On his major-label debut, The American, Martin Sexton examined our country's spirit of manifest destiny by personifying it.
Uncertainty I love you / Spacious skies I love you / I'll find new ways to love you / All these miles of ghostly west / The Hopis lost to Spain / Now belong to me / I'm the American
It's a song that's unsettling in its ambivalence, yet downright soothing compared to the title track of Sexton's new album, Sugarcoating. The singer-songwriter's latest ode to America is just what its name implies: a sweet, almost wistful musical confection that masks a haunting fixation at its lyrical core.
It was a clear blue day in September / In the year two-thousand-and-one / Everybody seems to remember / Very few know how it was done / Jet planes flying into buildings / Nobody getting in their way / Tall twin towers made of concrete and steel / Coming down like paper mache / And I wonder why nobody wonders why
"The song 'American,' that's just me in 1998, writing about traveling through America and loving it, and also knowing the general history of how we took everything from the Indians — or bought what Spain basically took from the Hopis."
Sexton says he still loves this country, its geography, its people and the dream it was founded upon. But he's also experienced what he describes as an awakening.
"I've just had my eyes opened to certain things," he says, "like the false flag attack on September 11, 2001. I believe that was all a hoax to bring our country into an endless war, and also to scare the population into submission to the big corporate powers that pull the strings and basically run our government."
Asked how a conspiracy of the caliber he's suggesting could possibly be kept under wraps, especially given the human propensity for telling secrets, Sexton points to the Kennedy assassination and the number of witnesses who died afterward.
"When I first heard the 9/11 conspiracy theory, I said, 'Come on, why would our government do that to its own citizens?'" says Sexton, who credits his turnabout to the film Zeitgeist. "You see Building 7 just tumble down — when there was no reason for that building to collapse — it kind of implodes a little and then just folds down neatly on its footprint."
Sexton says he wrote "Sugarcoated" after making a decision to bring his beliefs into his work. He equates 9/11 to the burning of the Reichstag, which Hitler used as a way to consolidate power and suspend civil liberties: "And that's exactly what's happening here. And I see it, and would love for other people to see it and stop putting up with it. You know, I say no to the Patriot Act. I say no to my rights being chiseled away."
Closer to home, Sexton points to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (or non-incident) that set the stage for another war. "Executives within the Defense Department have admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin never happened. It was staged. When we were in Vietnam, it wasn't to stop Communism. It was about money and contracts."
Incidentally, the artist's views on global warming have undergone a similar transformation.
"I thought Al Gore was God when I first saw his movie," says Sexton, who toured in a biodiesel-fueled bus a few years ago. "But I've been reading up on the whole green movement, and I'm starting to see the money trail. Don't get me wrong: I believe in alternative fuels, and I'm totally into wind and solar. In fact,
I've got two huge bags of recycling on the bus right now.
"I don't know, man, there's many different ways to skin a cat, and I'm trying to triangulate my information these days. The bottom line is I don't freaking know the truth. But I know some truth."
It was a more wide-eyed Sexton who moved from upstate New York to Boston back in 1989.
"I went there thinking I'd do auditions to try to be a lead singer in a funk band or something," says the artist, whose vocal style combines the soulful depth of John Martyn with the high lonesome register of Michael Hurley. "I had no intentions of being a singer-songwriter guy with an acoustic guitar, and certainly had no dreams of playing in the subway and street corners of Cambridge. But it all sort of worked out that way.
"And so I found ways, through experimentation, of grabbing people's attention, banging on my guitar like it's a drum, or yodeling or scatting, or maybe just belting my ass off on a Ray Charles song."
Sexton still does many of those things, prompting John Mayer to call him "the best live performer I've ever seen." But even though he's currently touring with a full six-piece backing band, the folk singer-songwriter tag still hounds him.
"A lot of hard rock comes out of Boston, and I wasn't that. So I must be that other thing that comes out of Boston, which is a folk singer. I'm a white guy who writes songs and plays guitar, so I guess, at least in the '90s, that meant I was folk."
More recently, the New York Times referred to him a "blue-eyed soul man." Does Sexton recognize himself in that description?
"They are kind of bluish-green," he admits. "Yeah, I like the blue-eyed soul thing. I think that's code for a white guy who sings like a black guy. And I've always tried to sing soulfully. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, and I've been compared to black singers for a long time. So I've always thought that was a compliment."
Like a hurricane
Sexton's talent for blurring the edges of genres also extends to his music's emotional range. Most of the tracks on Sugarcoating, released last month on his own Kitchen Table Records, aren't as heavy as its title track. But there is a darker undercurrent that rises to the surface at the most unlikely moments, as when the sunny sentiments of "Just To Be Alive" give way, in the song's final moments, to a foreboding instrumental dirge. The track is made stranger still by Sexton's use of what he calls his "fuzzy vocal," in which he puts his voice through a distortion box so it sounds like a lead guitar.
"It's a real peaceful, serene ballad," he says, "but when me and Dan Mackenzie [Sexton's co-writer on much of the album] finished it, I thought we needed to give it some edge. So I did this Led Zeppelin-esque outro, which almost has a "Kashmir" vibe. It's like the storm front reeling in: You're up there as the sun's setting and it's real peaceful, but here's this freakin' gray cloud that's rolling in and you feel like, 'Here it comes, man, all hell's gonna break loose.' 'Cos that's what happens in real life."
Stormy though it can be, there's still solace to be found. If Sexton has a reason for being on this Earth, he says, it's to bring people together through his music — even if his audiences don't necessarily share his enthusiasm for Ron Paul ("I think he calls 'em like he sees 'em") and the Tea Party movement ("I'm not a member, but I can identify with them more than I can identify with any other party or movement in America").
Doesn't Sexton worry that he'll become the Jackson Browne of Constitutionalists?
"No, I'm basically a guy who likes to go out and sing," he says. "You know, I'm not a political guy. I did write this one song that's pointed, but that's about it. I actually don't even talk this pointedly. But today I did."