Learning to ’Wait’ :: Tom Goss on His New CD
The work of singer-songwriter Tom Goss has a sweetly comfortable, folksy sound that might remind the listener of John Mayer or Jack Johnson. A sweet-natured young man, Goss' gentleness and compassion informs his body of work, which includes love ballads as well as social justice songs such as "Lover," which was made into a video about the widowed life partner of a gay U.S. servicemember, and "This is Who We Are," a duet with Matt Alber released before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that underscored the fundamental injustice of asking GLBT Americans in uniform to lie in order to serve their country.
But Goss has grown steadily as an artist, which includes branching out stylistically. Last year, Goss teamed up with producer Rich Morel for his dance track "Bears," which sports enough vibrant energy to fill a club even without the smoldering video, a fantasia that finds Goss looking for true love among a toothsome array of plus-sized hotties at a pool party. (In real life, Goss has already long found the love of his life: He and husband Mike have been together for going on nine years. The couple were married in 2010.)
On the heels of that single comes Goss' new full-length album, his fifth. "Bears" is not on the new album, but don't worry: "Wait" still crackles and shimmers with plenty of rollicking energy. The release finds Goss playing with new sounds and styles: Did I mention John Mayer? The album's title track name-checks the superstar, but Goss, always one to follow his own bliss, doesn't copy from anyone. Instead, he finds what works for his own sensibilities from different genres -- a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, a little bit ragtime -- and runs with it.
Goss has always had a strong lyric talent, describing feelings and situations in his songs that stand up as short stories in their own right. That's true here, as well, with the singer ruminating on love, life, God, and his own human limitations. The songs stretch across the emotional spectrum, from cheeky to rueful to tender; this is probably Goss' best album so far, and to hear him tell it, he's having the time of his life.
And why not? Previous to "Bears," Goss made another successful video, the storybook-style "Make Believe," in which his own skin served as the canvas for an elaborate painting across which two animated characters frolicked. More recently, Goss took the role of Justin Jaymes, a pop star (and murder victim) in the Rob Williams ("Role / Play," "Three Day Weekend") movie "Out to Kill," scheduled for this year's film festivals.
Add to all that Goss setting out on his first-ever tour of Europe (an itinerary that takes him, among other places, to Iceland, the stomping ground of anther openly gay recording artist, John Grant), and it's no wonder the young singer and musician found it necessary to lose the day job -- but more on that in a bit.
EDGE caught up with Goss for a chat recently... or rather, Goss caught up with EDGE, it being the case that this correspondent had almost forgotten the appointed time until a helpful text message prompted him to pause the film he was watching for review, pick up the phone, and dial as fast as he could. (Goss shared his secret: He sets alarms and reminders, such that he was simultaneously pinged and emailed from himself, all to ensure that at least one of us would remember the scheduled interview.)
Tom Goss: Hey Kilian!
EDGE: Hey Tom! Sorry I’m late -- and thanks for the reminder!
As a propos as the title of your new CD may be to this interview, let me ask you about the title track on "Wait." That particular song talks about chasing the big time as a musician. But is that something you really want? The song treats the subject a little skeptically...
Tom Goss: Well really, it’s interesting that the CD is titled after that song. I felt like as the album was coming together that waiting and patience and growth seemed to be a theme throughout the entire thing. Almost every song is talking about the passage of time, and the growth that comes with it.
"Wait’ is definitely kind of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on what the industry is constantly looking for. It’s interesting to me to be a part of it -- it’s interesting to watch the things that break, and a lot of it’s good but, you know, a lot of it’s not. As an independent musician and, even more so, as a workhorse, as somebody who’s always out there working to keep integrity in the music, it’s interesting to see some of the stuff that ends up making it through [to the charts].
