Tom Goss, an indie singer-songwriter based in California, is a prolific writer and performer who has been using his musical platform over the years to give a voice to the LGBT community. He won Best Gay Musician in DC from The Washington Blade, both in 2011 and 2012, and many of Goss’s songs and music videos (“Lover”, “Bears” and “Make Believe”) speak to LGBT issues such as marriage equality, Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT), and gay subcultures such as bears. He has released 7 albums and performed more than a thousand shows across the US, Canada, and Europe. Drawing comparisons to Brett Dennen and Matt Kearney, his distinct voice that relays his unique background sets him apart from the rest. He wrestled in college in Missouri, then moved to Washington, DC, where he entered a Catholic seminary. He ultimately left the priesthood and married his husband and pursued the path of music. Upon the launch of a successful independent music career in 2006, he delivered six fan- favorite independent albums (culminating on 2016’s What Doesn’t Break), generated 12 million cumulative on-demand streams and views, landed syncs everywhere from ABC and HBO to Univision, and performed alongside Andy Grammer, Taylor Dane, Adrianne Gonzalez, and Catie Curtis. In some ways, everything merely set the stage for his most recent album, the 2019 full-length Territories.
Whereas his previous albums were filled with love songs for his husband, with Territories he also sings about his love for his lover and explores his feelings for both men. “I’m a seeker, an artist, and a lover,” he explains. “I’m somebody who wants to understand myself and others in hopes of telling a complete story and leaving the world a more unified place. Territories is an exploration of new emotional and relational territory. Throughout this year-and-a-half of journeying, I often found myself in a place that was not my own. I believe we are more susceptible to emotional growth when we are pushed out of our comfort zones. Everything, and I mean everything, about this album was outside of my comfort zone.” Life initially drove him into this space. The shock of walking in on his husband with somebody else left him lost and lonely. However, in the midst of the darkest hour of their marriage, they chose a completely unconventional solution in an effort to steady the ship. They stayed married, but initiated “an open relationship with boundaries.” Throughout 2017, this informed the conceptual thread for Territories. In order to tackle such a distinct subject, he enlisted the talents of producer Ian Carmichael [Lamb, The Orchids, One Dove]. Having worked together on a popular remix of “Breath and Sound,” they built on a pre-existing partnership. While visiting his lover in London, Tom hopped a train to Manchester in order to meet with Ian in person. He presented a vision for the producer, and they immediately locked in sync. Goss has set out to tell the story of the album through three songs and videos, “Berlin”, “Quebec” and “Regretting”. He released the video for “Berlin” in October of 2019 and today sees the release of the second video in the trilogy, “Quebec”, with plans to release the video for “Regretting” in the Spring. You can follow Tom Goss and stay up-to-date with all upcoming artist, music and tour news, as well as stream and purchase his music, via the following links. Territories artwork/photo credit: Franz Szony.
You recently released your latest album Territories and approached it differently from previous albums. You have said that the stories were much more precise and intentional and that you need to understand what you were feeling rather than take a more stream of consciousness approach. What led you to approach the album in that way?
Previously, I was writing very straight-forward songs. A lot of people write about love, you know? People write love songs a lot…that’s what most songs really are in the world. Regardless of how you are approaching that, it’s pretty easy for a listener to understand what’s happening. “I love you, you love me” and the listener is like “Oh, I get it! I’ve loved before. I’ve had a crush on somebody!”. Everybody gets it. It’s kind-of a message that’s embedded in the core of our society and in the global society, really. You could be a little more…I don’t want say loosey-goosey with it, but you’re not going to be misinterpreted if you say “Oh, I love your beautiful brown eyes. I wanna go swimming in them. Let me love you like I wanna love you.” If you say that, everybody knows what that’s going to be. With this new record, I was writing songs, some of which were love songs, but they were about falling in love with somebody who is not my husband. That’s a little bit more of a complicated situation. When you’re writing a love song, but within that love song you also want to be attentive and respectful to the other people in your life that you love, it becomes much more of a challenge. I’ve built a career on writing love songs for my husband and for me to write love songs about somebody else was a very daunting and scary thing for me. I didn’t know how people were going to perceive it. I really wanted to make sure that, when approaching these songs, I was being responsible to my love for my husband and my love for my lover and also, in a way, being kind-of like an educator to the masses as to how love can look differently then what we have already established as the global norm.
