Volume 91, Issue 50

Wednesday, November 26, 1997



Melancholy and the infinite balance

©Andrew McNaughtan
"YOU TALKIN' TO ME, PUNK?" Probably one of the most friendly guys in the music business, Ron Sexsmith, is shown here right before kicking someone's ass.

By Carey Weinberg

Gazette Staff

"You don't have any band-aids on you do you?"

An odd way to start an interview, but up-and-coming Canadian songsmith Ron Sexsmith is not your average bear.

"This is my whole world, this thumb here," he says in reference to his string-plucking digit recently damaged by an accident with a cat food can.

The St. Catharine's native is likely one of the sweetest people to dawn a guitar and guaranteed, however successful the songster becomes, he will be incapable of generating enough 'star-ego' to fuel a hibachi.

His demeanor is shy, yet confident – the same stuff with which he creates his brand of bittersweet pop guitar. This has garnered him a great deal of critical acclaim and tons of respect within the industry from the likes of Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney.

Sexsmith is a 'half-full' type of person who manages to find balance between melancholy and happiness in both style and content. Without undermining the playing abilities of the musicians, on Sexsmith's sophomore effort Other Songs, the songs (naturally) take precedence.

Balance is the impetus behind tracks like "Pretty Little Cemetery" where he takes a traditionally morbid image of a cemetery and creates a serene image of "a child's view of something that everyone has to deal with" and focuses on the love surrounding a cemetery instead of its dreary qualities.

With regard to the piece "Strawberry Blonde," Sexsmith describes the interesting aspect of the process behind making the song, which is itself a thing of beauty.

The song took him two years to complete because he had a difficult time with the lyrics, as it is based on a true story. Sexsmith is uncomfortable using one person's experience for song material as he feels as if he is prostituting the person's experience for his creation.

"The problem is it's based on about four different people. I just tried to make my own character and write my own little short story. I started off watching this little girl at the park and she was this real tomboy. I was really diggin' watching her 'cause she was just having a blast," he says reflectively. An elderly woman looking after the child then relayed the sad story of what the girl was going through.

"I'm amazed at how kids are so strong. A lot of people have messed-up childhoods, but they're really strong and they don't show it on the outside. So I started thinking about some kids I knew when I was growing up that lived down the street from me. I had this whole scene in my head the day when all these ambulances came and all the neighbours came running out to watch."

The lyrics from "Strawberry Blonde" tell the rest of the story best: "And by her face there was no way to tell / It seemed like all was well in her world / But the neighbours said her mother had lost her will / To gin and sleeping pills / It was no life for a little girl/ Still I see her face framed in blue sky / At the top of a slide coming down / And when the sirens wailed / [her mother had failed to rise] / All the neighbours stood outside / As Amanda stared at the ground."

He somehow manages to find the balance between melancholy and brightness. This quality threads the entire tapestry in the intricately, yet simply woven body of work. "It took me a few years to figure out how to tell the story so it wasn't too sad. At the same time I didn't want it to have a Hollywood ending." Sexsmith, like many contemporary artists, is veering away from the angst which has prevailed in the mid '90s.

"There's a lot of music out there that's down and I try not to dwell on that because I think it's all going on at once. In the course of a day you're up and down 50 times."

"There was a time in the Great Depression where people were writing all these great songs like "Pennies From Heaven" trying to lift everyone's spirits – I think there's something good in that and I think there's a bit of that in what I'm trying to do."

Thematically, in the song "So Young" he captures images of lost innocence and reaches in and pulls them back to appreciate anew. Inspiration for this song came from sitting on playground swings and thinking about when he reached an age where swinging made him sick. "I was on the swings and I just wanted to get past that point. I thought 'if I keep swinging it will go away' and sure enough it did." Sexsmith expresses this process as a metaphor for recapturing youth. "It's about trying to remember how not to think and how to simply be."

Within the song, Sexsmith offers a glimpse into the pure stuff existing in all of us which we sometimes lose sight of, but luckily there are artists like Ron Sexsmith who remind us how to just 'be'.

To Contact The Arts and Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997