Ron Sexsmith is still dreaming big

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WINDSOR — Ron Sexsmith has never had any artistic qualms about his desire for success.

"I never wanted to be famous: it's just about wanting your music to be heard."

The singer-songwriter — who has 25 years of experience, 12 full-length albums, a Juno award and documented acclaim from Elvis Costello, Steve Earle and Paul McCartney — has never been a household name like his heroes.

"I've always tried to have mainstream success. I never set out to be a cult artist," Sexsmith said. "All my heroes were people who made great albums, and also had hits off them. When I was growing up, someone like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young could actually have a hit on the radio. That's a career I always wanted to have, but I realized it's a whole different world out there today."

After wrapping up a tour of the U.K., Sexsmith made a point of doing a "thorough job" of Canada, and hit places he missed the first time.

"A lot of people are coming out to see the show because it's the thing going on," Sexsmith said about playing in smaller cities. "Bigger cities, all the people that are interested in my music will come to the show and know my records. With the smaller town, you're pulling in people that say, 'Oh, I heard that Ron Sexsmith guy is good.'"

Even though it was never his intention to be the under-appreciated elder statesman of Canadian folk, it's a role that he is able to live with.

"I've always had a cult following, and I've been fine with that. Retriever (released in 2004) was one of the first albums that did pretty well (in Canada). Sometimes I'll make a record that has higher profile than others, but I can usually fill a room with people that are really into my music, even though it's not something the average person will have heard about."

That sentiment seems to be Sexsmith's career in a sound byte. He's an artist who has never seen album sales that match his numerous critical accolades or ability to draw a crowd. The stagnating level of his success after so long in the game put Sexsmith into a slump.

"With the last bunch of records that I made before Long Player, I felt like my career was slipping away, and I was trying to stand up for myself."

Long Player, Late Bloomer was produced by Bob Rock, who has worked with artists like Metallica, Motley Crue and The Cult. Despite the possible genremismatch, Sexsmith was eager to try something to get out of his slump.

"It was actually Michael Bubl who told me I should work with Bob, because Bob had produced his record. That was news to me because I thought Bob only did hard rock music," Sexsmith said. "It seemed like a crazy idea, so my management sent out an email to (Bob) just to see if there was any interest. They got back to us the same day and said they were really interested. The dilemma was trying to raise the money to do it because obviously I don't have the kind of money Michael Bubl does."

The making of Long Player, Late Bloomer was the subject of a documentary called Love Shines in 2010. The film covers the writing and recording process of the album, during which Sexsmith spends a lot of time trying to crack the code to breaking out of the niche he has held since the early 1990s.

"I was frustrated with my career because I felt like it didn't have any momentum," Sexsmith said of his mindset, as documented in Love Shines. "I think the movie was a little bit over-dramatic; the director was trying to make a movie where I was in a depression. And I was, but not 24 hours a day. I'm up and down like everyone else."

Even though it's a constant motivator, Sexsmith has never had any conflicts of artistic integrity in his pursuit of success because that has always been exactly the kind of music he's wanted to create.

"I'm just a fan of pop music," Sexsmith said. "Whatever you're working on, you're just trying to get what you hear in your head onto the tape, and it sounds like a hit in my head. Sometimes it changes and goes in unexpected ways; you go with it. But I'm not sitting there thinking, 'It doesn't sound like a hit, we better put a different guitar solo on there.'"

Now nearly a year old, Long Player, Late Bloomer has reached levels of success that rival anything Sexsmith has done thus far. It reached number one in the U.K. and charted with Billboard in the United States. For the first time, one of his albums debuted in the Canadian Top 10, and was on the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize last summer.

"It's not like it did as well as Rihanna, but for my little world it was great," Sexsmith said. He began to notice that the sales of the album had an effect on the tour. "In attendance, it was probably the best tour I ever had. It's kind of bizarre, because I didn't expect that to happen at this late stage of my career."

The success of the album has given Sexsmith a tangible confirmation that his work is resulting in something.

"There were points in the past where I felt like a rock star, when you're able to tour with your band and good things are happening. I got to experience that tail end of the record industry where you record in New York and they fly you to L.A. for mastering, and there's tour buses and everything. It had been a long time since I'd felt like that.

"It's kind of silly, but it really does have an effect on your selfesteem, to feel like things are happening. People are waiting outside a venue, wanting to say, 'Hi.' All these things sound sort of frivolous, but they're the things you dream about when you're a little boy."