Martin Sexton's amazing voice sounds sometimes like a guitar, other times like a squeezebox.
Martin Sexton's amazing voice sounds sometimes like a guitar, other times like a squeezebox.
F. Scott Schafer

American Dream

Last time Martin Sexton played Houston, people were willing to sell their souls to, well, not necessarily the devil, but at least the manager of Instant Karma, the venue at which Sexton was scheduled to perform.

Says Tinna Powell, Instant Karma manager/booker: "People drove from miles. We had a Louisiana couple that came here at around 2 [p.m.]. They said, '$75.' I said noŠ.Then there was a group of people from Chicago, two couples, offering me $200 to sneak in the back. And I'm thinking, 'I bet you could wait here until after the show, give [Sexton] the money, and he'd play for you right here in the parking lot.' I was shocked. I had never heard of him."

And that's the intensity of Sexton's appeal, though it's funny so many couples (including the bunches inside) would throng to see a show by an artist who makes outsider-ness and loneliness look so damn cool.

Sexton is coming back to town this weekend and will perform with only a percussionist. He could be with a full symphony or a punk band. Doesn't matter. His music is so well written, so solid, soŠ musical, nothing can corrupt its essence. His recent national debut, The American (Atlantic), which is fully realized by a studio band, is not only one of the best albums of the past year or so, it's one of the greatest collections of pop songs ever.

A tune like "Way I Am" is just one explanation why Sexton's deserving of superlatives. Part ballad, part dream, part children's song (believe it), "Way I Am" is one of those tunes that, like an exceptional movie, makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you want to live life. It's also an example of how Sexton, like a good novelist, notices things around him and channels them through his songwriting pen. Names and places are always changed. Essences aren't.

"I'm an observant guy," says Sexton from a hotel in Milwaukee. "I don't put actual people in my songsŠ.I don't say, 'I just met this waitress named Ada in Newport, Kentucky, who's just buried two children and her husband and still wears her wedding ring.' It's not like that. I let [people I meet] stew inside and come out in some other fashion."

"Way I Am," which is built primarily on Sexton's slowly picked acoustic guitar and wide-ranching voice, involves a trio of characters on the edge of collapse (like Ada). In one part of the song, Sexton sings about buying some man a drink on the night the man's about to be kicked out of town. The man says (through Sexton's vocal impersonation): "You know, I don't like the way I am. / You know, I don't like the way I am. / And I'm gonna change the way I am. / Yes, I am. / I'm gonna change the way I am."

So sad, so futile, so morose, is his gruff voice that the listener is compelled to empathize with the character, even cry for him. And when, during the last verse of the song, Sexton sings, "And [the man] played the sweetest song for me / On his squeezebox by the sea," then silences his guitar and uses his falsetto to softly mimic the "ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh" of the man's instrument, one can't help but -- for once -- believe in pop music and what it's capable of, even in an age of distractions like Ricky Martin and 98š and charlatans like Lauryn Hill and Lucinda Williams.

Sexton was always into music. The first real record he ever listened to "had this big green apple on it." It was the Beatles' Abbey Road (on Apple Records), and, curiously enough, Sexton first encountered the album while rummaging through a brother's record collection. Young Martin was looking for vinyl discs to toss around as surrogate Frisbees at the local athletic field. The Beatles one, though, he listened to. And fell in love with. "I went out and bought every Beatles record after that," says Sexton, who was in sixth grade at the time (the late 1970s). "And Fleetwood Mac, Frampton Comes Alive, all that stuff."

But just listening to the music was for second-stringers. Sexton wanted to make his own. One of 12 kids, Sexton would sit up in bed at night and read the Sears catalog musical instrument section by flashlight. "I used to think," says Sexton, " 'If I only had a bandŠ' " He got his first guitar, a sunburst electric Les Paul knockoff, when he was 13. Soon after, he was performing in front of audiences.

After graduating from high school in 1985, Sexton started singing in cover bands and busking in Boston subways and across the river in Cambridge on Harvard University's campus. All the while, Sexton worked at Cafe de Paris on Arlington, slinging java and doing kitchen chores. An incident there was the kick in the ass Sexton needed to go full-heartedly into music.

"After I got fired," says Sexton. "I had always seen people [busking], and I had been meaning to do that for some time. But I didn't own an acoustic."

Since Sexton couldn't easily plug his amp in anywhere outside, like in Harvard's courtyard, he borrowed a friend's acoustic guitar. It wasn't long before Cafe de Paris became a memory, and a bad one at that, considering how lucrative playing for spare change was. Though Sexton did buy a rechargeable amp and use his electric six-string at times, he learned to love playing the acoustic. On stage, it's his instrument of choice.

The last time Sexton performed in Houston, he played only his acoustic. An excellent picker who knows the value of subtlety and color, Sexton also gives some of his relatively percussion-less songs some beat by using the body of the instrument. He slaps the fretboard and pounds the pick plate to add a touch of urban rhythm to some songs, like he did for the sing-along radio single "Love Keep Us Together." And he uses percussive strumming to bring to life syncopated moments, like those on "Beast in Me" and "Station Man." Like these songs, most of the ones he played last time through Houston were from The American, Sexton's third full-length release. The other two, In the Journey and Black Sheep, were released independently.

A guy who hasn't learned to leave his '70s guitar roots behind, Sexton can also get pretty loud at times. Acoustically, electrically, symphonically, whatever. Songs from The American like "Candy" and "Young and Beautiful" are, as usual, superior to most of what passes for rock and roll today but are also almost postmodern inquiries into what being a rock and roll star means. Sing the songs, get the chicks, right?

Not always.

The cherubic Sexton, Jim Morrison-esque with his squared jawline, deep-set eyes and feathery shoulder-length dark mane, says he's inspired by lots of things when writing a song. Not least of which can be a pretty girl like the one in "Young and Beautiful." Quips Sexton in the tune: "And everyone knows that only in my dreams / Are you ever gonna be mine."

"A pretty woman, definitely," says Sexton. "The right one can wrench my heart. That longing, boyish, heartachy feeling, something like that can inspire me."

But, Sexton says, writing about an unattainable thing of beauty doesn't assuage the feelings of longing and heartache that inspired him to write such a song in the first place. "It's really hard to talk about," he says. "A lot of that is unconscious."

Sexton's music is one of those rare creations that manages to say what most of us have thought about but are rarely able to verbalize. Correction: Šwhat most of us have thought about but are rarely able to verbalize like Sexton. What you'll read most about Sexton over the next couple months is how he uses his voice in extraordinary ways. There's the squeezebox on "Way I Am," the guitar solo on "Maria," which sounds like an electric slide but is actually Sexton's voice fed through a distortion device, and the trumpet solo of "Diggin Me," Sexton's voice unaccompanied doing crazy scat things.

Unlike probably any other musician today, Sexton can tackle hard rock, jazz and country all in the same album and still sound natural in each genre. That's because Sexton, like all great artists, goes for the essences of things. Political affiliations, fads, moods, places, names, will always change. Essences won't. So as long as there's tragedy, there will be Shakespeare. As long as there's passion, there'll be Wagner. And as long as there's togetherness in outsider-ness, there's gonna be Sexton.

Martin Sexton performs Saturday, October 23, at Instant Karma, 1617 Richmond. Big Holiday opens. Call (713)528-3545 or (713)629-3700 for more information.


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