Soaring sounds

If there’s a single theme that drives Martin Sexton’s musical vision, it’s freedom.

The Boston-based troubadour’s first full-fledged studio recording, 1996’s Black Sheep (Eastern Front Records), was filled with literal homages to that theme: On “Glory Bound” and “Freedom of the Road,” for example, he sings about the singular pleasures of packing up and hitting the highway, destination unknown. His latest release — the brilliant The American (Atlantic Records, 1998) — explores freedom in a more strictly musical sense: A gritty-yet-graceful blend of folk, soul, blues country and rock, the tunes on the disc run the gamut from the bossa nova strains of the title track to the folk-rap vibe of “The Beast in Me” to the witty, swing rhythms of “Diggin’ Me.”

“My first dream was to be an actor, and then a stuntman and then, I think, a rock star,” says Sexton, his speaking voice a whisper of a baritone. “I got my first guitar when I was 14, and I had my first band was when I was 15 — singing rock ‘n’ roll. That’s when I decided that music was what I wanted to do. My life’s dream at that point was to be like the Beatles or Peter Frampton. Frampton Comes Alive was an important record for me,” he confides, with a sentimental chuckle.

Born into a not-particularly-musical family of 14 in Syracuse, N.Y., Sexton gained his infatuation with singing from listening to Stevie Wonder records, while his guitar influences included such rockers as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Eventually, Sexton’s dreams led him into the world of possibility and disappointment unveiled when one makes the transition from playing music as a hobby to playing music as a career.

“As I got a little older, the dream of being a professional musician became a little more practical,” he remembers. “It went from the rock-star dream to the dream of making a living playing music — from a 16-year-old playing Jimi Hendrix and not making a dime to a 19-year-old singing Top 40 and making some money.”

After a few years spent hashing out thankless covers with a series of Top 40 bands in and around his hometown, Sexton began to feel the itch to go his own musical way. “Top 40 [at the time] was sort of gross ’80s music — Huey Lewis, Ah-Ha, Tears For Fears — and I was forced to sing all of this stuff that was way out of my range,” says Sexton of his bar-band days. “I eventually got sick of all that, and that’s when I moved to Boston, picked up a guitar and started writing my own songs.”

It was at this point in his fledgling career — sometime in 1988 — that he began anew, musically. “Writing my own songs left me with the ability to really sing and, later, to take to the street a couple of songs I had written … along with a couple of Beatles’ songs, to test myself,” he explains. “The street was like a blender. It forced me to take these ingredients and abilities and some talent and whip it all into a form of entertainment — to try and draw people in.”

Taking it to the street, though, wasn’t exactly a natural step for the young musician. “I had to push myself to do it,” confesses Sexton. “I kept putting it off, and it didn’t happen for a long time after I moved to Boston — about nine months went by before I actually [started playing on street corners].

And in true-to-life, Cinderella-story form, it was the sort of dead-end, decidedly boring occupation that’s the bane of any artist’s existence that finally set his musical career in motion. “I was sort of pushed over the edge,” he remembers, “because … it wasn’t until I was canned from my job — I was working in a cafe — that I actually [started playing music seriously]. … I didn’t really have a choice, at that point.”

Sexton wasn’t immediately comfortable singing and playing on the streets and in the subway stations of Boston. And he quickly realized that making a living and taking his rightful place among the bevy of singer/songwriters in the area meant he had to offer something more than just live renditions of his songs. So, in 1991 — with limited funds, the help of a few dedicated friends, and quite a bit of determination — he recorded a nine-track demo in a Boston attic and set out to make himself known.

It also occurred to Sexton around this time that his listeners might be more engaged (and, therefore, more inclined to buy his tape and become part of a loyal following) if they saw themselves as integral parts of his performances. With that in mind, he began the practice of actively recruiting passersby and astute listeners to become participants in his music: He taught harmony vocal parts and simple, hand-clapped rhythms to anyone who would listen. “I think that came out of the need to make my show bigger than myself,” he notes.

The impromptu musical education he gained playing on the asphalt veins of Boston gave Sexton the experience he needed to further his dream and broaden his musical field of vision. “The street was a segue,” he explains. “I pretty much performed solely on the street for about a year. Then, that beautiful, great musical experience sort of transitioned me into the clubs and coffeehouses. And it wasn’t long before I started getting weekly gigs here and there.”

His intimate, inclusive approach to performing live continues to this day because, says Sexton, “On a good night, the show is … the sum of the performer and the audience. If there are a couple hundred people singing harmonies, the thing takes on a life of its own — as opposed to me just standing there singing a bunch of songs. When the audience and I start feeding off each other, that’s when it becomes something special.”

Between regular street performances and scattered club-and-coffeehouse gigs in the early ’90s, Sexton managed to sell an unprecedented 30,000 copies of his demo tape (since remastered for a CD called In The Journey, and now available only at Sexton’s live shows) and went on to win two Boston Music Awards and the 1994 National Academy of Songwriters Artist of the Year award. With the release of Black Sheep, Sexton promptly caught the attention of critics and new audiences across the country, all equally stunned. His multi-octave voice — slipping effortlessly between the silky-smooth incantations of Al Jarreau and the pure soul and unbridled emotion of Percy Mayfield — punctuates his expertly honed fingerpicking guitar style.

Sexton’s extraordinary music is tinted by a rare sense of truth wrought from often-hard times on the streets. Bristling with passion, his boundless voice launches pure poetry into song, engendering a marriage of words, melody and rhythm that instantly becomes timeless. “Some of my favorite songs have come at 2 a.m. at the kitchen table, recording onto my Dictaphone,” says Sexton. “It just happens that way sometimes. It’s pure inspiration, and I rely on that as much as I rely on my technical ability with my craft.”

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