This song was a bit of a turning point for me. I had been a regular at the various open stages around Toronto (mainly Fat Albert's) since the late '80s and so I was hearing all these great writers like Kyp Harness, Bob Snider, Sam Larkin, and feeling inspired and depressed at the same time. They were all so good at writing words and so it seemed to shine a light on my weakness as a lyricist at that time.
With "Secret Heart," I didn't want to go out of my way to say something simple. It was like going back to my Buddy Holly roots and trying to write a song that he might've sung while at the same time honing in on what would become my basic style and approach to song writing.
When it came time to record "Secret Heart" I was very impressionable and a little in awe of producer Mitchell Froom. He had made a record for the jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott and had said that I tended to back phrase in my singing like he did. Well, nobody had ever said anything like that to me and so in an attempt to impress Mitchell, I basically tried to sing it like Little Jimmy Scott which I still find mildly embarrassing today. In my own defense, I was just trying find my voice and to be in the moment. Sometimes I wish I would've sung it straighter but thankfully, enough people liked how I did it that it has become my most covered song.
The only other thing I want to say about it is that I played a short neck Rickenbacker guitar that wouldn't stay in tune for love or money so it's fitting that the first chord of my major label debut is slightly out of tune.
THERE'S A RHYTHM
I was at a wedding in the early '90s. I don't remember whose wedding but I was sitting with my grandma watching the young cousins dance. I was in my late 20s I guess and was already feeling like an old man. I started thinking that there must be a thread or a rhythm that runs through time and all the generations like a pulse or a heartbeat.
The next day, while delivering packages in the downtown core, I wrote the lyrics and was quite proud of them. I had a publishing deal at the time and was making demos in hopes of getting a record deal. This was one the songs that my first publisher Ronny Vance felt excited about and as well. Interscope Records signed me on the basis of this song and "Speaking With The Angel."
Problems began though when the label heard the version I did with Mitchell Froom and felt that it was all wrong. I remember Jimmy Iovine saying it sounded like Tom Waits!! Anyway, I was sort of pressured into doing another version with Daniel Lanois. Now, I'm a huge fan of Dan's but at the time I was in a foul mood because I was proud of the record I had made with Mitchell and just wanted it to come out and get on with my life. Daniel liked the demo of "There's A Rhythm" and at first, he just wanted to add instruments to that. Eventually, I talked him into doing a new take from scratch.
There were no other musicians around in Quebec where we were working so I had to play almost everything - drums, piano and even bass, while Dan played the electric guitar. A few weeks later when the label finally heard it they flipped out and insisted that I do the whole album over with Dan! It was a stressful time for me but in the end we agreed to stick it on at the end as an alternate version. Some people prefer it. I really don't know what to say. I'd still love to make an album with Lanois someday though.
PS Daniel took all the album photos as well in Quebec and Toronto's Kensington Market
WORDS WE NEVER USE
I was watching a couple on the subway on my way home from work. They seemed really unhappy to me, although I could've been wrong. I started imagining their lives at home... ignoring each other and not communicating. I've never been very good at communicating outside of songwriting (and sometimes not even in that.) So I tried to put myself in that situation even though my home life at the time was good.
I'd been really getting into Gordon Lightfoot then and musically, I hear a lot of Lightfoot in it except for the weird turn around chord at the end of each verse. I don't even know what it is, it reminds of something from The Sound Of Music.
My publisher tried to get me to take the chord out of the song but thankfully Mitchell Froom liked it! I felt it sort of elevated the folk song structure a bit and made it more European or something... like "Eres Tu" by the Spanish group Mocadades (a song I absolutely love!). I still feel it's one of my best songs and it was the one where Mitchell felt we stumbled upon my sound accidentally. We brought in this fellow Steve Amadee from a group called the Subdudes who played a home-made tambourine contraption like a drum kit. That's him who kicks off the song and who plays on "Heart With No Companion" too. It also features some nice nylon string picking by yours truly.
Recently my friend Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo was performing this very song for the Luminato tribute concert and I asked him if he was playing "the weird chord" and he said "I'm not playing that chord. I can't stand that chord." Years later "the chord" is still dividing people... sorry folks!
SUMMER BLOWIN TOWN
It's a song about the end of summer and missed opportunities but with a feeling that it'll be back again. Originally it was written as a ballad but Mitchell heard some pop potential in it and I was very excited to know that it could go a whole other way.
