Jonathan Sexton has a great smile. It's one that doesn't mask anything.
Sitting over breakfast at Pete's on Union Avenue, Sexton is calmer than he's seemed in the past. It's been over a year since he's performed a concert, and he's ready to perform a set of all new songs at the Pilot Light at a special early show on Saturday, Feb. 9.
"All the music is so new," says Sexton, sipping his coffee. "I'm still trying to figure it out."
Sexton grew up in Seymour and became known locally by performing in groups including the Whiskey Scars and Oversoul. He later gained a solid regional reputation with his group Jonathan Sexton and the Big Love Choir. The name might denote a contemporary Christian group, but the band was simply positive and filled with Sexton's natural goodwill. He was a lovable and gregarious front man, albeit maybe a little too earnest at times.
In 2011 and 2012, Sexton and his friend Matt Urmy worked on developing the innovative musicians' tool software for computers and smart phones called Artist Growth.
"Artist Growth happened at the perfect time," says Sexton. "I was just over it."
He says he was burned out artistically, spiritually and emotionally.
"I was glad I had something different to do. In a way, it kind of saved me."
The app was given high marks by software reviewers and musicians themselves and there's still a real buzz about the product and what other uses the software platform can be used for.
Sexton is still a major stockholder in the company, but last October he decided to leave the day-to-day work involved. Sexton had battled some personal demons and gotten a feeling of accomplishment from Artist Growth, but he wasn't comfortable going forward into the more corporate world.
"There was just sort of a fork in the road," says Sexton. "I started writing songs in mid-December. Before that I hadn't written a song in a year."
The songs that began to come out were more low key, more introspective and darker.
"What I did before Artist Growth was skin deep. I didn't sit down and say 'I'm going to write more human, emotional music. I just started writing and my writing had changed. But I had changed."
It wasn't that Sexton had gone from being a happy-go-lucky guy to some jaded character. He'd hit 30 and felt the difference in being a boy and becoming a man.
"I'm not always happy or anything," he says. "Obviously, I have a lot more dimensions than that. I've learned a lot about myself in the past year — a whole lot. I use art to deal with what I'm struggling with. This music is a lot more about being human. Before it was like 'I have all this love in my heart, but I might want to burn down your house!'"
It is a sort of joke in the Sexton family that an older member just might have burned down the house of an enemy in the past, but Sexton is having fun with the idea.
"It's balancing wisdom and playfulness," he says. "I'm embracing what I used to consider negative emotions and realizing they're just human. I'm confronting myself in an all new honest way."
Obviously, Sexton's smile doesn't denote an evil guy or a new do-what-thou-will philosophy. There's a new depth to his songs.
"The goodwill is still there, but what the goodwill is might have changed some. With Big Love Choir I wanted it to be full of hope and healing for people. If people still get that from it that's wonderful. But I had to figure out that, beyond being a good citizen, everyone else's problems are not my responsibility. Obviously, though, I still care about people."
One new song is called "My Mind Is a Battlefield."
"It feels like the most honest, transparent thing I've ever said. Every day I wake up and I've gotta make a choice what kind of day I'm going to have. No, it's that way every second!"
One line talks about being locked behind a door.
"The whole world felt like that to me — like the lock was on the outside. Now it feels like the lock is on the inside. I can unlock the door or lock it and keep everybody else out."
Sexton says he feels like he can be both a developer of new ideas and an artist without much problem, but he knows where his heart is.
"Finishing creating a product or making a business deal is great. It feels like a touchdown. But finishing a song brings this sense of serenity."
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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