plus Jessica Mitchell
Ron Sexsmith’s status as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation has never been in doubt, even from the moment he released his self-titled major-label debut album in 1995. His career arc since then has in some ways been a study in how that pure ability has been handled in the studio. On his 12 albums, Sexsmith has worked with some of music’s most celebrated producers—Daniel Lanois, Mitchell Froom, Tchad Blake, Ray Kennedy, Martin Terefe, Bob Rock and Jim Scott. With all of that experience, it would stand to reason that Sexsmith has learned a thing or two over the years about how to make a record.
That thought indeed struck him as the Toronto-based Sexsmith prepared to make his thirteenth solo album, The Last Rider, where for the first time he, in tandem with his longtime collaborator Don Kerr, has taken matters into his own hands as a producer. For fans, that fact alone should heighten the listening experience in terms of getting to hear Sexsmith’s complete musical vision for the first time. However, it’s not much of a surprise that, as an artist whose music never fails to draw out raw emotions, Sexsmith the producer has made The Last Rider perhaps the most intimate and welcoming album in his catalogue.
Over the course of its 15 tracks—most clocking in at about the three-minute mark—The Last Rider is by turns romantic, bittersweet, uplifting and humourous, as might be expected. But what is most striking is how naturally the songs flow together, and how at ease Sexsmith sounds, accompanied by his trusted touring band who know his creative process perhaps better than anyone.
“I did have this wealth of knowledge about recording that I didn’t really realize I had,” Sexsmith says. “And being able to rely on Don’s skills at getting great sounds, and just making sure everything ran smoothly, was essential. I think for a long time I just may have been afraid to produce myself. I mean, if someone ever said to me, ‘I don’t like the way this album was produced,’ I could always say, ‘Well, I didn’t do it.’”
Working primarily at The Bathouse, The Tragically Hip’s studio near Kingston, Ontario, sessions for The Last Rider were a marked change in approach from Sexsmith’s previous album, 2015’s Carousel One, which was laid down in less than a week in L.A. with a host of the city’s top session stars. While that was not an unfamiliar setting for Sexsmith, and one he admittedly thrives in, it’s not the kind of pressure any artist should be under every time they go into the studio. For The Last Rider, then, it felt right to stay closer to home, and as a result, Sexsmith believes it’s one of his most personal albums.
“I didn’t plan on it being that way, but as we were assembling the songs, this theme did start to emerge about leaving the city, which my wife and I are going to be doing soon, and other big life changes.” Sexsmith adds, “The album title stems from these thoughts I’d had going into it that this actually might be my last album for a while, just because of how frustrating the music business can be these days. But the way everything played out, it felt a lot more free, so I guess we’ll see what happens.”
Like one of his main inspirations, Ray Davies, Sexsmith is a rare songwriter able to extract profound meaning from even the most mundane aspects of urban life, while simultaneously lamenting what remains of our simpler past. But always, hope springs eternal. That’s evident from the outset of The Last Rider with “It Won’t Last For Long,” a song that couldn’t be a more appropriate balm for the scars left by 2016. The same can be said of “Dreams Are Bigger,” whose chorus, “If your dreams are bigger than your worries, you won’t have to worry about your dreams,” should particularly appeal to Sexsmith’s Twitter followers familiar with his love of clever wordplay.
“I think my sound has always been a combination of the folk singers and British Invasion artists I’ve always admired,” he says. “At this point, it’s just second nature for me to write short, melodic songs that say everything you want to say. But having my band totally involved on this album maybe brought out more in the songs than on other recent albums. It felt special, anyway.”
On the album’s most poignant moments, such as “Man At The Gate (1913),” there certainly is a sense—as with all of Sexsmith’s best songs—that life if often richer than we make it out be, and we should embrace that. In this case, the point is made through a photograph taken a century ago in front of Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods park, conveying the message that although styles and attitudes change, we all remain connected through our shared humanity. It all sprang from Sexsmith simply buying a postcard at a shop near his house one day.
“In the photograph, there’s a man walking by the gates of the park, and you can barely see him, but that’s the kind of thing I easily get obsessed about,” he says. “I couldn’t stop thinking that that guy could be me 100 years later, and really could be all of us. We’re here for a certain period of time, and we leave behind these traces of who we were that have the potential to inspire people who come along after we’re gone. To me, that’s really beautiful.”
Although Ron Sexsmith has more music to come that is sure to inspire us, for now The Last Rider is the latest addition to a body of work as impressive as any produced in the past quarter-century. Through truth and simplicity, Sexsmith’s songs help us get closer to the things that make us better people, meaning that an album like The Last Rider is as necessary now as anything he has ever done.