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Going There :: Tom Goss Talks About 'What Doesn't Break'

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 2, 2016

The ten tracks on Tom Goss' new album "What Doesn't Break" have a richer and more complex sound, while still being recognizably Goss in style -- though in some cases, the new songs take darker lyrical turns, coupled with equally dark (though compelling) musical ideas. Working with producer Marr Zimm, Goss has crafted a collection that's consistently mature and refined, both musically and conceptually.

Don't worry: This is not a CD fraught with songs of despair and doom. The sound, overall, is still bright and energetic, with the first track, "Wake Alive," being an upbeat, up-tempo piece driven by guitar and percussion. Make no mistake: A new day is dawning, and Goss is ready to take it on.

A more confessional tone enters the picture with the very next track, "Thirteen," in which Goss meditates on the sins of his youth. Things grow darker still -- and more adult -- with "Someone Else," musically a high point on the album but also a searing emotional nadir in which Goss' character snarls at an unfaithful lover, "Right now, your ass got to go." The refrain is just as harsh: "Lovers never lie unless there's someone else / So I'll save us some time: Now go and fuck yourself!"

Goss visits another painful issue in the tender and yearning "Mama," in which Goss' narrator describes the loneliness and alienation of familial rejection. More sadness and disappointment await in "Forbidden," which starts as a peppy love song but then offers the shards of a broken heart: "It's time we call this what it was / Just a fool who didn't know who to love."

Anyone can listen to these songs and identify, but for GLBT listeners the resonance is deep and instant -- and the melodies just as instantly catchy. The balance of the album's slate of songs follow suit: "Holes in the Wall" is a jouncy, nearly happy song that's mixed with the sadness of a breakup's aftermath. "In For It," and "More than Temporary" find fresh hope with the start of new relationships, followed by the album's most nakedly romantic song, "All My Life." If there's a tearjerker among these tunes, this is the one. "Long Way Back Home" caps it all off with a celebration of partnered permanence, ushering the album out with as much energy and danceable bounce as "Wake Alive" offered in ushering it in.

EDGE caught up with Goss recently, to talk about the album, Goss' upcoming tour, the new videos he's preparing, and hear news about his 2017 calendar that's sure to delight fans of his playful (and oftentimes hot) 2016 edition.


EDGE: This album is a different sound for you -- it's musically more textured and layered, and the vocals have more styles of delivery and some electronic processing that I'm not sure you have used before. Is this a building on the approaches you were experimenting with on your last album, 'Wait?'

Tom Goss: I think there's definitely some truth in that. But I do think it probably has more to do with linking up with a new producer and having an entirely different process.

Starting with the single 'Bears,' I started to become a lot more interested in electronic sounds -- you could hear that peeking through at times in the songs included on 'Wait,' and that developed into the 'Wait' remix album, which was my first opportunity to work with Marr Zimm. I guess what you're saying is true, now that I think about the lineage of [the new album]!

EDGE: I'm curious as to the title, 'What Doesn't Break.' It seems a good number of these new songs are about different sorts of challenges and getting through them -- is that where the title comes from?

Tom Goss: That's exactly where it comes from. There is no lyric on the record that says 'what doesn't break,' but there are definitely some references to [that general idea] -- 'What doesn't bend will surely fall' is a line in 'Forbidden,' and it developed as result of playing with those lyrics and having conversations with Marr about the title. 'What doesn't bend' turned into 'What doesn't break,' and that seemed a little more apt for what we were doing.

The album is so much about struggles and trials. I spent ten years making records and pretending that these struggles didn't exist for me. You know what I mean? It was just nice and refreshing to dive into these shortcomings or these barriers and embrace them, see them as something that didn't break me but made me into who I am.

EDGE: It's not going to be the case that all these songs are directly autobiographical, but you've mentioned in interviews that you attempted suicide as a teenager, and I think you also made reference to having been a bit of a juvenile delinquent -- which maybe you're describing in the song 'Thirteen.' You seem to be opening up more about your life and the past.

Tom Goss: Yeah, for sure, and I think that's a really important thing. One of the things that was so important about the process of this record was, honestly, I just really let go of a lot of the control. I write a lot of songs and so I have always had a lot of material to choose from when it comes to making records. And I've always made a conscious effort to choose material that was bright or happy, or fun -- to choose material that reflected the person that I want to be, and reflect the goodness I want to be putting into the world.

But with this record, I send Marr 30 songs, and usually when I send a producer songs I - I, uh... I edit the songs first.

[Laugher]

I'd say, 'Well, I'm not sending them this song, because I don't want them to choose this song.' Right? 'Regardless of the strength of the song, I don't want to be broaching this subject for whatever reason.' With the record I put together 30 demos and I just sent them off -- I hit SEND really quickly.

