Standing on stage under the blue neon Troubadour sign Thursday night, Ron Sexsmith seemed like a visitor from a different era--a time three decades ago when singer-songwriters were royalty in pop music and the West Hollywood club was their castle.
Back then, industry titans and taste makers gathered each Tuesday at the Troubadour to hear the latest in a seemingly endless parade of promising new singer-songwriters . . . Elton John, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman and so on.
Sexsmith, 37, is such a marvelous song craftsman that he would have stood out even in that exalted company, quite possibly generating enough buzz to be propelled onto the sales charts.
In today's pop climate, however, being among the most gifted songwriters of his day isn't enough. Sexsmith has to settle for the praise of his peers--from Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney to Daniel Lanois and Steve Earle--and the raves of critics.
This isn't an easy time for singer-songwriters. The New Yorker nailed Sexsmith's situation recently by calling his work "exquisite, but unfashionable."
Even the backing of powerhouse Interscope Records hasn't helped him.
The first time I saw Sexsmith was at the Troubadour four years ago. He had just signed with Interscope and optimism ruled.
Despite the difficulty in getting radio exposure for singer-songwriters, there was hope on all sides that Sexsmith could find an audience. His best tunes combined warm, comforting melodies with tales that capture the quiet, everyday moment in life with a character reminiscent of Prine and a feel for mood that goes back to Johnny Mercer.
But the sales never materialized. Interscope released three Sexsmith albums that sold 48,000 copies collectively in this country, according to SoundScan. That's less than Eminem, U2 and some other top Interscope acts sell on a good afternoon.
The danger is this struggle could break Sexsmith's spirit. But he's still in love with songwriting and he's still hopeful of a wider audience.
Things, however, have taken a surprise twist in his career.
With the limited sales at Interscope, Sexsmith worried that the company might cut him loose. When he got the go-ahead for a new album last year, he switched producers--from Mitchell Froom to Earle, the acclaimed songwriter who has also struggled to find a wide audience. Sexsmith stands by the three albums with Froom, but Interscope preferred him to expand the delicate, restrained sound of the albums, he says.
The record he made with Earle and co-producer Ray Kennedy is the just-released "Blue Boy," a work whose arrangements add blues and pop-rock flavorings without sacrificing the rich detail and feeling of Sexsmith's lyrics. It's his most inviting collection since his 1997 debut, "Other Songs," and one of the year's highlights.
But it's not on Interscope. He left the label last year, by mutual agreement, he says, and signed with spinART, an alternative-minded New York indie label, where even low five-figure sales are reason enough to offer a toast.
Sexsmith, a native of Ontario, Canada, played several songs from the album Thursday, ranging from the deft wordplay of "Fool Proof," an unconvincing boast about never falling for the fairy-tale notion of love again, to "Cheap Hotel," a story of a woman's flight with her kids from an abusive relationship.
But the song that stood out was "This Song," one of the most savage tales about a musician's struggle in the record industry since Joni Mitchell's "For the Roses" three decades ago.
In the song, Sexsmith, whose voice recalls the sweet purity and fragile longing of the late Tim Hardin, talks about bringing his music to the "tower of gold" and alludes to the troubles he's known. At one point, he sings, "I came unarmed, but they've all got knives / How can this song survive?"
The assumption is the song is a reflection on the Interscope years, but it actually dates back several years. It expresses his fears about entering the music business, having heard horror stories about what to expect.
"When I wrote it, I was also looking at all the competition I'd be facing," he said before a sound check at the club. "I wondered if I could ever be heard with the music I write, going up against all the glitz and flash of other acts in the music business. I just started thinking more about the song lately, and Steve thought it would work on the record."
Sexsmith said he asked for his release at Interscope after Tom Whalley, the label president and his chief ally there, announced he'd be leaving at the end of the year to take over as head of Warner Bros. Records. Sexsmith was worried that he wouldn't have a champion for his music at the label.
Jeff Price, president of spinART, is thrilled with adding Sexsmith to his roster. "The thing I love about Ron is there is an honesty to the music. It's not like he's just trying to sound like what's in vogue, just to get on the radio. You get the feeling that if he weren't putting out records, he'd be busking on the street. Music is his life."
At the club Thursday afternoon, Sexsmith shared Price's upbeat attitude. Since leaving Interscope, he has been approached by several other major labels.
"I do feel sometimes that I was born at the wrong time," he said. "In some ways, songs feel out of date in the music business with all the emphasis on fashion and attitude. But I feel good, just having the record out and having the labels show interest in my work.
"Besides every time one of the albums come out, there seems to be some magazine talking about the new era of singer-songwriters. I just saw one about Rufus [Wainwright] and me. Maybe one of them will be right. Maybe it'll be our turn again."