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Ron Sexsmith rides on into Nova Scotia for Halifax Jazz Festival, Sydney’s Makin’ Waves

A new album sees the singer-songwriter take more control in the studio, still seeking the ultimate in catchy adult pop perfection.
With his latest album The Last Rider, Ron Sexsmith hops on his tour pony and heads to Nova Scotia for a solo show at Makin' Waves in Sydney on Thursday and a full band show at the Halifax Jazz Festival with Blue Rodeo on Friday.

It's worth noting that one of the very first interviews I did for Local Xpress a year and a half ago was with Ron Sexsmith when the tour for his last album Carousel One made its way to the Maritimes, which just goes to show you how far my fellow striking newsroom colleagues have (or more to the point, haven't) come in the last 538 days.

On the bright side of things, the passing time has allowed another album cycle to turn, and Sexsmith is back with a sparkling 15th studio album, The Last Rider, and he has a pair of rare summertime shows in Nova Scotia, performing solo tonight (Thursday) at the Makin' Waves Festival in Sydney's Wentworth Park, with Old Man Luedecke and with his band on Friday on the waterfront main stage of the Halifax Jazz Festival with his longtime pals Blue Rodeo.

It's cold comfort to his fans in the other Atlantic provinces, but Sexsmith says he doesn't plan to be a stranger.

"We're hoping there'll be some sort of an East Coast tour eventually, it always seems to be the last thing that agents get to," he sighs from his new home in Stratford, Ont. "With Carousel One, I think we finally played the East Coast the following year after it had come out. Oh well, these things happen.

"But it's nice to be there in the summer, usually it's February, when you're wondering if your flights are going to be OK and all that. But we always love playing there, and hope to do some more shows later on."

Sexsmith says he's also looking forward to meeting up with his friends in Blue Rodeo, since his social circle has shifted in the wake of his recent shift to small-town life with his wife and fellow musician Colleen Hixenbaugh.

"I think I saw Jim Cuddy on the street once by chance, just before we moved out of Toronto," he recalls. "You know how when you're leaving and you happen to bump into all these people you haven't seen in a while?

"It's like somebody put them there, just so you could say goodbye to them. And maybe I'll get to see some other people while I'm down there, it looks like a pretty good lineup."

Sexsmith has a pretty good lineup himself, with the current band including longtime drummer Don Kerr (also in Rheostatics), keyboardist David Matheson (Moxy Fruvous), Jason Mercer (Ani DiFranco, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir) on bass and the latest in a string of fine guitarists, Kevin Lacroix (Kerr's Communism, Dave Bidini).

He calls this assemblage of musical minds "super tight" after a string of European dates, a Montreal Jazz Festival appearance and a Canada Day show with the Toronto Symphony. "So we're kinda in the zone. It's fun to get on stage when you've got all the harmonies down pat and everything's happening.

"So yeah, I'm looking forward to that."

Before Blue Rodeo takes the stage on Friday night, Sexsmith and company will have a comfortable amount of time to fit in old favourites as well as new material off The Last Rider, which is exciting for the 53-year-old songwriter as he considers the new record his first real "Ron Sexsmith band album."

Or at least the first since his 1991 indie debut Grand Opera Lane, which featured his old band the Uncool (including Kerr) plus former Blue Rodeo keyboardist Bob Wiseman, which brings things full circle to Friday night's show.

"Don's really the only member who's been on all my albums, and usually just doing harmonies, so this is really the first time in a long time," says Sexsmith, who's formerly done sessions with studio players in places like Nashville, Los Angeles and Havana. "Originally I wanted to have a producer, but I never thought I'd take on that role, too.

"But Don was there, and he actually is a producer, and we turned out to be a pretty good team, I find."

The Last Rider was largely recorded at the Tragically Hip's Bathouse Studio outside of Kingston, where all the musicians also took part in the humorous cover photo modelled after The Last Supper.

Once the bed tracks were done at the Bathouse, it was back to Kerr's own studio in Toronto to add the backing vocals, strings, horns and other touches that give Sexsmith's songs that polished pop lift.

"For a week it was just Don and me, and that was a fun week, putting on all the icing, the oohs and aahs and the other harmonies," says Sexsmith. "We work well together, and we have a nice vocal blend, and that was the fun part.

"We already knew that everything was sounding good, and now we just had to add all this extra prettiness to it."

