Martin Sexton’s brand of American music refuses to be neatly classified, straddling the traditions of folk, R&B, gospel, soul, country, rock, and blues. A gifted singer and musician, his elastic voice convincingly takes the place of bleeding guitar solos and jazzy horns, and he essentially covers guitar and bass on a single guitar, creating the sound of a full live band. Sexton’s fans include fellow musicians Dave Matthews, who calls him one of his favorite singers and musicians, and John Mayer, who praised him as “the best live performer I’ve ever seen”. His latest release, Sugarcoating, was recorded in only seven days and tackles themes of inspiration, regret, fatherhood, and politics. We caught a recent solo show at City Winery in New York and connected with him by email.
stated: Thanks so much for joining us. One of our editors has been a fan for nearly 20 years, after first hearing you at the local NPR station where he announced. A few tracks from Black Sheep were in rotation, and he was first hooked by “Over My Head”. That song creates such a fully realized atmosphere. How did it come to be?
MARTIN SEXTON: “Over My Head” stems back to my days in Boston where I had a series of regular gigs that would pay my rent. Just as I was being told that I had a baby on the way one of those rent gigs dried up. I was feeling particularly vulnerable and insecure at the prospect of bringing a new life into the world.
stated: That’s understandable. You yourself were one of 12 kids growing up in a Catholic family in Syracuse. Obvious question, but were you the “Black Sheep?”
MARTIN SEXTON: I believe if there was a Black Sheep of my family, I was it.
stated: Your sister Colleen is also a musician. Did any of your other siblings go the artistic route?
MARTIN SEXTON: Colleen and I are the only ones to get into music outside of the shower, except my father who sang in church.
stated: Your song “Failure” speaks to those who chose a path other than the expected—as well as those who went the traditional route and now wonder what might have been. Was there a specific event or situation that led to your writing that song?
MARTIN SEXTON: Yes, I was remembering examples in my life of doors closing and windows opening. I studied for my real estate license after high school. I passed the course, but failed the state exam. The window opening is, as a result, I looked through the classifieds and answered an ad looking for a singer in a late-80’s hair band. While being a tune about perseverance it’s also a song about following your dreams and listening to your heart vs what you’ve been taught in school.
stated: Not always easy to do, but good advice. You’ve written several songs about or directed to your children—“Love Keep Us Together” and “Shane” in particular—written at seemingly very different times in your life. Do you find your perspective is different now than in your earlier songs?
MARTIN SEXTON: I try to keep that same perspective even though I am in a totally different place. One who is actively seeking… I work at trying not to let success suppress my hunger for life, truth, love, you name it.
stated: Your first two albums released independently, and then The American and Wonder Bar came out on Atlantic. All of your releases since have been on your own Kitchen Table Records label. What made you decide to start your own label and how has it been different than working for a major?
MARTIN SEXTON: It became apparent to me in 2002 that I didn’t need the funding and big guns of a major corporation to reach the audience I’ve been blessed with, and now it’s a wonderful time to be independent with the climate of the industry and the social media revolution.
stated: The business has certainly changed in that respect, and it must give you a bit more freedom. The title track on Sugarcoating covers some serious territory, namely Sept. 11th and how it was handled by our government and media. Would you mind sharing a bit about that?
MARTIN SEXTON: As a direct result of the events on 9/11 2001 we as citizens have had our rights gradually taken away through means such as the Patriot Act and various creations of new forms of “security” and bureaucracies like the TSA. In states like Indiana, the Fourth Amendment has been eradicated where police need no probable cause or warrant to forcefully enter your home. I find this unacceptable and need to to talk and act on my convictions. I don’t believe we are Republican and Democrat Americans, or gay and straight Americans, or black and white Americans. I believe we are all citizens under attack from the same authority, and we need to unify as brothers and sisters.
stated: It’s a great song with a great message. You’ve been hard at work touring in support of Sugarcoating since its release last year. Can you tell us what the next year might bring for you?
MARTIN SEXTON: More writing… and let’s see, touring Europe, and releasing a record sometime in 2012, and continuing to encourage people to look beyond the mainstream media…and keep believing that love will conquer fear.
stated: Thanks so much for joining us.