Like many singer/songwriters, Martin Sexton walks to the beat of his own drum. For Sexton, that not only means making albums with songs that cross different genres, but also taking calculated risks during the recording process.
Sugarcoating (Kitchen Table Records), Sexton’s latest, covers a range of sounds and emotions, and the process he used to make the recordings required a lot of confidence and preparation on his part.
Sexton recently discussed his approach to Sugarcoating and his upcoming tour, which begins April 15 in Connecticut.
Medleyville.us: What inspired the no rehearsal/no pre-production approach to making Sugarcoating, and at what point did you know you wanted to record the album that way?
Martin Sexton: “I wanted to make a record that sounds live off the floor, and I felt what better way to do it than get the best players and get them in a room – just show them the tune in the morning, have them write out the charts and take it from there. That’s the beautiful thing about great players, and they had great ideas, so you don’t have to think of everything as a producer.
“It’s kind of like being a contractor at a big construction job. You get great tradesmen; they’re just great at what they do. You don’t have to baby sit them and tell them how to do a job, and [oftentimes] being a producer is similar to that.
“I guess what inspired me to take this approach to making a record is a lot of the old-school records I’ve heard, and as well as my own experience making records – it’s kind of the way I’ve always done it. I’ve found that, for me, works the best, as opposed to building tracks a few by few and then laying down a lead vocal on top of it all. It can be technically superior in that way, but I just wanted to get great performances on tape and then pick from those.
“I consider myself a real live performer, and so I like my records to demonstrate that. My songs … are not like a Steely Dan or a Frank Zappa song, where there’s all kinds of [stuff] going on and changes here and there. They’re pretty standard, simple-structured songs – basically boiled down to soul tunes, and soul tunes are a few chords and maybe a bridge. So it’s not a real stretch for an A-player to nail that kind of a song without a rehearsal.”
Of the 13 songs on Sugarcoating, how many are entirely first takes, and how many have overdubs?
Sexton: “I think there are about two take-ones on the record, and all of the others are within the first five or six [takes]. Most all of them have some overdubs. I did some backing vocals and laid down percussion or tambourine, but the base of the whole song – the bass, the drums, the keys, my performance on guitar and vocals – that’s all recorded live.”
What did you learn about yourself personally and artistically by making an album in this way?
Sexton: “I think what I learned, I learned long ago because it is the way I’ve done it on so many other records: To capture a live performance is to capture the moment, the essence of music. That doesn’t happen when you’re thinking. It happens when you’re feeling and doing. Every record of mine has vocal things on it — mistakes with lyrics — that I wouldn’t have done if I was reading off a sheet a paper and doing a vocal overdub. I think an imperfection gives it charm and vibe and style. Every song has so many little mistakes or immediate reactions that you wouldn’t get if I was just singing to a track.
“So that’s what I learned long ago. For me, that works best. And there are times when I do it the other way, too, but for the most part, live is the way to go with me.”
Of the musicians on Sugarcoating, will any of them be touring with you this year?
Sexton: “No. My touring band will be my opening act – the Ryan Montbleau Band. They’re a great bunch of guys; I’m actually producing their [upcoming] record now. They’re a great band out of Boston. I wanted them to come out as the support act, and I was putting together a band at the time for this tour, and then I thought, ‘Hey, [Montbleau and company] can just be my band.’ ”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Martin Sexton on tour (schedule subject to change):
* April 15: Toad’s Place – New Haven, Conn.
* April 16: 9:30 Club – Washington, D.C.
* April 17: House of Blues – Boston
* April 18: Westcott Theater – Syracuse, N.Y.
* April 20: City House Opera – Traverse City, Mich.
* April 21: The Ark – Ann Arbor, Mich.
* April 22: The Vogue – Indianapolis
* April 23: Park West – Chicago
* April 24: Majestic Theatre – Madison, Wis.
* April 25: Fitzgerald Theatre – Minneapolis
* April 28: House of Blues – New Orleans
* April 29: New Orleans Jazz and Blues Festival
* April 30: Variety Playhouse – Atlanta
* May 1: Mercy Lounge – Nashville, Tenn.
* May 2: Sticky Fingerz – Little Rock, Ark.
* May 5: Compound Grill – Phoenix
* May 6: Belly Up – San Diego
* May 7: The Fillmore – San Francisco
* May 8: House of Blues – West Hollywood, Calif.
* May 9: Harlow’s – Sacramento
* May 11: Humboldt Blues – Arcata, Calif.
* May 12: W.O.W. Hall – Eugene, Ore.
* May 14: Crystal Ballroom – Portland, Ore.
* May 15: The Showbox – Seattle
* May 16: Knitting Factory – Spokane, Wash.
* May 18: Knitting Factory – Boise, Idaho
* May 19: The Depot – Salt Lake City
* May 20: Ogden Theatre – Denver
* May 21: Crosstown Station – Kansas City, Mo.
* May 22: The Pageant – St. Louis
* May 23: 20th Century Theatre – Cincinnati
* June 4: Scranton Cultural Center – Scranton, Pa.
* June 5: Nokia Theatre – New York
* June 10: Bonnaroo – Manchester, Tenn.