Being Martin Sexton: Singer talks about where he fits in

September 28, 2011 

  • When: 8 p.m. Friday

    Where: Charleston Pourhouse, 1977 Maybank Highway, Charleston


    Cost: $20


    Details: 843-571-4343, www.charlestonpourhouse.com

From an early age, Martin Sexton was ahead of his time. In the sixth grade, the singer/songwriter discovered the thrill of performing for eager crowds and has been set on that path ever since.

"I used to sing in the schoolyard as a kid," Sexton said. "It was this magical thing. I used to sing Stevie Wonder tunes and all of the kids would gather around. It was a great feeling. I remember all of the nuns would see us having so much fun, and they'd come and break it up."

The crowds have gotten larger but the accolades are the same. Now 45, the indie/folk music icon brings his unique sound to the Pour House in Charleston on Friday.

The Lowcountry gig will be one of his first concerts since ending his recent European tour, also his first. Sexton performed in Australia and in the United Kingdom but was surprised by the reception he received in Europe. Thanks to YouTube, satellite radio, the Internet -- and Sexton's increased presence on soundtracks of TV shows such as "Scrubs" and "Parenthood" -- Sexton arrived in Europe with a fanbase.

"I went over there with the intention of starting over," he said. "I thought it was going to be like America 15 years ago."

Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., Sexton got his start in local bands in high school, playing '80s tunes from acts such as Tears for Fears, Huey Lewis & the News and a-ha.

Aside from a holiday album and live covers of "Purple Rain" and "With a Little Help From My Friends," these days, Sexton mainly sticks to the songs he writes himself. However, the background as a bar singer/cover artist shouldn't shock fans of Sexton, who, as an artist, is always surprising. He is notoriously hard to pin down to one genre, with influences as diverse as country, R&B, blues and rock.

Although he's often called a folk singer, Sexton said he doesn't fit the bill. His roots are in Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin and the Beatles.

"A white guy singing his own songs, playing guitar, is usually thought of as a folk singer," he said.

His songs careen from the upbeat, Buddy Holly-ish "Diner" to the jazz/poppy "Boom Sh-Boom" to the moving, heart-breaking "Black Sheep." Sexton prefers the label "soul" to describe his style, because it's "something that comes from the gut and is honest and is not too gussied up."

When looking at his own career, Sexton feels more like John Lennon than Bob Dylan.

"Early on, record-company types would say, 'You have to try one sound and stay with that,'<2009>" he said. "And I tried it for a minute. But it was like wearing a pair of shoes that don't fit. It just wasn't me. I try to make records the way the Beatles made records, where one tune is 'Helter Skelter' and another tune is 'Blackbird.'<2009>"

It was that independent streak that led Sexton away from the corporate record industry -- after recording 1996's "Black Sheep" and 1992's "In the Journey" on his own, Sexton signed with Atlantic Records and released 1998's "The American" and 2000's "Wonder Bar" -- and into establishing his own label.

In 2002, he launched his own label, Kitchen Table is 2007 release, "Seeds," was his best yet, debuting at No. 6 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart.

His latest album, "Sugarcoating," has been well received. The New York Times described his voice as a "blue-eyed soul man's supple instrument." Billboard called Sexton, "A star with potential to permanently affect the musical landscape and keep us entertained for years to come."

"I don't fit that system," he said of his major-label past. "I'm not a pop singer. I'm a 'Martin Sexton,' if you know what I mean.

"I am who I am. So I do what I do. And I've had a great run so far being independent."

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