This is one of my favorite recordings on the debut disc. I thought it should've been a single but I never get much say in the matter. The thing I remember most of all was playing a national guitar through a distorted amp and that it was done completely live, even my little guitar solo. Actually the whole first record was tracked live without bass so everything sounded a bit incomplete until Jerry Scheff came in a few weeks later and added bass in LA right before the mixing. Jerry had played for Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Doors and he is especially incredible on this track - he totally makes it work.
Like many of the songs on my first record, Lebanon Tennessee was written while I was working as a courier. I would carry a note pad around and scribble down ideas and hum to myself. People must have thought I was insane. I was waiting to pick up a parcel from a mail room at the Royal Bank Tower when another courier came in carrying a box from Lebanon Tennessee. (It was written in big letters on the box.)
I immediately started singing "I'm going down to Lebanon Tennessee" in sort of Waylon Jennings-type voice... you know, like the song "Luckenbach Texas"??? Anyway, what started as a mock country song turned into a tune about a guy who dreams of starting over in a town where nobody knows him. I think we can all relate to that sometimes.
I didn't know anything about Lebanon Tennessee and in fact I don't even pronounce correctly. They say "Lebnin" down there but that was the point. Years later we had a tour bus driver from there and we stopped on the way to Nashville to have a look around and eat some breakfast. That's Mitchell playing an army field organ on the song and the drum fade out at the end was a happy accident courtesy of the great Jerry Marotta. It's still one of my most requested songs.
SPEAKING WITH THE ANGEL
This song more than any other song was responsible for getting me in the door so to speak. Bob Wiseman (producer of Grand Opera Lane) first heard me play it at Fat Albert's which was, at one time, the best open stage in Toronto. It took place in the basement of the Bloor Street United church. It was dark and smoky and filled with wonderful songwriters and poets who all left a big impression on me. The first time I went down I hadn't signed up to play so I was about to leave when Bob came up and offered me his spot (everybody got to play 2 songs) I played a tune called "Spending Money" and another one called "Speaking With The Angel" which I wrote for my son back in 1985. Afterwards, he offered to produce a demo for me if I could pay for the reel of tape which was, I think, about 50 dollars at the time.
Over the next few years we worked on what would become Grand Opera Lane which came out (barely) in early 1991 to zero fanfare. Unbeknownst to me, Bob had also sent the cassette down to some folks he knew at Geffen records, one man being Ronny Vance who didn't like the cassette much but loved "Speaking With The Angel." A crude showcase was arranged and a few big wigs flew down to see me but were unimpressed with my performing abilities or lack thereof. But a publishing deal was mentioned over dinner. To make a long story short, Ronny couldn't make it happen for me at Geffen but when he landed a job at the new Interscope Records about a year later, I was one of the first signings to the publishing side. The ball started rolling.
When it came time to make the actual record with Froom, this song basically had to be on it or it was a deal breaker. The dilemma for me though was that I had become pretty attached to the Grand Opera Lane version and felt funny about re-doing it but we gave it our best shot. The Froom version which most people have come to know, is a little fuller sounding but my vocal might be better on the original. At least I think so. So I'm eternally grateful for writing this song. I didn't think much of it at first. I felt it was a bit preachy but as usual, what do I know?
HEART WITH NO COMPANION
This is obviously a Leonard Cohen song. I first heard him sing it at Place Des Art in Montreal back in '85. Every word hit me like a bolt of lightning so much that I went out the next day and bought "Various Positions" just for this song. It became my daily ritual (after I learned it) to wake up and begin each day by singing this song to remind myself of what I'm doing here.
I probably should start doing that again.
Originally it was recorded for a Leonard Cohen tribute album but because I was a big nobody at the time they didn't want it, although I ended up playing guitar on Suzanne Vega's version of "Story Of Isaac."
I had recorded the Nilsson song "Good Old Desk" for my record originally and in fact, had dedicated the whole album to Harry who had recently passed away but when some people putting together a tribute record for Nilsson heard about it they asked if they could have it exclusively. So with my version of "Heart With No Companion" collecting dust we stuck it on instead and to be honest, it actually fits in better with my stuff than the Harry song. You can hear me at the beginning of the song ask "Is it rolling? Oh sorry?" Doesn't get more Canadian than that.
IN PLACE OF YOU
I first played this song for Ronny Vance at the Rhiga Royal Hotel in NYC. I remember directly afterwards he asked me "Did you say, in place of you, an empty space for me?" to which I nervously said "Um...yes." He jumped out of his chair and said that's a [email protected]#$% great song. (I could almost see dollar signs in his eyes.) He felt that I had written a hit song and so he would have me play it for anyone that he felt was important. Jimmy Iovine liked it too but Mitchell on the other hand wasn't so crazy about it. He liked it ok but he didn't believe I was the right person to sing it, that it was too R&B for my voice I guess (although now I think I could do a better job of it).
