Turning It Up (And ’Around’) with Tom Goss
Tom Goss does it all--he writes, plays, produces, distributes, markets, and tours. He doesn’t have a record label behind him. What he’s got is his own determination to get his music out there.
But though the openly gay singer-songwriter has made a statement--and a splash--with songs like "Lover," the video for which depicts a wounded gay soldier dying in combat while his male life partner waits for him back home, Goss doesn’t regard himself as a particularly political animal. His songs are his stories: He tells them as tenderly or as passionately as he feels is needed. And most of his songs, as a track on his latest release, "Turn It Around" puts it, are "sung about you," the person in question being his husband, Mike.
The songs on this, Goss’ third full-length album, are not strident; they’re not angry; if anything, they are almost uniformly happy, and yet they also touch upon deeply important themes. In one song, a gay man regales an ex-girlfriend with the story of their relationship, marked by their friendship and his acceptance into her family. But marriage and kids? It’s never going to happen. There’s a little wistfulness to the song, but a healthy dose of dignified integrity, also. "Only settle for the truth," Goss sings--and you know that’s what he’s done himself. (You also wish that someone had directed a similar message at listeners like you back in the day.)
Goss, a resident of Washington, D.C., has been called an "accidental activist," and if he is an activist of any stripe it’s almost entirely due to circumstance rather than design, his work with fellow gay musician Matt Alber on "Lover" notwithstanding.
"I’ve always been interested in social justice, which is how I came to D.C.," Goss told EDGE as he bustled about setting up for a concert. "I was training to become a priest, and I wanted to do a lot of social justice work and reconciliation stuff. But since I’ve been doing music and in the midst of the LGBT community in that regard, I’ve done a couple of different projects."
Goss referred to a song titled "Til the End" (which appeared on his last album, 2009’s "Back to Love"), telling EDGE, "Honestly, to me, wasn’t that political, but to a lot of people it was. More than anything, I started writing about love. I married my husband, Mike and it’s been amazing, healing, empowering, strengthening, and everything you want it to be. I started writing about that, and writing in a matter-of-fact way. I think that people outside of the LGBT community saw that as activism, and-or radicalism, or something like that. People within the LGBT community found that [song] to be more [about] intimacy. I think that’s how it all started. People started looking to me to be more a voice.
"I wrote a couple more songs during the last election, watching Obama and Sarah Palin and the whole thing with Proposition 8," Goss continued. "I started writing these more politically-tinged songs, but I wasn’t releasing them. I’m not very political. I don’t necessarily want to be. I was kind of trying to keep that under wraps until about this time last year, when my friend Matt Alber was in town. We were going to do some touring together. ’Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was going on, and everybody was talking about it. We looked at each other and said, ’We should do a song about "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." ’
"And so we did that. It was a song called ’Who We Are,’ and then that song and that video got pretty popular, and I did the video with two high-profile discharged soldiers, and as a result I started touring around and meeting more and more of these soldiers. At the same time, I had finally said, ’Fuck it. Enough with holding these songs under wraps. People keep wanting to hear them. I’m gonna give them to ’em.’
"So I put together this four-song EP called ’The Politics of Love,’ which included background material, handout material, discussion questions--you can essentially go to ThePoliticsOfLove.com and download all of these materials and lead your own workshop and discussion about marriage equality in your home. It was this really cool project that I am still excited and proud about.
"’Who We Are’ launched out of nowhere, and I released ’The Politics of Love’ a couple of months later," Goss recounted. "If I hadn’t been labeled an activist before, I definitely was then! And then, going along those same lines, there was a song called ’Lover’ on ["Back to Love"] that I’ve always wanted to make a video for. We just had to have the right story, and we had to do it right.
"We essentially wrote this storyline of these two lovers separated by war, and that kind of was the apex of the political 2010 for me. Again, there are three discharged soldiers in the video, and the director is a discharged soldier. We really wanted to keep everything as true as we possibly good. I sang ’Lover’ at the GLSEN national dinner--that’s everything you wanted to know about my ’activist history,’ all in four minutes."