It’s definitely about the chase, and not only the chase, but also the pressures of every single person in the world telling you what you ought to be doing. My job is one of the few, if not the only job, where every other person in the world is an expert but myself. Everybody defines what good music is, and everybody has opinions about what I’m dong that’s good and what I’m doing that sucks. They have no qualms about telling you that, even though usually these people have nothing to do with the industry at all. That’s written from that point of having people in the industry chirping in your ear, and then the other side listening to people who, quite frankly, know absolutely nothing about music or the industry or anything along those lines, and they still feel the need to chirp in your ear.
And I don’t even say that in a negative way; it just kind of is. If you’re going to be in this industry as long as I have been, you kinda get used to it. I’m just poking fun at that -- how people are always telling me about the super-easy things I should be doing that, if I do them, I’ll be rich and famous. Which, of course, is the only reason to be doing what I’m doing. That’s tongue-in-cheek, as well.
That song specifically was a commentary on that, but as the album progressed it developed in a way that was much more organic and much more cohesive than before. I think I was on a track for so long that was just breakneck... I slowed this record down as much as possible in terms of the development and songwriting, developing the talent and pulling people on board for it; everything took a long time, at least, for me. I know it’s probably quick for other people!
I think there’s a lot of maturity in that, in having a better vision as to what I wanted to achieve: Let the music come to you, let the life lessons come to you, and you can sing about them in a way that comes from a deeper perspective.
EDGE: Tell me about the different sounds you’re exploring on this album. For instance, since we’re talking about "Wait," the ragamuffin piano line in that song. It’s wonderful!
Tom Goss: "Wait" is an interesting ditty. It’s got that swing feel. I was talking to Sarah Gilberg, who plays the piano in my band, and is a vocalist as well, and we were talking about that ragtime feel -- it’s a really complicated piano part, which I didn’t realize, so it was quite the undertaking in the studio just to record it. It felt like it gave that song that campy vibe: "I know we’re talking about serious stuff, but don’t take this song too seriously." As the end of the day I’m always looking to say interesting things, but I’m just one person and it’s just one opinion. More than anything, I just want you to have fun, and that piano line was a lot of fun. It brought a different life to the song.
EDGE: You have that female vocalist with you on a lot of the songs on "Wait" -- "It Only Takes One," "Take A Chance, and elsewhere. You’ve duetted with Matt Alber, but I didn’t know that you’ve done vocals with a female artist before now. How was that?
Tom Goss: It’s been different. There are two female vocalists all over the record. One is Sarah, and one is Liz DeRoche, and I think they’re on ten of eleven of the tracks. What I wanted to do on this record was to use a lot more voices, so sometimes you may not even realize that the voices are there because they’re almost used a synth pads. I really started to love the idea of what some of the pop artists were doing with rich vocal harmonies, using them as layers underneath. They fill out a space and they’re super-warm and thick, if that makes sense, in terms of the spectrum of sound that you’re hearing.
I talked to Sarah and Liz a lot about putting vocals all over these songs, putting these "oohs" and "aahs" underneath, and seeing how we could use them in tension-building and momentum-building to move the song forward and create a new level of depth, in a way that I hadn’t experimented with before. It’s been a real pleasure working with Liz and Sarah because it’s helped me think about music differently in terms of understanding arrangements more effectively. I love their voices. They’re so uniquely different, yet blend so well together.
EDGE: Speaking of Matt Alber, he appears in this album also, on the track "Breath and Sound," which stands out on this album as an old-school Tom Goss tender love song. How did you end up bringing Alber in for that particular song?
Tom Goss: Matt and I went on tour together a couple of times last year. I can’t say enough positive things about Matt; he’s amazing, and his talent is extraordinary. Plus, it’s always really fun working with him, and I always learn a lot from him as a friend, as an artist, as a vocalist... We do songs together sometimes on the road, and it’s always fun to see if that songs can’t be re-invented in different arrangements.
