There are few venues as intimate and outstanding as the Clive Davis Theater, located inside the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live. Since opening a few years ago, the venue has hosted the celebrated likes of Ringo Starr, John Mellencamp, Los Lobos and more than 200 other famed artists for public programs that combine interviews and performance.
On Thursday night (Jan. 30, 2013), it was Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s first chance to visit the 200-seat theater, where he spent an hour or so discussing his music with the GRAMMY Foundation’s Scott Goldman and answering questions from members of the audience before performing four songs off his forthcoming album Forever Endeavour (set for release on Feb. 5).
Ron Sexsmith, left, with Scott Goldman at GRAMMY Museum
The intimate setting provided a perfect forum for the introspective Sexsmith to open up about the trials of being a cult hero who has admittedly remained mostly under the commercial music radar even while crafting a bold and timeless body of original work (Forever Endeavour will mark his 13th full-length release since his 1991 indie debut).
He said even in periods when he experienced low album sales and fought pressure from record label executives to change his musical approach or material selection, it has been the praise of audiences and his own heroes (Elvis Costello, Elton John and Paul McCartney are among his biggest fans) who have helped propel him forward.
“I’ve always described (it like) Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. You write a bunch of songs and get your hopes up again,” he said of his drive to continue to write.
Sexsmith’s style, which he likened as “Canadian troubadour with all the British music I love,” carries on the songwriting-centric tradition of Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and Harry Nilsson. But because the 49-year-old Sexsmith’s songs come from such a personal place and blend so many styles together, comparisons with other artists fall away.
“Every song has its own set of circumstances,” he explained.
While Sexsmith has written songs on guitar and piano, he actually prefers to write the songs freestyle, noting the melody is then free to go where it wants.
“I keep writing more songs. The last record (2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer) surprised me. Over in the U.K. I even got a sales award. I had these songs (before recording that album and wondered) what’s the point of making a record that nobody’s going to buy.”
However, because that album came in the wake of the 2010 documentary Love Shines (a favorite on the international film festival circuit and widely viewed via showings on BBC in England and HBO Canada), the Bob Rock-produced disc garnered well-deserved attention in his native Canada and Europe. He hopes his new album receives the same kind of well-deserved attention.
“We finished the new record in January (2012),” said Sexsmith, who worked with producer Mitchell Froom on the disc.
“I didn’t listen to it for most of the year (2012). Now that it’s about to come out, I’m excited again.”
But it was a simple statement a few minutes later that summed up why Sexsmith is so special: “I love songwriting so much.”
Armed with his six-string Taylor acoustic guitar, Sexsmith performed four new songs that carry on in the artfully-melodic and confessional style that sets him apart from so many other modern tunesmiths.
He opened with “Sneak Out the Back Door,” a beautiful acoustic song blending his unique style of finger picking guitar playing with rich singing and emotive lyrics.
The second song “Nowhere Is” proved to be a melodious song that further explored the sorrowful territory that he seemingly owns, courtesy of vivid images like: “I shoved everything I own into a room of regret.”
During the short set, he noted that one of his favorite pastimes is listening to vinyl albums while drinking wine. That was the perfect intro to his performance of the aptly-titled “Me, Myself and Wine.”
He closed with the majestic “Nowhere to Go,” whose eloquent lyrics detail the struggles of life. On the album, the song is supported by strings and a lush baroque pop arrangement. But even accompanied by his lone guitar the sparse version he offered up at the Clive Davis Theater, the song’s power was clear.