Martin Sexton " solo in Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” On last year’s “Seeds,” his seventh album, singer-songwriter Martin Sexton said he wanted to explore all of the musical expressions he has been inspired by in his life. So there are distinct sounds of gospel, soul, country, folk, cowboy, rock and jazz. Sexton contrasts “Seeds” to his 2000 album, “Wonder Bar,” which focused tightly on a ’70s soul sound.
“This record, ‘Seeds,’ I tried to marry various sounds that I’ve worked on in the past, and let them all live under one roof,” said Sexton from his home in Northampton, Mass., some 100 miles west of Boston, where he has lived for 16 years. “More like records I’ve heard, like the Beatles’ ‘white album’ or ‘Abbey Road,’ which went from ‘Helter Skelter’ to an orchestrated lullaby.
“And have one single thread running through the songs ” like a beautiful necklace.”
That single thread could be Sexton’s voice, an infectiously soulful instrument that complements perfectly his looks, dominated by a pair of chubby cheeks. But the link he is referring to is the theme of happiness that ties “Seeds” together. The album opens with “Happy,” an irony-free shot of good-time soul peppered with the organ and choir sounds of a gospel church. “I open my eyes to this dream realized,” sings Sexton, discovering a warm pleasure in things like coffee, summer vacation and sex on the kitchen table. Domestic contentment is echoed through “Marry Me” and “I’m Here.”
“There’s a lot of joy on this record,” said Sexton. “There’s a lot more darkness and longing on other records [of mine]. This album is about, for lack of a better word, being happy, trying to remember that I have everything I need. It’s coming from my life: I’m having a cup of coffee out of my favorite mug ” that makes me happy. We just put an addition on our house ” that makes me happy. All kinds of simple things, I’m enjoying more. I figured I wanted to convey that sense.”
Mostly what seems to swell Sexton’s heart is music. Whether it’s “hearing my favorite song on the radio,” on “Happy,” or “playing oldies songs and singing life is a breeze” on “Right Where You Belong,” or “singin’ Stevie tunes” in “Failure” ” a song in which Sexton expresses gratitude for all the paths that he didn’t go down, because someone blocked his way ” music is a source of joy for him.
His career, too, provides increasing measures of satisfaction. Sexton tells me that he has “the slowest-growing career ever” in the music business, but this is no lament. Because, at the age of 41, and with 16 years since the release of his first album, and eight years since he parted ways with a major label, Sexton is still in a growth phase.
“It’s slow-growing like an oak tree ” it ain’t going anywhere. It’s just growing up,” said Sexton, who plays a solo acoustic show Friday at Belly Up Aspen. “The good news is, it’s growing. And I guess I’ve gotten to appreciate that. I’ve seen artists get a top 10 hit, and their shows get packed ” and then on the next tour, that audience isn’t there anymore. Music has become like a paper plate. It’s a flavor of the month, and then it’s gone. With me, it’s a career.”
That career started with just absorbing music as a kid in Syracuse. (When I ask Sexton if he where he grew, he says, quite seriously, that he didn’t grow up. “I’m still a 12-year-old, singing,” he said.) He listened to radio and records, funk and rock and blues, soaking up the sounds of the ’70s. His garage bands performed at keg parties and church bazaars.
Then the ’80s hit, and Sexton got hit with them. He joined an ’80s hair band that covered Tears for Fears and a-ha. He grew a mullet. The gig paid well ” he earned more singing on the weekends than he did busting his butt Monday through Friday as a delivery boy for a law firm.
Sexton decided to expand his horizons by moving from Syracuse to Boston. But the big city was a bit rougher than he anticipated; he failed his first audition with a Top 40 band. “I think my hair wasn’t big enough,” he said.
As Sexton reflects on “Failure,” that blocked path was a blessing, barely in disguise. He took the opportunity of rejection to change course again, moving back to the soul-rock lover he had been as a kid.
Of the guy who sang covers of ’80s synth hits, Sexton says, “That was a 19-year-old who got a gig in a lounge band. I cut the mullet, threw out the skinny tie, grew my sideburns again. [Sexton does, characteristically, express gratitude for those days, noting that it was in those lounges that he developed his singing chops.] He traded in the lounges for subway stations and coffeehouses, the pop covers for his own material, and the band for a solo acoustic style. “That’s how I discovered the Martin Sexton you hear on these records, from singing in the subways. That’s where I was born as a musician.”
Sexton’s first studio recording, 1996’s “Black Sheep” was impressive enough to earn him a deal with Atlantic Records, and to enlist the assistance of Danny Kortchmar, who has produced albums by singer-songwriters David Crosby, James Taylor and Carole King. (“In the Journey,” Sexton’s 1992 debut, was a collection of demos recorded on an 8-track in a friend’s attic.) “Wonder Bar” was released four years later, and marked the end of his relationship with the corporate music world. But Sexton has no regrets about working with Atlantic, nor any bad things to say about how he was treated.
Being signed to a record deal itself was “a dream come true,” said Sexton, who has released his last three CDs on his own Kitchen Table label. “No horror stories. The only downside was being a runt in a huge family. It was hard to get the attention I needed. They did everything they were supposed to do, but I knew I could do what I needed to do without them. I didn’t need the corporate machinery to get to my audience.”
True enough, all Sexton has had to do is sing, and they will come. Raves about his live shows are loud and ecstatic enough that people are forced to take notice. (Witness my own experience: After hearing various editorial colleagues of mine reveal their man-crushes on Sexton, I finally went to see his Aspen appearance, last summer at Belly Up. I immediately joined the admiration society.) Sexton marvels at how many concertgoers he meets who had their arms twisted to see his show ” and were glad they did. He says it is a different form of persuasion than the kind that lands 20-year-old pop stars on magazine covers and chart tops.
“I think part of that is, my music wasn’t forced down their throat on the radio, on the elevator on the way to work,” said Sexton. “It’s more organic than that. They hear about it from a friend, or on their NPR station, and there’s a sense of ownership, like they discovered it. People just come back. They seem to want to share it. They want to hold onto that.”
Which virtually assures more growth, slow or not.
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