Music: They sing his praises, but does anyone listen?

Everyone from Elvis Costello to Sir Elton thinks Ron Sexsmith is the best thing to come out of Canada since Joni Mitchell, so why then does James MacNair find him ekeing out his European tour staying in a Paris fleapit?

Poor Ron Sexsmith, he simply doesn't think he has any mystique. "I watch the guy from The Verve's video, and it's great the way he walks down the street with all that attitude and everything, but I could never do that," he says quietly. "Whatever it takes, I don't have it."

I put it to the Canadian singer-songwriter that mastering disaffection a la Ashcroft might be counter-productive. When Sexsmith's modestly titled second album, Other Songs, figured almost unanimously in the critics' "albums of 97", it was because they recognised other qualities. Here, one discovered, was a writer who could crystallise complex yet universally recognisable sentiments without relying on melodrama or grand gesture. "Child Star", for example (which was inspired by the growing pains of the boy who played Alp Alpha in the post-war American comedy series Little Rascals) is an acute and poignant exploration of what happens when precocious talent wanes. Trust me; this baby-faced 34-year-old is one of pop's poet laureates.

Intriguingly, perhaps tellingly, Sexsmith often writes away from an instrument. "When I worked as a courier in Toronto I wrote hundreds of songs," he tells me, "because when I'm walking, I tend to get the wheels rolling. The cool thing is that sometimes the melody will sound really elaborate, and then when I get back to the guitar, I'll find that it's all based around three chords. Burt Bacharach wrote that way too", he adds. "He'd be strolling around with Hal David's lyrics, trying to figure out a melody for `I'll Never Fall In Love Again'."

One of the real strengths of Sexsmith's writing is its subtlety. Elvis Costello - one of his more high-profile champions - recently remarked that he could happily listen to Other Songs for another 20 years.

Sexsmith says: "As a listener, I don't like to hear any big message. In the course of one day I can feel so many different things, so a lot of my songs are just little pep-talks to myself."

The singer spent the late Eighties in Toronto, where he played gigs as a "human jukebox", churning out Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen covers to earn money to help support his wife and their two children.

"We used to live opposite a cemetery which I quite liked because it gave me a sense that people are missed," he says. "My son was about six when I wrote a song about it. One day we passed the cemetery, and he got really choked up asking me what happens when you die. `Pretty Little Cemetery' tries to deal with that honestly, but positively."

Sexsmith is staying in a cheap hotel in Paris's red light district that might euphemistically be described as characterful, and the shoestring budget of his current tour is such that he can barely afford to pay his drummer and bass-player.

Understandably, he's a little frustrated that the glowing reviews and celebrity endorsements - Sir Elton has also raved about Other Songs - have yet to translate into significant album sales. He reckons he has upset the trade by working with Mitchell Froom, producer of the Crowded House classic Woodface. Outsiders say that Froom no longer makes radio- friendly albums. Clearly this is not a concern that Sexsmith shares. He's prepared to wait until June, when Froom will be available to start work on his third album. "Mitchell's great," he confirms. "He's like my George Martin."

Which songs does he wish he'd written? A long list includes such disparate compositions as "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "Strawberry Fields", with Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways", "one of the most perfect records ever made". "Relationship songs are the hardest to write. When I hear love songs, I get kind of insulted because it's all this `I swear I'll be there stuff'. Love's not like that."

Ron Sexsmith plays Her Majesty's Theatre, London on 1 March. `Other Songs' is out now on Interscope records.

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