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Singer-Songwriter Martin Sexton Comes Into His Own

By Michael Henningsen

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  If there's a singular theme that binds Martin Sexton's songs together, it's freedom--a vision of supreme, personal and artistic freedom that permeates the 11 songs that make up Black Sheep, the Boston musician's latest release. Songs like the album's title track, "Glory Bound" and "Freedom of the Road"--on which he sings literally of packing up and heading out on the road--offer in-depth, if brief, glimpses of Sexton's vagabond self. Songs like "Diner," "Caught in the Rain," "Love Keep Us Together," "Over My Head" and "Can't Stop Thinking About You," on the other hand, are more careful and secretive with their metaphors. For Martin Sexton, freedom seems to embody itself in everything from the standard R&B and blues fare of suitcases and trains to more personalized symbolism that hints variously at his young son, roadside diners, rusted red Chevys, crazy oceans and the ships of his dreams that sail them. But regardless of how he chooses to express his want of the road, his desire for connectedness, neverending nights in lovers' arms and a place, ultimately, to come home to, he does it like no one man with an acoustic guitar you've ever heard. Martin Sexton, in his own poetic, poignant way, adds meaning to lives he doesn't even know exist. His is music that touches without reaching out, soars without ever leaving the ground. Passion for his craft--to a rare degree--is essential to the transcendent quality of the music that results. And Sexton's noble humility is vital to his role as one of the most important contributors to the contemporary folk music of his day.

"My first dream was to be an actor, and then a stuntman and then, I think, a rock star," says Sexton in his whisper of a baritone. "I got my first guitar when I was 14, and I had my first band when I was 15--singing rock and roll. That's when I decided that music was what I wanted to do. My life's dream at that point was to be like the Beatles or Peter Frampton. Frampton Comes Alive was an important record for me," he says, with a sentimental chuckle.

Born into a not particularly musical family of 14 in Syracuse, N.Y., Sexton's infatuation with singing came from listening to Stevie Wonder records while his guitar influences included such rockers as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Eventually, Sexton's dreams led him into the world of possibility and disappointment that comes in making the transition from playing in bands as a hobby to playing in bands as a career. "As I got a little older, the dream of being a professional musician became a little more practical," he says. "It went from the rock-star dream to the dream of making a living playing music--from a 16 year old playing Jimi Hendrix and not making a dime to a 19 year old singing Top 40 and making some money."

After a few years spent hashing out thankless covers with a series of Top 40 bands, Sexton began to feel the itch--the desire to go his own musical way. "Top 40 was sort of gross, '80s music--Huey Lewis, Ah-Ha, Tears For Fears--and I was forced to sing all of this stuff that was way out of my range," says Sexton of his bar band days. "I eventually got sick of all that, and that's when I moved to Boston, picked up a guitar and started writing my own songs."

It was at this point in his fledgling career--sometime in 1988--he says, that he began anew musically. "Writing my own songs sort of left me with the ability to really sing. And, later, to take to the street a couple of songs I had written along with a couple of Beatles' songs to test myself," he explains. "The street was like a blender, it kind of forced me to take these ingredients and abilities and some talent and whip it all into a form of entertainment--to try and draw people in." Taking it to the street, though, wasn't exactly a natural step for the young musician. "I had to push myself to do it," Sexton confides. "I kept putting it off, and it didn't happen for a long time after I moved to Boston--about nine months went by before I actually went to the street." And in true-to-life Cinderella story form, it was the sort of dead-end, decidedly boring occupation that is the bane of any artist's existence that finally set his musical career in motion. "I was sort of pushed over the edge," he says, "because I had been meaning to go to the street, but it wasn't until I was canned from my job--I was working in a cafe--that I actually did it. I had to go. I didn't really have a choice at that point."

