Tales from the road11/11/2015
Martin Sexton — native of Syracuse, New York, and the 10th of 12 Sexton children — has gotten to where he is now in life through a series of battles. Growing up with 11 siblings can make even the most menial of daily tasks into a fight for limited resources. That helped prep Sexton for life as a busking musician in Boston, where nothing is guaranteed and everything gained is earned through effort.“I learned as a busker, straightaway, that you have to get the audience’s attention,” he told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last spring. “The second thing I learned is that you have to keep that attention for more than just a minute.”
Since those days, Sexton has released 11 studio albums, including 2015’s “Mixtape of the Open Road.” And though newcomers to Sexton’s sound are encouraged to jump in anywhere in his discography they like, the most recent album might be the best embodiment of the 49-year-old’s ethos to date.
As the name implies, “Mixtape” was written with long hours in the car in mind. Sexton said that he originally set out to create a concept album — something that he says he always wanted to do, and will probably return to in the future — but as he started writing, the biggest theme that quickly emerged was one of no theme at all.
“I started writing the songs, and they all just sort of started telling me what they wanted to be,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve described them as being like kids, each growing up to be their own thing, so I couldn’t do one specific concept. So, during the recording process, I thought, ‘This is like a mixtape. So I’ll just go with that.’ From there I just stepped on the gas and tried to make each song come from its own place.”
The album gave Sexton the chance to explore instruments he hadn’t touched in years. He recalled writing “Shut Up and Sing” on a dusty Fender Stratocaster. But more importantly, the album gave Sexton a chance to let his mind wander a bit and explore avenues of thought that might not have found a place on a more thematically conventional album.
Sexton has always had a relatively savoir-faire approach to his music. He rarely uses set lists, instead preferring to let the mood of the show dictate the songs that get played. And he has long used live shows as places to work the kinks out of new songs before recording. But at the end of the day, the quality of the songwriting is what drives the shows and the album and the tours along. That is, not coincidentally, the bit that Sexton approaches with the most workmanlike attitude.
“The writing is the hard part for me,” he concurred. “It is like homework. I find it difficult, but it is very rewarding.”
“I tend to like instant gratification. I like to show up, sing a song, get the applause and then get the check at the end of the night. With songwriting, there’s none of that. It’s a lot of work. It’s funny, man. I’ve always said that you’d think writing was easy. Like fishing. To me, it’s not. It’s something I have to labor over. But you know what? I think I’ve done it long enough that I can say it tends to come out all right. I can write a song.”