Ron Sexsmith Moves On With Stellar New Album, ‘Hermitage’

You’ve probably heard the old adage about location, location and location being so important to real estate. Well, as it turns out, it can apply to songwriting as well. Ron Sexsmith found that out when he moved from Toronto to Stratford, Ontario and the music just started pouring out, leading to his latest album Hermitage, a wonderful addition to his brilliant catalog.

Sexsmith spoke to American Songwriter recently about the new record and explained why the move proved so inspirational. “I’d lived in Toronto for 30 years,” he says. “My wife and I decided it was time to get out and we moved to this small town. It was a big upheaval because we’d been in the same place for over 15 years. We’d accumulated all this junk and were just trying to get it here to this small, theater town that we moved to.” 

“It was like being isolated because I didn’t really know anyone. So I’d be walking through town every day. And this is how it usually works: I would get these melodies and new ideas. I was sort of in a writing frenzy. I was even writing a musical at the same time as I was writing this record. I’d never even owned a house before, which was pretty cool, with a yard and everything. Everything about it was just very inspiring, our whole new environment.”

Sexsmith originally worried that the opposite might happen, that changing his base might somehow affect his muse. “I’d been digging my heels in for a long time. My wife probably was ready to leave the big city like five years earlier. And I was like, well, what am I going to do there, I don’t know anyone, my friends are here and that kind of stuff. It was just sort of a security issue. And I just finally gave in.”

“To be honest, I was starting to feel a bit out of place in Toronto. I’d been there for so long. I’d go to a bar where I used to know people and there’d be a whole new scene there and I felt like the old guy hanging around. Those sorts of feelings. I did worry that I’d just be bored out of my mind. But it’s been sort of the opposite actually.”

When he realized that he had enough songs for an album, Sexsmith was convinced by producer Don Kerr to play the majority of the instruments by himself. “I think it gives it sort of this kid in a candy store feel. Because I was having a blast. It never would have occurred to me to do that. And I think Don Kerr even wanted me to play drums originally. But I thought, I don’t know, drums are harder than they look. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t attempt to do that.” 

“We turned my whole house into a studio, where he was up in one room doing the drums and I was in another doing live vocals and piano at the same time. And those were the tracks. After that, it was kind of fun. Because no one is going to ask me to play bass on their records. I’ve always loved busy bass players like McCartney and that. So it was just fun to be in that situation. I don’t know if I would ever do it again. It was a lot of work too. But it was all his idea and I think it was a good one.”

The changes in Sexsmith’s life worked their way into the lyrics on Hermitage, many of which strike a bright outlook and portray characters who have made their way through hard times to grace and deliverance, often with the help of someone special at their side. These upbeat tracks fly in the face of how some people perceive his body of work.

“My past bunch of records have been heading that way anyway,” Sexsmith says of the positive tone. “There’s a blue streak here and there, every now and then. I think I got pegged early on in my career as being kind of a melancholy songwriter. Which I never really felt was accurate. At least not compared to some people, where that’s all they do is write sad songs. My heroes have always been people like Ray Davies, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, who could write about all the emotions. But definitely I feel, just from moving here, a lightness that I hadn’t felt in a while. I felt sort of like returning to my own self in a way. It’s always good for your head if you can write something that’s more upbeat anyway.”

Sexsmith is especially grateful for the tone of the record considering the way that the world is in crisis. “I didn’t know that we were going to be heading toward this horrible situation that we’re in now,” he says. “But I’m happy that I’m putting out an upbeat record, for what it’s worth. Especially the first song, ‘Spring Of The Following Year.’ Because everyone’s almost looking at this year as almost a complete write-off, especially the spring. That’s a song about tomorrow and looking forward to something.”