I wrote this song... gosh, I’m not even sure... probably in the fall of 2012. I started messing with it again in the summer of 2013, and when we were on tour in September I approached him to see if he wanted to sing it with me. So we were singing it live together for about two weeks in live shows. It really developed in the course of those two weeks, so I just asked if he’d be interested in singing on the record with me, and he was really enthusiastic about it. And then I tapped a friend of mine, Doug Poplin, who’s a beautiful cellist, to play some cello underneath, and that was one song that there really was a different treatment for.
The whole record is big and edgy and full of all sorts of interesting sounds. But this one I wanted to keep simple and let the strings do the talking: There’s so much in the guitar arrangement of the song that I wanted to stay true to that and the rest of the instruments, and see how we could let the space create the emotions, rather than having the instruments create the emotions.
EDGE: As long as we seem to be talking about this new CD track by track, let me ask you about "Deeper Shade of Blue." I love how you ruminate on that song, "I guess in truth I’ve said all this before / I’ve sung this song a thousand different ways." Any artist wants to grow as a person and an artist and have something new to say. But I hope this doesn’t mean you’re getting bored with the love ballad!
Tom Goss: [Laughing] I don’t think that anybody would ever call that song a ballad. It’s a huge, booming rock piece. The drums are massive on that song, the bass is massive. The acoustic guitar is in and out; mostly, what’s driving that song is big rocking bass and drum. I wouldn’t call that song a ballad to begin with!
EDGE: No, not "Deeper Shade of Blue," that’s not a ballad. That’s what I’m saying.
Tom Goss: The thing about it is, to be honest, that song is kind of written in response to one of the reviewers to "Turn It Around," who was saying, "Okay, we’ve heard enough love ballads." And at the end of the day, I’m always gonna write about truth and the things that cut through the bullshit in life, the things that inspire us and make us better people. I don’t see how one can do that and negate love from that; I think that love is the driving force for all we do, it’s the thing that teaches us what is important.
I think it’s strange when people ask me if I’m going to stop writing about love. The real question is, "Why would anybody write about anything else?" What is there out there that’s stronger and created more social justice and change in the history of mankind?
That being said, the album deals with a whole slew of issues outside of a straight love song. I wrote seventy songs for this record, and I wrote songs about pretty much everything that you can write songs about. But I always want to be putting out music that is positive and uplifting, and helps leave the world a better place than before you popped in the CD. Some of that is gonna be love! [Laughing] I don’t see myself stopping writing about love anytime soon.
EDGE: Love is not all sunshine and flowers, and that’s something you touch on in another song, "The Worst of Me." But, I mean, I have to wonder, Tom: You’re such a sweet guy, what’s the worst you ever got up to? Did you tease a puppy once? Are you a bitch in the morning before coffee? How bad could you possibly be?
Tom Goss: I am definitely cranky in the morning. [Laughter]
I don’t think I wrote that thinking about myself or Mike personally, but when you’re in a relationship for... Mike and I are going on nine years, now... you really see the best and the worst of that person. You gotta somehow love it all to make it work. You gotta somehow see the things that make your spouse weak and vulnerable and mean and sad, and you gotta see that in a way that you can understand it and pull lessons from, and help the relationship grow in the future. There’s a lot of bad things about me, but I’m not gonna give you a list! [Laughter] That’s just not even fair!
EDGE: After the fun and success you had with "Bears," and the way you’ve stretched yourself on "Wait," are we going to see a bluesier, dancier, or a more rocking Tom Goss in the future?
Tom Goss: I’m not sure what’s going to inspire me next. I’m going to work hard to grow and mature as an artist and create music that’s honest and authentic. That’s all I really can be sure of.
EDGE: Let’s get back to "Wait" and talk about the song "Falling." There’s a lyric in there I found fascinating: "Maybe I can finally know of God." Has your journey as a gay man and a person of faith led you to a place where spirituality and being gay are in balance?
Tom Goss: I love that song. It’s about searching, and I think I am and possibly will forever be on that search.
