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What Sounds Good: Martin Sexton, April 24 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 23 April 2008 02:27

Martin Sexton If you're listening to Martin Sexton's Seeds and occasionally find yourself confused by the lyrics, don't despair.

The 2007 album, Sexton's first non-live-performance, non-holiday album since 2000's Wonder Bar, was made differently from his previous work.

"This was the first record I ever did where I didn't have everything written, lyrically, when I was making the record - the first record I didn't do live, basically," he said in a recent phone interview. "I had the music, and I'd have, say, the chorus of a song, but I didn't have the lyrics. So I figured if I make the record, that'll be the little flame under my feet to finish the tunes."

The drum, bass, and piano were recorded in a studio, and Sexton took those basic tracks to his cabin in the Adirondacks, where he laid down guitar overdubs and backing vocals. Then he wrote lyrics to the music.

"I just kind of made stuff up," he explained. "I took a tip from the John Lennon school of writing. I kind of went with the phonetic approach - what sounds good when it's sung. And then it leaves the imagery up to the listener. I tried not to dictate, like, this is the image I want you to see in the songs. So there's a lot of lines that don't really make sort of English sense, but I think they evoke imagery, and I like to think that's what good poetry does."

Hence: "ADD wicca wanna play piano in my PJs / Sound like a prima donna with a side of mayonnaise."

Sexton, who will perform a solo show at the Redstone Room on April 24, is known more as a phenomenally dynamic performer than a songwriter, able to mimic a wide range of instruments with his voice without coming off as a novelty act. (Shameless self-promotion: Sexton's full 2006 River Roots Live set can be heard at

Martin SextonSeeds won't change that reputation, but it has an unmistakable warmth, an open heart, and an endearing sense of play. Sexton sings in falsetto, imitates a gospel choir, does a vocal guitar solo and vocal percussion and muted vocal horns, and whistles his way through an infectiously sunny, woodsy set.

One thing that distinguishes his studio work from his live show is that while he rarely tours with a band, his albums, under the surface, are filled with unusual instrumentation and found sounds. Again, he invokes the Beatles.

"There are always these sounds tying songs together," Sexton said of the Fab Four. "I've always wanted to make records like that, where there's stuff in there - stuff you wouldn't think would be on a record."

So on the widely varied Seeds you might here wind chimes, or - on "Goin' to the Country" - birds and a dog.

"My neighbor's dog barked," Sexton said, "and that was a drag, because he ruined the little take of my birds. But then it ended up being cool."

Sexton did take a band on the road last year. "I wanted to stir it up," he said. "There would be moments of - I wouldn't want to say boredom - moments of wanting something extra" when he was on stage by himself. "Now I've been kind of pining away for these solo shows, because I don't have to worry what key I'm playing in, or what tempo, or what set list. ... If I want to change something in the middle of a tune, I can just change it. ...

"The solo thing is just so much more personal with me and the audience."

The singer/songwriter has often gone his own way. After two albums on Atlantic, he asked the label to release him from his contract.

"I've got a ton of music already recorded from the road," he recalled thinking. "And I don't think I need these big corporate guns to do what I'm doing. ... So they were fine with me leaving. I probably would have been dropped after the next record anyway."

The proceeds from Live Wide Open, which Sexton self-released in 2002, have funded his own label. Since then, he released the holiday-themed Camp Holiday and Seeds on his Kitchen Table imprint.

The lyrics to that last album aren't the only things that don't make "English sense." In interviews and on stage, he'll sometimes do a trick he calls "rewind," in which his voice sounds as if it's being played backwards. I ask him about it, because listening to one interview online, I was certain that something was wrong with my computer.

"I'm so happy to hear that, to know that I messed with a few hundred thousand or maybe million people" on NPR, he said. "I was speaking and I made a mistake. Sometimes I do it on stage. I'll sing a wrong word, just to try to make it seem like it's part of the show, even though ... I fucked up. I'll say something wrong, and then I'll - ." Here he does the trick again. "Just like a rewind."

What was he saying?

"Oh, I don't know," Sexton said. "Something about Satan."

Not true. Reversed, his rewind trick produced gibberish.

But it still sounded great.


Martin Sexton will perform on Thursday, April 24, at the Redstone Room in downtown Davenport. George Stanford will also perform. The show starts at 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $20.

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