The nimble wordplay for which Sexsmith has always been known is a major presence on Hermitage as well, as the playful yet pointed “Dig Nation” makes clear. “Lyrics are always the hard part,” he explains. “So if you can get on a roll with something, you can see a song taking shape almost immediately. A song like ‘Dig Nation,” I was just walking to town, thinking about ‘in Dig Nation’ as if it were a town. And that got me off on this whole tangent, writing about the whole discourse these days on the internet, everyone being banished or cancelled for something. That’s kind of what I was getting at, how everyone always seems so angry. It was fun to write that one.”

Sexsmith also turned a nightmarish experience during a live performance into a catchy track on “Winery Blues.” “That was a song where I just had to get it off my chest,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know if it’s a good song or anything but it was fun to write. Without naming names, we had been asked to open up for this Canadian artist who’s a friend and Is quite well-known in Canada. And it was at the end of a very long hard tour. And we decided that would be a nice way to end off at this winery.” 

“But something went down between my sound man and their sound man. And when it came to play, I noticed that my sound man wasn’t working the board. He was actually beside the stage. And I was like, what is going on? So as a result, we had this just really bad time. It was just myself and my keyboardist. It should have been a real easy gig. So I wrote that song almost immediately. I’ve had that one kicking around for a few years and finally found a home for it.”

As is usually the case with Sexsmith, attention to meter, internal rhyme and other essential songwriting qualities too often taken for granted by lesser artists are in abundant supply throughout the album. “I’ve been such a songwriting nerd, in a way,” he says.  “I’ve done my homework. I love people like Johnny Mercer, Nilsson, Randy Newman, so many people I could name, who are great lyrically. But I would notice that even when I was first starting to write. Things like internal rhyming schemes and actually finishing a thought.” 

“Sometimes I hear somebody’s song, and I say, ‘Really, are you going to leave it there?’ You tend to get a little bit hypercritical. And I’m hypercritical of my own stuff too. But I’ve really studied all these people even when I didn’t realize I was studying them. I’m a songwriting purist, I guess. I like when the lyrics make sense. Because sometimes I hear a song that’s stream of consciousness, and it’s like, what are they saying? Or do you even know what you’re saying? Even if it sounds good. There’s some people who are very good at that too, where it’s surreal but it leaves an impression where you sort of get it. And other people, I wonder. So I’ve always tried to write concisely and I want the melody and words to be this seamless kind of thing.”

Hermitage ends with the wistful and gorgeous “Think Of You Fondly,” which was boosted by an unexpected contribution. “The cool thing about that one is that the only contribution on the record from my band is on that one and they surprised me,” Sexsmith says. “Cause where the choir section is, there was just my sort of pathetic organ solo that I’m trying to do. When I got a mix back, it had all my bandmates doing this kind of Beach Boys thing. And I didn’t see that coming. That was a nice surprise and I thought it was a nice touch. Because the last album was the first album that I’d ever recorded with my touring band. So I felt a little bad that I wasn’t including them on this one. It was nice that they got their moment because they’re all such good singers.”

“Think Of You Fondly” contains the line “The joy and sadness have become one,” which Sexsmith says sums up the theme of transformation that the album promotes. “I think the older you get, when you have all these regrets and different emotions that you carry around, it does sort of feel like that. You can look back on things fondly but also with regret. When I wrote it, I was thinking, well, I’m in this new situation now, and I was just looking back on other relationships with people that weren’t in my life anymore. I was just sending it out to a whole bunch of people actually.”

Now it’s time for the world to enjoy the record, although Sexsmith won’t try to guess where it will stand compared to his other work. “It’s hard to know if it will hold up against some of the other ones. I don’t know. I think just by the fact that I’m playing everything, it sort of automatically stands alone from all the other records. At the same time, it’s still very much like a Ron Sexsmith album. From my very first album to this one, I’ve always tried to write songs that have a point of view and a melody and this and that. And it’s just an extension.” 

“But it’s hard for me because I’m so close to them. Some people say this record or that record is their favorite and I’m always kind of surprised. Cause it’s not for me to say. At the moment, I think I’m quite pleased with this one. I think it’s an album that people who like me would appreciate.”

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