If music's a tonic for our daily drudgery and everyday frustrations, then Martin Sexton's the vermouth. The Syracuse, N.Y.-based musician's taste blends heartland rock, '50s rockabilly, doo-wop, soul, and roots-funk. He delivers it in a folksy manner that's part kitchen conversation, part impassioned plea. It's a style Sexton developed busking around Boston in the '90s.
"Busking was my university of music performance," Sexton says. "After getting fired from my day job, I was blessed with the gift of desperation. I had to pay my rent. In doing so, I honed my craft of singing and songwriting."
Sexton possesses a big, soulful voice that sounds a little weathered but proves nimble. It's like Van Morrison filtered through Jackson Browne's homey charm. His jammy roots/rock take on Motown — exemplified on 1998's The American and 2000's Wonder Bar — would offer a template used to even greater success by John Mayer and his army of adult-pop clones.
Sexton's much grittier than that bunch. His sweaty showmanship evokes the leave-it-all-on-stage spirit of the Boss. It's an energy he's become adept at capturing on his albums.
"I like to record the old-fashioned way, recording the lead vocal track with the band to capture the immediacy of the song," he says. "For me, overdubbing my parts, I lose something."
According to Sexton, most of the tracks on last year's Sugarcoating (recorded in the old Rounder studio in Cambridge, Mass.) are early takes. While this mirrors his approach across his eight studio albums, he does stray from his template on the latest. There's a typical quotient of heartfelt odes to resilience, hope, heartbreak, and survival. He also attempts his most overtly political song with the country-styled title track Its call to action goes, "If we follow where we're led, and we're eating what we're fed, then we might as well be sleeping in our grave."
"The record is a call for unity among us as people of differing backgrounds," offers Sexton. "I have purposefully lost my sense of left and right, of red and blue, of black and white, in an effort to try to see the likeness in others, as opposed to the differences."
Sexton is the type who leads by example.