Record of the Week: Julia Gomez’s ‘Aren’t We All So Incomplete’

“I’m a coward; I’m a freak,” Julia Gomez announces, sounding both brazen and stricken, before grabbing onto a broader realization: “But aren’t we all so incomplete.” That’s a pivotal turn in the title track of her debut album, Aren’t We All So Incomplete, and one that also reveals how she tends to direct her attention. The line “I’m a freak” calls back to the torturedly awkward proclamations of Radiohead’s early ‘90s grunge standard “Creep,” only Gomez is keen on moving from first-person isolation to collective vulnerability. She wills herself to face the specifics of what’s brought her pain or pleasure, or pierced her with self-doubt, and enlarge those moments through the humanizing power of pop accessibility.

As a true DIY artist, a lot of that is up to her. Growing up on the West Coast of Florida, she observed her part-time musician dad, who passed when she was just eight, her uncle, the decorated trumpet player and National Symphony member Adel Sanchez, and other relatives pursuing music as both an avenue to excellence and an outlet for expression. She started teaching herself to play and write, testing out what connected with grown-up audiences when she busked and played in bars for tips, discovered self-sufficient electropop auteurs like Grimes and came to Belmont to learn the mechanics of songwriting and recording.

With all of that barely in the rearview, Gomez applied nearly every trick that she knows as songwriter, player, producer and side-hustling new artist to the making of this vivid and verdant 12-song set. She favors sturdy structures for songs that range through doo-wop, pop-punk and broody club banger territory, and delivers slyly urgent melodies in a voice that can take on a husky edge and sound blasé or breathless, plaintive or muscular, often conveying a sense of gender fluidity that aligns with how she sees herself. (Gomez uses either she/her or they/them pronouns, and also identifies as queer and Latinx.) The music hurtles between the overdriven smear of hand-played instruments, brisk beatmaking and glitchy electronics. It’s a sugar rush of self-exploration, wired with possibilities and bursting with ideas, and an exhilarating way for Gomez to introduce herself.

On the Record: A Q&A with Julia Gomez

Jewly Hight: What impression did you get from your dad, and from his relatives, about what it was to be a musician? And what kinds of music were you introduced to? Was there bilingual listening happening in your in your household?

Julia Gomez: My dad always had music as a little bit of a side hustle. Like he would play bars and stuff. He was first a first generation Cuban, Spanish-American, but he was very much into soft dad rock, like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Loggins and Messina and Jim Croce. That was the vibe that he was always playing in the house, and he played a lot of instruments overall. It was just like medicine for him. I could see it brought him a lot of peace and joy.

As far as bilingual music goes, I would like play more of that, but I think that my father, being a baby boomer, I just think that he felt like he needed to assimilate as much as he could to feel, I guess, his identity or whatever.

I did a lot more digging in music as I got older. I had some cool aunts that introduced me to all kinds of stuff. But yeah, music was definitely a part of my childhood. And I would watch my dad, and I would listen to him and he would just  have melodies in his hands that he would just kind of let out. And after I lost him, I kind of started doing the same.

JH: How did you turn to music then, and how did it change your relationship to music to get into it as a means of comfort?

JG: I feel like it was definitely intuitive, in the way that kids just want to learn and are really kind of teaching themselves kind of way. I started like picking up music pretty quickly after my dad passed. It was like a total game. Whatever I heard in my head, I would try and bring it out onto the piano, and then eventually the guitar and eventually the drums. In middle school and high school, I was in drum line, and lyrics came in high school. And it eventually has just evolved and bloomed into trying to just produce and play all of the instruments. I just think it’s such a fun way to process life and really just emote. I’ve literally been doing music since I was eight years old, and I still feel like I know nothing. I still feel like I’m at the very tip of the iceberg. And so it’s just inspiring to know that it’s such an expansive world to learn and grow in.

