You could say that Tom Goss puts his heart and soul into his work: The openly gay Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter is set to release his third full-length album, Turn It Around, April 12—and he says that his husband inspired the CD. In an interview with Windy City Times that sometimes bordered on the emotional (in a good way), Goss talked about touring away from his husband, being an "accidental activist" and owing his career to Dave Matthews.
WCT: (Windy City Times) You're a Midwestern boy, having grown up in Kenosha, Wis. What was growing up there like?
TG: (Tom Goss) I love Kenosha, and I love going back there. It was good. Obviously, like everywhere else, your family loves you and drives you crazy at the same time. [Laughs] I love that it's a smaller city where it's easy to be relaxed but you're a Metra ride away from Chicago—and I have family that's from the Chicago area. A lot of my holiday memories are from Chicago.
WCT: I just wanted to get some sense of what it was like because people have this view of "Midwestern values" and apple pie.
TG: I don't feel like my upbringing was as Wisconsin-y as most other folks'. My mom's family is an Italian immigrant family in Chicago. It's funny: I used to go to lunch with my friend Jason in Catholic grade school. Used to eat bologna and ketchup with Oreos for lunch—and I would have, like, my squid. [Laughs] Everybody was doing the American thing and here I was with the...
TG: Yes, the squid. [Laughs] So I don't think my upbringing was the stereotypically Midwestern one. But there is something to be said for the values and the hard work. My parents owned a gym when I was born, and I basically grew up in the gym. I would go to [gymnastics] practice five days a week, three hours a day. When I stopped doing gymnastics I started wrestling, which is a 24/7 thing. Even beyond the hard-work thing, I have this crazy work-overdrive thing ingrained in me.
There is something to be said about meeting people from the Midwest, too. You can always tell when you're on the East Coast and you can tell when you're leaving the East Coast. The first thing someone [out east] asks you is "What do you do?" Being in the Midwest seems like a lot less pressure. [Laughs]
WCT: Why don't you and your husband move back?
TG: That's not out of the question. I think my husband and I have similar values in the sense that we're going to want to slow things down—and that's going to mean moving to a smaller town and enjoying each other more. He grew up in a smaller town in Massachusetts and, in that regard, we have similar ideals. Right now we're in D.C.; my music is there and his job is there. Eventually, that'll change.
WCT: I read that you moved to D.C. initially to become a priest.
TG: [Laughs] Yeah. I was going to seminary. That was a pretty bad decision.
WCT: I have a friend who went to seminary but got tired of what he called the "hypocrisy" in it.
TG: That's the thing. In my house, approximately 90 percent of the people were gay. Obviously, the ones who are the [most hypocritical] are the ones who are closeted. It was really weird. "Hypocrisy" is the right word; it was just an uncomfortable situation. Your friend hit it dead-on.
WCT: So how did you become a musician?
TG: I got a guitar for my high school graduation present—mostly because I was obsessed with the Dave Matthews Band. More than anything, I wanted to sit in the parking lot during their shows and play every single Dave Matthews song, so that's what I started doing. (This was around ‘99-'00.) So I learned every Dave Matthews song that was ever written. I still love his work, although I'm not as crazy as I used to be.
I started writing almost immediately after I started playing—and [the first songs] were really horrible. It took me years before I started writing these songs, mostly because I started listening to other people. I started listening to David Gray, who is the opposite of Dave Matthews in the sense where he takes two chords and totally rips your heart out. I started to believe in the power of the simplicity of music, and kinda rolled with that.
WCT: You said that your husband inspired this CD?
TG: I would say everything I do is inspired by him, at the risk of sounding lame and sappy. We met a couple weeks after I left seminary, and he was ending a long-term relationship. We were both deeply wounded and scarred, and were sensitive to each other's needs. I wouldn't be able to write these songs without him. He's amazing and extremely supportive.
WCT: Would you say you're lost in him? That's not necessarily a bad thing.
TG: Would I say I was lost in him? I don't think so. I think being lost in someone means that it's impossible to be away from him. The thing that's amazing about Mike is the depth of his belief in my dreams and my music—so much so that he lets me disappear for two months and go on tour. We talk a couple times a day.
WCT: I was going to ask how you're able to balance the personal and the professional.
TG: It's hard. I miss Mike a lot; I left him yesterday and I won't see him for a month. How do you balance it? I don't know; you just try to touch base and keep the lines of communication open. We trust each other and love each other.
WCT: I want to talk about "Lover" [that's about a man who loses his partner, who's on military duty overseas] and the video that accompanied it. [Note: The video, made last year, includes three soldiers— Mike Almy, David Hall and Danny Hernandez—discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."] What was the impetus behind writing that song?
TG: The song was written about Mike; I wrote it in Christmas 2007. At the time, I was running a meal program for the homeless. Christmas 2007 fell on a Tuesday, I believe. I was in D.C. by myself, and it was a ghost town. I walked into this church sanctuary, and wrote about being sad that Mike wasn't around but that my love for him was bigger than anything else around. [Referring to the line, "They say that every one thousand years a love may come"] You're really lucky if you're on Earth for 30 and you find it.
I recorded it on my 2009 album, Back to Love, and people always requested it. I've always wanted to do a video for it. It's such a big song that it demands a big video. A friend told me about a screenplay he was writing about a soldier at war and his lover at home; he said that my music was the backdrop for a lot of the scenes. When he was explaining the scene, he would tell me the lyric from a song; I don't think he realized he said at the time was from "Lover." [Laughs]
WCT: In light of some of the other songs you've written, such as "12 Chairs" [about the D.C. Council on Marriage Equality] and "Prop 8," would you say you're an activist?
TG: It's funny. When I released that EP last year I was doing an interview, the guy had called me an "accidental activist," and I think that's true. I'm in love with a man and I'm in love with a man, and that marginalizes me, in a way. I think, more than anything, I just want to talk about that and start that conversation. Somewhere along the line that made me an activist, but that's not my intention. Those songs were written in reaction to things that touched me emotionally in a negative way—but I realized that these songs resonated with people.
WCT: How did your family handle you coming out?
TG: I think it was hard on my family. I think it's one thing if your gay son is going to be a priest and you don't have to deal with sexuality. It became harder when Mike showed up and that he was a real part of my life. I think the ones who love you the most just want you to have the best and the easiest life possible. Anything that makes it harder is hard for them to take. I don't think my parents disliked Mike or gay people; my mom always had gay friends.
WCT: Let's end on a lighter note: Who would you like to collaborate with, besides Dave Matthews?
TG: I would say David Gray; his simplicity and his voice are amazing. I think it'd be fun to collaborate with someone like Ben Folds, who's just super-fun, or Jason Mraz. One of the things I love about music is clever writing, and I think they do it quite well.
WCT: For some reason, I see you collaborating with Annie Lennox.
TG: Oh yeah? Sure, I'll do it. [Laughs] You got her number?
Tom Goss will perform Saturday, April 9, at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln, at 7 p.m. with Jeff Altergott. For more on Goss' music, visit http://www.tomgossmusic.net.