Music Interviews
2:36 pm
Thu January 31, 2013

Ron Sexsmith: At Midlife, A Songwriter Ponders Mortality

Originally published on Thu January 31, 2013 5:55 pm

Somehow, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith makes a case of the deep blues sound sweet. The new album Forever Endeavour is his 13th, and the songs show him, at midlife, reflecting a lot on the passage of time.

"I think there's always something comforting about sad songs," Sexsmith says. "It's a shared thing that everyone can relate to."

Speaking here with NPR's Melissa Block, Sexsmith discusses dealing with setbacks — including a health scare and an unpopular album — and how he channeled his energy into new material.


Interview Highlights

On the album's title

"When you're a songwriter, it is a bit like a forever endeavor, because you're trying to do something or write a piece of music that maybe will outlive you. It's like those Stephen Foster songs. Everybody still knows 'Camptown Races.' ... When you're a songwriter, you have a shot at immortality if you're lucky."

On the song 'Sneak Out the Back Door'

"I was feeling a bit rejected by the music industry. It's a feeling that comes and goes, I find. And I was just thinking about disappearing and not wanting to make a spectacle of myself. ... I would never be one of those guys to say, 'OK, I'm gonna do a farewell tour.' I would just not be there anymore, you know? I think that's really the best way to do it. But what happens with me is I get down and I write a bunch of songs, and then I get excited again. And so it's like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football all the time."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Somehow, the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith manages to make a case of the deep blues sound sweet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO GO")

RON SEXSMITH: (Singing) I heard the thunder, so I braced for the rain. I tried to get out from under, but all was in vain. There's no way to stop it from pouring, buckets down from the sky, when you're stuck in a cloud, and there's nowhere to go but down.

BLOCK: Ron Sexsmith's new album "Forever Endeavour" comes out next week. It's his 13th album. And the songs show him at midlife reflecting a lot on the passage of time.

Ron Sexsmith joins me now from NPR West. Ron, welcome to the program.

SEXSMITH: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You know, in the song, you're saying nowhere to go but down, but the song feels so buoyant.

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: You know, I was trying to write it almost like a Chaplin-esque kind of sad clown song, you know? And I always try to infuse some kind of hope or humor in there if possible.

BLOCK: Is there something about that tension between sadness and light or humor that you really like?

SEXSMITH: Well, I think there's always something comforting about sad songs. It's like when Bing Crosby sang all those Depression-era songs, you know? It's, you know, an emotion that I, you know, I think it's a shared thing that everyone can relate to. And, you know, I wrote that song basically because I've made my last album when I was feeling pretty good about things, and then when we started shopping it around, we've got so much rejection for it. And so I just, you know, I remember thinking nowhere to go but down and then, you know? But as I wrote the song, it made me feel better, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: ...as sad songs do, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO GO")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) It's like you're stuck in a painting, unable to cry or to make a sound, and there's nowhere to go but down.

BLOCK: A number of these songs I've read were written at a time when you were thinking a lot about your own mortality because you had a health scare.

SEXSMITH: Yeah, I had a bit of a few months of not really freaking out, but they found this lump in my throat which is always, you know, when you're a singer, it's like...

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: ...the worst news you can get. And so I was just waiting around for tests and waiting around for results and - but thankfully, I got good news. It was a benign thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's great news.

SEXSMITH: Yes.

BLOCK: But it did end up in the song somehow that period.

SEXSMITH: It did. I have a song called the "Morning Light," which is the last song on the record that, you know, it's just so great to wake up every day, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: It's, you know, and we're still here - hooray. And then I remember I was waking up. I was looking out, the light coming in the bedroom window, and there was dust, you know? And there's dust dancing around in the light, and I was thinking, well, you know, there was the ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Well, maybe that's what happens when we die. We just become this dust that joins the sunlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNING LIGHT")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) Where will we go when it's time to go? Will we turn to dust and clouds in the morning light?

BLOCK: Is it hard to write when you are so anxious about your health?

