Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Independence is Martin Sexton’s strength.
Since his college years crooning on the streets of Harvard Square to his debut of self-produced demo recordings and beyond, he has prevailed largely on his own.
“I love being an independent musician,” says Sexton. “Right now, I own my own label, and even when I was at Atlantic Records I had a lot of say on approvals, and there was no one breathing down my neck. I’m not beholden to any format, company or corporation. With music, it wouldn’t be fun if I didn’t decide to do it.”
Diversity is Sexton’s medium for walking through this world. He eats, sleeps and doles out several blends of American music, including soul, gospel, country, rock, blues and rhythm and blues. His elastic vocal range, improvisation, scat-singing guitar solos, and ‘fingerstyle’ guitar-picking cushion his range.
“I’ve never had a complaint that my records were too diverse,” says Sexton. “I don’t personally enjoy records that do just one thing. I’m not the kind of person who could do just one thing for 40 minutes on a record. Look at ‘Abbey Road’ by the Beatles, and how that floated from style to style, and look at some other albums that are diverse. I enjoy that. My music is like a trip across America.”
And that trip has been a bountiful one since Sexton released his first record, “Black Sheep” in 1996. Decades later, he has broken through the clutter with word-of-mouth blessings and a never-ending flurry of touring. From New York City coffeehouses to sticky-floored Midwestern dives and Los Angeles theatres of the posh and connected, Sexton has stopped at establishments as diverse as the timbre of his tune. He equates smaller with purer.
“I love places like the Top Hat,” said Sexton, speaking of the Missoula club where he’s performed many times. “The Top Hat is jammed, it’s cool, and it is an intimate venue. You really get to the very essence of the show – the essence of the musician. You can hear him whisper. You can see him sweat. Hear his breath.”
If it’s true that Sexton’s independence and freedom can only exist in the following of what feels right, then the reigning intimacy of a place such as Missoula’s Top Hat plays a part; it supplies a touch of special that allows a musician such as Sexton to burn the set list and embrace the raw and palpable.
“The music I play all depends on the night,” said Sexton. “It depends on the crowd, the vibe, and those things create the set list. People call out tunes, which is amazing. You can play a song that you haven’t played in years, or one that maybe you play every single night. If I’m at a festival that has a set time, I can contrive it. But at a place like the Top Hat, you have the ability to whip out a tune that is more intimate or more personal. You go from something that is not up-tempo or something than can get people rockin’ with the base, or then turn down the volume and sing a folk song.”
Sexton launched his own label, KTR, in 2002. The musician says that communication as an artist is a constant balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. To survive in the musical world, he knows that he has to act in performance with others, but to survive as himself, rather than merely as a component in a wheel, he has to operate alone.
Indeed, alone is where Sexton may be found and heard on stage, mature with talent, a voice transported in a multiplicity of empowering shades, his songs spirited, organic and soulful. His repertoire is like a cross-country expedition of the American music lexicon. His tales about life and its various schemes and dreams are both hopeful and elegiac, his unaffected gusto amplifying the harmony of a simple heart.
“It seems to be the hip thing these days to unplug, grab some fiddles, mandolins, banjos, grow a beard and wear flannels,” said Sexton. “But I’ve always been acoustic playing live. My school is old rock-and-roll. and I never knew what a folk musician was. All said, I love my Gibson J50, and I never pander to the audience.”
Sexton’s success shouldn’t be measured in billboard charts or independent music awards, but by the strength of the solo live gigs he delivers coast-to-coast. He is a man who as long as he is living his own way is as content as anybody on earth. That sense of security is a naturally addicting exercise in full-throttle exertion. He’s well aware of the damage one bad night could do to his reputation. Preparing like the professional he is, he treats every night as if it alone is what will cement his reputation. Empty his heart, he must.
“I leave it all on the stage,” said Sexton. “It’s an athletic and physical performance for me. I’m drenched in sweat and I don’t speak after the shows to let my vocals rest. Six different cities in a week is tough on the vocal cords. But I leave everything I have out there.”