Art and Soul
Martin Sexton is the central character in one of those bootstrapping success stories that Americans love. The performer, who began his career by busking on Boston street corners, has built a supportive fan base of thousands across the nation, yet he remains independent of the machine that perpetuates mediocre talents better suited for Barbie's Dream House than the stage. The fact that Sexton has pursued his dream on his own terms ensures that America will never see him on the cover of Rolling Stone. Not that he minds too much: Sexton has learned he can get along just fine without any help from Big Music Media.
A native of Syracuse, New York, and the product of a "meat-and-potatoes Catholic" environment, the self-taught Sexton started honing his craft on Beantown streets in 1989. He eventually graduated to cafes and coffee shops, where enthusiastic word of his soul-infused folk and raw, balls-out storytelling began to spread. His self-produced demo, In the Journey, originally available only on cassette, garnered a host of Boston Music Awards in 1992 and has since sold more than 23,000 copies.
Four years after his homemade debut, Sexton released his first studio album, Black Sheep, on his own imprint, Eastern Front Records. (Like Journey, the album was reissued in 2000.) On it, he sings about leaving everything behind to follow his ambitions and the fears he felt upon learning that he was to be a teenage father. He also shares the euphoria and desperation of being a latter-day dharma bum who seeks and spreads enlightenment as he traverses the country. Black Sheep is a mostly acoustic affair, spiced up with the occasional accordion, snare brushes and silver bracelets. It remains a favorite among "Sexheads," who have snapped up more than 30,000 copies from the merchandise table at Sexton shows.
Relentless touring inspired what some might consider Sexton's "breakthrough" record, The American, which marked a move to major label Atlantic. The American evokes a deep-down ache, the kind that inspires itchy feet and the urge to ditch it all, throw your shit in the car and just go. It's a musical manifestation of the transcendental ideal of living deliberately, connecting with the land and its people.
"The American had an accumulation of songs that were really inspired by being on the road and meeting different characters from the road, all over," says Sexton.
At the time of its release in 1999, The American signaled a shift in direction. The record displays a glossier version of Sexton's earlier style; in fact, some diehards consider it overproduced. Gone are the pared-down acoustic-folk strummings that were Sexton's signature; in their place is a soul-country-rock-gospel fusion. Sexton is now identified by that combination, and it's what separates him from other Boston-bred, folksy singer-songwriters. His reputation for performing sweltering live shows has further helped to smash the mold.
Equal parts slyly swaggering sex god and righteous preacher, Sexton guides his fans in group consciousness-raising, leading them in sing-alongs or silencing them with his own hushed vocals and guitar. The Yoruba of Nigeria call this "ase" -- the communal raising of collective spirit to achieve optimum spiritual fulfillment -- and Sexton is an expert practitioner. Joy is his secret weapon.
"I think that's why people come back. I think that's why they buy my new records, and that's why they bring their friends and family to the next show, because they see something that they have inside themselves," Sexton explains. "There is a great joy that I have when I sing; there is also a great sadness that I have. And it runs the whole gamut of emotions when I'm singing. And because I have this ability to sing out my sorrows or my pains or my adulations, it rolls into this big snowball of joy.
"I think people see that like they see their hand in front of their face. It's just so tangible and so real, too. Everyone knows joy and sorrow, so when they see another human being expressing that in front of them, I think it's also a reminder that 'I can do that, too. I have that.'"
This connection with his audience has placed Sexton in a prime position to promote Live Wide Open, released in early April. Sexton's first effort since leaving Atlantic last year, the album is also the first offering from his nascent Kitchen Table Records. Recorded during live shows in Boulder, Chicago and San Francisco, among other places, the two-disc set is a document of the 80,000 miles Sexton logged while promoting 2001's Wonder Bar, a meaty, sweaty rock 'n' roll outing inspired by '70s FM artists such as Peter Frampton and Stevie Wonder.
Live Wide Open features Sexton and his longtime tour sidekick, drummer Joe Bonadio. Despite the fact that there were only two performers on stage during the recordings, the album can fill an entire room with music. Sexton plucks out bass lines on his E, A and D strings while singing the treble parts into a souped-up microphone. He punches up several songs with his nimble scatting, often using his voice as a substitute for a trumpet or squeezebox.
"As a kid, I was always good with mimicking; it comes from my grandfather," he explains. "He was a bit of a vaudevillian, used to sing in pubs way back up in Syracuse. And as a street performer, I honed that skill. When I was singing on the street, I would do anything to grab someone's attention and get them over to my side of the street."
At several points on Live Wide Open, Sexton is accompanied not only by Bonadio, but by blissed-out crowds that provide perfectly harmonized backing on songs such as "Black Sheep" and "Angeline."
"I've always tried to lead people in song, even as a kid," says Sexton. "I wasn't happy just singing for someone. I wanted to get them to try and do a part, to make it bigger than it was. And it really takes on a life. It becomes a big thing in the show, greater than the sum of all its parts."
These kinds of moments inspire rabid devotion -- of the "pack up the van and follow Marty on tour" variety -- in his fans. As the result of a clever marketing plan on the part of Kitchen Table, fans put that adoration to work. Following a model used by an increasing number of fan-supported acts, including Boulder's String Cheese Incident, Kitchen Table enlists fans across the country in regional Street Teams. These teams are responsible for postering and stickering their hometowns to spread the Martin Sexton gospel in advance of performances. Their reward? A free copy of Live Wide Open, a spot on the guest list and backstage passes when Sexton comes to town. Not a bad deal -- and a triumph of the DIY spirit. Sexton, who took a gamble by leaving a major for his own indie label, is enthusiastic.
"[Kitchen Table] started by me needing to have an outlet for my music," he says. "I own my first two CDs, and I needed to sell those as a means of getting them out. I took a tip from Ani DiFranco, the Righteous Babe herself. I thought, 'Well, if she can do it, I can do it.'
"Atlantic, like most of the majors, is just too big to really pay enough attention to my career," Sexton adds. "I didn't have any horror stories, but I figured if I'm going to get the same level of participation from the label doing this live record that I've had with the last two records, then I would just as soon put it out on my own label and sell just as many, or more, copies and own it. And Atlantic was great for budgets and getting me to Australia, but they're basically too busy with Kid Rock or Phil Collins or Tool."
Indeed, who better to look after Sexton's career than Sexton himself?
"I always had pretty free rein with Atlantic," he says. "So I'm not waving the flag of 'Major labels suck and I'm a victim' or anything. I'm just glad to be independent and own the record. It's a beautiful thing, and I have all the fans to thank for continuing to buy my records and come to shows. That's why it's working."
Those fans soon will have another reason to celebrate, as a documentary companion to Live Wide Open is in the works. (Interested parties can view the trailer at www.martinsexton.com.) Sexton also hints that he'll be back in the studio next spring.
In the meantime, Sexton is resuming his road-dog ways, touring from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again over the next two months.
"It's great to have people who really connect with what it is I'm doing," he says. "They seem to be all over the place. They come to shows and show up early and crowd around the stage, and it makes for a great vibe, great energy in the show."
Perhaps that connection is a result of Sexton's ability to "amplify the sound of the ordinary heart," as the New York Times recently put it. Feel the beat.
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