Anyway, Ronny hit the roof, to say the least, when he heard Mitchell's version and felt that we absolutely ruined it. Looking back he was probably right but we did our best, we really did. I always thought someone like Bonnie Raitt should've done this one but you can't force anyone.
The thing that I always listen for when I hear this song is right before the guitar solo, Jerry Marotta stood up and slammed the door of his drum booth. He was playing along to a drum loop and got fed up with it. The cool thing about Mitchell and engineer Tchad Blake was that they would keep stuff like that in the mix. I remember them actually trying to bring up the volume on the slamming door.
My friend Kurt Swinghammer told me once that this was his favorite song on the Ron Sexsmith record. It was definitely Mitchell Froom's favorite and in fact, it was the very first song we attempted at the very first recording session in Woodstock NY( back in April of '94). I'm here to tell you that it did not go well!! We spent the first night trying and failing miserably to get a decent take of it. It was so bad that we all had doubts on whether it was a good song and whether I even deserved a record deal.
We went to bed that first night feeling confused and a defeated. The next day, Mitchell felt it would be a good idea to get a few songs under our belt before we took another shot at "Several Miles." So we got "Secret Heart" and I think "Lebanon Tennessee" that second day and sort of got our confidence back and found our groove.
When it came time to try "Several Miles" again, Mitchell had a entirely new idea of how it should go. It was a lot murkier and mysterious sounding than our original straight up pop version but it had a vibe that seemed to work better with the lyric. The drums are pretty interesting I think. I still don't really know what they're doing exactly. We've never been able to quite pull this song off live but we'll dust it off every now and then. It was written for Kathy who was my true love at one time.
FROM A FEW STREETS OVER
This was me trying to be Ray Bradbury. I had read "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and thought it was a great book. If I was a novelist I think I would like to write scary stories, and so over the years I've written a few songs where I attempted to do just that. This was the first attempt.
It was inspired by an actual ice cream man who used to come down my street when my kids were small. I don't know if he knew I had kids but he would always park right in front of the house and so naturally the little ones were going nuts for ice cream but I didn't have any money at the time so I would be cursing him under my breath. I wrote the song about a week later at the local laundromat (which has been a productive place to be in terms of my song writing over the years). It's a sparse recording, mostly just me playing a national guitar and my foot - although Mitchell added a spooky keyboard solo in LA.
FIRST CHANCE I GET
This was a last minute addition to the session. It seemed like we were doing nothing but slow songs and I wanted to try and rock out if possible. Mitchell thought this song would be great with a half shuffle. The half shuffle is a beat that was played on a lot of the old rock'n'roll records from the '50s. It's halfway between a straight beat and a shuffle and it really swings when it's played right (listen to Little Richard for an example). So anyway, that's what we were aiming for, I'm not sure if we got close.
The night before we recorded it, Tchad Blake had gone outside and recorded the tree frogs that he heard from his room. When we arrived at the studio the next day he was playing the tree frogs over the speakers! They sounded like screaming girls or something. Anyway, we decided to put the frogs on over top of the guitar solo to give it that Beatlemania thing.
This is probably the best written song on the record. I was starting to figure out how to do it. I even wrote a little guitar intro! It features me trying to sing like Little Jimmy Scott... again. Like "Secret Heart" I wish sometimes that I would've sung it more straight but it's live and learn I guess. Dallas Green from the band "City And Colour" did a really nice job of this a few years back and I've since heard a few of his fans sing it his way which is flattering and a bit annoying at the same time.
I've started performing this one again on the recent tour. I'd forgotten how much I like singing it. I hope Tony Bennett records it someday.
It has become a bit of a tradition to end each record with a ballad. This song is near and dear to my heart. It started off as a poem that I wrote for my childhood street but not being a poet in the true sense, of course I had to set it to music.
I remember living in a small apartment on Woodbine Ave in Toronto with Jocelyne and Christopher. At night I'd have to go in the kitchen to write if everyone was sleeping. Anyway, on this particular night, I remember looking out at the moon from my kitchen window with the words in front of me and writing the music for Galbraith Street. I wanted the melody to sound like it was floating up to the sky.
I think it was the first time I ever used a diminished chord as well. I was getting crafty! This was the last song I recorded for the album too and the only one I recorded in LA. I remember my publisher Mr. Vance felt it was a good song but that I hadn't earned the right to sing a song like that yet and that I should wait a few records. I'm so happy I didn't take his advice on that one.
THERE'S A RHYTHM (alternate version)
See "There's A Rhythm" for details