When the soulfully charismatic folk singer-songwriter Martin Sexton announced he was touring by his lonesome in tandem with his just-released live disc, “Solo,” it was logical to think he was returning to his roots, coming full-circle back to the earliest days of his career busking on the streets of Boston. But Sexton cautions that it isn’t that neat and tidy. He’s already toured solo as a more established artist before (which is how he made the “Solo” disc in the first place), and the way he’s honed his craft over the nearly 20 years since those scuffling Beantown days makes him a significantly different artist today.
“I was pretty fresh off the wagon when I first got to Boston [from his native Syracuse],” he says from a hotel room outside of Vail, Colo., fresh from playing a wild Halloween gig in Salt Lake City where he’d dressed up as the devil, and then making a car trip over the Rockies. “It was a great scene for me, but if you listen to those earlier records, you can hear how I wanted to sound like Howlin’ Wolf or Chris Whitley. There were a hundred different sources that I like to call tributaries into my river, but hopefully I have my own voice and sound now, and they only make themselves known every once in a while.”
Maximizing the nuances of songs
One key sign of maturity has been Sexton’s emotional restraint. Blessed with a gorgeous voice that can be as ethereal and resonant as a church choir, as guttural and down-home as a Delta blues disciple, or as wistfully poignant as the classic pop folksingers of the ’60s and ’70s, he has learned over time to parse out the payoffs in order to maximize the nuances of his songs.
“Restraint is so important and something I have struggled with,” he says. “Sometimes when you are onstage, you feel like the crowd needs a shot of adrenaline, and I tend to reach in and pull out some of that. I like every song to have a crescendo in it, but [have learned] not to have them filled with crescendos. You’ve got to have space, the white with the color, the silence that makes the sound golden. I have learned that silence is my ally; it is when people get to breathe.”
Sexton’s growth as an artist is also reflected in what he hasn’t changed since his busking days, which is a freewheeling, improvisational approach to performance. “My songs are like monkey bars; I can play on them differently every day,” he says.
The “Solo” album, released last month on Sexton’s own Kitchen Table label, not surprisingly captures this sense of adventure. After rarely including cover songs on his records, he stacks four of them around a birthday greeting to his mom toward the end of the disc, beginning with Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles,” and finishing with a song he usually only plays on stops in Minneapolis.
“Yes, ‘Purple Rain,’ ” he acknowledges. “I have always gotten requests for it, and a recording of it had already snuck out into the universe” — like Dave Matthews, Sexton actually encourages tapings of his live shows — “so I thought I’d put it on this one for everybody.”
At 42, Sexton is a success story. Eight years ago, his two records on the major Atlantic label sold enough to provide him with the option of continuing the relationship. “But I knew I didn’t need the major corporate guns to reach my fan base, so I asked to be released and they had no problem with that. Now I am beholden to no one and I can still get records to consumers via my own label or the website. In fact I’m selling more records as an independent artist,” he says.
He indulged his independence, devoting more time and energy to his family while releasing just a Christmas album from 2000 to 2007, while still touring regularly. His family orientation was no doubt influenced by his own upbringing as the tenth of 12 children in a staunchly Catholic household — for better and for worse. “I have to say that my [childhood] family was very religious, but not very spiritual at all. I have tried to be a spiritual person with a conscious contact with my higher power, but there is no church, no preacher, nobody to pay,” Sexton says. “Before every show, we say a prayer asking for help channeling the healing light of the universe.” Even dressed as the devil in Salt Lake City.
You can see and hear a compelling version of Sexton playing a solo rendition of “There Go I” in Knoxville earlier this year below.
Here’s a version of “So Long Suzanna,” a song from his first-ever cassette release, also performed in Knoxville in 2008.