On Record: Martin Sexton

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Martin Sexton knows how to stay true to his own vision. For more than 10 years, that’s all the soulful singer/songwriter with the acrobatic voice has focused on. His new album, Sugarcoating, finds him at the peak of his powers.

There are a million talented singer/songwriters out there, but only a few of them can turn their passion into a viable career. To what do you attribute your success?

I try to keep it real. I try not to pay too much attention to fashion. I see a lot of hip things in the world, whether it’s hip music, or hip clothes, or hip car commercials. I try not to get sucked in to the ultra-cool thing, or the fad of the day, because next year it’s old. I like to think of music as a good old pair of blue jeans; that fashion has never gone out of style in 60 years. Or good old-fashioned rock and roll; it’s still kick-ass. It’s still amazing to listen to a Rolling Stones tune, or a Led Zeppelin song, or Abbey Road.

How is your songwriting style different today than it was 10 years ago?

I think when I first started out, it was more about inspiration. Which is great, but usually inspiration, after the first record, or maybe the second, you can’t really rely on it. Because you’ve got your whole life to make your first record. And a few good moments of inspiration can make for a really good record. But after that, you’ve got a year-and-a-half to make your second one. And you’re busy; you’re out touring, and working, and whatever else it is that you do. So I think there’s more craft involved in my writing now. I’m also doing more co-writing than I did early on. Most of this new record is co-written. So I like to rely on other people’s strengths as well as my own.

And I had a lot of fun. We went up to my place up in the Adirondacks, and spent the summer writing this record. I think all of these songs were written in a couple of weeks, actually. Which I was kind of amazed with, because I’m the kind of writer who won’t write, literally, for years. And then I get up in the woods with another guy, get out in a boat with a couple of fishing rods, and we whack out 10 songs in a week. We were doing two or three a day. I was psyched to get that material out. And it’s all meaningful, too. It’s not like a bunch of bologna that we just made up because I had to write a record—it’s actually stuff that’s close to my heart. Songs about my children, or meeting my wife, or a song like “Sugarcoating.”

Writing can be fun. I never really knew that before this year. Writing for me was always a chore, kind of like homework. Part of my job I didn’t really enjoy so much. I prefer to just step on stage and play the song and get applause, and then get a nice check at the end of the night [laughs]. That’s what I like, you know? But writing isn’t that instant gratification. But this year, I’ve learned that writing can actually be enjoyable.

Is there anything you try to avoid when writing songs?

My built-in editor. He sometimes chops things off before they have a chance to see the light of day. It judges ideas as they come along, like “oh, that’s stupid,” or “oh, that sucks,” or “oh, that’s cheesy,” or “that melody’s lame.” “Oh, that’s a rip-off of a Tom Waits tune.” So I try to avoid the editor in the early stages of writing a song. The editor comes in handy later when you’ve written a song, and maybe want to lose a line here or there.

I also try to keep it real, and lay off the cheese. Although there’s one tune on this record that I purposefully wrote as a cheesy pop song, “Stick Around.” While we were writing it, we purposely said, “Let’s do a cheesy pop song.” And I was playing it on my acoustic guitar for my friend, who knows me very well, and he had heard all the songs and liked them, but he said, “That one, that ‘Stick Around,’…it just doesn’t sound like you, Martin. It doesn’t sound like something you would do. I’m not getting the ‘real’ vibe.” And I knew what he was talking about. But then we laid this Beatle-esque production on it, and made it a tip of the hat of the Beatles. That dried it out enough so that the cheese is in the sauce now. So you don’t really taste it; you just… enjoy it.

Is there a theme to this record?

The theme is we are all here together. There is no red or blue, or left or right. I think those are artificial paradigms that have been projected upon us. Whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or gay or straight, or black or white, these are all pre-set and designed to keep us divided as a people. We need to see that we are the same more than we’re different. Because once we do that, we become even more empowered as a unified force of people. And if you have a population of people who really love one another, that’s a scary force to reckon with.