Given how squeamish some gay have proven to be about coming out, doing only after years of success, if at all--while others embrace their sexuality with whole-hog enthusiasm--EDGE asked whether Goss had ever have any qualms about being open as a gay singer and songwriter.
"I’m not sure that I ’came out’ as one," Goss replied. "I think I just always was one. By the time I was performing and recording to a level where people were listening, I was in love and wanted to share that. I don’t think I could write a love song about Mike and then pretend that it’s not about him."
So does Goss have a specific image of a male figure--Mike, for instance--he’s addressing when he writes his love songs?
"No--I think about love," the singer explained. "I mean, when you think about love, do you think about a male physique? No, you think about beauty. You think about tenderness, you think about compassion--you think about warmth."
EDGE ventured to ask whether Goss thinks of his current album, "Turn It Around," as being political, or whether he has he moved away from that arena once more.
"Like I said, I didn’t think that my 2009 release was political," said Goss. "But some people did. I would say that maybe some people will see [’Turn It Around’] as political. I don’t think it’s political at all. I made this album really focused on just having a lot of fun. I felt like for the last couple years I’ve been re-living these heavy experiences every night. I tend to think of my performances as storytelling, and it’s me; I’m telling my life. I really just wanted to do stuff that was upbeat and fun, that was fast-paced, and that would be exciting.
"That being said, is a love song about a man political?" Goss added. "I would say no, but others might say yes."
Before he started recording songs, Goss pursued a religious vocation and spend some time in a seminary. EDGE asked how that journey from would-be priest to songwriter and singer had come about.
"I was always a songwriter--well, not always, but, I mean, I was writing songs when I was in college, and it was always this thing I was doing on the side," Goss said.
"My experience in the seminary was not a good experience, and so when I left seminary I kind of was like, ’What do I want to do? What is my goal for today, for right now?’ Because being in seminary and taking vows and all that kind of stuff is so heavy and so long-term, I just wanted to think about what would make me happy in the moment. [The answer was:] Making an album. I’d always wanted to make an album of my songs, period, so that’s what I set out to do. I thought all my dreams of music would go away once I made the first album [2006’s "Naked Without"], and they didn’t. Then I had to make a better one, and then a better one after that."
Curious about his writing method, EDGE asked whether Goss creates an album as a tapestry of thematically unified material, or simply writes songs until he has enough to fill an album.
"It’s a little of both," Goss reckoned. "My writing process is very fluid, and I write a lot of songs. That being said, I write a lot of songs that don’t fit, that I know there’s no why this is going to be on an album."
Ever? Or just right now?
"Sure. Ever. I don’t know," Goss responded. "I mean, you never know. I didn’t think those songs that were on the EP were ever going to be on an album. But they were.
"I write a lot of songs, and sometimes they’re good and they’re not on an album--and sometimes they’re horrible, and they’re definitely not on an album! I haven’t necessarily sat down to write a concept album, even though my last EP was very much a concept album, but that just kind of naturally happened. There were three songs, and I wanted to complete it with fourth." But mostly, Goss added, "I just write, and then eventually I cut songs and add songs that I feel fit more closely together."
As someone who had a spiritual vocation and presumably still has a spiritual life, does Goss regard music as a sort of ministry?
Goss seemed a bit taken aback--perhaps even shocked--at the question. "You know... I don’t know," he said. "I--I still have hesitancy to use words like ’ministry.’ I like to think of my music as a facilitator of conversation, and so I think that’s what it’s about. My music is a lot of stories, and I think that’s why I tell stories and why, in return, people tell their stories to me.
"That sounds an awful lot like a ministry, but I don’t like that word," Goss went on to say. "I’m not sure that’s what it is. I think there’s a--I want to a pretentiousness that comes with ministry, some idea that you’re doing this for a greater good or that you’re going to receive some reward in the afterlife if you do it. I think that for me it’s more about--this is really our common ground. To pretend it’s more than that is, I think, is, in a lot of ways, cheapening it.
"I hope that people in general yearn to connect with each other in a lot of ways, more openly, more honestly, and that’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t think it’s ministry, I just think it’s me trying to facilitate conversation with people--as much for my benefit as for theirs. I don’t know. Maybe that was a copout answer."
Not at all. Goss was, after all, simply telling his own story.