Will Sexton on His New Album, Reinventing Himself, & Writing With Waylon 

Will Sexton
  • Will Sexton
Through the medium of music, a silver thread connects Memphis with a sympatico city to the south: Austin, Texas. There's a long history of interplay between the two music capitals, and lately, from Dale Watson, Hunt Sales or Brandon Kinder moving to or recording in Memphis, to Bluff City tonmeisters like Stuart Sikes or Andrew McCalla moving there, the exchange has become more pronounced. No one is more emblematic of this than Will Sexton.

The San Antonio native moved to Austin with his guitar-slinging brother Charlie at a very young age, and the two made names for themselves while still teenagers in his band, Will & the Kill. Then, after the whirlwind life in music that ensued, Sexton suffered a stroke in 2009. "The way that it hit my brain, everything had to be relearned," he says. "It wasn't like, wait this amount of time and it'll come back to you. No, you need to actually relearn most of this stuff."

A lot of relearning went on, and that included a new chapter in his life when he connected with Memphis singer/songwriter Amy LaVere. They married and made their home together in Memphis, from where they've made records and toured together ever since. But his recorded output since then has chiefly been in collaboration with her, or as a session guitarist. That all changed this month, with the release of his first proper solo album in over a decade, Don't Walk the Darkness (Big Legal Mess).
Though his plans for a record release party on April 3rd have been scuttled, fans can hear him play those tunes and more with LaVere at a noontime live-streamed Facebook event this Thursday, March 26th. As he's backed by none other than the Iguanas on the record, today's event will be a good way to hear Sexton re-imagine the songs in a more stripped-down fashion. I spoke with Sexton recently about the new work, making music in quarantine, and what it was like writing with Waylon Jennings.

Memphis Flyer: Whenever we play a show together, I'm always struck by your deep knowledge of New Orleans music. So when I heard you did this record with the Iguanas, I thought that was so perfect. And they have the Tex Mex thing going too.

Will Sexton: Yeah, exactly, that's the San Antonio thing. I was born in San Antonio and grew up with that. And they live it. And it's strange, because my brother and I, when we were young, we played so many different genres of music, as did those guys. But it's neat that they blended all of these sounds and have been doing it forever. As for the New Orleans thing, we spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge when I was a kid. There's a real hippy, marijuana connection there; Mexico to Baton Rouge was the run. And Clifford Antone from Antone's was so into the whole Beaumont, Texas thing, as well as the Doug Sahm thing. And other stuff that was happening.

So Antone's had plenty of Louisiana blues and zydeco bands. There was a lot of that stuff, growing up. It was pretty amazing. Clifford would have Muddy Waters, all the Chicago guys, he'd have James Brown, and all this other stuff. He'd have Hubert Sumlin just staying there, playing in the house band for weeks. That was a time in the 70s when there was no support of that kind of music, basically. There were very few venues where people could make a living. And Clifford was one of those guys that really helped that a lot. So there was a lot of Louisiana music playing at Antone's, and it's one of the few regions where you could pull all those acts, from Beaumont to Lafayette to New Orleans. It's doable to actually travel and play long weekends. So that's the thing for me, having a lot of friends and acquaintances from the Beaumont area, it just brought a lot of that Texas/Louisiana thing.

And you heard the Iguanas in Austin a whole bunch?

Yeah, well, I got the closest with the Iguanas once Amy and I started going down to New Orleans with Dave Cousar. Because he was in bands with [Iguanas drummer, Memphis native] Doug Garrison back in the day. I knew the Iguanas forever, but it was always in passing. We weren't hanging out all the time. But in the past 4-5 years or so, I've spent way more time with them. We built a new core of friends in New Orleans, and they're a big part of it. When we'd play Chickie Wah Wah, they would just come.

But I've seen the Iguanas for most of my life. They'd always be playing at the Continental Club, so I saw them many times there. But with the Cousar connection, we started spending a lot more time together. I've never experienced a rhythm section like those guys. It's mind boggling. They just had the immediate approach. We never talked about it. I would literally just sing the song and they would fall into it. 'Cos they're just such a band. A true band for many years.

Is that Joe Cabral playing all the saxophone?

Yeah, he's playing it live, and he's playing bajo whenever he's not playing sax. And Rod [Hodges] plays accordion if he's not playing guitar. And then Art [Edmaiston] came and filled up certain parts. It was all live, but we would fill out the horn sections. And Joe was playing the Vox Jaguar [organ] too. I might have played it on "Don't Take It From Me." But on the very first song, "Don't Walk The Darkness," that's the Vox doing the fife part. Those Jaguars, they totally get that fife sound. It fits in there nicely.

What was it like, sitting down to write "Don't Take It From Me" with Waylon Jennings? That was almost 20 years ago, shortly before he passed away, but it's just now coming out on this album.

I was writing for Almo/Irving, which was the publishing side of A&M Records. Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert sold A&M and kept the publishing side of it, and I wrote for them. And they got a call from Waylon Jennings. Waylon had heard this song that I'd done and liked it, and he was looking for someone to collaborate with. I also worked with Stephen Stills at the same time, and they did the same thing: they went to the publishing company and said, 'I want a young writer who's doing something different.'

