December 2006

Camp Holiday

A Saranac Lake singer’s fresh take on Christmas standards

One listen to Martin Sexton’s Camp Holiday and you’re right there—toasty crackling fire, air thick with balsam, windows glazed with frost, that good-from-the-inside-out feeling that kicks in this time of year. And then there’s Sexton’s bluesy, velvety voice, seamless as it shapes classics that never get stale, such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

Now, a secret: Sexton re­corded the album at his Sar­anac Lake camp in July. Yup, at the height of summertime in the Adirondacks, which explains those soulful loon warbles at the beginning and end of “Silent Night.” (He and producer Crit Harmon captured a mama bird’s call on a mini digital recorder as she floated past with her chicks on Oseetah Lake.) Sexton admits having to shake a cluster of antique sleigh bells from time to time to get in the holiday spirit, and he says playing other unexpected instruments—a Christmas cookie tin, minnow bucket, dinner bell and cuckoo clock—helped establish the essence of a holiday at camp.

Sexton, a National Academy of Songwriters “Artist of the Year” and indefatigable performer with a demanding tour schedule (he’s sung and strummed his guitar on stages just about everywhere, with stars such as David Crosby, Peter Frampton, Norah Jones and John Mayer), seizes any opportunity to escape his home in Massachusetts to work and play here. He says he’s always loved the Adirondacks, and even as a kid, visiting from his hometown of Syracuse, “the place soaked into me like a sponge.”

For Sexton, play means canoeing, hiking, fishing, cruising the region’s hamlets. He frequents spots around Saranac Lake, such as Mountain Mist and Donnelly’s, which has “the best soft ice cream I’ve ever had in my life,” he says, as well as Tail O’ the Pup, in Ray Brook, and the Wawbeek, on Upper Saran­ac Lake, site of his wedding reception and just a quick paddle from Chapel Island, where he married his wife, GG.

As far as work in the North Country—it sounds like fun more than anything. Lovely, loose and light, Camp Holiday, released on Sexton’s own Kitchen Table Rec­ords label, offers a fresh break from the commercial music of the season. That’s what Sexton wanted. Every December, he explains, “I’d wish I had a Christmas CD” to give to friends and family. “I wanted something unproduced, something simple and strong. Something like the camp.”

Turns out Sexton’s Saranac Lake getaway not only provided an ideal backdrop for the project but also the inspiration for the one original track on the album, “Welcome to the Camp.” He says he told Harmon, “‘Hey, man, I want to make up a song, a little jam.’” The result is a funky, “stream of consciousness” tune, as he describes it, sandwiched between “O Christmas Tree” and “Silver Bells.” And it works: Welcome all you people, come and gather around/Feel the vibration of this holiday sound/Welcome to the camp . . .

Sexton says Camp Holiday is “wallpaper” of sorts, music “to create a vibe, to set the stage for family gatherings.” And what could be more appropriate than the two guest performers, Sexton’s twelve-year-old daughter, Briana, and dad, Tom, who, along with the mother loon, lend their voices to “Silent Night.”