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How Ron Sexsmith ended up singing with Leonard Cohen in an Indigo basement | Radio-Canada

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Day 61:59 p.m.Canadian music legend Ron Sexsmith reflects on remarkable career with 60th birthday concert at Massey Hall

Canadian songwriting legend Ron Sexsmith has turned 60 and will celebrate the birthday with a concert at Massey Hall on Thursday.

A favorite of legends like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, Sexsmith has headlined this iconic venue on several occasions.

But Sexsmith still finds playing there a privilege, partly because of his annual trips to see Gordon Lightfoot at Massey each year.

“It’s sort of become my favorite thing to do as a Canadian, to go to Massey Hall and hear Gordon’s voice,” Sexsmith said. Day 6 guest host Manjula Selvarajah. “Back when I was a courier, I couldn’t afford a ticket and I listened to the show by the stage door… It was one of those venues where I thought I could access it one day.”

In a career-spanning setlist, the songwriter will draw inspiration from his four-decade-old songbook.

In a conversation with Selvarajah, Sexsmith talked about his long career and some of the strangest collaborations he’s had with other musicians.

Here is part of that conversation.

What was it about this particular stage, your sixties, that made you want to have this type of retrospective concert?

A few years ago, I was approaching sixty and I was dreading it, like many people. But I didn’t want to dread it, I wanted to try to sort of accept it… I thought maybe I should just make some sort of playlist, or I thought maybe the label might be interested in one sort of retrospective album. , but there’s not, with my career, there’s not a lot of incentive, you know, from people to do things like that.

Illuminated sign for Massey Hall above a busy street at night
Operating since 1894, Massey Hall reopened in 2021 after three years of renovations. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

And so I really started thinking, maybe I could do a show and have my band. I haven’t played with my band since 2018.

When you talk to most music critics who are passionate about music, they will tell you that Ron Sexsmith is an essential part of the Canadian songbook. What do you say to that?

It’s hard to know. I tried to contribute to the Canadian songbook. I mean, from day one, I was very upfront about where I was from when I traveled abroad. And I really feel love when I travel to the UK and Ireland and all these places because when I started, the heroes were like Leonard and Joni and Neil and Gord, and that meant to me to try to follow in their footsteps.

But it’s hard to really know where I stand in all of this. And, you know, sometimes I don’t really know if my contribution is really valuable. And I mean it. You live so much in your head that you really don’t know. You know how it all ends up. But I definitely tried to have a body of work. I’m really proud of the music that I’ve made and I think my career has been pretty interesting, you know? I mean, I’ve met most of my heroes. I’ve had my songs covered by a lot of people. So many things have happened that seemed unimaginable when I was a child.

You are a musician musician. You’ve collaborated with a ton of musicians: Coldplay, The Kinks, John Prine. Is there anyone you’ve really enjoyed playing with over the years?

One of my heroes was Nick Lowe from England. I mean, we had the Elvis Costello albums, some of which Nick, you know, he produced and he was the first person I ever heard cover one of my songs. But we’ve done quite a bit of touring together, and you know, we usually sing a song or two during the encore, and we just, I think, sound really good. I always thought we should have made a record or something together, but we speak the same language musically. We have a lot of the same influences.

Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page Ron Sexsmith, middle, and Leonard Cohen sing as a trio
Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page, left, Ron Sexsmith, middle, and Leonard Cohen sing in front of thousands in 2006 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

I heard you were supposed to play with Leonard Cohen. And, if I’m right, in an Indigo’s cellar?

He came out with a book, and so the Indigo people thought it would be great if I came, you know, there’s going to be this kind of celebration, and you know, the Barenaked Ladies were there.

But when I got to the bookstore, they took me to the basement. As I got off the elevator, I could hear people singing and (there were) a group of other people all singing with Leonard in sort of a circle. But I was shy about it. So I was kind of on the wall. And Leonard saw me and he came over and he put his arm in my arm, and he brought me into the circle, which was one of the nicest things. And someone handed me a guitar.

I have the superpower of remembering lyrics… so I just started playing all these obscure Leonard songs. And Leonard was right next to me. And so when it came time to hit the streets, we were playing to about 5,000 people or so. Leonard, you know, he said he didn’t want to sing, but I could tell he wanted to sing. So when we got up there, you could see this on YouTube. We start to play Goodbye, Marianne, I sing the first verse, and out of the corner of my eye, I see Leonard. I thought, “Well, no one wants to hear me sing a song.”

WATCH | Ron Sexsmith sings with Leonard Cohen

So I whispered the first phrase in Leonard’s ear, and he stood up and sang and everyone went crazy. And so if you see him at the beginning of each verse, I’m going to whisper in his ear because it’s been so long since he’s done that.


Questions and answers edited for clarity and length. Interview conducted by Laurie Allen.

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