As soon as he chose fellow singer/songwriter Steve Earle as co-producer, Ron Sexsmith knew that his new album, "Blue Boy" (released June 5 by Cooking Vinyl/spinART), was going to be a significant depa
As soon as he chose fellow singer/songwriter Steve Earle as co-producer, Ron Sexsmith knew that his new album, "Blue Boy" (released June 5 by Cooking Vinyl/spinART), was going to be a significant departure from his previous recordings.
In 1988, Earle caught one of Sexsmith's early shows in his native Toronto, where he was playing more uptempo, rock-influenced material. Over the past decade, as the folky Sexsmith recorded three rather winsome, sometimes lavish albums with producer Mitchell Froom (Suzanne Vega, Crowded House), Earle wondered what happened to the rock'n'roll side of Sexsmith.
When the two artists met to discuss which of the many songs written for "Blue Boy" would make the album, Earle seemed determined to resurrect the Buddy Holly/Kinks side of Sexsmith that he remembered from that gig at Toronto's El Mocambo.
"I had this idea that we were gonna make a country-ish, `Car Wheels on a Gravel Road?-type record," Sexsmith says, referring to Lucinda Williams? Grammy winning 1998 set. "But when I got to Nashville and we started comparing notes and looking at the songs that we were kind of gravitating toward, Steve had it in his head that the ones that were the most interesting were the more rockin' songs."
Though certainly aware that Earle, who co-produced the set with Ray Kennedy, was favoring a rock approach, the 37-year-old Sexsmith says he couldn't have foreseen the directions he would be pulled in under their leadership. Together, the songs on "Blue Boy" form what is undoubtedly Sexsmith's most uptempo, guitar-driven effort. But, more interestingly, the album skips from genre to genre and boasts some fairly brow-raising experiments, including the jazz ballad "Fool Proof," and even a ska song, "Never Been Done."
"Just by nature, Steve is a rougher individual -- he's more in-your-face," Sexsmith says. "I think the record has those aspects. It is a bit rougher and loser."
Recording "Blue Boy," taped over six days in Nashville about a year ago, was also quite a different experience for Sexsmith, who is accustomed to a good deal of pre-production from working on his Froom-produced sets, especially 1999's "Whereabouts," which features strings and woodwinds. While "Whereabouts" was made according to a highly defined game plan, things were obviously more spontaneous on "Blue Boy."
Sexsmith explains, "When we were discussing 'Never Been Done,' Steve said, 'I don't know how you're going to feel about this, but I have this idea that I'd like to try.' He put on a couple of old ska records, like Desmond Decker and people like that. It was music [that] I was only vaguely familiar with. I thought, 'How's this gonna work exactly, because I don't sound anything like a ska singer.' In all these cases, Steve felt that I worried too much. He would say, 'Well, look at Paul Simon on "Mother and Child Reunion" [from his 1972 self-titled solo debut album]. He doesn't sound like a ska singer either.'"
Overall, Sexsmith -- who is backed by drummer Don Kerr and bassist Brad Jones on the album -- says he's pleased with the result. "It's a fun sequence. I definitely didn't want to make another record that sounded like a Mitchell Froom album. [This record is] kind of a stepping stone or a bridge to whatever else I'm going to do. After the last record, it was nice to do something that was a little more free-wheeling. We just set up and played. It was very spontaneous."
While "Blue Boy" -- a one-off project for Cooking Vinyl/spinART that will be issued by Linus Records in Canada -- sees Sexsmith exploring new musical frontiers, it also marks the end of his eight-year relationship with Interscope, a union that he says was often frustrating.
Though his stark, haunting eponymous 1995 debut was revered by critics and musicians alike -- Elvis Costello was so enamored with the album that he was photographed holding a copy of the record for U.K. music magazine Mojo, and Rod Stewart and Irish singer Mary Black have since covered songs from that album -- Sexsmith claims that Interscope disapproved of his work with Froom and pressed him to rerecord the album with Daniel Lanois. The artist agreed to work with Lanois, but the collaboration only yielded an alternate version of the song "There's a Rhythm," which was eventually tacked onto the end of "Ron Sexsmith."
"It was really stressful because I was trying to protect this record that Mitchell and I made," Sexsmith explains. "It wasn't until Elvis started talking about the record and held it up in Mojo that all of a sudden I felt that I wasn't the only one in the world that liked this record. It kind of gave me a leg to stand on in a way."
Thanks largely to the interest generated by his debut, Sexsmith's 1997 album, "Other Songs," went off without a hitch, he says. Again, Froom produced. It was around this time that Interscope Geffen A&M president Tom Whalley took over A&R duties, and Sexsmith says he began to feel more optimistic about his relationship with the label.
Froom and Sexsmith reunited once more for "Whereabouts," on which they again tried to deliver a hit. But, like its predecessors, "Whereabouts" failed to yield any substantial radio airplay or sales.
Though Interscope picked up its option for a fourth Sexsmith album, he says their relationship had gotten increasingly strained. Still, work began on "Blue Boy." But when word spread that Whalley was planning to leave Interscope for Warner Bros., Sexsmith and manager Michael Dixon began working on getting the singer out of his contract with the label. At deadline, representatives for Interscope could not be reached for comment.
After shopping the album, "Blue Boy" was picked up by U.K. label Cooking Vinyl for an international release. SpinART then licensed the disc for a U.S. release. "I wish I could say I worked my ass off to get the record, but we were just really lucky," says spinART GM/owner Jeff Price, who had worked with Cooking Vinyl chief Martin Goldschmidt on other such licensing pacts.
With ample press interest and plans for Sexsmith to appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien (June 15) and NPR, Price says the album is likely to be a success for the label, noting that success for spinART is a relative term. "If we were to [sell] 20,000 copies of this record, it would be a complete and utter success, whereas at Interscope, that would be considered a failure."
Although spinART lacks the promotional muscle of a major, Price says that Sexsmith will benefit from simply releasing the album on the indie: "It changes the way people look at the record and people's expectations of it."
Another byproduct of Sexsmith's being with Interscope is that he is now free to issue his first album, "Grand Opera Lane," previously available only on cassette. Originally, he pressed just 2,000 copies of the set, which was sold at gigs and at a handful of record stores in Canada. Mastered for the first time and carrying new liner notes from Sexsmith, it's now available on CD at maplemusic.com.
Sexsmith says he has written a slew of new songs for his next record. But, before embarking on another studio project, he?ll begin a month of U.S. dates June 11 at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Sexsmith also last year recorded "This Is Where I Belong," the title track to an upcoming tribute to the songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks.
Sexsmith says he feels as though he's embarking on a new phase of his career "in every way, really ... I spent what seems like my whole life trying to get off the ground and get that big major-label deal. But now, it seems to be changing where there are other possibilities of getting the music out there. It is kind of exciting because nobody really knows what's going to happen."