Waylon worked in the mornings. You've gotta be there at 8:00, work all morning and then have lunch. And that's about all he could take. So that was a lot of pressure. You have four or five hours to write a song with someone. So I did a lot of work on the composition beforehand. I had the music and the title figured out, what it was gonna be about, and I went to Nashville just to write this song. So a lot of money was being spent. I went over to Waylon's and we had a lovely morning talking about West Texas, 'cos I've worked a lot with Lubbock artists, and Waylon was telling me all these great stories about Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. They all played at the same talent shows when they were teenagers. 'Cos they all lived in towns that were really close to each other. Then we worked on the song, and he wrote that bridge, which was beautiful, both the music and the poetry. Great lyrics.

So we wrote that song, and I recorded a couple of demos, but I could never quite figure out how to record it. Somehow I always messed it up. And then it occurred to me, with the Iguanas we could do it in a Tex Mex/San Antonio style. And the song needed to be out there. Until I put it on the record it was nowhere. It didn't exist.

So I'm trying to do more of that, looking at my old songwriting catalog. There are so many songs. I've had publishing deals since I was 16, and I've been recording since then. But I've only put out, like, four records. At a certain point, you say, 'Let's just focus and work toward a project that needs to exist,' whereas other songs are neglected. At a certain point you have to step back and take care of the children, and not just keep having more sex, you know?

To really work the songs up, you mean?

Yeah. There're so many songs, like that one I wrote with Waylon, where no one's ever gonna hear it unless it's tended to a little bit.

It's funny how that song, from almost 20 years ago, and another one on the album that's from your back catalog, "Only Forever," both feel like they're of a piece with the new songs.

Yeah. One reason it works well for those songs is because, when I was making records as a solo artist, they were very story-driven and esoteric. Pretty rich lyrics. Really busy. A lot of stuff going on. When you're writing a song because it's your job, which I did back then, it was telling that every time I'd say, "I'm gonna write a song like this artist," I would write things that I wasn't really connected to. But then years later, you look at it and that stuff was the truest, lyrically. Because you're not trying too hard. As a lyricist, when you're writing lyrics for your own records, you're all pumped up and trying to do something impressive. So you don't really use the truest intellectual prowess that a writer has when they're just truly writing. Or truly expressing, and not strong-arming the writing process. Like when we were talking earlier about Ray Davies. He's always been one of my go to favorite writers.

I used to teach a writing class, and the one thing I was always drawn to was finding your voice and how important it is to accept that. If you take someone like Davies, his songs are clever and funny because he is that way. Now, if someone wants to write like Elvis Costello, but they don't have the personality of an Elvis Costello, you're not gonna ever write a song that's any good. And to appreciate that, you've got to love Smokey Robinson as much as Bob Dylan, and just find your comfortable place where you can express and be true with it.

The songs I'm writing now are more simple and more conversational.

Is that truer to yourself?

Yeah! I have gotta watch myself. Keeping it conversational and not overdoing it. There's an art to keeping it simple.
click to enlarge Will Sexton & Amy LaVere
  • Will Sexton & Amy LaVere
The songs on this album feel very personal and particular, and yet that simplicity gives them a universality. It seems you're exploring coming to terms with relationships, and developing one's self.

There was a certain time when I started writing the lyrics for the new songs, and it was very reflective of Amy and I travelling in a real healthy way. No alcohol, vegan. Sometimes we don't travel that way [laughs]. So I was reflecting on how strong we were becoming. We met each other and realized that we're both real easy to travel with, and hit the road so hard, like 9-10 months a year. And then, buying a house in Memphis, we began to wonder if we could do all that from here on out. It's an oddity when something works so well right out of the gate, and then it's like, 'Well what if we do something else?' That's strange, because we've never done anything other than be travel companions and play music. So things are shifting. We're trying to stay home more. And that was another complete, kind gesture from the universe. We had this time blocked out to be home already. We did quit a tour early to come home [due to coronavirus], but for these two months, we were already planning on just playing around Memphis and getting our house together, and planning the latter part of the year.

I still have a hard time writing. I could definitely use an editor. Since the stroke, it's been tiring, because you get really good at surface information, but not getting into the depths of writing. It's challenging. It's really hard. I also fear that if I poke at the rabid hell- hound, it'll start barking for days and keep me up at night. It's hard to excite the brain with the mental condition that I have.

Because then it's hard to calm back down?

Yeah. The craziest thing about the stroke was the part of my brain that shut down and quieted itself. There was a point where it came to life and wanted to take over, but it's just a babbling idiot. Just random images and noises and words, just flying around. It's completely unnecessary information. It's terrible.

But it's one of those things where you just have to balance yourself down and don't get over-excited. Just ease it in there and know that with 50 years of information from my entire life, there's enough stuff there to work with. Just calmly cipher the work and don't unnecessarily loquacious or busy.
Will Sexton and Amy LaVere perform songs from Don't Walk the Darkness and more today, March 26, at noon, as a live-streamed Facebook event.

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