JH: My understanding is you also were doing other kinds of performing here and there by that point, busking, playing for tips in bars and that kind of thing. I imagine you were trying to get people older than you to throw you some cash. What was it like to be in that position where you were trying to get the attention of adults as a teenager? And also, did you have experiences that were more communal? Were you were part of any kind of music scene or an online community around music?

JG: To be honest, I’m just now getting to that point of wanting to find more community around music. It’s always been a super introverted or me-with-myself kind of thing, but I’m absolutely feeling ready to connect and I’m really feeling more trust and just building those communities, especially online.

JH: And what about back then?

JG: I had some really supportive friends in high school that would be regulars at my shows. I used to play at this bar about once a week called Love’s Artifacts, and it’s not open anymore, but it was a really awesome spot to go to. I was playing a lot of older covers like Stevie Nicks and Tracy Chapman and sometimes the Eagles and whatnot. Just stuff that would [make] older people would want to throw some like cash. And I would busk outside of [Tampa Bay] Lightning games at like Amalie Arena with my friend Max Jenkins shout out. There was definitely community in the sense of I had really supportive friendships that truly kept me going. There wasn’t a whole lot of other bands I really knew in Tampa, but I’m sure there are now. I’ve heard that there’s actually a really cool up-and-coming metal scene there now.

JH: You joke about the dad rock that you were exposed to. When would you say you found the music that spoke to you, made you feel seen, you know, really started to develop your own taste? And were there ways that musical exploration, for you, dovetailed with learning more about who you are?

JG: I would say I kind of started refining my taste—I’m kind of doing that now, to be honest. I would say in college, that’s when I really started culturing my ears more to other stuff. I feel very much on that journey. When making this album, I felt really inspired by girl in red, who is a female producer and songwriter. I like her work a lot. And same with Willow Smith and Grimes, of course. I think I saw Grimes my senior year of high school. I saw some live video performance of her on YouTube, and I was just like, “Damn, this is the future,” seeing women in music with such a strong, presence and being so in charge of their sound and their creations. I love that. I got really into Sylvan Esso in college too. They definitely influenced some stuff for this album.

JH: It seems like it was really important to you to develop the skills, the chops, to be able to do all of these different pieces of the process of music-making yourself, before, during and after you attending Belmont.

JG: Yes, very important. And that’s been very important for me not just for this Julia Gomez project, but just as a musician. I want to be able to be in bands and work with other artists and produce records. I think Belmont, definitely being in that competitive environment, just being surrounded by all these talented people, like Nashville in general, that definitely woke something up inside of me that was like, “Okay, what am I doing right now? I should go be practicing, or I should be listening to a record really in-depth, really making notes on the chemistry between the bass line and the drums or really honing in on the lyrics and how much melodic space is going on between the lyrics and how is the melody moving,” and all of those fine-tuned aspects of a song. I just felt like it definitely was an immersive environment. I think just being like in a music city also it can be super immersive.

JH: You’re living the reality of this hybrid of professionalism and DIY approach. Could you paint a picture for me of what that was like when it came to getting this album done, the realities of when you could record and where you could record and how?

JG: Recording this album happened all over the place. Most of it was done in three different bedrooms that I had rented out over the past two years. And I unfortunately was in a really crappy one-bedroom apartment for, like, eight months, and I couldn’t really do much recording there. I had planned to do a lot of recording there, and I was getting lots of noise complaints because it was not well insulated. So my friend, my homie Mark Pearce, local musician, he had a storage unit studio and he had it treated a little bit. He had a drum kit in there, a piano in there and a desk in there, and the piano was all out of tune and stuff. I actually made a couple of songs in that storage unit which are going to be on the record. Now I’m really grateful to have a space I can just really put my anchor in and create future works, now that I live in a place with a great home studio.

JH: I get the sense, too, that this is work that you had to do after clocking out of other work.

