Listening to Martin Sexton's latest full-length, Wonder Bar, one is treated to something of a refresher course in classic American popular-music sounds. Shades of everything from late '70s AOR balladry and groovy pop-soul to gritty Delta blues and Southern spirituals color the Boston songwriter's catchy tuneage, all funneled through an inimitable style born of street-corner busking and open-mic beer joints. The disc, his fourth, certainly offers an unclassifiable contemporary edge, yet the songs display an impressive breadth of inspiration, the kind of encyclopedic knowledge that only comes from years of exhaustively studying what's come before.
Or does it?
"I don't really have old-music influences," claims Sexton. "Stuff like old blues music, they came secondhand, through bands like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, Eric Clapton. Soul music, I don't know where I got it, but it came through something else, I'm sure of it. I remember I heard Cab Calloway for the first time in the Blues Brothers' movie, and I learned a Ray Charles song off of an Eric Clapton record."
The singer attributes his eclectic expression to some rather osmotic personality traits, rather than the act of consciously seeking out the good stuff.
"I'm very much like a sponge. Especially as a kid. When something right comes by me, I tend to soak it right in. I think I first saw Ray Charles as a kid on a McDonald's commercial," he laughs. "Even those little bits and pieces sunk right into me very rapidly."
Perhaps the most intriguing of Wonder Bar's touchstones lies in its recollection of gospel. While there aren't any pipe organs, a cappella choirs or even overtly religious lyrical connotations, much of the album, including standout moments like "Faith on the Table," "Hallelujah" and the transcendent "Where Did I Go Wrong" favors an uplifting vibe that calls to mind the melodies of heartfelt pulpit wailing. As often as it's get-down funky, the disc is poignant and redemptive; those familiar with Sexton's prior output will recognize this as a relatively new addition to his creative palette. And, once more, he has no idea where the hell it comes from.
"Lately it's become quite influential, and again, I don't know why. I've never even heard a gospel record, I've just seen movies like The Apostle with Robert Duvall," he says. "I tried to put a lot of gospel-y stuff on the Wonder Bar record, and I just dig it whenever I hear it. When I drive through the South, I turn on the radio and hear it, and I just love it."
The artist's shifting attentions have managed to keep his releases fresh, no mean feat in the singer/songwriter pantheon, where most well-known artists tend to find a narrow, easily identifiable sound and then flog it beyond rigor mortis.
"I like to try to have a different flavor on each record," agrees Sexton. "And usually it's not so much an intellectual decision for me. It's usually just because I've gone through whatever I've gone through, grown into another set of shoes or worn out my old ones."
Sexton also credits his collaborators with some of the album's wide scope. In addition to longtime drummer Joe Bonadio, storied bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Paul Simon) and equally noted keyboard man David Sancious (Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Sting) contributed more than just their instrumental talents to the process. Levin's plethora of sounds, Sancious' passionate textures and the ideas of both men helped Sexton's songs far surpass his expectations — expectations already high enough that the songwriter had assumed the role of producer for the album.
"It was really cool," he says. "It was a bit of a coup that we managed to have Atlantic (Records) let me produce. But I had the songs, I had the studio picked out, I had the players lined up, and I had the ideas, so they gave me the green light."
He adds, "My job was made a lot easier by wonderful, great players who would offer great ideas, and I could just pick one."
For his current tour, Sexton has returned to the now-infamous format of just himself and Bonadio. He feels the familiar quasi-solo scenario has helped define the music's live persona and set him apart from singer/songwriters who traditionally either go it alone with an acoustic, or opt for fronting a band of extremely capable, but usually somewhat passionless, hired guns. Over the years, his onstage partnership with Bonadio has had the dual effect of forcing him to become an eccentric and charismatic showman, while simultaneously showcasing the inimitable, self-accompanying guitar style developed over countless hours busking on street corners and subway platforms.
"I found long ago that I could do something with just my guitar that I never knew I could. Singing in the streets back in Boston, I think it gave me the avenue to hone my chops, the necessity to get better at what I was doing," he says. "And out of that necessity came this ability to put on a show, to perform my songs in a solo or kind of stripped-down fashion."
When asked if such a performance style ever falls short of the dynamic impact provided by a full band, Sexton reveals his belief that the opposite can be just as true:
"I've done it. I've performed in every way. I've played with bands, I've played solo, I've played with just my drummer. When I'm solo or almost solo, I can really have quite a range, from a hush to a scream in the same five seconds."
While his albums and shows have consistently received critical and audience acclaim, Sexton remains a bit of an underground hero. His songs are at least as hooky and often much more soulful than any "adult alternative" staple you'd care to name. The stuff is innately commercial, about as far from indie skronk or even alt-country as it gets, a sound that could easily slide between John Hiatt and Eagle Eye Cherry somewhere on the FM dial. But the big hit has, as yet, eluded him. And for the songwriter, that's OK for now — he's got no problem taking things one show, one fan and one sale at a time and considers himself lucky to do it.
"It's been really fruitful," Sexton says. "I know that it hasn't been a flash in the pan, a big hit record and then gone the next year. It's been a very slow and strong growing process for me. Although I haven't been availed some of the more major commercial highways. But that's probably been a good thing for me because most artists I know who have had it all happen at once, it goes away just as quickly. This industry, the world of commercial music is extremely fickle, and generally they pretty much get what they need from you and go on to the next artist."
Case in point: After two releases that garnered praise in the press but didn't exactly set the A&R man up for life, Atlantic and Martin Sexton have parted ways. The man who doesn't know where the good stuff comes from, but knows it when he hears it, has founded his own imprint, Kitchen Table Records. Such a proposition might send less-experienced artists scrambling for therapy, or at least a paper hat at Burger World; Sexton, however, sees it as simply another opportunity to excel.
"There is that uncertainty, but to me that's healthy," he says. "That's what's kept me growing all these years, you know? A big budget and all that stuff, it's good, but what I can't forget about myself is that gift of necessity. It's been the one thing that's played the biggest role in my growth as an artist. Now that I'm not on a major label anymore, I'm feeling that gift, that "holy shit' factor. It's fun, because I come from that.
"If I was 21 and had been signed to a major label and that's all I knew, I'd probably be shitting my pants right now."
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARTIN: Martin Sexton's latest release, Wonder Bar, has gospel music influences.