He's a singer. He's a songwriter. He's a hometown boy who's made good. His name is Martin Sexton and we talked with Martin about singing, songwriting, struggling, "Sugarcoat" (his new CD) and his early days in Syracuse, N.Y.
Q - I actually remember when you were known as Marty Sexton and were playing The Lost Horizon on a Friday night.
A - Is that right, man? What year are you talking about?
Q - Many years ago. I saw the ad in the Syracuse New Times.
A - That's great, man. I think actually I remember that. Somebody took it upon themselves to call me Marty, but actually anywhere else in the world I was playing it was Martin. You know what I mean? I think somebody knew me or something and just took it upon themselves to call me Marty Sexton.
Q - And I take it you don't like Marty Sexton. You want to be known as Martin Sexton.
A - No, no. My friends call me Marty. My family calls me Marty. I don't mind being called Marty. Marty is good. I just, a long time ago, made a decision to use the name Martin 'cause I like the way it looks along with Sexton. It has a ring to it. It is my given name. Why not, right?
Q - So, I should bill this interview as Martin Sexton, not Marty Sexton?
A - I would probably prefer that. That's what my name is. You know what I mean? It's kind of like if you were interviewing Robert De Niro, you wouldn't headline it "My interview with Bobby De Niro." (laughs) Even though his friends call him Bobby.
Q - Do you realize that you get more press in Syracuse than most musicians who have been playing the club scene for years?
A - That's a beautiful thing. I really love having Syracuse as a home town. I am really treated like a home town boy and I love that. I love the respect and attention I get in Syracuse. It's a mutual feeling of respect. I try to reciprocate that same amount of respect right back at 'em.
Q - I think I know why there is this fascination with you: You got out of Syracuse, you got a record deal and you went on to headline venues the world over.
A - Well, that probably helps a little bit, you know. I've made some waves around the world here and there. I'm currently sitting in Boise, Idaho eating pork chops on a day off.
Q - Talking to somebody from back home.
A - Yeah. (laughs) I'm really enjoying this day off. I'm just chillin'. My voice is definitely enjoying the rest. I've done like 60 shows straight.
Q - Where did you grow up in Syracuse?
A - Right at the West end where Strathmore meets Geddes. Right by Corcoran High School. I guess it would be the Southwest end of Syracuse, right where the Strathmore meets on to the end of South Geddes and Glenwood. Where they all meet up there. The Big Five corners there. That's where I grew up.
Q - When you're touring, are you performing as a solo act with an acoustic guitar or are you traveling with a band?
A - Both actually. I have some guitars. Some are acoustic. Some are electric. I have a solo section in my set. I play a selection in my set with a full band as well.
Q - How many guys in the band?
A - Six guys in the band. They're called Ryan Montbleau Band. He's my opening act and then they're also my band. So it's really kind of neat. I've never seen anyone do that where they have the opener be the backing band.
Q - I think that was a common practice back in the early 1960s with the Dick Clark Tours.
A - Oh, yeah man. Cool. I guess I'm keepin' it old school.
Q - Listening to "Sugarcoating", I can see why you're successful. You can write a song.
A - Thank you. I appreciate that.
Q - Your songs tend to tell a story. How did you get so good at that?
A - Like most musicians I started playing other people's music. I used to learn songs off great records like Beatles records and Led Zeppelin records. I used to sing Top 40 way back in the day, back in the late '80s in Syracuse. It was like Vocal 101 for me. That was like going to school for singing, only I got paid for it, which was beautiful. So, yeah, my whole beginning is kind of unusual in that I hopped on the train and went to Boston and started singing in the streets and subways. I built my career from that. I didn't just have a couple of good songs and a guy with a big cigar came and gave me a big fat check and a record deal and made me a star. I have had a very slow and steady growth as an artist and as a business person. It's been a great ride. It's been a career. It's been fruitful. I'm really happy about the fan base I have. They keep coming. They're very galvanized. They're not casual. They don't all show up one year and not the next. It's pretty much they keep coming back. I think they connect with the personal nature of my songs. My songs are all pretty simple and honest and human. I think most people can identify with at least a couple of them.
Q - How are you marketed? Are they trying to get airplay on satellite radio for you? What do they do to sell you CDs?
A - I own my own record label, so the "they" is me and my team. There's no real "they" because it's me and my team. I've got a radio promoter. They get me on not only satellite, but on all kinds of radio stations in North America with more of a leaning towards collage and NPR type stations. We have a publicist who gets up press. My distributor gets the records out in the stores. My manager kind of oversees everything. My booking agent gets me the dates. So, there's no real "them." There was a them at one point, when I was with Atlantic Records and that was all well and good. But, I just felt the need to move on and be independent. And it's a great time in the world now to be an independent artist.
Q - When you left Syracuse for Boston, why did you choose Boston? Why didn't you go to New York, Nashville or Los Angeles?
