Martin Sexton thinks big picture on ‘Sugarcoating’

Jay N. Miller

Martin Sexton got his start busking in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and the Ryan Montbleu Band might be Boston’s hardest working rock and blues outfit. This musical marriage goes beyond regional ties, though, with Sexton serving as producer of Montbleu’s forthcoming album.

“I was just getting to know them while we were recording their album,” said Sexton, about to kick off his national tour in support of his new album, "Sugarcoating."

“I saw what great players they all are, and since they’re going to be out on the road with me anyway, why not? ... Now I guess we’ll get to know each other much better, since we’ll be living in the same bus for the next three months.”

The new CD has some superbly evocative songs about love and lasting relationships, such as “Stick Around” and “Long Haul.” There are also a couple of tunes about more transient affairs, like the buoyant “Boom Sh-Boom” with Duke Levine’s sparkling guitar work.

But the main thrust of this CD is questioning life, trying to focus on what matters and what endures. In one way or another songs like “Found,” “Wants Out,” “Livin’ the Life,” and “Friends Again” examine life’s contradictions, the compromises we make, and the struggle to figure it all out. The music is textured folk-rock with some stellar musicians like Levine, drummer Dave Mattacks, and bassist Marty Ballou. But thematically it’s a document from a mature man wondering how the youthful idealist he used to be got to this point.

“The message I wanted to get out to the world is that we all have more in common than not,” said Sexton. “We’re all more alike than different, and from whatever country or party we come from, we all bleed red and we all love our kids.”

But the tune that will likely generate the most commentary is the title cut, which basically assails big media for avoiding difficult issues in favor of simplistic pap. He won’t find much disagreement about that, but the opening verse states that there was something fishy with 9/11. Some will interpret it as suggesting government involvement, and some will no doubt hail Sexton for asking questions few dare to pose.

“It is not necessarily a political record,” Sexton said, “although there is a certain stream of consciousness that does run through it. I’m searching for common ground. Like most of us, for example, I don’t want a bank breathing down my back, when we’re all still struggling, and now the banks that were in trouble a year ago are all fine.”

The final song, “Just To be Alive,” features an extended arrangement that has Sexton’s supple voice approaching a primal scream in a cathartic performance.

“I’m searching for strange faces, and trying to bring them in. ... I guess I think we can all make more progress if we think of ourselves as one big family,” he said.

The 10th in a family of 12 children, Sexton grew up near Syracuse, N.Y., and moved to Boston in 1988. After busking in Harvard Square, he began playing local clubs. His debut album was “Black Sheep” in 1996, and his striking style secured a deal with Atlantic Records, which released his next two CDs. As the major labels declined, Sexton found himself without a contract, and founded his own Kitchen Table label. “Sugarcoating” is the fifth album the singer has released on his own.

“It is great to be independent and own your own label,” Sexton said. “It used to be that you really needed a major label deal to get anywhere. But today, there are so many avenues to get music out there to the public. Majors used to be the only main highway to success, and now that has dissolved into a thousand different ways.”

But there’s only one way to record an album – the old-fashioned way, Sexton said.

“I make them to be listened to all the way through, start to finish. I know a lot of your sales come from downloads today, and those are often just singles. But I believe there are still true music fans out there who still love albums,” he said.

This tour will naturally focus on the new CD, but also include several Sexton nuggets, and perhaps some covers.

“We’ll have a core of songs I intend to play every night,” said Sexton, “and those will be some of the new ones and some of the fan favorites. ... But I will try to utilize the fellas to make every night a different show. There will also be some solo portion of the show, probably a duo segment, and the band, so it will be like a variety show.”

There’s some surprises in store, too.

“I also want to focus on some songs that I have never played much live before,” Sexton said. “I want fans to be buzzing that, for instance, I played ‘Station Man’ in Chicago the other night, and who knows what I’ll play when they see me.”

The Patriot Ledger