The street-honed sounds of Martin Sexton
The mournful, deep baritone and songs about something real silences the crowd. There’s no more clinking of glasses, no more chitter-chatter. And then Martin Sexton breaks out the falsetto, just for a second, and the audience is in the palm of his hand.
Sexton will bring that sound to his Aspen debut, at the Belly Up tonight. It’s a sound he honed while busking on the streets of Boston.
He started at the age of 22 and never needed a second job; his guitar and a few honest songs were enough.
“I found out early on that what I did brought in a fairly lucrative chunk of change,” said Sexton, by phone from Bozeman, Mont., the first stop on his current tour. “There’s definitely a science to it.”
For Sexton, that meant more than just singing for nickels and dimes.
“In Harvard square I’d look for a little nook,” he recalled. “If three people stopped and then one more stopped, you’d have a pedestrian traffic jam. If I could create a crowd early on, then soon I’d have a crowd of 30 people. I’d play for 20 minutes and take a bow.”
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings in the subway were the best.
“It was almost like a service I was providing, bringing music into dismal places,” he said. “People would come listen. If they came every Thursday for three weeks, on the last week they’d drop a buck.”
After more than two years working the streets and subways of Boston, people took notice. He soon was playing gigs at clubs and coffee shops, but most of what he learned was on the streets.
“It’s in the sauce. The busking is in there along with everything else,” he said. “It’s a stronger seasoning in the sauce, so you can definitely see it and taste it. A lot of my call and response stuff was born on the street. My ability to gain attention and hold it was strengthened by my years as a street singer.”
Even today, elements of his songs have that street feel.
“There is one that I still sing today, called ‘The way I am,’ it actually got its yodel from my busking days,” he noted. “I discovered that if I added a yodel to the song then people would hear it from three blocks away. That was the teaser, it would attract them in.”
Sexton’s self-released demo tape in 1992, “In the Journey,” earned him a number of Boston Music Awards and the National Academy of Songwriters “Artist of the Year” award. His first studio album was with Atlantic in 1996; his second studio release came four years later. Soon after that, though, he went indie.
“My only problem [with Atlantic] was that it was like being a small fish in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “I sell as much or more on my indie records as I did with Atlantic.”
Sexton’s Kitchen Table Records has only one artist, and that’s Sexton. He started the company to have more control over his music and his future, as well as to cash in on the records he does sell.
“I love having the business,” said Sexton, who released “Live Wide Open” in 2002. “I can call my shots. Something I’m very proud to be is independent. The support is there. The people are there to buy it and the stores are there. I don’t need Warner Brothers or Universal to do that for me. I don’t need that middle man.”
Nor does Sexton need some of the music industry politics, such as the antipiracy warnings on so many CDs these days.
“They put an official seal on the record, as if they’re going to do anything if you burn a disk for a friend,” he said. “There’s a big presidential-looking seal, FBI seal. It’s a joke. I can’t believe some bands allow that to be on their art. It just pisses me off. Did you ever stop from burning a record because you saw the anti-piracy warning?”
And while he doesn’t necessarily agree with people burning his music or sending it to friends, he acknowledges it’s a double-edged sword. He doesn’t like to lose sales, but if someone gets his CD from a friend and then comes to a show, buys a T-shirt or an album, it pays off.
“I have benefited from burning music,” he said. “Record companies are … losing money left and right. It’s a good thing for independent artists because we never relied on that machinery in the first place.”
The machinery Sexton relies on is his shows, just as he did when he was busking in Boston. And those days in Boston are, in some ways, still there when we walks onstage.
“My sense of one-man bandism was honed,” he said. “If you want a solo section in a tune, then there’s no one else to do it. I had to sing muted trumpets or scats or play my guitar as a drum. I do a lot with what I have. It also invites the audience to join in. It becomes larger than the sum of the parts on most songs.”
Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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