Martin Sexton knew his destiny was to be a singer when he was nine, singing in the bathtub. This was further reinforced when he received his first guitar. Determined to succeed, Sexton set to playing on the streets of Boston, using showmanship as much as singing to get people to listen. His persistence paid off, as he has recorded several albums and owns his own recording company.
Sexton was born on March 2, 1966, in Syracuse, New York. His parents met in the neighborhood, and his mother, Ginny, was the daughter of former Syracuse mayor Thomas Corcoran. His father sold office equipment after serving in the Navy. They instilled in their twelve children strong Catholic beliefs, including having to say ten decades of the rosary after supper before anyone was allowed to have dessert. Religion would later have an influence on the music Sexton would write.
Sexton obtained his first guitar at age fourteen, and by age fifteen had formed his first band, singing rock ‘n’ roll. He was highly influenced by the rock music of the late 1970s. “My life’s dream at that point was to be like the Beatles or Peter Frampton. Frampton Comes Alive was an important record for me,” he recalled to Weekly Wire online. He attended Thomas J. Corcoran High School, a school named after his grandfather. He played in garage bands, dealing out the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin.
After high school, Sexton was determined to make it as a musician. In 1988, he followed an older brother to Boston, hoping to be able to make money in the coffeehouse scene that had developed there. He took a job waiting tables at the Cafe de Paris, and though he intended to start singing on the street, he put it off at first. About this time he began to write his own music. Then, a turning point in his career occurred: he was fired from his job at Cafe de Paris, because “I basically hate work,” he told the Boston Phoenix. With no job and no money, he was forced to do what he had planned all along - play music in the subways and on the street corners.
“I was sort of pushed over the edge,” he told the Weekly Wire,” because I had been meaning to go to the street, but it wasn’t until I was canned from my job ... that I actually did it. I had to go. I didn’t really have a choice at that point.” He also performed at open-mike nights and at “pass-the-hat” in coffeehouses. “The street was like a blender, it kind of forced me to take these ingredients and abilities and some talent and whip it all into a form of entertainment - to try and draw people in,” he told the Weekly Wire.
In 1991, with very little money, Sexton made In the Journey, a collection of demo recordings, in a friend’s attic. Determined to spur sales, he decided that involving the public in his performances might increase his appeal. Strategically, he positioned himself so that when a few people would stop to listen, they would block traffic, causing more people to stop, so that he would get a crowd. He began to invite listeners to join in his performances, teaching them harmonies or getting everyone to clap to the rhythm. He sold 15,000 copies of In the Journey in its first year. Involving the crowd as part of his entertainment stayed with him and would later become a crucial element of his entertaining style. Performing on the street gave him the experience to move to working in coffeehouses and clubs. Soon he was getting regular weekly gigs.
In 1994, Sexton won the National Academy of Songwriters Artist of the Year Award, as well as several Boston Music Awards. He signed with a Boston independent label, Eastern Front Records, and released Black Sheep. By this time Sexton was touring, sharing the stage with some music greats, including Art Garfunkel and Jackson Browne. He was picked up by Atlantic Records and released The American in 1998 with a contract for $100,000 for two records, and an option for more. The American was well received, and Billboard called Sexton the “finest new male singer/songwriter of recent memory.” His albums are a mixture of folk, rock, soul, gospel, and jazz. He enjoys playing a little bit of everything. “My shows jump from boogie woogie to a ballad, from a cowboy tune to a folk song. I do blues, rock, boogie. I’m not about one particular genre,” he told the San Jose Mercury News.
Sexton tells his life stories and experiences through his music. “What I’m singing about and talking about is very personal to me. I think people identify with that. I’m not afraid to sing about very personal issues, and I think it’s just a human thing for people to grasp onto that,” Sexton told the Grand Rapids Press. While his storytelling and crowd involvement are entertaining, Daily Variety reports, “What sets Sexton apart is his voice. It’s a marvelous instrument, moving easily from a trumpet-like falsetto to a midrange that recalls Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cook, and a low-end that can rumble with the power of Otis Redding.”
Even after becoming successful, Sexton retained his style from the street. Instead of working with a full band, Sexton and longtime drummer Joe Bonadio find a full band sound through a little creativity. Sexton will play a bass line with his thumb, and use his voice wordlessly to imitate various instruments, including the flute, saxophone, and trumpet. He will also scat and yodel, and stamp his feet while slapping his guitar. Bonadio uses shells, a watering can, and wooden pegs along with the more traditional percussion instruments.
His next release for Atlantic was Wonder Bar in 2000, named after a brick restaurant featuring pizza, which was where he met his writing partner, Ned Claflin. Sexton persuaded Atlantic to allow him a great deal of control over the music, as he wanted the music to sound honest and authentic, with some of the mistakes left in. Sexton wrote one of the songs, “Real Man,” in one day, and the band rehearsed and recorded it the next day. “We rehearsed it all day and finally, by the time we got it on tape, my voice was a bit shot. So there are all kinds of little vocal imperfections, which I initially thought I’d fix, but then I just kind of dug it. It’s a tired voice, a guy that’s a little worn down,” he said on the Hip Online website.
Sexton found that the majority of his albums were selling at his live performances, and not from the support Atlantic Records provided. So he parted ways with Atlantic and formed his own production company, Kitchen Table Records, which produced the double-CD, Live Wide Open, which he recorded on his 2001 tour. The album sold at the same rate as his Atlantic releases, but he was able to keep more of the profits. “Owning your own record is worth the effort. It’s like real estate; it keeps earning the rent,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
With Sugarcoating (2010), Sexton may well have made his defining record. It is an unquestionable high point for this modern-day troubadour who headlines premiere venues across the country, oversees his label KTR and derives great satisfaction from living the life he has made for himself. These are the fruits of a combination of rarefied talent, fierce determination, and work.
He tours with Bonadio across the United States and Canada in his blue Land Cruiser towing a trailer full of equipment. When he isn’t touring, Sexton lives in western Massachusetts; he also owns a cabin in the Adirondacks.