Charlie Sextion Talks Working With Dylan, Struggling To Find His Own Sound
Charlie Sexton once served as the poster boy for what could have been. Way back in 1985, when he was only 15 years old, Sexton was the guitarist de jour, an Austin wunderkind who parlayed his striking good looks and impressive chops into a quick ascension towards stardom that many thought was predetermined. Sadly, but predictably, due mostly to machinations of producers and promoters, Sexton lost his way amidst the glamour that was Los Angeles in the '80s.
But, always deemed a reliable sideman, Sexton continued playing on sessions with Keith Richards and Don Henley. He also had an extended stay as the touring guitarist for Bob Dylan, but, in the process, his solo career vanished.
Nearly a decade later, remarkably, Sexton arose from the ashes and released Under the Wishing Tree, an Americana statement of purpose that featured Sexton’s trademark guitar prowess alongside a newfound subtlety and restraint. He still lives in Austin and has gained notoriety as a producer, helming releases by Edie Brickell and Lucinda Williams. Currently working on his fifth solo effort, Sexton took some time to reflect on his career and predict what the future might still hold for him.
You’ve been a part of the Austin music scene for a long time. How has the city changed over the years?
I grew up here, was in California from 1985 to '90, but quickly found my way back. The changes over the last nine years have been pretty staggering. It’s similar to what happened during the oil boom of the '80s. The music has been very consistent, even though there have been a few lulls. The scene has gone away and then resurfaced in a different area. I think, originally, Austin was a safe haven for hippies during the '60s--that Willie Nelson factor where you had the rednecks, where you could be a lot more freakish than you could be in any other area in Texas.
In a month, you're going to turn 40. Any idea on how that seminal birthday might affect your music?
With the project I’m working on lately, the people involved are in their late '20s. I just started so young. I was never around anyone my age, didn’t have friends my age. Turning 40 is a strange thing; you get older, but it feels the same. I make a reference from my early years to people I am now working with and they have no idea what I am talking about.
You have a nine-year-old son. Does he share your interest in music?
Very much so. We’ve done a lot of recording together.
Would you recommend the musical lifestyle to him?
Of course not. It depends on what degree you’re talking about. Anyone who plays the guitar--you can always do that, you can play in your living room; you can do whatever you want. That might serve you better. It’s ridiculous to explain the industry to anyone who is not in it. Records alone are a handful. I spent 15 hours a day just mixing someone else’s record.
What’s more difficult, producing or recording and performing?
The difficulty comes in the production part of it. The way I do it is a little unorthodox. It’s done in a more organic way. It’s less of a factory line. People who are really close to me and know my aesthetic, they get it.
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you would like to in the future?
David Bowie is someone I’ve always been enamored with. He’s always been cool and even recently he’s done some really interesting work. Chrissie Hynde. I’ve known her as a friend and completely love her. I see an interesting link between her and Cat Power--I’d like to work with her as well.
You think you could help Amy Winehouse?
Well, she’s great. She just does her own thing. Perhaps I should get a degree and a couch.
You’ve worked with Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Don Henley, among many others. Were any of them easier or harder to work with?
Keith and Woody are footloose and fancy-free. Don was very easy--that was the second session I did in California. That was a quick and easy overdub situation. It was like the song they wanted me to play on was the rock 'n' roll throwaway cut on the record, so they figured, "Why not put the new kid on it?" It was a blessing and a curse to work with such great artists when I was so young.
You’ve played several tours with Dylan and you've gone in the studio with him as well. Eric Clapton once said that, in order to play with Dylan, you had to come in prepared to watch Dylan’s hands so you know the chord changes. What has been your experience?
It was that way sometimes. Things were always changing. I wouldn’t watch his hands--I can use my ears. Dylan has lived through the history of the recording industry. When Dylan began, he spent no more than four days making a record. Things are different now. I first toured with Dylan when he was touring with Paul Simon, so I only had to learn the songs most people were aware of. But, on his own, Dylan would rearrange so many songs. What he did with “Cold Irons Bound” was simply amazing. People always criticize Bob, saying he doesn’t know the song, but such is kind of silly. Most of the critics could not write a song half as good as him and they're complaining? He’s got a thousand great songs and a couple of thousand that are really, really good. To expect Dylan to act like everybody else is not realistic.
Where you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Under the Wishing Tree?
I was surprised because I had spent a decade being punished for being who I was. I spent a long time and worked really hard putting that record together--the texture and direction of it. When I was in California, I was caught in the wheels of the machine. As unfocused as that first record [Pictures for Pleasure] was, as thematically bad as some of the lyrics were, there was something there that has never gone away. It was a really tricky time. I was 16 years old and everyone expected me to make a blues record, even though I had been in a rockabilly band for three years that turned into a punk band. I was playing with this dual life of growing up listening to Dylan and Neil Young, but it was the early '80s and my biggest influence was producer Steve Lillywhite who was working with U2 and the Psychedelic Furs. Amidst all that was a massive dose of Bowie. This crazy Elvis impersonator I knew in California always gave me the greatest compliment when he told me that my music was a little bit Elvis and a little bit Bowie.
It’s been three years since your last effort, Cruel and Gentle Things. What are you working on now?
It’s a bit tricky, since I have a child. I have less and less time for my own creativity. I got half of a new CD written and about 900 hours of parts of songs recorded. I have to find a clear moment when the rent's paid to sit down and put it all together. --Darryl Smyers
Charlie Sexton plays the Belmont Hotel tonight and Bend Studio on Friday.