I don’t know what God is, or who God is, or what that even means. I know that I know very little; I know that I have a million more questions than answers; and I think that we all are searching for that thing that makes us feel valuable and whole, and authentic, and frankly worth while. I think it’s a scary thought that we’re all these little ants running around and then we die. And then we’re just dead little ants. And then more ants walk on us.
I think one of our greatest fears is that is the truth. I work really hard to do the best that I can, and to make the most positive impact that I can now, because I really don’t know what’s beyond.
EDGE: Which of these songs do you reckon you’re going to make videos for?
Tom Goss: I’m talking to three different directors right now and there’s a lot of songs up in the air.
EDGE: But you had a video shoot in Los Angeles. What’s the story there?
Tom Goss: I’m working with Michael Serrato, who has done a ton of music videos, usually comedy. We met kind of as a fluke on Growlr of all places, met for coffee and just got to talking art. Well and laughing, a lot. For me that’s a great sign.
The video is for "Illuminate the Dark," and it’s pretty serious. We’re capturing beauty in folks that sometimes people might pass over as they are wandering through their daily life. It’s a great challenge to get back to doing a video that’s serious and has a real edge. It’s going to be beautiful.
EDGE: You were featured on the cover of the latest issue of D.C.’s gay magazine MetroWeekly. How thrilling was that?
Tom Goss: I love MetroWeekly and was honored to be on the cover. I love working with Julian [Vankim] (the photographer), and Will [O’Bryan] is always a pleasure to chat with.
I am grateful for all the support they’ve given me over the years. They put me on the cover (the first time) in 2008 before anyone knew who I was. That was before [the 2009 album] "Back To Love," "Lover," "Make Believe," "Bears," and everything in between. They’ve always supported me and believed in my message.
EDGE: Artistically speaking, you just outlined your whole career! But as a person, can you trace your own evolution in your records over time? Do you feel like you’re growing up on vinyl, so to speak?
Tom Goss: I think there’s some truth to that, especially with people who have been so amazing and supportive for so long and who’ve seen what I’ve done [over time]. That said, the past eighteen months, there have been a couple of videos that have grown the fan base for me, and so now there are people who are asking me when I’m going to come out with a second song. It’s kind of funny: A second song? After as many albums as I’ve produced?
I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. If they think I’m new and they think that this is the first record album that I’ve ever put out, and they think it’s amazing, then that’s great. The people who know the band have been with me for a long time are going to appreciate our growth and experimentation with sound, and the super-solid production of these songs. And I think the people that have just discovered me will be thinking, "Wow! Where did that come from?"
EDGE: When it comes to growing your fan base, it doesn’t hurt that you were in a Speedo for your last video, "Bears."
Tom Goss: [Laughing] Yeah... no, it doesn’t.
EDGE: Was that a marketing decision someone brought to you? Or are you something of a naturist at heart? What does this tell us about the real Tom Goss?
Tom Goss: I want to do things that are fun, right? First and foremost. We know that! Do I want to have my clothes off in my music videos? Not necessarily, but am I a realist in understanding that if I take my shirt off in a music video, it’s going to get ten times as many hits? Yeah -- I am. I think that a part of that is bad, but a part of that is just reality. I don’t think it’s out of place; the music video for "Bears" definitely called for that kind of over-the-top, campy, fun experience. Especially when we start adding in the slip and slides, the super-soakers, the water balloons, the wet T-shirt contest, me laying in a kiddie pool in a Speedo seems like an obvious next step, you know what I’m saying? [Laughing].
And the same goes for the video for "Make Believe." When we made that video, I wasn’t naked to begin with, but it became obvious fairly quickly that me wearing even so much as underwear in that video was really going to break up the canvas of the painting, and really going to take away from the project artistically. I’m open to having my clothes off if it adds artistically to the project. If it’s not doing anything but being nude, then I’m not really open to it.
