By Tessa Raebeck
From pop charts to dive bars, love songs are rampant. A universal topic, love makes it easy for artists to connect with audiences, but singer-songwriter Max Gomez takes a different path.
“I hate to say this old song-writing cliché, but a little bit of heartbreak will turn you into a songwriter real quick,” explained Mr. Gomez, who will perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 29.
That heartbreak stems from more than lost love. Mr. Gomez draws inspiration from any form of injustice, from restless girlfriends and the hold of addiction to the misuse of power and widespread violence. His music is soulful and gritty at the same time, balancing mellow rock instrumentation with blues, country and folk influences.
Growing up with four older brothers in the remote hamlet of Taos, the most northern of the New Mexico pueblos, Mr. Gomez first learned about music on an old player piano his family had.
“We used to have a closet full of scrolls and we would get our different scrolls and pump the pedals and the piano would start playing,” he said. “It was just kind of a fun thing to do. I always was into any kind of music, really…I played music ever since I was a little kid.”
When Mr. Gomez was 9, his older brother got a guitar. He quickly usurped control over it, playing it constantly.
“Eventually, I got my own and I’ve never really put it down,” he said. “And now, it’s gotten way out of control.”
At just 15, Mr. Gomez was offered a job to play regularly at “kind of a honky-tonk bar and restaurant” that typically hosted country artists. “It was kind of an unusual thing for a 15-year-old,” he said. “I got a little job playing when I was that age and over the years, I just kind of continued to work at it and study different kind of music and I got different influences.”
Originally listening to and playing only the blues, working at the country venue introduced Mr. Gomez to traveling singer-songwriters and new influences, including writers who worked with John Prine, today a major influence of his, and Mentor Williams, who wrote Dobie Gray’s biggest hit, “Drift Away,” in 1973. The experience helped Mr. Gomez establish himself as a singer-songwriter with diverse influences rather than solely doing a “blues or country kind of thing.”
“The blues has been a major influence, the old recordings of Robert Johnson, which I think kind of started American music in the way that we know it, even today,” he said of the Mississippi Delta blues master, who died in the 1930’s at age 27 after finding little commercial success.
Big Bill Broonzy is another blues influence, “and then in the folk world, I’m big on John Prine, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…to me that music really never gets old, I listen to it a lot.”
With a piano, a mandolin and a banjo at home, Mr. Gomez continues to “dabble on this and that,” but his focus has always been the guitar. Although he remains rooted in blues and folk, the constant in Mr. Gomez’s music is not a melody or an instrument, but thoughtful, intent songwriting.
“Rule the World,” Mr. Gomez’s debut album, was released in January 2013 by New West Records, which represents eclectic artists like The Devil Makes Three, The Replacements, Drive-By Truckers and Steve Earle. Jeff Trott, who has worked with Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow, produced the 10-song album.
The album’s first single, “Run From You,” was co-written by Mr. Gomez and Mr. Trott. It begins:
“I was walking around with my old friend, where the pavement ends and the trouble began, it’s true, that’s where I ran into you. White blossoms in raven hair, got a funny feeling and a dead man’s stare, wishing I knew, I should have run from you.”
The “anti-love” lyrics are supported by the heartbreak evident in Mr. Gomez’s relaxing melodies and mellow, crooning vocals. He often co-writes songs, drawing influence from talented friends like singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, best known for the 1998 hit single “Lullaby.”
“We get together and we just kind of start playing and find something that we like the sound of musically, and then we start writing a little story to it,” he said of collaboration.
“But when I write by myself,” continued Mr. Gomez, “I tend to only write when I feel really strongly about something and it just can come out in a fell swoop and you just make a little music to go with it, which is kind of different.”
That’s where the injustice comes in as inspiration.
“I was writing a lot of real love songs—specifically for somebody, in a certain sense—and when that whole thing didn’t really pan out, I started writing the other kind of love song, which is the anti-love song.”
“Run From You” is a story about meeting someone and later wishing you hadn’t, a feeling to which most who have endured a difficult romance can likely relate. A specific experience prompted the song, yet Mr. Gomez keeps the lyrics broad for others to decode, so the audience’s interpretation can still be open-ended and every story can also belong to the listener.
“Sometimes you write very literally and you just kind of write a story,” he said, “but I often try to keep the story buried inside, so that it’s not really that specific or literal and it’s something that can be interpreted into the way you feel, rather than a certain, exact thing. I think that’s a good key in songwriting, to not tell the listener exactly what is going on, but to let them make that decision themselves.”
For Mr. Gomez, performance is an extension of that creative process. He tries to play at least one brand new song at every show, to see how the crowd reacts to it and gauge how it can be improved. The audience is crucial to his craft; a draft cannot be complete until the song is tested live, he said.
Despite his anti-love tendencies, Mr. Gomez remains a romantic at heart: In “Love Will Find a Way,” he writes, “Take a good look around, you’ve got both feet on the ground. Kiss the pain, and taste the truth, while you hang onto your youth. You can fly far away and dream of yesterday, and pray, pray that love’s gonna find a way.”
Max Gomez will perform Saturday, March 29, as part of the Breakout Artist Series, in partnership with WEHM 92.9 and 96.9 FM at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. For tickets, call the box office at 288-1500 or visit here.