TOKYO (TR) – To hear Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith tell it, his relative popularity in Japan is due to another, more well-known troubadour.
“It was Elvis Costello in ’96,” said Sexsmith earlier this week by phone from Toronto. “It was largely due to him that anybody heard of me [in Japan] because he held up my album on the cover of Mojo magazine. It created all this interest outside of North America.”
The front of the January, 1996 issue of the magazine shows a grinning Costello pointing his right index finger at Sexsmith’s self-titled CD on label Interscope. That same year, Sexsmith, as a part of a trio, opened for Costello for shows in Osaka, Tokyo, Fukuoka and Nagoya.
“I remember the first show we played was in Osaka, and it was the first time where I showed up at the hotel and there were fans waiting for me to sign my record,” he said. “That had never happened before, and my album had been out for over a year in North America. It hadn’t done very well.”
In the two decades since, the 53-year-old has brought his folk-inspired pop to Japan on numerous occasions. Next week, the relationship — one that nearly ended — continues in Niigata Prefecture at the Fuji Rock Festival, where he will showcase tracks from his latest release (“The Last Rider“) from the Green Stage.
Sexsmith said that “The Last Rider,” released in April, is important to him since he serves as a producer along with his drummer, Don Kerr; and it is the first release in which the players are the members of his touring band.
“It was more special, it seemed, because usually I’m going to L.A. to record with [producer] Mitchell Froom or somebody, and the band is sort of learning the album, basically,” he said. “But this time we were all there; they are even on the cover of the record. It just feels like a more personal record, and more sort of a ‘Ron-centric’ kind of record.”
“The Last Rider” finds Sexsmith meandering through the ’60s and ’70s: From the ballad “Who We Are Right Now” to “Radio,” an ode to spinning the dial, to the rolling pop of “Evergreen.”
For Sexsmith, the album is a departure from his previous release, “Carousel One” — but not a big one. “There are similarities between the two,” said Sexsmith. “They are both very warm-sounding records. I think this one sounds a little more modern, which is what I was it would. I felt ‘Carousel One’ was a very retro-sounding record. All of my albums are different, but they are not radically different.”
Not “big in Japan”
Following that initial tour in 1996, Sexsmith returned to Japan regularly for each of his next few releases. In 1999, he was shown in Billboard magazine playing an in-store at Tower Records in Osaka. His manager, Michael Dixon, told the same magazine two years later that the country had become Sexsmith’s “biggest territory, with 30,000-50,000 per release.”
Sexsmith, however, never thought his popularity quite reached that stage. “The first few albums did pretty well in the U.K. as well,” he said. “But, yeah, I remember there was a time when [my manager] was telling everybody I was big in Japan. But I was never big in Japan. I had an audience there but I had an audience in Australia, I had an audience in most countries. The first two albums did sell pretty well for me [in Japan] but they sold, I think, about the same in other places.”
Regardless, his shine in Japan began to fade a few years later, around the time of the album “Retriever,” released in 2004. “There was a time where I thought we’d never go back to Japan because I thought there wasn’t an audience for me anymore,” Sexsmith said.
Sexsmith has since re-emerged as evidenced by his appearances at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2011 and 2013 and shows at Billboard Live in Tokyo in 2015. “It has been cool that, over the last 5 years or so, there has been a renewed interest, it seems,” he said.
Breakfast with McCartney
Through 15 albums, Sexsmith has been lauded by critics and industry luminaries (in addition to Costello, Bob Dylan, Elton John and Paul McCartney are fans). Commercial success, though, has remained largely elusive — a fact that he can accept.
Sexsmith believes that the records he has made over the years have never dovetailed with what radio was playing upon their release, and he also questions his singing ability all the way through the “Retriever” album.
“I never knew how to dress; I never knew how to do it,” he added. “I was trying to have hit records. It was more frustrating in that every time I made a record everyone would have sort of these expectations, and I always thought I was disappointing people, because I wasn’t becoming a big star, but I was trying to.”
Yet at the same time, he is satisfied. “I’ve had breakfast with Paul McCartney,” he said. “I’ve met most of my heroes. So in some ways I feel I’ve been very successful. I never really expected to be a rock star that played stadiums and things. I am just mostly grateful that I have a career.”
For information on tickets and access, visit the Fuji Rock Festival web site.