JG: That’s so true. At that time, I was working 50 to 60 hours a week. and I was not really that healthy. And I finally reached the point of, “Okay, I can’t do this. I need to be working part-time. It’s impossible to do all of this and work full-time.” So, I work part time, thank God. And I highly recommend that for artists out there trying to give themselves to their art: please work part-time, even though you’re going to be broke. It’s going to make you hungrier for building that career.

JH: I think it’s interesting that when you look at what’s available to you in production or arranging, the stuff that you reach for could be off in any in any number of directions.

JG: I definitely wanted to kind of give this album a variety of vibes. So you will find that some songs are totally different than another song on the album. I almost wanted to call this album a debut mixtape, just because there’s so many different recording environments going on on the album and sonically, it doesn’t sound crazy consistent, does sound kind of like a DIY record. But I think the mixes turned out pretty great. I’m really grateful actually. My cousin mixed two of the songs on the album. He ives in Seattle, so here’s a shout-out to Matty. Matt Taylor, love you.

JH The way that you that you sing was something that got my attention immediately. A lot of the time you’re sort of in your lower range. Tonally, you might be singing in a way that’s deadpan, but a lot of it also feels like unapologetically putting things out there and taking up space, which have an edge to it. It and it made me think about Miley Cyrus at times or Annie Lennox. Singing style is an area that has been just ripe for performers to play with all kinds of far more fluid gender performance. What are you up to in the way that you sing?

JG: I just have an opinion on the human voice in general. I feel like it is a piece of your soul really, even just talking. With singing, it’s just like you’re getting out this energy, and sometimes it’s trapped energy, I feel like. And it just feels really awesome to deliver a story, a feeling, an emotion. It’s way satisfying. I kind of just want to sing in ways that feel like medicine and feel like my soul is freed in some kind of way.

I’m still learning and discovering a lot about my voice. To be honest, I’m not one of those singers who sings a whole lot, and I should sing more. I’m still kind of discovering and experimenting with range stuff. I do appreciate anyone feeling like my voice has a gender fluidity to it, because I very much feel gender fluid, and as a performer would also love to experiment with that and incorporating that into my performances in my style and my identity.

JH: Historically, pop songwriting forms have been very binary. But when you’re working with those tools and templates, how do you kind of loosen those things up so that you can work beyond those limitations?

JG: To be honest, with the lyric process and just kind of creating that story, I try not to think about it too much. I try to keep it as like unfiltered as I can, without it sounding super uninteresting or unprofessional or whatever. I want my songs to capture people and take them somewhere. I just try not to think about it so much, so that I can capture my true feelings without judging them so much, without trying to force them to be. I don’t ever want to write songs that feel like they’re forced to fit an algorithm, a trend, anything like that. I just want to come from a place of honesty, and then whoever resonates with that will probably like my music. Maybe they’ll relate to it.

I’ll be honest: there are some, to me very sexually liberating songs on the album, romantic, you know. I love that, because I think that music is a great outlet to let your romantic thoughts and feelings out. I think it’s empowering and kind of genderless in a way, because as people, we do experience feelings, especially if you’re like kind emotionally sensitive, like I am.

JH: You were talking kind of big picture, but what about specifically the song “Your Girl”?

JG: That song was actually about a problem I ran into a lot in high school. I’m gay. So, I would just totally crush on unavailable people, because they had boyfriends, and just how that felt. I wanted the production to capture that emotion too. So it almost has a nostalgic high school energy to it, as far as the tones and the progression goes. It’s just a lot of that yearning that I’ve felt a long time and letting myself really just come into my identity, I think is going to heal a lot of the pain that I actually felt in this album. This album’s called Aren’t We All So Incomplete. And  there’s a lot of pain going on. I kind of wanted to introduce myself to the world, like, “Hey, I am hurting.” I mean, we all are. Everyone’s hurting in some kind of way. But I’m working on feeling more whole. And I think the first step to feeling whole is to acknowledge your hurt and to own it, to own your ugly, to own your scars, but also to own your beauty and to own your strength and move forward. That’s definitely the trajectory I want to move on as an artist.