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.