Martin Sexton: the soul of a singer
January 18, 2007
ASPEN When Ani DiFranco took the stage after Martin Sexton at last year’s Folks Festival in Lyons, DiFranco said, with the utmost irony, “Someone needs to teach that man how to sing.” And the crowd roared with applause.Sexton’s voice is, simply put, incredible. Few other folk singers have his range, versatility and appeal. So for most of his career, that’s what he has showcased.Since his early years playing on the streets of Boston to headlining the big festivals and filling large clubs, it has mostly been Sexton solo. And seeing him live, with his experience earned on the streets, presents a feel that cannot be heard on his records. He’ll perform in Aspen at 10 p.m. tonight at Belly Up, with Matt Wetrz opening.Still, Sexton’s studio albums can be seen as an entirely different animal from a live performance. His records, now released on his own label, Kitchen Table Records, often feature horns, drums, bass and backing singers that he later translates onstage as a solo act.
One part of the stage presentation he has perfected is a jazz trumpet-style singing, and running his voice through a processor to simulate a Peter Frampton-style guitar solo. He says that comes directly from his musical hero, Frampton, with whom he played at last year’s Jammys concert in New York.”Fan is not the word,” Sexton said. “His record, the live record ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’ is the reason I got into music. It’s one of the main roots of what I do and why I do it. I put the headphones on as an 8-year-old boy. I snuck up to the attic and listened to it.”Then Sexton sung the part at the end when they rock out after all the voice-box stuff. “That was a dream come true, to play that song with him, you know? It was great,” Sexton said. “I knew the tune by heart. We did a solo duet thing where I played my electric voice. I run my voice through a little distortion and use it like a lead guitar. It really had a nice flow to it.”On some of Sexton’s albums, the voice modifier is so perfect that it’s tough to tell if someone is playing guitar or if it’s just him singing the part. Coming out in the spring is Sexton’s latest studio effort, “Seeds,” featuring songs played with folks like Keller Williams and Nils Lofgren.
“Like all my records, it’s very rangy,” Sexton said by phone from his home in western Massachusetts. “I sum it up by saying it’s a soul record. I’m trying to sing from the heart and soul. I’ve just been calling it a soul record.”Sexton said some of the songs have traditional rock arrangements with a full band, and there is one classic country tune with Williams playing dobro and at least one blues song. “There’s a blues song called ‘There go I’ that I wrote that with my producer,” Sexton said. “We were just talking about how lucky we are that we don’t have to flip burgers. We can actually make money doing what we love to do, and how rare that is. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’: My mom always used to say that when we were driving through the less-fortunate part of town.”Sexton says things other musicians might stay away from, and he gets away with it because he’s so genuine in person and onstage. This year, he’s adding another do-good element to his tour by going green.”The real kicker was going to see Al Gore’s film last year,” Sexton said, a reference to the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” “Now, seeing this green winter as I sit here in western Massachusetts that should have been snow-covered two months ago, it’s a little scary. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. It’s a wake-up call to do our part. It’s not hard. I just wish it would happen from the top down.”
All of Sexton’s T-shirts will be made with organic cotton, and his tour bus will run on biodiesel fuel. Of course, if Sexton were traveling on his own he wouldn’t be taking a bus. Soon after he performs solo in Aspen, he’ll be going on tour with a four-piece band.”My challenge is going to be how to keep it personal and intimate and dynamic,” he said. “It’s so easy to get lost in the sauce when you have four guys playing at once. It’s like being a kid again. I haven’t been with a band in so long.”Aspen concertgoers will have to content themselves with seeing the personal and intimate show Sexton has perfected, and the bonus of organic cotton T-shirts and a Sexton awakened to the green side of things. “I don’t want to be preachy; I just happen to be doing this,” Sexton said. “It’s good to be a power of example. That’s where I get my inspiration. I thrive on other people’s examples. That’s why I am who I am.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is email@example.com