Greater studio autonomy is one of the side-effects of shrinking album budgets for label artists — Sexsmith is on Warner Music Canada, and folk label Compass Records in the U.S. — but the singer says he was already heading toward self-production with his previous release Carousel One.

On that album, he had an able collaborator in producer/engineer Jim Scott (Dixie Chicks, Crowded House, Wilco), but Sexsmith says he really took a greater hand in defining the sound of that album than he had previously.

"I stepped into this role on that record, where I had to think, 'Where's the groove on this song?' or 'Where should the bass come in?' and all this kind of stuff. In the past, it was still collaborative; with someone like Mitchell Froom, we'd spend a week doing pre-production before we'd do the record.

"So at the Bathouse, I had all this information that I'd gleaned over the years, and I just thought, 'Oh yeah, I know what needs to happen here,' and all the guys, my bassist Jason has produced records and Dave has, too, so they formed a kind of support group. And Kevin is kind of the newbie in the band, but he's a triple threat. He plays guitar, bass and drums, and he did our amazing animated video for Radio, which I think is the best one we've ever done. He's actually Don's best friend, so he's great to have around, he just fits like a glove that way."

Naturally, the uber-catchy single Radio is one of Sexsmith's favourite songs to perform live with the band at the moment, an upbeat paean to broadcasting that contains pronounced elements of Ray Davies and the Kinks ("He's part of my musical DNA at this point"), while some listeners have pointed out a hint of early Billy Joel in Matheson's pumping piano intro.

"That was an in-the-studio decision, I just started thinking it would sound really good if it started with a piano," he recalls. "And that became the song, once we heard it that way, it was, 'Oh yeah, that's it!'

"I was thinking it sounded like Honky Cat by Elton John or something like that, but I've always worn my influences on my sleeve, and I'm never really thinking about anyone when I'm writing. I'm just writing, and to me it just sounds like 'Ron Sexsmith music.' But when it comes time to record a song, you get a sense that it's sort of a Badfinger thing or whatever, and that gives you a starting point of how to approach it."

Sexsmith's love of Elton John is well documented, and as a card-carrying member of the Rocket Man's fan club as a kid in St. Catharines it was one of his biggest professional thrills when the '70s pop icon started singing Sexsmith's praises in the 1990s. It also sends the conversation down a bit of a rabbit hole, seeing as the first record he ever bought was Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and this writer's second record was Don't Shoot Me (I'm Only the Piano Player).

"Don't Shoot Me is one of my favourites, and I even like his later ones, but those early ones where he made something like seven in a row really fast with the same band, those guys were just on fire.

"Don's approach with this record was he wanted to make the greatest Elton John record no one had heard yet, like our version of Captain Fantastic or something like that. His band all sang on his records and they were really in tune, and I had no problem with that at all, because I love those records."

2017 Halifax Jazz Festival

Thursday lineup

Main Stage: Bria Skonberg, Alana Yorke, 8:30 p.m.
St. Matt's: Dr. Lonnie Smith, 7 p.m.
1313 Hollis: I Love Horns, 8 p.m.
Carleton: The Brood, 8 p.m.; Kirsten Olivia, 11:15 p.m.

Main Stage free daytime lineup: Halifax Trombone Summit, noon; Kore, 1:15 p.m.; Only a Visitor, 2:30 p.m.; Krisanne Crowell & Solarocity, 4 p.m.
Theodore Tugboat: Splash! Bang! Boom! Jazz Lab with Ross Burns (Gypsophilia) 10 & 11 a.m.

Friday lineup

Main Stage: Blue Rodeo, Ron Sexsmith, 8:30 p.m.
St. Matt's: Andy Shauf, 7 p.m.
1313 Hollis: Creative Music Workshop Faculty, 8 p.m.
Carleton: Zim Gars, 8 p.m.; Willem Paynter's Hard Bop Collective, 11:15 p.m.

Main Stage free daytime lineup: Shirley Jackson & Her Good Rockin' Daddies, noon; Donald MacLennan, 1:15 p.m.; Allison Au, 2:30 p.m.; Los Primos, 4 p.m.
Theodore Tugboat: Splash! Bang! Boom! Jazz Lab with Bianca Palmer 10 & 11 a.m.
Alderney Library: Holly Arsenault, 1 p.m.


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Stephen Cooke

About the Author: Stephen Cooke

Stephen Cooke is an award-winning arts journalist who's been covering the local, regional and national scene for over 25 years.
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