Martin Sexton, Singing a Song of Failure Self-described troubadour Martin Sexton has risen from busking on the streets of Boston and Harvard Square to making music at his country cabin in the Adirondacks. Sexton's new CD, Seeds, offers thanks for something unusual: failure.
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Martin Sexton, Singing a Song of Failure

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Martin Sexton, Singing a Song of Failure

Martin Sexton, Singing a Song of Failure

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Do you ever walk by a street musician and wonder what their future holds? Could that guy with the open guitar case full of crumpled dollars bills actually make it big one day? Well, Martin Sexton is getting close. He spent years basking on the streets of Boston and Harvard Square. Now, he's not quite famous but he has built a large, loyal following; and he's doing well enough to have bought a little house in the country, in the Adirondacks.

(Soundbite of song "Marry Me")

Mr. MARTIN SEXTON (Singer): (Singing) I like…

NORRIS: In fact, on his new CD called, "Seeds," there's a tune called "Marry Me." And when you listen, you can almost feel country grass under bare feet, a type of summer breeze against your cheek.

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) All these verses come and go, like the wind they seem to blow. New ideas…

NORRIS: That summer in the country feeling is no accident. Martin Sexton layered the song with sounds he recorded at his cabin.

Mr. SEXTON: It's a little town camp with green shutters, and it sits by the water's edge with a nice boathouse, where we keep our old boats; and surrounded by forest. You know, we're visited by all kinds of animals. It's a just a heavenly place. It's a kind of a working man's dream, is what it is. It's not a big palace. It's never been owned by the Duponts or the Rockefellers.

It was built by some working man back in the late '40s, and we're just installed running water, and the heat is provided by a wood stove. Really, it brings me to a place where I have to be human again.

(Soundbite of song "Marry Me")

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) Oh, honey, marry me in the moonlight, beneath the tamarack trees, when the dawn's like (unintelligible) as one-woman man, marry me.

NORRIS: When you went up to the cabin to layer the sound to create this kind of texture, did you have particular things in mind that you wanted to record or you were constantly tripping over things that, you know, sweeping the floor and deciding, ooh, I like the way that sounds, I think I'm going to work that into the recording?

Mr. SEXTON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, actually, I was constantly, you know, maybe tripping over cable or a mike stand or what have you. And so that - this record has all kinds of non-traditional sounds on it, like spaghetti strainers, salt and pepper shakers, minnow buckets, took - we unscrewed the dinner bell off the side of the camp and used that on a couple of tunes. I love low-fi. I love low-tech. I love using things that aren't intended for this purpose - for that purpose. I just think it creates a certain personality to the sound.

NORRIS: A lot of your songs almost seem like set pieces, they're very atmospheric, and you seem to take on many different characters as the song needs it.

Mr. SEXTON: I took a lot from the late Mel Blanc who was all the voices for all the Looney Tunes. He was one man who had a thousand voices. And he was the guy who gave me permission - you can sound, you know; however you want to sound. If you need to produce a gospel choir then go ahead and do it. So I went ahead and did it because there's nothing stopping me from doing that.

(Soundbite of song "Wild Angels")

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) …we have the power and a duty and a need to change your world, and to remember the world, because we are wild angels…

When I make a record I tend to use my more character voices for the backing vocal parts, like I have in me a gospel choir, and I have in me a cowboy trio, and I have in me what I call the soul sisters.

NORRIS: Those are your voices?

Mr. SEXTON: Yeah.

NORRIS: …that, the gospel…

Mr. SEXTON: Yeah. All the voices I mean.

NORRIS: Because I picture the - a number of the white-robed women standing behind you.

Mr. SEXTON: Well, I put on my best white robe and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEXTON: Yeah. I try to use, you know, different voices to create different textures and different pictures. I'd like the listener to think that I recorded this in a church with a gospel choir behind me.

(Soundbite of song, "Wild Angels")

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

NORRIS: You have a song on the CD about being thankful, but it's a song about something for which we don't often express gratitude; a song where you're thankful for you failures.

Mr. SEXTON: Oh, yeah, man, I wouldn't be sitting here today with you, Michele, if I hadn't failed.

(Soundbite of song "Failure")

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) to remember, singing (unintelligible) tunes in a schoolyard, then (unintelligible) whip these sticks the child in me make me remember, there are white brush shouldn't have to sing it so hard, when I sang those songs (unintelligible) keep down (unintelligible), and you never gonna make it as a choir boy. Thank God for failures and the things I couldn't do, so much of my life, that's all I ever knew. Thank you for failures…

NORRIS: Now that you've made peace with a lot of those things.

Mr. SEXTON: I have made peace with my past and with - I'm very grateful for my, the hurdles that I had to jump as a kid. I've heard it said that a man learns nothing - a man learns nothing from his - I've heard it said that a man learns nothing from success. He learns from his failures. And…

NORRIS: You just did something with your voice, which I think was working backwards almost as a recorder might do (unintelligible)…

Mr. SEXTON: (Unintelligible). Yes.

NORRIS: Pretty good at that.

Mr. SEXTON: Well, it comes from - I used to turn my old LPs backwards, you know, trying to hear the messages, you know.

NORRIS: Oh, "Dark Side Of The Moon?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEXTON: Yeah, one of those - the Beatles "White Album."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEXTON: Number 9. But I feel like I'm on a path, and left to my own devices I will get in my way. And I feel like my higher power has a path for me. And their higher power sometimes has to push me out of my way, so that the channel can be cleared; the channel of God's peace that I like to try to be part of. I like to be a channel of God, as every human can be. I want to be a vessel for goodness, a vessel for fun, just for positive stuff. I don't want to get in my own way. And I do everyday. And that's why I think failure's a wonderful thing.

NORRIS: Well, Martin Sexton, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. SEXTON: Thank you. Peace.

NORRIS: Martin Sexton's new CD is called "Seeds."

(Soundbite of song "Failure")

Mr. SEXTON: (Singing) Oh, you make me feel so good, yeah, you give me good home cooking and gravy, too. You got to have (unintelligible), you got to have (unintelligible), everything's okay now.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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