Ron Sexsmith faces his doubts

Stepping out of the shadows
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  March 24, 2011

BLUE BOY At times, Sexsmith was so overcome by anxiety that he wouldn’t open his eyes on stage.

Shhhh. There's a middle-aged English music legend sleeping in the shadows. Look a little bit closer and you might see the outline of his fedora and iconic Buddy Holly glasses. I'm not going to say his name, but he's just one of the members of rock's royalty who frequently lauds Toronto-based songwriter Ron Sexsmith. In fact, if you lined up all the old farts from the pages of Mojo and squeezed them, you'd have a mess of Ron Sexsmith blurbs all over the floor - odes to his melodic and lyrical mastery, his painterly portrayal of the subtlest human emotions. Yet today, I am going to let all the idols who have made Sexsmith their cause célèbre get some sleep. Because, to be honest, their words haven't accomplished enough.

Now 47 years old, the shy and enigmatic Sexsmith may finally be dodging the name droppers for good. After 11 albums over the course of 20 years (he brings his brand-new Thirty Tigers release, Long Player Late Bloomer, to T.T. the Bear's this Sunday), the Juno Award winner is thought of as the rightful heir to Gordon Lightfoot in his native Canada: a troubadour embodying the steady virtues of the kind, plaintive national spirit. And in Europe, his popularity has spread bit by bit, through the sheer force of his touring and perhaps a stronger contemporary-folk market than stateside.

Here in the United States, on the other hand, it's been nothing but heartache for Sexsmith since he was dropped by Interscope at the end of the '90s. Although he's never made a bad album (in fact, each of his albums has at least five songs that feel as if they'd existed since the dawn of time), American audiences have been reluctant to latch on. In 2001, on the heels of his fifth album, Blue Boy, Sexsmith and his band stormed Boston, playing a crisp, confident set of uplifting new songs at the now defunct Lily's in Somerville. Seven years and five albums later, the singer looked glazed and distraught at T.T.'s as he played to yet another incredibly shrinking New England audience — this time without a band.

"I put on so much weight on my last tour because I was just drinking so much, and I'd go in the dressing room and they've got chocolate bars and everything," he jokes from the house that he rents in downtown Toronto, where he lives with his wife, Colleen. It's a simple life of morning coffee and limited technology (save for the piano that he writes his songs on), but a life that's become jammed in the past few years with self-doubt and insecurity about his career, among other things. Sexsmith recalls not being able to open his eyes on stage. If he did open them, or he heard people talking, he would begin to feel anxious, as if he were disappearing. He would shift his weight in his chair and try to make himself look thin. Those close to him knew he was in trouble.

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