Sexton needed the distraction. So they cast for northern pike, bass, and perch and Sexton indulged in barbecuing, another passion of his, smoking ribs, pork, and other caveman specialties. The songs started to emerge, like fish rising to the bait.
“We kind of dovetailed fishing into our songwriting,” Sexton says by phone from his home in western Massachusetts. “It’s actually a good technique to provide that little bit of distraction that I need. When I focus too hard on something, it just doesn’t flow.”
On tour recently, he had a day off and visited the Grand Canyon. People expected him to come away inspired. “But it’s the opposite for me,” he says. “I probably have a touch of what we now call ADD. If I’m too stimulated with beauty around me, I can’t focus. Rainy days or late at night is when I do my best writing. That’s the work part of my job, the writing is the hard part.”
The easy part is getting up on stage and playing a couple of hours, something he’ll be doing solo January 11 at The Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. But he likes having written a song. “I’m a very blessed individual,” he says. “I get to do things that I like. I get to smoke meat while I’m writing songs. At the end of the day, we’ve got this piece of art I can turn into money. It’s a beautiful thing. I can take music and turn it into gold. Thank you, god. Thank you, universe.”
During the fishing and smoking days upstate, .Sexton came up with an EP’s worth of songs that typically moves from the personal — an anniversary thank-you to his wife — to the political — tunes calling for unity and championing the joys of disconnecting and enjoying the world. The title track, “Fall Like Rain,” explores how plugged in you can become by unplugging.
I wanna feel, I wanna fall like rain
With no shelter so I can feel which way the wind is blowing today
I wanna love, I wanna see the world
Gonna tell the truth and feel the sun come shining down on my face
“We were trying to write a song about what it would be like to not have all the trappings of modern life – cellphones, earbuds, cash in your pocket, drugs, alcohol, to just be completely wide open for life’s terms and that song came out,” he says.
That’s Sexton, pushing for something beyond, something a little deeper. He won’t be doing any guest spots on “The Voice.”
The disc features Sexton’s jazzy rendering of the Buffalo Springfield classic, “For What It’s Worth.” Rather than wait until he had enough songs to make a full album, he decided to release the EP this spring. The Occupy movement was still strong in his memory. He had sentiments he wanted to broadcast. “I had these songs I thought were pertinent now,” he says. “They had to to with unity and I wanted to get them out pretty immediately.”
Recently, someone told him that he’s becoming more political. He doesn’t buy it. Sexton says that edge has always been there. On the demo cassette that he sold 20,000 copies out of his guitar case playing the streets of Boston, he had “My Faith Is Gone,” a song about being shut down by the cops in Cambridge as a street singer that also references endless wars. The tune is two decades old. “I’ve recently brought it back into my live repertoire,” he says, “because it’s totally poignant now.”
Sexton sees himself as a someone who enables the discussion as much as shouts from the rooftops. “I’ve always been introspective and political in my own way, writing about what I see that becomes what people call political,” he adds. “I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a lightning rod, or a weather van. I’m up here singing about what I’m seeing. Ina way, I’m a messenger. I don’t necessarily have any dogs in the fight. I want to use my art. I want to do more than entertain you with a nice pop song.
He’s been touring behind the record all year and is heartened by the reaction in these tough times. One thing he says is if anyone is out of work and can’t afford the $5 disc, his merchandise person will give it away. “Every single night, in a wonderful testament to human generosity, at least a couple of people give the guy a $10 bill and say here, this is for the guy who comes to the merchandise stand to get the record for free,” he says. “So they’re paying it forward. It’s a wonderful example of how good people truly are.”
For Sexton, one of the pleasures of releasing albums on his own label, something he’s done for a decade, is he gets to say what he wants, when he wants. “No one is telling me we’re going to pull your funding if you give interviews saying you think the New World Order is not what they say it is,” he says. “It’s freedom. It’s liberty. That is golden.”
It’s also profitable for Sexton, who says nothing but good things about this two-record deal with Atlantic (his debut, “Black Sheep,” came out in 1996 on Koch). A live record in 2001 launched his independent career, a career inspired by Ani DiFranco’s example. He’s grasped the new technologies and new outlets for his work. His songs can be heard in many feature films and television including NBC’s Scrubs, Parenthood and Showtime’s hit series Brotherhood..
“Since then new avenues have arisen with social media and satellite, outlets kind of replacing traditional means of transmission via commercial radio,” he says. ” I’ve sold more more records as an independent artist than I did on a major label. It’s been a wonderful time. We’re really thrived without that backing of multi-national corporate dollars.”
Sexton is the tenth of 12 children. There was, he says, some wrestling for the needle on the turntable. He listened to Zeppelin and Hendrix. One brother favored Streisand and Reddy, while another was into Frampton and Fleetwood Mac. “I would sneak into the attic to listen to their records,” he says. “Man, I remember putting “Frampton Comes Alive” on and putting on headphones and howling to the crowd and the opening lick of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” That was the kindling that lit my fire.”
The fire went out of control thanks to The Beatles. Many artists are said to defy labels, but Sexton truly is one of them. He rocks. He sings literate folk. He jumps into jazzy phrasing. He credits The Beatles for that adventuring.
“I just lived and breathed Beatles through my adolescence,” he says. “If you listen to their records, it’s like a cross country (musical) trip. The white album has everything from “Blackbird,” a folk song with a guy and a guitar, to “Helter Skelter,” which is acid rock, to “Revolution No. 9,” which is a freak-out. Then there’s a boogie-woogie song like “Honey Pie.” Every genre of music is on that record and a lot of other Beatles records as well.”
Sexton’s show at The Attucks will be solo. He goes on stage without a set list and just plays what feels right, including taking requests shouted from the audience.
“I get people singing four part harmony, Republicans, Democrats, gays, straights, black, white, old young,” he says. “All singing in harmony. That’s what music is for, I think, to bring people together. It’s a very powerful force. It moves people. It changes the world.”