It happened that day in December when rain and windstorms swept across the isle, knocking out power lines and turning the Trans-Canada Highway into a wet tightrope across the rocky barrens.
Well, that evening.
Where else might I, with such a propensity for overvaluing hindsight, find myself than behind the jittery wheel of my under-aerodynamic feather of a car en route from Eastport to Grand Bank in the dark, the wind and rain coming at me from all directions?
I’d stopped in Clarenville to write and file a story on John Southworth, the talented Ontario songwriter whose tour landed him in town before Christmas, and whose songs and ideas stirred in me a new curiosity about the rawness of human emotion.
Experiencing something you know everyone else does too is profound, and it reminds us we’re never alone. These are the moments we’re “transported into authentic life again,” Southworth told me.
I cracked the window just enough to swap cigarette smoke for a bit of reality in a few drops of cold, hard rain. And I tossed Ron Sexsmith’s album “Cobblestone Runway” in the player.
Sexsmith didn’t join the ranks of Canada’s great songwriters by chance. He sings about trying to reconcile certainty with the known and yet-to-be-discovered possibilities that exist and will exist for us. And with such honesty and acuity.
His crooning voice was a soothing juxtaposition to the pounding rain and determined windshield wipers whose stamina my life depended on. I kept my eyes peeled as I rested my head back on the seat, then must have went into some kind of meditative state because next thing I knew I was exactly where I should be, the wind and rain with, not against, me.
Amazing how, with a bit of practice and patience, we can experience the world more and more in ways words can’t do justice.
Preoccupied with the thought, a gust of wind caught me off guard and took my car into the oncoming lane. I almost instinctively gripped the wheel and took it back to the right, glancing over to see that I’d averted a lake of water I was headed straight for in my own lane.
The wind rescued me.
Whatever explanations we come up for these things though, they’re just stories, narratives. Yet we create them, individually and collectively, and choose which of their elements to believe and which to dismiss.
“No way. So it got you out of the way of the water?”
Oh yeah, I’m now telling the story to Sexsmith on a mid-January afternoon, and he’s intrigued. We’re on the phone to talk about music and his upcoming show at The Majestic Theatre on Feb. 2.
“Cobblestone Runway,” from 1999, and his latest work, last year’s “Long Player Late Bloomer,” are testimonies to his songwriting self-therapy. Both albums, he tells me, emerged with him from periods of disillusionment.
“‘Cobblestone’ was the album I found myself — you know, a single man after 15 years in this relationship with kids and everything,” he explains.
“I was trying to write hopeful songs just for my own mind, because I was in a bit of a depressed state. So it was almost like I was trying to make a gospel album or something, with songs like ‘The Least That I Can Do’ and ‘God Loves Everyone’ and stuff like that.
“With ‘Long Player Late Bloomer,’” he continues, “that record came out of a similar place again, after the failure of a bunch of records that I made that just seemed to come out and die the next day.
“And so I was writing all these songs that were a little more bitter I think, but at the same time I wanted them to be kind of humorous. But there are hopeful songs, too, and I’m always trying to keep that element in there — I’ve never been a fan of cynical writing.”
Songs like “The Reason Why,” “Believe It When I See It” and “Miracles” explore our tendency to try and explain everything and confront the uncertainty that comes from acknowledging the possibility there are some things we may never know.
“When (people) are feeling like they’ve had a series of bad luck, it’s like, why, or why me? What’s going on? Or why isn’t this working out? We never really get an answer to these sort of things, and, you know, it’s only human to wonder about it,” says Sexsmith, pausing for a moment.
“You wonder if it’s random or whether there are things that are predestined. There’s a lot of mystery to being alive, and we don’t really know why things work out the way they do sometimes. And in terms of (‘Late Bloomer’), that song is about wanting to escape, because that’s how I was feeling.
“I wanted to leave the whole music world behind and go out into the country and be this recluse,” he laughs. “And, well, the problem is when you’re a songwriter you end up writing about it and then you want to make another record.”
That’s all right, he says. Creativity is a crucial element in navigating life, and writing, composing, singing and playing are his outlets.
“You need something to get excited about and to get back in the game, pick yourself up again. I’m not really good at a lot of things, so I sort of stumbled into this songwriting thing and it’s something I’ve really worked on.
“I have so much respect for songwriters, especially all the Canadian ones, the Lightfoots and the Leonard Cohens and all these people,” he continues. “It just seemed like a tradition that was worth trying to uphold. I don’t know what I would be doing (otherwise). I’d probably still be working as a courier and probably drinking myself to oblivion,” he chuckles. “I don’t know.”
As for making sense of things, Sexsmith says he’s weary of conviction bestowing ignorance. He just shares his journey through music, that’s all.
And on his own beliefs?
“I go back and forth,” he says. “I’m sort of a God conscious person; I’m not a religious person.
“I think it’s great to be hopeful but I don’t think it’s healthy to be overly optimistic. I think it’s good to have a bit of, you know, ‘we’ll see about that,’ in your mind. I think as I get older that’s something that is sort of taking shape up there. Because I mean nobody really knows.
“There’s lots of people that are going to tell you this is the way it is for certain, but I guess on that record that was what I was trying to get across.
“I don’t really know where I am now. Even with the title ‘Late Bloomer’, I meant it in terms of becoming more aware or maybe waking up to a reality that I tried to dismiss in the past. And that theme is all over the record.
“I’m just usually writing about whatever I’m going through … but I’m never really setting out to have some great mystery revealed to people or anything. Because I’m just in the dark like everyone else.
Sexsmith says the new album he has in the works is “a lot more introspective than ‘Long Player.’
“And I don’t know why that is, but it’s just how the songs turned out. But I think you try to (write) in a way that’s universal so people can relate to what you’re saying, and I’ve always tried to use lyrics that were conversational so nobody’s scratching their head wondering what I’m going on about.”
He may be a late bloomer, but aren’t most of us these days. Or could it be that we’re always in bloom, but just forget sometimes along the way?