Max Gomez’s Rule the World backs heart and hope with the youthful idealism found in the album’s title track. High watermarks such as “Cherry Red Wine” show a sharp songwriter rapidly emerging. CMT Edge spoke to the New Mexico-born singer-songwriter about the compelling new collection, his musical influences and upcoming appearances at South by Southwest in Austin.
“I played South by Southwest last year for the first time, and I was pretty fresh, pretty new at playing in front of bigger crowds and lots of other bands,” Gomez says. “Since then, I’ve gone out on a few tours and have been learning and getting better. I’m looking forward to coming back this year and showing off the new skills I’ve got and winning over some new fans. “
CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.
Gomez: Being that this is my first album, the songs all have different stories. I sifted through everything I had at the time and came out with the track listing for the record. For example, I wrote “Rule the World” three or four years ago, but I wrote “Never Say Never” right before we made the record. I also wrote some with Jeff Trott, the guy who produced it. We’re old songwriting buddies.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
For a while there, I called it “If I Could Rule the World” before we nailed down all these titles. I wrote it on my first trip to Nashville, which was to co-write with different songwriters and more established songwriters. The idea was for me to get more material to go to California and record. That was five years ago.
I co-wrote a bunch and got all this material, and it all ended up being good stuff, and some was used on different artists’ records. Then one day, I wrote “Rule the World” in a flash, like in 10 or 15 minutes. I wrote it by myself. I knew the song was real likable and that it would maybe open some doors for me. It did just that, too.
Do you prefer writing alone or co-writing?
I kind of like each for its own thing. I mean, I feel like when I write by myself, the music and lyrics will be more genuine to me, which I tend to latch onto later on down the road and like them better. I haven’t gotten tired of playing “Rule the World,” which is surprising.
Have you written with Shawn Mullins since his 2010 album, Light You Up?
He’s still a co-writing buddy. We actually wrote that “Never Say Never” tune together right before recording started. We started recording so fast, and we weren’t supposed to record that song. But one day the producer was getting a cup of coffee in the other room, and I started playing that song in the control room. The band came in, and they were listening to me and just assumed it was something we were gonna record. They all started taking notes and writing charts, and by the time the producer came back with his cup of coffee, the band had the song figured out and loved it. I showed it to the producer in the middle of a session, and he liked the song enough and said, “What the heck, let’s try it out.”
Did that spontaneity make it exciting or terrifying?
No, it was more exciting, for sure. That song was just a natural thing. It happened real easy. They’re not always like that, but that song was just one piece at a time that came together with no trouble at all.
You’ve said listeners have to decode your songs. Explain a little.
That’s the way I generally set out to write. I like the idea of writing lyrics that don’t tell a very literal story. Some of my songs do, and I like all kinds, but my favorite kind of writing is when the lyrics tell a story that isn’t laid out perfectly in front of you. I like songs that people have to listen to and make up their own story. I think that’s the strongest kind of songwriting for the most part.
Tom Petty writes that way. Hank Williams wrote that way. John Prine. Townes [Van Zandt]. I mean, Townes writes a song like “Pancho and Lefty” that’s about two characters and gunfighters and the Old West, and yet any 15-year-old or 50-year-old man hears that song and listens to the lyrics and thinks it’s just like them, you know?
What was Townes’ greatest asset as a writer?
His style of poetry is another caliber, another level. He writes perfect music. I heard him say once in an interview that everything was so crazy with his songwriting and recording career that everything he wrote had to be perfect. He wouldn’t settle for anything that wasn’t perfect. I think he held true to that. His poetry and his disguised lyrics, back to the lyrical decoding, you listen and think, “That’s me right there. He’s talking about me.” He’s telling a story where anyone can fit into place.
Perfect is obviously subjective, but I’m almost never satisfied with my writing. Are you?
Yeah, I write a lot of different ways, and I generally try to sit down and play some music and get out the way I feel about a certain something or write a story. I’m probably like you, though, in that I’m never really satisfied. I think it’s extremely hard to write a perfect song. There’s a lot of rewriting.
One of the great things about the songs on the record is that I’ve had them for a while, and I got to go out and play them live for a long time — a year or two or three — before we finally ended up putting them on the record. So I was able to change things a whole bunch of times.
My favorite line in that “Rule the World” song is, “I would drown out the cries with redemption songs/Part the truth from the lies and the rights from the wrong/If I could rule the world.” I don’t even know where that kind of thing came from since I wrote that song in 10 or 15 minutes. It took me a long time to wrestle it to the ground, and I could own that thing and sing it and play it the right way, though. It took me at least a year or two. I didn’t know how to sing falsetto or anything like that. I was just messing around, going way out of my league at the time.
How has living in Taos shaped you as an artist?
Well, it’s a really small town. It’s a tiny little place, but there’s a really great arts community here. There are more art galleries here per capita than Paris or something, and there are tons of artists, and they’re mostly really good, really nice people. Being in an artistic community, people tend to be really supportive of the arts, in general.
When did you start singing?
My first job out here doing anything musical was at a honky-tonk, and once a week, a local star would play there. That was when I was 14 or 15. My first job was playing to the packed house when this guy would take a break. I would come up and play three or four songs. So I learned over years of playing and getting little gigs like that. I shaped and learned my craft of playing and entertaining and trying new songs and picking up old songs.
I feel like I was lucky. The headliner at that honky-tonk was friends with all kinds of great songwriters. They would come through town every few months, guys like Shake Russell and Keith Sykes. Another guy who lived out here was Michael Martin Murphey. There’s a lot to learn from his songwriting. I just studied and studied and studied these guys until finally I thought I had some songs that were good enough.
[Max Gomez is now on tour with Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.]