A - 'Cause at the time I didn't know that I was a singer / songwriter guy that I am now. I figured a guy in a Funk band or something. I even took some auditions for some bands in the early '90s. It just never panned out and only after I landed in the subway and street did I sort of discover the singer / songwriter guy I am right now. The reason I chose Boston was simply because I had a brother there who could put me up until I got my feet on the ground. And I thought it was a little more friendly than New York, I think at the time. I think my little nest egg that had saved up would probably have served me better in Boston than New York. I think it was a good choice. I think I have the Folk label that I've had over the years in a direct result of going to Boston and not New York or L.A. because what was coming out of Boston at the time is, if you were a guy who wrote your own songs, you were a Folk singer. So, I think that's why I got that Folk tag. I don't get it as much as I used to because I think people recognize there's so much more to what I do than just Folk.
Q - When you started singing in the subway, how long did it take you to get signed with Atlantic Records?
A - Well, first I did that for a couple of years. Then I put a record out on a little Indy (independent) label, my "Black Sheep" album and I worked that around North America for a couple of years, around '96, '97. Then with that came more attention. I got a new manager and she landed me a deal with Atlantic Records 'cause they could see I could sing and I could play and I had a track history already. So, it wasn't a big departure getting on a major label at that point. And I put out two records with them that I like. I have good memories of working with them. They didn't control me or throw me any major curve balls. They let me produce my second record, called "Wonder Bar". It felt good, but I knew after "Wonder Bar" I really was going to be better off just being independent. So I put out a double 'live' album on my own label. I got out of the deal with Atlantic and that double 'live' album was sort of the cash cow to fund my little label called Kitchen Table Records. Ever since then it's been a wonderful ride. I sell more records, more tickets than I ever have as an independent artist than I ever did on a major.
Q - But, you feel you had to leave Syracuse in order to achieve the success you've had? You couldn't have stayed in Syracuse and released independent albums?
A - Yeah. For me, I think I really did need to. Now, being who I am now, I could live anywhere. I could live in Syracuse. I could live in Boise, Idaho or I could live who knows where. But I think back then I needed that proximity flow. You know there wasn't so much a national flow of music at the time flowing through Syracuse like there is now. Actually now, there's a nice stream flowing through Syracuse with clubs like the Westcott theatre up there in the University and The Palace Theatre. Those weren't in existence then. It was pretty much The Lost Horizon or The Carrier Dome, or The Landmark Theatre. Not many people showed up in Syracuse if you weren't already Billy Joel or Sting. I had a vocal coach there (Syracuse), Sonny Farrar. He was sort of a Syracuse legend. I was lucky enough to have some vocal sessions with him. He told me he thought I was really talented and I had a bright future and he said "You really got to get out of this town." So, I took it to heart what he said. I owe him a debt. He was the person who sort of gave me a green light to get out of Syracuse. It was just a necessary step. Nowadays you could be in Syracuse and do anything you want because you have the internet at your fingerprints. There's a heartbeat there now that wasn't there 20 years ago. Nowadays you can do anything from anywhere. We didn't have MySpace and websites and e-mail. When I left Syracuse, we had fax machines and that was about it. No cell phones even. (laughs) You couldn't just make your own CD. Everyone makes their own CD now.
Q - When you were starting off, you would play and then you would leave. Now, there are people dependent on you for a living. Do you see yourself as a product? Does that influence how you think? How you write?
A - Not really, no. I just try to keep it real like I've always have done. I think that's what has gotten me where I am. Just being honest. Being real and being true to my heart. If I sing a song I don't mean, people know it instantly. And I think singing songs that I really mean is sort of my stock in trade. So, I try to keep doing it. I think that's why people like to buy a ticket. Come see me and buy a record or check me out online or YouTube or whatever they use, because I mean what I'm singing. I think in the world we live in today, that isn't all that common. There's so much music out there that's just pre-fabricated and fit. It's made to fit a certain format, whether it's New Country or Top 40 or whatever. My music is not formatted to fit any particular existing format. It's just me doing what I do. If the radio likes it, that's wonderful. But if they don't...whatever, man. I made it this far without big commercial radio behind me.
Q - But it all starts with a song, doesn't it? You have to be able to write. You'll hear excuses from people saying "if only I was in a top flight studio." They seem to think that's the answer. But it all hinges, it all starts with a good song.
A - So right, man. That's the hard part too. The hard part for me is the writing. Writing is like homework to me. I find it difficult, but it is very rewarding. When I finish a song, the feeling I get is overwhelming. Then when I sing it 'live' and it really works, it's just a beautiful thing. But I tend to be an instant gratifier. I like to show up, sing a song, get the applause and then get the check at the end of the night. I love that instant gratification. With songwriting, it's not that. It's a lot of work. Just writing. It's funny, man. You'd think it was easy like fishing. To me, it's not. It's something I have to labor over quite a bit. But I think I've done it long enough so I can do it. I can write a song.
Q - Does that mean you wait for inspiration to strike before you write a song, or do you block out a certain time of day to write each and every day?
A - What I usually do at the end of an album cycle, usually about 18 months long, I'll say "well this album has been out a year and a half, I gotta start writing for a new record." I do it all different ways. I co-write. I rely on inspiration. I'll get up at 9 AM and write for three hours. I will just put a dictaphone in the back of the bus here on the road and collect ideas. I'll record sound checks 'cause at sound check a lot of cool ideas happen. So, I have all different kinds of ways of writing. One way or another, they become songs.