With this album, you have said that you had feelings that you didn’t really have any societal guidance for and didn’t really have a framework to understand what you were feeling. How do you feel that the making of this album helped you to work through those feelings?
The idea of love and the feelings of love, that’s easy. When I was falling in love, and being in love, there’s no other way to describe that. There’s no way to perceive that as being a negative feeling either. Society tells us that when you fall in love with someone who is not your primary partner, you divorce them or choose one or the other or you berate yourself for being a horrible individual who is not able to live in monogamy in the way it’s expected to be. For me, it wasn’t that cut and dry. Honestly, there was this moment where I remembered when I realized I was gay. I realized I was gay when I was 23, when I had fallen in love with another man. I remember thinking to myself “This is great”. I know that society thought that being gay was wrong, but I knew even more so that what I was feeling was so right and so positive. I would say that in a similar fashion, falling in love with other man was a similar experience for me. I knew what society had told me, but I was experiencing something that was so wholly positive and good. There was no amount of negativity from the world that could have made me believe what was happening was wrong.
Over the course of your career, your sound has evolved. Going back to your album What Doesn’t Break, you have said that your growth in sound had more to do with linking up with a new producer and having a different process. What kind of influence do you feel the producers you’ve had for each album have had on the sound and direction of the album? Do you have a certain idea going into each album of how you want it to sound or do you pick your producers based on their work and what they can bring to each album?
It’s a combination of both, really. For this record, I had worked with Ian Carmichael. He had done a couple of remixes for me and I just loved his remixes. I thought his mind was brilliant and if I was going to go in more of an electronic direction, I really wanted it to sound like that. When I started writing these songs and was demoing songs, I sent them to Ian and flew to Europe and sat down with him. We had never met in person before. I sat down with him and we had lunch and I just talked a lot about what I was going through emotionally and what I was looking for sonically. He was really my dream to work with and he loved the songs. The album was produced in Los Angeles and in Barcelona where he lives, so I would write the songs at home and do a demo production of it, which usually was keys, bass guitars and sometimes other guitars and other sounds and synths and all of these different things and would then send them to him. We really were totally in line as to what kind of sonic landscape we were trying to build. The difference between Ian and I is that Ian can actually do it really well (laughs)! I have limitations as to, you know, sometimes what I’m hearing as an arranger or as a producer. There are some songs like “Berlin” that if you listen to the demo and then to the final version, you’ll be like “Oh, ok yeah. I totally get it. That sound was there and it was really cleaned up”. And then there are other songs like “Regretting” where if you listen to the demo and then the final version, you would think they were different songs. That was someone taking an idea and really building it in a much more effective way. I just feel really honored to have worked with Ian because he’s such a brilliant collaborator, and even more so, such a strong listener. When we would talk, I felt like he was always listening and the music reflected his ability to understand not only musical things, but also emotional things.
Prior to your album What Doesn’t Break, you said that you would edit the songs you sent to your producers and would only send the songs that you wanted to, or were brave enough to, record. With that album, you didn’t edit and your producer for that album chose the songs that you said you wouldn’t have chosen yourself. How do you feel that experience shaped your approach to the songs you recorded and released going forward? Did it make you braver in your song choices?
I think the answer is yes, for sure! I think it’s easier to play it safe and is easier to put out stuff that you know people are going to connect with. There were some songs on What Doesn’t Break that were huge, long-standing secrets of mine, like who I was as a child or how I treated people. The fact that he chose those songs was really wonderful because it helped me to integrate my past with my present. I think when it came to the new album Territories, we had a similar agreement. Ian said “I don’t care if you like it or you don’t like it. You have to send me everything that you’re working on”, which is really great. I will say, there were two or three songs I didn’t send to him (laughs)! When we were in London announcing the record, I mentioned one of them and he said “You never sent me that! You promised you would send me everything!” and I was like “I know, but trust me Ian, it was really bad!” (laughs)! I wasn’t withholding anymore because of the topics. In What Doesn’t Break it was really the topics I was afraid of. With this one, I wasn’t really afraid of the dangerous topics. I really loved the dangerous topics and was diving into them and picking them apart. There were a couple of times when I was like “This song doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s not good enough as a song”, which is why I didn’t send those to Ian.
