Singaporean musician Claire Goh returns to the scene with new EP, Distraction
The daughter of a former military captain turned preacher and an accounting lecturer, Claire Goh was kicked out of her home when she was 17 after her parents learned about her sexual orientation. The openly gay singer-songwriter packed her bags and shipped herself from room to room, gigging at bars with her singing partner, Zsa Zsa Scorpion. Known as Zsa + Claire, the duo were a favourite thanks to their violin and guitar covers, even securing a spot in the world-renowned SXSW Music Festival in Austin in 2011. After moving to Boston in 2013 thanks to a scholarship with the Berklee College of Music (notable Singapore alumni include Evanturetime, Daphnee Khoo, LEW and Bitty Macbeth), Goh's solo project debuted under the name Paper Citizen.
Paper Citzen's debut EP, Postcards In Transit, was written and recorded in Boston and was released in 2016. Her upcoming five-track EP, Distractions, ropes in Chicago-born musician and engineer Colin Lester Fleming. An album that's emotional to its core, Distractions is a portrait of love, sadness and contemplation. Returning to Singapore in July to perform at Pink Dot, Goh stopped by Straits Clan, dressed in a fun-spirited avocado shirt with sleeves rolled up to show her arm tatts, each side for her Asian and Western facets of her personality. Fun fact: She was once in a Mandarin rock band, too.
First up, did you call your music outift Paper Citizen because you felt like you were a citizen on paper only?
Yes, I mean I feel like all of us are. Right? It's kind of like the existential thought and we all belong to a certain land that we are confined to like a certain space — different enclosures because of the piece of paper.
Back then, you did mostly covers with Zsa Zsa Scorpion and performed at establishments such as Crossroads, Highlander, Dempsey, St James Power Station and Suntec City. When did you realise that you wanted to write your own music?
I've always wanted to write my own music, but I didn't know how. I didn't know who to look for. I realised that it comes naturally to a lot of songwriters or musical families because of their environment. So it was bizarre that we came up with one album to go to Austin, South By Southwest. We did that in 2011. And that was the only original thing we released. After that, we kind of had a lot of tension, we were like struggling to make ends meet or like trying to get along and trying to get our shit together. And eventually two years later, I decided I wanted to learn something totally different in music and meet other musicians and I started to absorb, listen to a lot of songs, like study a lot of music because I didn't really have that growing up so I would say I started a bit late.
What does returning to Singapore and perfoming at Pink Dot mean to you? I understand you were kicked out from home before...
It was one of the best experiences. I cried. I used to be so like angry that people don't care and now things are just changing. When we first started out, there were like 200, 300 people, nobody was there. It's just been such a crazy long journey since. They made me feel like I can give back that way and that is what I felt so touched.
I particularly like 'Distraction' as well as 'Download'. I also like the line, "Anything that grabs my attention like an addiction is a good distraction". Can you talk me through your songwriting process for this album? How different is your second EP going to be from the first you released five years ago?
I fell out big time with my ex co-songwriter and I didn't see it coming. I spiraled down into this very heavy depression which was also fueled by the fact that I was feeling extremely lonely in Boston, so I had these distractions and I would be doing like doing all kinds of nonsense. Because we actually had an album that was going to be released but we couldn't release it anymore because he left. So I told myself that I have to finish these five songs and produce the whole thing independently. Everything you hear is all DIY, I did it all by myself with one other person, the drummer. In order to get over that really dark period of my life, this was my distraction. I made this my distraction.
You've mentioned about love and loneliness as well. Most people write it on a diary but you wrote it on an album where everyone is going to listen to.
I'm more of a composer first. I try and translate emotions into chord progressions and I write this all on a guitar. I study a lot of chords and how chord theory works and how it makes someone feel. So unlike most pop singers who get a producer to send them a track to write their lyrics and sing over it, I build the track myself.
You said before that you wanted this album to combine more modern studio production, did you achieve that?
I did. I started finding different digital instruments and programming sounds. But I still tried to keep it really organic because I feel like our roots — at least for our generation — is '90s rock. But modern music has totally transitioned to like an EDM kind of deal. I feel nostalgic for the music I used to listen to but at the same time, I'm also trying to connect with the younger generation who is super tech-heavy and kind of likes music that is just constant repetition, you know? I was trying to combine a little bit of both with those techniques. Because I see music production very much like painting. You're using different mediums, and I'm trying to record and store these different mediums of sound. To normal ears, they just hear the vocals and lyrics but to me, the track is really what is the meat and bones of it. That's what makes it sound different.
How has studying in Berklee shaped you?
It's the only music school that teaches technology on such an intense level. You really understand how sound is reproduced and stored and a lot of jazz influence as well, which I think is the fundamental behind the study of music.
I listen to a lot of classical music which is also a fundamental type of music created through history that puts a lot of vocabulary in your mind, I think. That helped with understanding why the sound was this way. Music is a language and you just learn the vocabulary over time and I think that helped.
What was your music education like besides playing the piano and violin? Who did you listen to growing up?
I wasn't really allowed to listen to secular music. My parents didn't really like it so I had a small little radio that I would secretly listen to under my bed.
Do you ever reference your relationship with your family in your music? I mean, after listening to 'Download', that addressed your father's church, it looked like you were giving us a little peek into that.
This song that I had just finished deals a lot about a mother's depression. Now that I'm old enough, I'm able to understand that depression. When you're young, you just think, "What the hell is going on?"
Are you going to tour with this new album?
Yes, I'm trying to do that for this album till the end of the year. I have a new set of songs that I want to start getting to pre-production.
Wow, that's fast.
Yes, I've been writing a ton while this was in post-production. I want to collaborate with other musicians and artistes to make this project a bit wider in reach, scope and sound. I'm trying to connect back to my roots. I'm trying to come out of the woodwork of being a student, coming back to Singapore... trying to listen to the old songs that I used to love, trying to find out how I can find my niche and the pocket where it would belong.
Is it easy to define your sound right now?
I define it as rock. Indie rock with a '90s flavour. But still singer-songwriter. What do you think, you heard it? I'm also like unobjective because I've listened to that so many times.
Definitely singer-songwriter. Easy listening. Something that you can easily get into and connect with instantly. The words really connected to me.
I do think a lot about that too. At the end of the day, the first thing that they hear is the song, the lyrics and the melody. So I'm trying to also shape a lot of my new writing that way and talk about different things. Because no matter what, I can play a super complicated chord progression and I'll just be the only person that's going to know that.