In the not-so-distant past, gay musicians hid in the closet or played coy about their sexuality, but today's artists are an entirely different breed. For up and coming singer-songwriter Matt Gold, being gay may be a given, but is simply one more piece to his overall puzzle. For Gold, inspiration is found in key moments from his life's journey; they tell of growing up in a small town as an only child, of being adopted, the search for identity, and the experience of being abandoned, due to being gay.
Such themes and more are explored in Gold's debut album, Drown Before You Swim. Tellingly, in its CD format, the album is broken into two discs, "Drown" and "Swim," balancing his darker and lighter elements within. Gold recently took time to share more about his life, art, and the passions that fuel him.
Kergan Edwards-Stout: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Matt. To begin, as your songwriting is so tied to your piano, how did you first come to play it?
Matt Gold: Originally, I wanted to play the saxophone, but my mother was concerned that it could affect my mouth, especially as I needed braces. So instruments in your mouth were out! I tried the bass drum, bells, xylophone, and finally settled on the piano - but only took a month's worth of lessons before I quit.
What made you quit?
I was really frustrated at my inability to learn it as quickly as I wanted, but, more importantly, I realized that improvisation was really my style. I love taking music out of the expected and making it my own. I played piano in church for a long time, and those are very structured, by nature. But with hymns and ballads, particularly, you can do so much more than what is written on the page.
Was religion important to you, or was playing in church just what was expected?
It was part of that life, growing up in a small town. It was mandatory and, like most kids, I did what I was told, to get along.
When did music become more than just an interest?
My short-lived piano teacher told my parents that voice lessons might be good for me, and I began to sing in choirs. But around 15 or 16, interest turned into passion when I realized that I could pair my voice with piano and create my own compositions. It allowed me to delve into how I felt.
Where did those early songs come from?
At that age, it was very much about "finding myself:" rebelling against my parents, authority, the church.... A lot of it was about dealing with my sexuality, and, as a child, not getting the love I needed.
I know you were adopted, and I have two adopted sons. Did that experience factor into your songwriting?
Yes, especially when I was younger. Loss, despair, and feeling alone are all part of my experience. Being adopted, you automatically feel different and unconnected, not knowing where you come from. And my mother, in essence, later abandoned me due to my sexuality. That kind of experience can't help but shape you. And while I know my parents loved me, those questions hovered: Who do I look like? Do I have any siblings? Where did I get this talent?
What happened when you came out to your parents?
My father, now dead, never knew. My grandparents were the most accepting, and although I knew they didn't like it, they continued to treat me the same. My mother, however, had a really hard time. Even now, she continues to take it out on herself, feeling that she's done something wrong. It is hard for her to get beyond that and simply see me as a human being.
Where did her views come from?
Well, the church, being Baptist. In her eyes, being gay isn't God's plan for me.
And how do you feel?
I know that I'm a good person - I'm too nice to go to hell! (laughing) This is just who I am.... But hearing those messages can make you very lonely. Since I don't have a supportive family, I rely on my circle of friends. But honestly, Kergan, if I could trade my talent for a supportive family, I would.
Was moving from Ohio to Bloomington, Indiana, part of finding that support?
Bloomington is a very arts-oriented community, with a college, and seemed a good choice. I moved here to pursue my passions. Here, I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. Everyone has a mission in life, to fulfill certain needs, and mine comes in performing for people, and making them feel and think. In a way, I'm giving back, just as the music I listened to in my youth gave to me. Without that, I'm not sure I would've found the proper outlet for all I was feeling.
Musically, who are some of your favorites?
The Cure, Tori Amos, Radiohead, P.J. Harvey, Billie Holiday, Vince Guaraldi, Nina Simone... I gravitate toward music which is happy in tone, but lyrically is more layered. If you listen to Billie Holiday, for example, she sounds so upbeat, but you realize that there is a space within that is aching to be filled. So much of what she sings about is lost love, and I completely understand that.
Which leads me to the obvious next question... Are you dating?
While I'd like to fall in love, at some point, my focus right now is my music. When I'm in a relationship, I tend to get sidetracked, and the music gets put to the side. Right now, I'm touring in support of the album, and trying to get on a label, and need to make the most of this moment.
Having created this album on your own, why do you feel like you need a label?
The album was important, both to be able to share with my fans, and for labels to listen to. A label can help take you to that next level, in terms of visibility. Happily, there are artists out there on labels who are able to maintain their authenticity and remain true to themselves. That's one of the reasons I respect Adele so much. She's out there, doing her own thing in her own style, and it's all about her voice, and people like it. When I see someone like Adele succeed, it gives me hope that my songs might be received in the same way.
How would you characterize the journey of making this album, Drown Before You Swim?
It's been fascinating. Two of the songs on the album, the title song and "Recovering," were not originally part of my song list; they were written during the recording process. After I wrote the cut "Drown Before You Swim," it seemed the most appropriate title for the album as well. It took so much of me to create the album, both in emotion and time. At one point, I felt like I'd hit bottom, that it would never be finished, but now I find myself slowly rising to the top, stronger than before.
Your first single off the album, "Ordinary," has a great pop sound, yet other songs on the album range from stripped-down singer-songwriter, to more of an alternative sound...
"Ordinary" doesn't define my sound, but it definitely shows my versatility as an artist.
Which are your personal favorites?
I think "Void" is my favorite song on the album. It is about my last relationship, so it really resonates with me. The version as it is on the album is very different from how it started. The lyrics changed, the music changed, and how I sing it changed, going from kind of neediness to more of a place of anger, which aligns with my growth as a person.
"Void" deals with your last breakup, yet even 10 years ago, the idea of a gay male artist acknowledging their sexuality was fairly laughable. Was being open something you ever hesitated about?
So much of who I am as an artist is about truth-telling. Most of my songs are fairly neutral, to appeal to both sides of the spectrum, and I try to speak to the emotional connectivity we all share. It isn't so much gay or straight, it's just human. Hopefully, everyone relates to what I'm singing...
"Mr. Cannonball" is quite specific... You sing, It's been a hard day and I need some hard boys.
It's probably my most direct song, as it is about boys and is very "gay." Other than my mother, though, everyone loves it! (laughing) But I think my audience is more concerned with my authenticity than in any labels.
The album in CD form is split into two discs, "Drown" and "Swim." Between the two, where do you yourself fall?
Most people likely view me as being more on the upbeat "Swim"-side of things, but inside, I relate more to the more contemplative songs on "Drown." I am very emotionally-driven, and would get bored very quickly if I had to do pop dance songs all the time. It's more interesting and challenging as an artist to write something that moves people. It's a cliché, but true: tortured souls make great art.
Is it difficult, going to these darker places as an artist, and balancing that with your daily life?
When I step on that stage, it's as if a switch is flipped inside of me, and something happens. All of my worries and insecurities are gone, and I'm able to just connect with an audience, and they get the authentic me. At that point, it's just me and the piano...