Your plan is to release a trilogy of videos to tell the story of Territories in 12 minutes. You recently released the first one, with “Berlin” and will release the second one for “Quebec” on Valentine’s Day. What can you tell me about the ideas behind the videos and what led you to decide to tell the story of the album through the three videos?
Well, I’ve been working in the visual realm for so long. A big part of the reason I have a career is because I’ve been telling stories, both in song and video, for a long time. Ten years ago, when I started doing it, nobody was telling LGBT stories visually. Nobody was seeing the representation of themselves visually. I found it to be a really powerful tool as a connector. I feel like my job in life sometimes is to show people a different perspective and for them to be able to say “I am not broken. I am not wrong. I should not be ashamed of who I am, because here’s an example of someone who is also having a similar experience to me and he’s ok!”. I had previously worked with Nathaniël Siri, who’s the director of these three videos, on a couple of other projects together and we started talking again. You know, the only problem with music videos is that there’s a limitation to what you can do in three minutes. We really wanted to dig a little deeper into the story and figure out how we could tell a little bit more about the complexity of what was going on in my life through music videos. It seemed apt to use “Berlin”, “Quebec” and “Regretting”. “Berlin” is kind-of the kick off of this album for me, as I went to Berlin to meet my lover and I fell in love. This is where we fell in love. We had kind-of just been casual acquaintances who then fell in love. That triggered a whole new perspective for me. I came home and told my husband I had fallen in love, which turned everything upside down, which is what “Quebec” is about. We went to Quebec after Thanksgiving and he broke down and I have more of an understanding of what he was going through as a result of my emotionally falling in love with another person. The third music video is for “Regretting” where we wrap up the story of my husband and I.
Do you have a release date in mind for “Regretting”?
Probably in the Spring sometime. It’s great, because Berlin is very summer/fall looking and Quebec is all ice, so it will be wintertime and “Regretting” is much more springtime. Nathaniël and I shot these over the course of the past year, so there has been a lot of work and a lot of continents we’ve shot on and different weather, so that’s definitely a part of the visual story, as well. It would be weird to release “Regretting” in the winter.
Each video also features Daniel Franzese from the movie Mean Girls. How did you meet and come to feature him in the videos?
Danny and I have been friends for a while and he’s just really great. I’ve always admired his outspokenness, especially when it comes to body positivity. I’m a man who’s attracted to big men and I made a music video in 2013 for my song “Bears” that really put that in the forefront and really talked about how I see beauty. Again, this is something that needs to change with society, but you don’t really see men or women of size portrayed as sex symbols or beautiful symbols. We need to be accurately representing that in society so that people can again see that they are right in whoever they are and that however their beauty is packaged is beautiful. I was always an admirer of Danny, both for his work on screen and his work off screen for just being a really great role model when it comes to body positivity. He had done kind-of some consulting for me when I did the music video for “Round In All The Right Places”, which was released in 2018. We had just casually talked about working together and I said at that time “This isn’t the right fit for you, but I have some stuff coming down the pipeline, so just watch out for my phone call”. When we were making “La Bufadora”, one of the first music videos for this album with Michael Serrrato (who directed the video), he and I talked about bringing Danny on board. Michael was also always a big fan of Danny and Danny was always a big fan of Michael and me, so it was like a big ole’ love fest! We all got together and made the “La Bufadora” video and I thought that might be it, but when I started talking about casting for this project, Danny reached out to me. He was like “Hey. This project sounds awesome. I had so much fun working with you and would love to work with you more”. I was like “Yeah. Me too! This would work really well and I’d love to have you be a part of it”. Luckily, it just continued to be a big love fest and three videos together (laughs)!
You often incorporate storytelling into your live shows and have talked about how important storytelling is to you in films. What led you to want to want to incorporate that into your live show. What do you see as the connection between and impact of storytelling in music?
