When Martin Sexton sings these days, he’s trying to make a difference, bringing attention to pervasive social and political issues while bringing a diverse audience together.
“I’m trying to use my art for something greater than just entertainment,” Sexton says. “But I think my music has a pop sensibility and can be entertaining. I like to call what I do ‘thinking man’s pop.’” While Sexton’s singer/songwriter-style songs aren’t protest songs per se, he’s trying to convey messages that cut through the static of left vs. right, red vs. blue that pervades political discussions, particularly on television.
“I compare that [TV political talk] to World Federation Wrestling,” Sexton says. “It’s all theater. It’s all fake. It’s just noise that divides people.”
Instead, Sexton says he’s trying to draw awareness to increasing government intrusion into private lives as part of the national security state that has flourished since 9/11 — from the Transportation Security Administration at airports to the Patriot Act to the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Barack Obama in December.
“That lets the military arrest you without any charges,” Sexton says. “That’s against the laws of the land. But nobody says anything about it.”
He’s also against the continuing war in Afghanistan and wants to bring out the economic disparities that prompted the “Occupy” movement.
“I’ve had enough,” Sexton says. “I’m standing up and saying ‘This is bullshit.’ Other people are too. This is what people are talking about. This is what I’m talking about. If enough people talk, maybe things can change.”
Sexton’s newly prominent sociopolitical awareness can be heard on his cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the 1967 song that is one of just five cuts on his new E.P. Falls Like Rain.
That song, written at the height of the Vietnam War, asks “everybody look what’s going down” and argues that “nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong.”
That’s a direct reflection of Sexton’s aim at focusing attention on issues and finding an approach to solving problems that isn’t based on division.
Appropriately, he calls it “unproduced,” just him and a guitar recorded live and put on the record.
But there won’t be any partisan diatribes from the stage when Sexton performs. He doesn’t have much use for either political party or the culturally paralyzing liberal/conservative dichotomy.
“There’s only one party in the country today, the war party,” he says.
His theme, he says, has been and will continue to be unity.
“Maybe I should have that as my motto: ‘Martin Sexton, bringing folks together since 1992,’” he says. “I’m not preaching to the choir at my shows. My aim is to bring people together who would never be together and getting them to set aside their differences.
They may not agree on guns or abortion or politics, but they’re singing in three-part harmony.”
That harmony comes every night, particularly when Sexton is playing solo shows, as he will be on his current tour.
“It will be Martin Sexton and whatever-city-I’m-in Boys and Girls Choir,” he says. “They’ll definitely know the words. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“They” is the loyal audience that Sexton has developed over the two decades since he started busking in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. In fact, he sold some 20,000 copies of In The Journey, his 1992 collection of demo recordings made on an eight-track in a friend’s attic, selling the CDs out of his guitar case while busking.
Eventually, he gained a more conventional way to release music, as he moved from street singer to what he called a “regional guy,” and put out a 1996 record called Black Sheep. That album got him signed to Atlantic Records.
He did a pair of discs for the major label (The American in 1998 and Wonder Bar in 2000), and then, way ahead of the curve, launched his own label, Kitchen Table Records, in 2001. He has stayed busy since then, releasing five albums while maintaining a busy schedule of touring — sometimes with a band, sometimes solo.
“Everyone tours their ass off now, whether they’re Dave Matthews or me or just starting out because that’s where you make money,” Sexton says. “But when I’m a guy and a guitar and I don’t have my band with me, calling me a troubadour wouldn’t be far off.”
Along the way, Sexton has gained plenty of strong reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, Billboard magazine and the The New York Times. He may not have had radio hits, but his 2007 CD, Seeds — his most recent fulllength studio release — debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s Heatseeker album chart.
Sexton says his solo performances are more involved than those with the band, since he depends on the audience so much.
“This is sort of a no-set-list tour for me,” he says. “I just show up and wing it every night. The crowd contributes to that. They’ll yell out the songs and I’ll try to do them.”
Sexton’s songs, which have turned up on television shows like NBC’s Scrubs and Showtime’s Brotherhood, often require some serious vocal gymnastics, leading fans to wonder how he can make the dynamic, multiple-octave leaps that help create his highly acclaimed performances night after night.
“I try to take care of it,” Sexton says. “I do a good warm-up before and I try not to talk too much after. I don’t go out carousing. A lot of people ask, ‘Why don’t you come out and sign stuff and talk?’ If I did that every night, I don’t think I’d be able to sing the way I do every night.”
He makes sure he gets some stretches of time off the road to spend with his family and recharge his performing batteries.
“I’ve got a good life,” he says. “I’m pretty comfortable with what I’m doing now. When I go out, I have people who come to see me and when I’m home, I’m home. It all fits together.”
Sexton says he’ll continue to deliver his musical messages when he tours. But he won’t use a heavy hand.
“I’m not out to alienate people, to divide,” he says. “I want people to see what’s going on. I want to bring folks together. Music can do that. I can do that.”