RON SEXSMITH with JOHN MANN at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Wednesday (October 2). $17. 416-870-8000.
It's an odd thing, the sound of Ron Sexsmith crooning over a house beat.Cher-ized synthetic vocals and thumping club groove aside, the peculiar prospect isn't the sound of a man stuck in the grips of a mid-life musical crisis or a singer/songwriter trying to buy himself a hit, but proof of the amount of trust Sexsmith puts in his producer.
As a songwriter, Sexsmith's accomplishments and admirers are well documented. But on his recordings, he's always been at least partially defined by the people working behind the mixing desk. His sound was elegantly shaped by Mitchell Froom, stripped down by Steve Earle and has now been reworked by Swedish producer Martin Terefe.
Sexsmith's new Cobblestone Runway disc is his most sonically surprising album to date. The songwriter completed the songs and then turned the tapes over to Terefe for further twiddling. What he got back was a radically different record, filled with gospel choirs, string sections, drum machines and, yes, house beats. It was an unusual process, to say the least.
"I'm normally not this absent from my own recordings," Sexsmith laughs during a rare break at home. "I was there for all the parts that count, and when I left it already sounded like a record, but I basically told Martin to go nuts and add what he felt the songs needed.
"I've always tried to make different records, and I always look to the producer to steer me in that direction. It's funny, because everyone I work with is always really critical about the last guy. They all have very strong ideas, and they all think they know what you need. I'm very trusting in the people I work with."
As lush as the acoustic, string-drenched soul of songs like These Days and The Less I Know is, it's the club-friendly Dragonfly On Bay Street that's bound to garner Sexsmith the strangest looks.
The songwriter hasn't given up his acoustic for a pair of baggy pants and late nights on the dance floor at Roxy Blu, and was as shocked as anyone to hear the finished tune.
"When we recorded that song, it actually sounded more like a Clash tune," he laughs. "Martin thought it was plodding along, though, so when I was gone, he removed everything except for my voice and built this new track around it.
"Yeah, I was pretty shocked when I heard it. I'm trying to be open-minded about music, but I really don't know much about that style of music at all. My son is 18 and he's really into techno and rap, so I hear a lot of it. Some of it is interesting and some of it I find really repellent, especially the Euro disco kind of stuff. This sounds more like retro disco to me."
At the very least, the track will add another component to the usual discussions about whether this will finally be the record to break Sexsmith into the mainstream. Even immediately after the song was completed, Sexsmith was talking about it being the most "contemporary-sounding" thing he'd ever recorded.
"With each record, I'm trying to reach a wider audience, but I always get so far and then I'm shut out," he reflects. "It's not like I had this mastermind idea that we'd get Martin in and record something with a bunch of loops and suddenly be popular, but you want to progress and evolve.
"As long as the record still sounds like me, I have no problem with that."firstname.lastname@example.org