I don’t think that songs exist without storytelling. Every song that I write, I write because I’m trying to tell a story or am trying to explore some kind of truth. I got into the music business because I didn’t feel like that was happening enough. I felt like people were trying to use music to sell tennis shoes or perpetuate an unrealistic lifestyle. For me, music has been very, very healing. It has been the one thing that has always consistently been able to completely…I’m not even gonna say smash, because my emotional walls are still there. Music has like this x-ray ability to be like “I see that wall and I don’t care!” and goes right through it and right into your heart like a pin prick. Your eyes and heart and body and mind are just opened in such beautiful and wonderful ways. I feel like it’s a responsibility for me as an artist and a songwriter to be using my music to bring positivity and healing into the world and to show a different perspective. I am different from most people making music, historically. I don’t see the representation of my community in music enough, and that’s changing but it’s still not enough there for me. I can sit on the sidelines and say nobody is talking about me or I can be the person who creates the art and be an example for other people.
I also read that you score films. How did you get your start in that and what have been some film scores that have inspired you to follow that path?
Well, I’ve scored a couple of commercials and a film. I haven’t scored a bunch of films. But really, I love it. It’s really interesting to…I think I learned a lot on “Son Of A Preacher Man”, which is a music video that I did, and the concept for the music video existed before the song existed. When I went into the studio to produce the song and rearrange the song, there was definitely a vibe that I had in mind. It really again goes back to being a storyteller. It’s an honor to be able to take somebody’s story and see the visual elements of that story and then figure out how I can add musical elements to help tell that story more effectively and to help put the person who is watching that movie in the mood to receive that story. In talking about storytelling in a performance, that’s the reason I tell stories too. I could just play all of the songs and that would be fine and most people would walk out of there enjoying it, but when you tell the story behind the song it really effectively puts the audience in the mood to receive the song in the way you intended it to be received, therefore making it more emotionally impactful to the listener.
What can you tell me about your Travelin’ Tom videos and being a Man About The World global correspondent. How did you get started with making your travel videos? That sounds like fun!
It is fun! You know, I have a bunch of them that I haven’t finished editing. I love to travel and I think it’s a similar answer to what I keep saying, especially in 2020 America. We as Americans are on a slippery slope to having a more confined idea of the world. We as Americans are like “We’re #1! We are the best! This is the way you should think about it! There’s no other way to think about it!”. I think that traveling for me has really opened up my eyes to how different people live their lives and their perspectives of the world and how different religions, cultures, foods and social norms really play into our idea of what is good and what is bad. Only by traveling or meeting other people who didn’t have the same kind of upbringing as you, are you able to understand that the world is not black and white. The world is a whole entire myriad of different ideas and colors and tastes and smells, and you don’t have to like all of it, but you certainly have to see how it’s all beautiful.
Do you have a favorite place that you’ve traveled to or some place you haven’t been that you are hoping to visit?
The best part about moving to Los Angeles is that Asia is so close, and so what my husband and I have been really been loving Asia and Thailand. We rode motor bikes around Laos, which was super fun, and Japan was so fun and Cambodia is an amazing place to see, especially from a cultural perspective and a humanity perspective to understand how we can do things so wrong and the resilience of humanity. I remember going to South Africa in 2002, shortly after the fall of Apartheid, and just seeing these people who were smart and wonderful and brilliant living in houses and townships that…I don’t even know how to describe it. If you’ve not been there, it’s hard to describe…a very, very small house with a dirt floor and six or seven people living in there and it’s made of tin. I would see them, and they were just vibrant and beautiful and smiling and laughing and funny and talented and smart, and you just realize that the resilience of humanity is the thing that keeps this world spinning. It’s not the politicians or big corporations or any of these things that we think. They don’t care about the Nasdaq. They are just living their life and singing and dancing and it is inspirational. For me, traveling is just so, so inspirational. And the great thing about doing the Travelin’ Tom videos is that otherwise I’m just falling asleep in the car while my husband is driving (laughs)! The videos make me dig into the culture a lot more, because I have to understand more about the culture in order to talk about it on screen. I really like that. It keeps me really tuned in, and we have these computers in our pocket where we’re like “I’ve gotta check my Facebook!”. You don’t have too check your Facebook! You have to look at what’s going on around you.
Congratulations on you’re music video for “La Bufadora” being nominated for a Queertie Award! Can you tell me just a little bit about the video and have you had videos nominated before?
