Through determination and rehabilitation, Will Sexton returned to music after he suffered a stroke in 2009. The Texas-bred artist makes another big step with the upcoming release of his first solo album in more than a decade, Don’t Walk the Darkness, whose soulful “Oh the Night (Night Owls Call)” premieres exclusively on Billboard today (Jan. 23).
Sexton has, in fact, made many changes during the past 11 years. He met and married fellow singer-songwriter Amy LaVere, who’s become a regular collaborator. He moved from Austin to Memphis and became the leader of the house band at Big Legal Mess/Bible & Tire Recording Co. founder Bruce Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound. And in the time that led up to Don’t Walk the Darkness, due out March 6, Sexton found himself at the start of what feels like a brand new adventure.
“I’ve been creating music since I was 12-years-old,” Sexton tells Billboard. “It was a work in progress for decades. There was never a break. There was always something that needed to be finished. With the stroke, my brain had never been quieted by anything before, so that was a new [experience]. Starting a new record, I’m going and buying a new notebook, really for the first time ever. It was pretty amazing to be able to start over again and not have the fodder from past attempts and stray papers and ideas clogging things up.”
Sexton — who adds that he’s playing guitar better since the stroke — wasn’t entirely absent during the interim, but most of his work was touring and playing and producing at Delta-Sonic, as well as releasing a handful of recordings, including collaborations with LaVere and with Bill Carter and Stephen Doster. It was Watson who pushed him towards a new album. “We became really close and at one point he said, ‘When was the last time you put a record out, a proper record?'” Sexton recalls. “It had been ages. So he’s like, ‘Do you have songs?’ and I always have songs. He really pushed me and one thing led to another.”
Sexton recruited New Orleans pals the Iguanas to join him for the set, cutting the 10 songs in just 10 hours. Saxophonist Art Edmaiston, vocalist Susan Marshall and Bible & Tire’s Barnes Brothers also appear on the album, “It was real fluid and natural,” Sexton remembers. “[The Iguanas] have been a band for such a long time, so you just play the song for them and they get it right away. You don’t have to go ‘Try this drumbeat’ or anything like that. They get it right on the spot. It was very lovely to have such a great, supportive band. I just had to sing my songs and play my guitar.”
Sexton reckons he wrote most of Don’t Walk the Darkness‘ material about six months ago, and the joy he felt reconnecting with songwriting is audible in the album’s easy, Crescent City-meets-Memphis grooves. “There was a thread there as far as a spirit of positivity, because that’s how I was feeling at that point,” Sexton explains. “After so many years of traveling and all kinds of sordid experiences and strange exchanges, at this point in my life this record needed to be walking the lighted areas.”
Sexton is still busy at Delta-Sonic, but he’s planning to be on the road frequently to support Don’t Walk the Darkness — often with LaVere. He plans to play select shows with the Iguanas and also has a Memphis-based band for the bulk of the dates. “I still love playing [live] — maybe more now than I ever did,” Sexton says. “For a while after [the stroke] I couldn’t read or write or do a lot of the things I used to, but I was able to go and tour and play guitar. That’s all I could focus on, and I think it just made me better.”
Listen to “Oh the Night (Night Owls Call)” below.