[Laughter]






And then my worst fears came true, and he picked all the songs that I never wanted to record! Or, not that I never would have wanted to record, but I would never have been brave enough to record, given my own druthers.

EDGE: And yet these songs reflect, I would say, a more mature storytelling perspective. There must have been a moment when you said, 'Okay, I will take that risk, I'll see what the producer says, I'll trust him and make that leap if that's where he wants to go.' And then he nudged you, and here we have the finished songs.

Tom Goss: Yeah, exactly -- I would never have recorded these songs without him and now they are there, they are out in the world. But my fear extended beyond the recording process. For example, the album has been done for at least six months and I just wasn't doing anything with it. I was sitting on it, because of the fear I had around releasing these songs and telling these stories. I was telling myself that it was the complicated package design that I wanted to do, or a re-vamping and a re-imagining of the live show I was working on.

I was telling myself it was all these things, and at one point in time I came to the realization that, no, what it was, was me being afraid to be open and honest and vulnerable with these stories. Honestly, it was only six weeks ago that I had that realization. Then I said, 'Well, I guess that means I better get cooking, tell these stories and be really direct about the complexities of life that we all deal with.'

EDGE: I'm interested in how the darker songs are also the more musically layered, sonically dense ones, especially the song about the cheating lover, 'Someone Else.' Was that your producer, Marr Zimm, at work? Were you also saying, 'If we're going to talk about this hard, dark stuff, let's get rad with the music!'

Tom Goss: I don't think it was as direct a conversation as that. Marr is brilliant, and to give him the credit that he's due, I think in some ways he understood what was going on before I did. We would definitely talk about the sound that we wanted, and we talked for, I don't know, probably about a month or so before we even started recording, but he really had a lot of the vision for how the record sonically was going to turn out. And I remember talking about 'Someone Else' and knowing that he wanted to give it a real gritty, bayou feel, swinging and dirty -- and I was all over that.

When my parents got divorced, my dad and his best friend from college got this house... well, it wasn't much of a house at the time, it was a wreck... and they would sit there and play bluegrass fiddles on the front porch -- in Wisconsin of all places -- until three in the morning! So I was super into [the idea of giving that feel to the song]. In some ways it felt like home. And now that I think about it, that song ["Someone Else"] just came out of me playing with a loop pedal and experimenting with different technology from the get go. I thought it was great that the song has such a different sound because every piece of this writing was strange was strange and unknown to me.

EDGE: That song is the perfect showcase for a few F bombs-which, I have to say, startled me when I heard them!

[Laughter]

Tom Goss: Yeah -- there's a few F-bombs in that song for sure.

EDGE: But then two songs later, in 'Forbidden,' you use the word again and it's totally different -- it's wistful, regretful, it's in a poignant context. The word works well in both cases.


Tom Goss: Yeah, you know, it's funny... I was on YouTube and I remember this comment about a cover I'd done by The 1975 of a song called 'UGH!' It's such a fun song, and there's an F-word in it; I remember one of the comments said, they really liked the song, and they loved me, but they didn't like swear words and they didn't understand why I used that word. Well, I was just covering a song someone else wrote, and I don't think I responded to the comment, but I remember thinking, 'You know what? Sometimes that's the word you need to use. Sometimes "fuck" is the word!'

[Laughter]

No matter how poetic or artistic you want to be, no matter how literate you are, sometimes the word you need to use is 'fuck!' I'm sorry.

[Laughter]

I think in both those instances [the word is warranted], the one reflecting 'fuck' in terms of being cheated on or stepped out on -- what your partner is doing is literally and figuratively in that moment is fucking you. With the other song, where it's reference to somebody whose afraid to make love to you, you turn something that's beautiful into something that's a little dirtier -- something that's frightening. I don't know how to explain either of those things without using the word 'fuck,' honestly.

EDGE: Do you feel like you are putting more Tom into your Tom Goss songs?

[Laughter]

Tom Goss: Um... yes! I feel like I'm putting a more well rounded Tom into my songs. I think I've always put all of myself into the songs, so I don't want to say that my other songs were less of me, because those other songs were just as much of me. But in the same breath, there were many times when it was an edited Tom I was putting out there. Or a Tom that was showing you what you wanted him to be, instead of showing you how complex individuals can be.

EDGE: There are plenty of old-school, very sunny Tom Goss songs here, too, so your longtime fans need not worry. Even 'Holes in the Wall' has a brighter and sweeter sound about it, even though it's about the end of a relationship... It's a poignant pairing of words and music.

Tom Goss: That was one of the songs that I couldn't get away from. There was something so honest and true about it, even in its darkness. There's an interesting dichotomy of light and dark and different sonic ideas in that song that really kind of shine through.

