The One-Man Soul Band

An Interview with Martin Sexton

It was a recording-studio engineer who turned me on to Martin Sexton. The most incredible live performer he’d ever seen, he said. Don’t mess with the studio recordings, he advised; go to Live Wide Open, his double-disc live set from 2000.

Without doing much research, I bought it, listened to it, and was underwhelmed.

Then I started reading. Those howling electric guitar solos on “Beast in Me” and “Women and Wine”? Ummm ... there is no electric guitar. There’s a vocal line on “Can’t Wait” that might be mistaken for a mourning string instrument. And what other acoustic-guitar-toting singer-songwriter would dare try to pull off a 16-minute version of “Gypsy Woman,” turning his body and voice into nearly an entire band, putting the equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven” — with a Middle Eastern flair for good measure — on the shoulders of a single man and his drummer? That’s Martin Sexton.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about Martin Sexton is that he’s a damned good singer, not just a novelty act who can mimic an electric guitar with his mouth. He’s soulful beyond belief, with an incredible vocal range, and comfortably stands at the juncture of soul, rock, folk, and gospel music.

In the crowded coffeehouse folk scene of Boston in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Sexton rose quickly. By 1994, he had already garnered a national reputation, winning the National Academy of Songwriters’ Artist of the Year Award.

For the past year, Sexton has toured without a percussionist, leaving only himself on the stage. These solo shows “brought out a lot of the street performer,” he said in a recent interview. Sexton said he finds “a certain beauty” in creating all the sounds himself. “It’s just pure music,” he said. “It’s just a guy and a guitar.”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Sexton wants the crowd to play a part, too. He noted that sometimes he and the crowd can get a three-part harmony going.

The singer-songwriter seems to relish crowd interaction. He said has been playing to audiences of between 500 in the Midwest and 1,000 on the East and West coasts, and the promise of a venue with a capacity of a couple hundred got him obviously excited. “That’s going to be fun,” Sexton said. “That’s going to be a throwback to the coffeehouse days. ... You can hear the people breathing and you can see their faces.”

Sexton seems to embrace apparent contradictions such as talking about “pure music” while trying to get the audience to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” He equates studio albums with perfection — getting the right take, bringing in other performers — but he also said that “a lot of my records have lots of mistakes.” He said he might forget a lyric and scat to fill the space. “I usually leave it unless it sounds totally stupid,” he said.

On the track “Hallelujah,” for example, the lyric was supposed to be “singing Hallelujah,” but Sexton instead sang “sipping Hallelujah.” It stuck.

Because the Martin Sexton experience is all about live performance, it’s appropriate that he’s joined a growing number of artists in releasing mixing-board recordings of shows. “We put ‘em out just like they are,” Sexton said.

“Some people in my camp want to put everything up there,” he said of his Web site. “My initial inclination was to sell them at shows. I never wanted to release them per se.” So they reached a compromise: Four particularly good shows from 2003 are available on the Web site.

And then there are those less-than-ideal shows. Sexton was asked to perform the national anthem at Fenway Park and was given the option of singing live or lip-syncing. He chose to sing it live, and then learned why he was even given the choice: There was a three-second delay between his singing and the sound from the speakers reaching his ears. “It was really wild,” he said. Because of the delay, “people probably thought I was lip-syncing.”

For such a dynamic performer, that’s not likely.

This article was originally published in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.

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