SEXSMITH: Well, when you're a writer, you kind of take everything, you know? And every little - whatever you're going through, it's kind of convenient actually when - to have an outlet like that, whatever it is. If you're in love, you can write a happy, romantic song or if you're feeling down - and I wonder what other people do that don't write. You know, they must - maybe go play golf or something. But, yeah, I just - it was on my mind. And so naturally, being a songwriter, it sort of worked its way into some of the lyrics.

BLOCK: Worked its way in, but, again, and often in a pretty jaunty way, I'm thinking about the song "Sneak Out the Backdoor"...

SEXSMITH: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: ...which was about goodbyes of all kinds but certainly has shades of talking about - too, about saying a final goodbye.

SEXSMITH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNEAK OUT THE BACKDOOR")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) Well, I never been good at goodbyes. Going to sneak out the back door. Nobody can say that I didn't try. Going to sneak out the back door. Let us ride (unintelligible) just south from the (unintelligible). And we're (unintelligible) even exist. I'm going to sneak out, sneak out the back door.

BLOCK: Ron Sexsmith, talk a bit about this song.

SEXSMITH: Well, it was kind of written around the time of "Nowhere to Go" where I was feeling a bit rejected by the music industry. It's a feeling that comes and goes that I find. And I was just thinking about disappearing or wanting - and not wanting to make a spectacle of myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNEAK OUT THE BACKDOOR")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) And when my life is over, I'm going to sneak out the backdoor. Before the mood turns so bad, I'm going to sneak out the backdoor.

That is me, though, when I'm at a party or something, and I'm not really enjoying myself. I don't want to say, hey, everybody, I'm leaving. I just sort of want to be kind of like the wind or something...

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: ...where did that Ron guy go?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNEAK OUT THE BACKDOOR")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) Sneak out the backdoor.

But in my career, I've had ups and downs, and sometimes, I get sort of fed up with it and not - it's not happening or something. And, you know, I would - I'll never be one of those guys that say, OK, I'm going to do a farewell tour. I would just not be there anymore, you know? I think that's really the best way to do it. But what happens with me is I get down and I write a bunch of songs, and I get excited again. And so it's like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football all the time, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: With better result, though.

SEXSMITH: Yeah, I hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNEAK OUT THE BACKDOOR")

BLOCK: Let's talk about the title of the album. A play on words, "Forever Endeavour," endeavor being one word in the title, but it sounds like...

SEXSMITH: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...forever and ever.

SEXSMITH: Yeah. I just thought, you know, when you're a songwriter, it is a bit like a forever endeavor because you're trying to do something or write a piece of music that maybe will outlive you, or, you know, it's like the Stephen Foster songs. Everybody still knows "Camptown Races"...

(LAUGHTER)

SEXSMITH: ...or something, you know? That's the kind of - when you're a songwriter, you have a shot at immortality if you're lucky, you know?

BLOCK: I want to end by asking you about the song "Deepens with Time"...

SEXSMITH: OK.

BLOCK: ...which starts with memories from childhood. It's like a bittersweet look backward.

SEXSMITH: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPENS WITH TIME")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) Yeah, my mother's (unintelligible) calling me home across the field so long ago. It still rings in my mind. It deepens with time.

BLOCK: And, Ron, by the end of the song, we're in a very different place. Where are we?

SEXSMITH: Well, by the end, I'm just - I say through our hands, it slips away. Through our hair, a touch of gray. And in the back of our minds, you know, and it just - it's something that you don't think about, but every now and then, you realize you're having a good time, and then it hits you that, wow, this is all maybe going to end some day, you know? And it just - it's the stuff of what we make movies and writes songs about, you know? It's like the terms of endearment. I don't know why, you know? I mean - so, yeah, it's a bittersweet song for sure. And, yeah, I'm really glad that we made it on this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPENS WITH TIME")

SEXSMITH: (Singing) I hear the song I used to know playing on my (unintelligible) radio. And I still know every line. It has deepened with time.

BLOCK: Ron Sexsmith, it's great to talk to you. Thank you.

SEXSMITH: Always. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: The new album from Ron Sexsmith is "Forever Endeavour." It's out next week.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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