And while he wasn't immediately comfortable singing and playing on the streets and in the train stations of Boston, Sexton quickly realized that making a living and taking his rightful place among the bevy of singer-songwriters in the area meant he had to offer something more than just daily renditions of his songs. So, in 1991--with limited funds, a few dedicated friends and quite a bit of determination--he recorded a nine-track demo in a Boston attic and set out to make himself known. While many members of the "new folk" movement simply went about presenting their songs to audiences without much thought given to presence or persona, it occurred to Sexton that his listeners might be more engaged--and therefore more inclined to buy his tape and become part of a loyal following--if they saw themselves as an integral part of his performances. That in mind, he began the practice of actively recruiting passersby and astute listeners to become participants in his music by teaching anyone who would listen harmony vocal parts and simple, hand-clapped rhythms.

"The whole thing certainly started out when I was a street performer," explains Sexton. "I think it came out of the need to make my show bigger than myself." And the impromptu musical education he received playing in the asphalt veins of Boston gave Sexton the experience he needed to further his dream and broaden his musical field of vision. "The street was a segue. I pretty much performed solely on the street for about a year," he says. "Then, that beautiful, great musical experience sort of transitioned me into the clubs and coffeehouses. And it wasn't long before I started getting weekly gigs here and there."

His intimate, inclusive approach to performing live continues to this day, "Because," says Sexton, "on a good night, the show is larger than myself; it's the sum of the performer and the audience. If there are a couple hundred people singing harmonies, the thing takes on a life of its own as opposed to me just standing there singing a bunch of songs. When the audience and I start feeding each other," he continues, "that's when it becomes something special."

Between regular street performances and scattered club and coffeehouse gigs in the early '90s, Sexton managed to sell an unprecedented 16,000 copies of his demo tape (it has since been remastered for CD, entitled In The Journey and is still available only at Sexton's live shows) and went on to win two Boston Music Awards and the 1994 National Academy of Songwriters "Artist of the Year" award. With the 1996 release of Black Sheep, his full-length debut on Eastern Front Records, Sexton almost instantly caught the attention of critics and new audiences across the country, all equally stunned. His multi-octave voice--slipping effortlessly between the silky smooth incantations of Als Green and Jarreau and the pure soul and unbridled emotion of Percy Mayfield and Marvin Gaye--punctuates his expertly-honed fingerpicking guitar style. Together, Sexton's extraordinary voice and thoughtful guitar work serve to propel his songs to a plane on which spirituality reigns supreme and melody is simply the everyday miracle that translates his psyche into a musical language that can be understood and appreciated by all.

"I used to use more of the D-A-D-G-A-D and open G tunings and I still do, a little bit," Sexton says, "but I remember seeing Ted Hawkins and being really blown away by his style. The guy came out and sat on an orange crate and played this old, cheap guitar. He didn't use a pick, just his fingers. He didn't even play chords, really, he just laid his fingers over the frets and played these barred notes. It was just simple, very strong structure. That inspired me to play with my hands instead of with a pick."

Seeing the late, great Hawkins was a stylistic catalyst for Sexton in other ways as well. "Seeing Ted Hawkins had a lot to do with simplifying my style," he says, "because he never used any (alternate) tunings, and I've since started a new approach." And in adopting a more basic guitar playing style, Sexton has been able to open new doors for himself vocally and as a songwriter. "With some of the alternate tunings, songs can almost get too pretty, effected almost. I'm so bass oriented--bass and rhythm--that I play the guitar as if it were a bass, which is how basic my approach is. I play bass lines and sort of tap the rhythm as I do it on the body of the guitar. And I think that leaves all this room, all this space for my voice to fill in. It lets the lyrics come through and make the song rather than the other way around."

Martin Sexton's extraordinary music is tinted by a sense of truth that is rare even among the finest songwriters of any given generation. Bristling with passion, his boundless voice launches pure poetry into song--a marriage of words, melody and mystic rhythm that is instantly timeless. "Some of my favorite songs have come at 2 a.m. at the kitchen table, recording onto my Dictaphone," says Sexton. "It just happens that way sometimes. It's pure inspiration, and I rely on that as much as I rely on my ability with my craft." With any luck, Sexton will continue to share his early morning revelations on record and in person for a long time to come. A recording project is scheduled for the winter, and he plans to take some time off from the road in order to write for the new record. "It's all in the timing," says Sexton, and his time has certainly come.


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