EDGE: Did this album take longer to record that the previous ones did? Was it a more complicated process?

Tom Goss: It was a great process, actually. It took longer to record, but in many ways it was the least stressful record I've ever done.

That had to do with the fact that I have more of an upgraded studio in my home now, so I'm able to do a little more recording from where I live. And in addition to being a producer, Marr Zimm is a keyboardist in a circus, and so he lives on a train that travels from city to city while he plays in the circus. He has a train car that is built out into a studio in addition to being his living space.

When we were talking about this record, logistically, we would talk about taking as much time as it needed, and him being on board with the process, and I think that shows in how invested he is in the music. There was never a clock ticking; there wasn't an hourly thing happening where I knew that if I didn't get this done, there would be no record, or I would run out of money and so I couldn't finish. That really freed us to be able to develop the songs in a way that was fitting to the material.

Recording guitars and vocals at home also meant I could do 22 takes of a vocal track if I wanted to, as opposed to three takes -- four takes maybe -- because the clock is ticking. There were even times where -- I remember specifically on 'Mama,' where we recorded it, we mixed it, and it kind of sat there for a couple of months while we were working on other songs and then we came back to it and I was, like, 'I don't like my voice on this at all!' I re-did the vocals, two months after we had already finalized them. There was just such a comfort in knowing that we could make this as perfect as we wanted to be. There was nothing holding us back.

EDGE: So what are we going to see when you're performing these songs live on the road?

Tom Goss: You're going to see me at my storytelling best. One of the things that... In being afraid to tell these stories, one of the things I realized is that I should be more focused on the storytelling aspect of my shows. I love telling stories in my shows, but I usually do it off the cuff. With these... these stories... you know, you can hear me stuttering even trying to explain how hard they are to tell. I want to sit and figure out what the essence of these stories are, and how do I tell them in a way that's sensitive, yet honest and vulnerable. I've been working on that storytelling aspect, stripping these songs back down to acoustic arrangements so that they are real straightforward, and just being honest. You're going to see the most honest and vulnerable Tom Goss you're ever seen.

EDGE: I think your new album is your best yet, but still I would look forward to hearing these songs in stripped-down acoustic versions. It doesn't sound like you're planning on traveling with a huge amount of gear and trying to replicate the sound of the album's studio production.

Tom Goss: The funny thing is, that was kind of the idea! I bought a ton of gear and started developing the show, which involved a lot of me playing several instruments, and a lot of looping, and a lot of big sounds. It sounded really cool -- but, honestly, all of that was a screen because I didn't want to be as honest and authentic as I could be about these stories, because I was afraid of them.

EGDE: I'm wondering which of these songs you'll be making videos for?

Tom Goss: Well, a video for 'All My Life' releases on August 2. I'm in the process of shooting a video for 'More Than Temporary,' which I'll shoot in October. And [gay fashion photographer] Venfield 8 and I have been talking about doing a video for 'Mama.' I'd love, love, love to make that happen! Those are the three that are kind of on the books right now.

I actually did shoot a video in February for 'Wake Alive,' and I need to spend more time and do a couple reshoots on that. That's really interesting as well. So, there's four videos I'm working on! It's just a matter of getting them done. And also, I'm going to launch a new Kickstarter for my videos.

EDGE:You leave us on this album with 'All My Life' and 'Long Way Back Home,' which taken together are another reflection on the past that also looks to the future -- how are you feeling overall about the future these days? Optimistic? Concerned?

Tom Goss: Both. I'm always optimistic and concerned. But I think more than anything I'm just in a place where I'm comfortable -- where I'm more attuned to who I am and what I love, and what I want, more than ever. I'm in a place where I accept my shortcomings instead of pretend that they're not there, and do what I can to fix those shortcoming but understand at the end of the day that I'm not perfect. Looking to the future in a way that's challenging and fun, that allows me to have new experiences without letting my drive, and rigidity, and tendency to always try to be perfect get in the way.

EDGE: Here's a final question, and it's also about the future -- it's about 2017. Will we be seeing a new Tom Goss calendar to look forward to? If so, will it be as playful and sexy and fun as this year's calendar?

Tom Goss: Yeah, you know, I just realized that it was coming up on August, and I had been putting it off... mostly, it was I didn't want to go on a diet.

[Laughter]

I just had a meeting yesterday to lock down the calendar. So, the calendar shoots in a month. It'll probably be sexier than last year's, but a little less fun. We're gonna keep it fun, and I'll still have tongue planted firmly in cheek, but not so hard as last year. This year we're going to be a little more serious with it.


"What Doesn't Break" releases August 2. For more information, or to purchase the album, please go to http://www.tomgossmusic.net/product/doesnt-break-2016



Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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