written with well-loved indie queen Feist and has received high-profile testimonials from the revered likes of Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Ray Davies.
“I may be mistaken, (but) I just always feel out of place,” he replies. “A lot of songwriters these days don’t use their own name, for example. They call themselves something else — like (Panda) Bear, Bright Eyes or something. And a lot of times I think, ’Oh, I should have called myself Parking Meter or something like that.’
“But it was too late. … I’m 47, so I’m old-fashioned that way. It’s probably all in my own head, but … I always feel like I’m playing music that their mums like or something, in a weird way.”
Still, Sexsmith suffered a setback before the record was even released.
Though “Late Bloomer” has been issued by Warner Music in Canada, the label’s American office wasn’t interested, thinking the record sounded too indie. When Sexsmith then approached indie labels, he was told the record sounded too mainstream.
While he’s now secured U.S. distribution, the frustration lingers.
“My whole career, it’s always been: ’Oh, we love Ron but we can’t sign him,’ or radio people (who say): ’Oh, I love this record, I wish I could play it.’ But I’ve gotten used to that.”
“I used to get: ’I don’t hear a single.’ I got that almost every record I’ve ever made. I didn’t ask them if there was a single. I was just like, ’What do you think about the music?’ I don’t know if there’s a single (either), but do you like music anymore?”
But Rock, who’s helped author no shortage of hits over his career, doesn’t think Sexsmith should fixate on finally landing a big radio single.
“The respect that he has a songwriter is a success in its own right,” he said. “In terms of commercial success, there’s so many things beyond what an artist can do and a producer can do in terms of making a record.
“I’ve made some really awful records that have sold quite well, and I’ve made really great records that haven’t sold anything.”
But Rock acknowledged that part of his job was occasionally helping to lift Sexsmith’s flagging spirits — he seems to have a tendency to get down on himself.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. But I kept saying: ’Dude, Paul McCartney thinks you’re a great songwriter.’ Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello — I mean, it’s like, what do you want? They ain’t talking about me.
“That’s the world he lives in, you know? … Hopefully this will give him a bit of a lift in terms of maybe trying to get what he wants. Maybe it’ll always elude him, but all you can do is try.”
Indeed, Sexsmith compares his commercial aspirations to Charlie Brown’s dogged attempts at kicking a football.
Sexsmith has contemplated quitting, but each time the first strains of a new song begin to echo through his head, he picks up his guitar and he does the only thing he can: he tries again.
“I’ve thought that if I was in a position financially to step away for a while, the idea appeals to me — just to kind of sit it out for a while and watch from the sidelines,” he said.
“You get frustrated, but then what happens is you write a bunch of new songs, and you get excited again. It’s kind of this masochistic thing … you get your hopes up, and then you go for it again, and that’s kind of the beautiful thing about people, I guess, is that they keep trying.
“I do think about disappearing sometimes, but I don’t know. Right now, man, I’m excited again.”