Martin Sexton takes Aspen stage
ASPEN – Among the lessons Martin Sexton learned as a sixth-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes in Syracuse, N.Y., was the power of the singing voice – in particular, his own. The pre-teen Sexton would regularly take to the playground and do his version of a Stevie Wonder tune.”I remember the attention I’d get, the applause,” Sexton, now 44, said from a tour bus near Ennis, Mont. “I soaked it right up. It was a joyful moment in my life, to entertain other kids. That became my way in. I wasn’t great at sports, but that gave me the sense of worthiness you need as a kid.”Apart from the self-esteem it brought him, Sexton also saw how singing brought people together. When he would sing – throwing in Cheech & Chong routines between songs – the students felt closer to one another, which, in the Catholic school environment, was something of a necessity. “The nuns would come out with sticks,” he said. “I think they minded the fact that we were gathered around, unifying. It made it harder to break us up.”The setting has changed considerably. Sexton has moved from the schoolyard to theaters, festivals and, Saturday in Aspen, the Belly Up nightclub. Instead of covering Stevie Wonder, he’s got his own songs, which mix virtually all American roots styles: gospel, folk, swing, country, piano balladry, R&B.But Sexton still finds the same reason to sing that he did back at Our Lady. His songs, his performances, are designed to bring people together. The task may have gotten a little tougher. Instead of a bunch of Catholic 12-year-olds from upstate New York looking for a distraction from class and nuns, Sexton is aiming for a more heterogeneous audience that has many other entertainment options. In his professional life, which began with street-corner busking in Boston, Sexton hasn’t had trouble drawing crowds; his soul-soaked voice is a powerful attraction. But what gets him charged up is the challenge of drawing listeners from all over the political, geographic and age spectrums.”I’m blessed with this audience – you can’t really describe my demographic. It’s hard to pin down,” he said. “It’s young, old; it’s left, right; it’s Christian, Jew. I’m happy to be part of that – 20-year-old hippies singing beside older, conservative guys in business suits. I want to be a part of bringing people together.”Sexton’s songs have tended toward more personal themes; on the recent album “Seeds,” he reveled in the contentment he finds in low-key existence. But on his latest album, 2010’s “Sugarcoating,” he went a bit outside his usual boundaries. The title track was a pointed indictment of the wars following 9/11, and a sharper critique of the politicians and TV newsmen riding the conflicts to further their careers.”I’ve always touched on social awareness in some way. There’s always been a taste of it,” Sexton said. “But my job is not to be a Phil Ochs-type folksinger. It’s not to preach. My job is to bring people together for one common purpose – my music.”In the potentially divisive song “Sugarcoating,” Sexton uses a sly tactic to accomplish that overriding goal. The words are cloaked in upbeat swing, with slightly goofy backing vocals. “It’s taking this heavy topic and putting this Western swing on it – it gets people to listen to it and like it before they hear the lyrics,” he said.But “Sugarcoating,” the album, provides a bigger context in which to hear Sexton’s thoughts on war and modern-day war profiteering. The album is warm, touching on romance, sex, childhood and happiness. While the song “Sugarcoating” is soaked in irony, the rest of the album is straightforward sweetness, inviting listeners to join the singer in his quest for simple pleasures. The album opens with “Found,” a declaration about ignoring ugly distractions, and finding the better part of oneself. The words are driven by a melody that climbs and climbs, with Sexton repeatedly hitting the falsetto that marks many of his best songs.”‘Sugarcoating,’ in a nutshell, is a record about unity,” Sexton said. “‘Found’ – that’s about a guy trying to ‘looking for likeness in strange faces,’ to quote myself.”I feel like we’ve been divided – left, right; red state, blue state. I don’t recognize that stuff now. I identify with everyone; I try to see the likenesses.”Being unified, Sexton recognizes, worked for a bunch of kids in Catholic school, standing up to the nuns. He hints that it can work for the entire country, too.”A unified people would be so much harder to mess with,” he said. “We’ve been divided, and it’s easy to conquer a divided people.”Sexton considers himself fortunate that his contribution to unification happens to be something he loves.”Oh yeah, I love to sing,” he said. “Ask anyone in my family, or in the road crew – I’m always singing or whistling. Probably to the point of annoyance.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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