Thank you! I don’t think I’ve ever had a video nominated before for a Queertie! I didn’t actually know. I was talking to a friend who is also a collaborator of mine. She’s so wonderful and we were just talking on the phone and she was voting for Queerties and went to vote and was like “Wait! Tom, that’s you!” and I was like “What?” (laughs)! But “La Bufadora”…my husband Mike and I have really had some hard times over the past couple of years. One of the places we like to go to get away and reconnect with one another is to Baja Mexico. It’s just south of San Diego and is really wonderful and beautiful. You can rent a little condo there and it’s very cheap and the food’s great and everybody is friendly. We love Mexico. We were there, and this would have been post-“Quebec”, and we were really trying to understand one another and listen to one another and heal and it just wasn’t working. We were just kind-of speaking our truths to one another but our truths were just on such different ends of the spectrum that it was just hurting us and triggering anger, sadness and jealousy. That’s really what that song is about, this idea of the beauty of Baja, which is like Malibu without the people. It’s perfectly serene. There’s this place there called La Bufadora that’s a blowhole, so when a wave comes into the sea, it crashes and shoots like 80 feet into the air and there’s just a tumultuousness in the midst of this beauty and love and easy calm. That’s the way that I was feeling. We love each other so much and the depths of our love is endless and beautiful ands serene, but sometimes we say something that hits this thing and there’s an explosion inside of us. The first person I sent the record to was Michael Serrato, who I have done a lot of music videos with in the past, and I said “Whatever music video you want to do, let’s do it” and he loved “La Bufadora”. I said “Great! What’s your schedule like because we have to go to Mexico!” (laughs)! He was like “What? Well, I’m free tomorrow”. So that morning I drove him down to Mexico, down to La Bufadora, and he fell in love. We immediately started talking about the idea of this explosion of anger and it’s a little easier to tell this story through the scope of domestic violence. For us, we had never seen a representation of domestic violence between same sex partners. The thing I love about working with Michael is that he has a similar sensibility to me, in that we always want to be telling stories that aren’t being told. That’s really important to us, so we went to work crafting a story that would be a visual representation of domestic violence and hopefully help to inspire people to understand that they have some control in their life and are strong enough to get beyond any hardships they have.
You recently released and EP entitled Be Somebody that you made 4 years ago but hadn’t released. What made you decide to release it now?
You know, I just made it. I was listening to it and I loved it and was so afraid of these songs when I wrote them. I was going through so much, and the thing I love about Territories is that I don’t have any more fear. All of my secrets are in the open. I can be authentically myself in the world and be happy with that. It was totally impulsive! There was no thought to it at all!
What can you tell me about the evolution of your songwriting process? Starting out, you really loved Dave Matthews and tried to emulate his songwriting style but have said that it led you to be a really bad songwriter for a long time. How did you go about finding your own style and what was that process like for you? Do you feel that you are still growing as a songwriter?
Everyday! I’ve just learned so much! It’s really just practice and testing things out until you know what works for you. I think there a lot of people who are emulating and if you are emulating another sound, you are inevitably always going to be behind the curve because somebody has already perfected it. It’s only in really being authentic to you, your story and your voice that you are ever going to connect with listeners in a big and impactful way. For me, when I started listening to David Gray or Damien Rice or Alexi Murdoch, who are just taking a couple of chords and then really being revelatory about their life experience, is when I was impacted with my music. Dave Matthews is great and he writes fun songs, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what half of his songs are about. You can’t understand what he’s saying and don’t know what these lyrics mean. He’s kind of like a weird kook in his own head. I was really like “Oh, I love these songs that don’t make any sense and don’t now where they are going”, but it wasn’t until I expanded my horizons that I realized if you’re trying to connect with somebody, that’s a really ineffective way of doing it. The thing that he has done is an anomaly! The way to do it more effectively is to be really open and do it like these other people are doing it, in a much more simplistic way. That’s how I kind-of started to learn.
What’s next for you? What do you have coming up?
I’m finishing up music videos for “Regretting”, “Amsterdam”, “Eve” and “Irreplaceable”…so many music videos (laughs)! I’m also in the process of booking shows and writing new songs. I’m actually in the middle of a writing session and just wrote this awesome, awesome song, so I’m super excited about it.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me this evening! I really appreciate it!
Thank you for chatting with me! I really appreciate it.