Ron Sexsmith doesn’t want your pity. He wants your attention.
The Canadian singer-songwriter hired producer Bob Rock, known for his work with hard rock bands Metallica and Motley Crue, to give his delicate voice and melodies a beefier sound that might be more attractive to radio stations.
His latest album, "Long Player Late Bloomer," released last week, is an attempt to change a narrative that has come to define his career over the past two decades: critically-praised artist with talent that awes his peers who can’t get noticed beyond a small, devoted audience.
It’s a trap that frustrates him yet, truth be told, he’s also complicit in setting.
His new music is accompanied by an intimate film that follows Sexsmith history and through the recording of his album. "Love Shines," named for one of his new songs, reveals a sometimes painfully shy singer who struggles with self-confidence during a frustrating time in his career. The filmmaker’s original idea was to catch Sexsmith at a triumphal moment — fulfilling a goal to play Toronto’s Massey Hall — yet ultimately feels sad.
"I didn’t set out to be some sort of cult thing, or struggling thing," Sexsmith said. "It just sort of turned out that way."
Sexsmith’s goal was to be like artists he admired, Elton John or Joni Mitchell, who made quality music that was also popular. Musicians Feist, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle are among those in the film who testify to Sexsmith’s gift for melody. If anything, he’s been cursed by consistency: solid, subtle work that hasn’t raised to the level of attention-grabbing, particularly in a market ill-suited for singers like him. He’s had some commercial success in Canada, and his song "Whatever It Takes" won a Juno Award for songwriting in 2005.
He was particularly disappointed at how the last couple of albums have disappeared commercially.
He had admired Rock after seeing his calming influence on display in a movie about Metallica’s inner torment. They met once on a street corner outside an event in Canada and that night, singer Michael Buble, who had recorded one of Sexsmith’s songs, testified about Rock’s ability.
"Up to that point I assumed, like a lot of other people, that all he did was heavy rock," Sexsmith said. "Then I started getting these crazy ideas in my head (to work with Rock). The first few people I mentioned it to sort of laughed at me. They thought it was hilarious. I don’t know if they were laughing at the idea, or that he would consider doing it."
They cut a deal — Sexsmith can’t afford Metallica prices — and went to work with some veteran session musicians in Los Angeles.
"I was just really amazed at what I was hearing from the speakers," Sexsmith said. "It just sounded like a whole new level to me, that I had been trying to achieve but had never been able to get to."
He felt like he was in the big leagues, and in good hands.
"I know what I’m good at," he said. "I know I’m a good songwriter and all that, but when you strike out every time you step up to the plate, you lose your self-confidence."
For all the music’s exuberance, the album lyrics reflect a dark period. Listen to disc’s opening lines: "Heavy clouds all hanging around, and the sun refuses to shine. If you’re bent on bringing me back down, better get in line."
His direction is already a matter of some debate. Douglas Arrowsmith, director of "Love Shines," said he went out for drinks with some fellow directors following a film festival and there was a long discussion about whether Sexsmith should have hired Rock or whether the music had enough charm to stand on its own.
Sexsmith is proud of the results, and said his fans shouldn’t be frightened by them.
"It’s not a shy record," he said. "It just comes crashing through the doors … Even if someone listens to this album and doesn’t like the production, I don’t think they can dispute the songs. If you’re a fan of my stuff, you’ll see that the songs are as good as any I’ve done. If you’re not a fan, it’s just another bad Ron Sexsmith record."
What happened next would be comical if it weren’t so infuriating. Sexsmith is on a Warner Bros. label in Canada, and hoped that big company would get behind his US release. They rejected "Long Player, Late Bloomer," perhaps deeming his sales track record too risky. He tried to shop it at the influential Nonesuch indie label, and said executives there found the music "too commercial." (A spokeswoman said Nonesuch doesn’t discuss publicly why an artist isn’t signed, and didn’t discuss it with Sexsmith).
Caught in-between again.
"After a couple of months of trying to find a deal for it, all my enthusiasm went completely out the window, because I thought, ‘What is going on? Can’t they hear it?’" Sexsmith said. "‘What about the music?’ Forget what’s going on on the radio or whatever, what do you think about the music? Since we’ve got it situated, I’m excited about it again."
He’s releasing the music on his own Ronboy Rhymes label and working with the prominent Thirty Tigers distribution company. That certainly makes it harder to get his music heard but, with all the changes in the industry, not impossible.
The label limbo was a can’t-resist climax for Arrowsmith’s movie, in part because it seemed the story of Sexsmith’s life.
That bothered Sexsmith, because he felt the film perpetuates a sad story that he’s trying to break free of.
Arrowsmith said he wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze Sexsmith, but he hoped his subject saw parts of himself that he might not otherwise recognize. Part of the frustration of Sexsmith’s musical colleagues is that they wonder when the singer will stop worrying about "making it," and realize that he already has arrived, in terms of his talent making an impact on people. "He wants to achieve fame," Arrowsmith said. "He wants to achieve it on his own terms and actually on his own. He doesn’t want to seem like he’s stepping on people. That seems very important to him, even at the cost of maybe missing it in his own lifetime."
Sexsmith was concerned about the film including testimony from some of his peers about his talent, Arrowsmith said.
"That makes him uncomfortable because part of his narrative is that he doesn’t think of himself as the person they are talking about in that way," he said. "I think it’s been hard for him to realize how good he really is."