- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Toronto-based singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has a note on his Web site that says, “Whenever I send out a new album, I’m always hoping it’ll bring me back some good luck or good news.”

That’s one of the reasons he dubbed his latest release “Retriever.”

So, what kind of good luck has it retrieved?

“I’m quite happy with the way things are going,” he says via phone from Tucson, Ariz., where he’s doing laundry. (He’ll appear at Arlington’s Iota Club and Cafe tonight.)

“In Canada, we’re actually charting, which has never happened before. And in the U.K., too.”

Mr. Sexsmith’s new label, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Nettwerk Records, has even outfitted the band with a touring bus.

With seven albums under his belt, Mr. Sexsmith, 40, has been at the music business his entire adult life, beginning with humble bar gigs in St. Catharines, Ontario, where as a teenager he would drive across the border to Buffalo, N.Y., for late-night beers.

Critics continually flip for his heartfelt folk-pop, and heavyweights such as Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and Elton John have publicly praised his songwriting.

“When you’re not an artist who sells a lot of records, that helps a lot,” he says. “I didn’t really have a leg to stand on.”

During the go-go ‘90s, when record labels threw money at bands only to walk away nonchalantly, Mr. Sexsmith had a secure home at a major label, Interscope Records.

By his own admission, the four albums he recorded during that period didn’t sell much. With every release, something happened at the label — a reorganization here, a consolidation there.

“But,” he says, “I felt I could survive there because they had so many successful acts, and they seemed to like having me around.”

Those days are gone, of course — “even for me,” Mr. Sexsmith says, adding, “I don’t lose sleep over it.”

At his most optimistic, Mr. Sexsmith envisions the kind of later-in-life success that artists such as Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt have enjoyed.

“Anything can happen; I’ve been building it and building it,” he says of his slow-and-steady percolation into the mainstream. (Five years after it was filmed, the movie “A Slipping-Down Life,” which features a number of his songs, finally saw the light of day last month.)

While on tour with Interscope label mates the Wallflowers, frontman Jakob Dylan confessed to Mr. Sexsmith that the runaway success of his band’s 1996 album, “Bringing Down the Horse,” had done as much harm as good: Subsequent Wallflower albums inevitably have paled in comparison.

“He said that he kind of envied my career,” Mr. Sexsmith says.

As the music biz continues its crash-and-burn battle with digital piracy and a post-‘90s hangover, Mr. Sexsmith can’t help but smile a little at the carnage. “It’s going to affect people who are used to being treated like superstars,” he says, “people who still want to have a police escort.

“There’s a big humbling coming.”

Not for him, though. In a way, his lack of commercial success has been a stroke of luck.

“If the whole industry collapsed tomorrow, I’d still be able to keep going.”

WHAT: Ron Sexsmith, with Griffin House

WHERE: Iota Club and Cafe

WHEN: Tonight at 8:30

TICKETS: $12

PHONE: 703/522-8340

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