EDGE: Not too long ago you also shucked your clothes for an interview with The Accidental Bear, Mike Enders -- you jumped into a bubble bath for that interview. What was that like? It looked fun.
Tom Goss: Yeah, it was fun. It’s funny that I get questions like this, because I’m probably one of the biggest prudes you’d ever meet! [Laughter] I love Mike, he’s a really great guy. And he’s probably interviewed fifty people. I love his work, I love his website -- it seemed like a really fun idea. It got picked up by some other blogs as well -- again, probably because we were in a bath tub.
EDGE: It’s true; to be fair I should mention you’ve also been interviewed by many others, including one on-camera chat you had in an SUV with Jeff 4 Justice.
And, as we’re talking about appearing before the camera, you recently completed work on your first feature film, "Out to Kill," by Rob Williams. What was the movie about? For some reason I had got the idea it was a horror movie... I don’t know where I got that. Maybe it’s a romantic comedy? What is this film?
Tom Goss: It’s not a horror film! [Laughter] But it is a murder mystery. It’s a fun, campy murder mystery.
I enjoyed it, actually. It’s fun, it’s campy, it’s got a lot of heart. People are going to enjoy it. I’m excited about that. I’ve gotten some offers to do acting in the past, probably because of my video work. I think people are under the impression I can act... I’ve always turned it down, but I love Rob Williams, I’ve always loved his movies, and when he approached me with a role [I had to say yes.] My character is a really bad pop musician, so it also came with the opportunity to write the music for the film. That was really intriguing for me.
2013 was the year of trying to do different and interesting things, and saying yes to most things that came across my plate.
EDGE: Let me ask about your little band that you’ve put together. You’re going to be traveling on your next tour with two other musicians -- does that make the whole process exponentially more difficult than when it’s just you?
Tom Goss: [Laughing] Yeah, it makes it a lot more complicated, but it makes it more fun. That’s the thing. It’s easy for me to go on tour by myself, I’ve done it so much, and I don’t have to worry about anything but me. I don’t make any plans. I show up late, I crash on people’s couches, I drive when I want to drive and I stop when I want to stop. With a band, obviously, it’s different. But the music is also going to benefit from that -- you’ve heard the record, it’s big, it’s really explosive and powerful. Doing these songs acoustically is great, and I love it, but doing these songs with a band just adds a whole new dimension.
EDGE: One late-breaking bit of news is that you’re leaving your job at Charlie’s Place [a ministry for the homeless and hungry run by St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.]. Is this to allow you to focus on your music?
Tom Goss: Yeah, honestly, it’s gotten to be too much to juggle. I’ve been there for eight years. I was the program manager there until 2008, when I started going out on the road full time, and I’ve been the development director there since then, doing a lot of part-time telecommuting, doing a lot of grant writing and fundraising. I loved it, and they’ve been really good to me, and I’ve been really good to them; we’ve had a mutually beneficial relationship, but, you know... [Sighs] Unfortunately, I just can’t juggle it any more, which is really sad for me. It’s loved by the community, and really successful -- I’m going to be sad to leave it, but that’s the next step I have to take.
EDGE: Is that what you’d call a leap of faith?
Tom Goss: I don’t know if it’s a leap of faith. [Laughing] I’m very logical in the things that I do. I was looking at what I do, and what I’ve accomplished over the last six years, and what this record is like and how much I believe in it -- and what’s coming down the pipeline in terms of releases and tours, and so on and so forth. I’m happy with who I am right now, but it’s become pretty obvious to me that if I don’t make a change and put some new energy into it in a different way, then this is where I’m going to be. I had to ask myself if that was fine, or if I wanted to be doing something bigger.
The answer was, I should go and give it a try. I’m thirty-two years old; I’m not twenty, you know? I’m not going to be able to do this forever. I’d like to really give it a shot and throw even more energy into it than I have in the past.
"Wait" is available May 13. The CD can be pre-ordered from tomgossmusic.net