When Jen Goma, alias Showtime Goma, describes her transition from being one of many members of the band A Sunny Day in Glasgow to writing and producing her own record, she characterizes herself as initially a “reluctant solo artist.”
As she tells it, the development of her debut album, Smiley Face, happened not as a conscious decision to strike out on her own, but more of Goma continuing to write her own material until she felt compelled to share it. Looking back on the making of Smiley Face, Goma remarks, “I was writing about making something, about willing something into existence. [...] Everything in my life that I do—it makes sense that I would make a record.” Citing the philosophy of history, Goma characterizes her solo career as “the most recent lie,” and “just [my] most recent version of the story. Even seeing myself as a solo artist is a really new idea to me.”
Despite the solo artist name on the record, though, Goma is quick to highlight her love of collaboration, citing interactions with friends and fellow musicians as incredibly vital parts of her creative process, from the grunt work of emailing and scheduling to the conceptualizing, writing, and performing of her music. As she puts it colloquially: “I like that other people can fuck your ideas up.” This is a wide swath, covering everything from the enjoyable cacophony of that can arise while performing live with her backup musicians, to taking inspiration from people in her life mishearing her demo lyrics.
To sum up her overall view of the necessity of collaboration in her life, Goma says, “I’m a humanist. I give a lot of importance to human interaction and creation, so it’s just something that is inspiring to me, and helps get me up in the morning.” And, of course, now that Smiley Face has been released to the public, the record is no longer hers alone, if it ever was: born of collaboration and interaction, it will take on whole new life and meaning in the hands of her audience.
Smiley Face‘s dreamy, pensive-yet-exuberant aesthetic gives the impression that the record was born, perfectly and completely formed, like Venus floating towards land in a clamshell. While Goma didn’t sit down to write a purposefully narrative concept album, upon hearing Smiley Face there’s a discernible lyrical theme that unites all 12 tracks: that of voyages, traveling, exploring, and finding one’s way back home. Goma remarks on this process: “I didn’t realize these themes were recurring: these ideas of home and leaving it [...] I was really writing from within the process of the growth and the making of the record [...] I keep saying the record is like a postcard from the process.”
Looking back on the songwriting process, she grounds the record’s sense of wanderlust in a more personal and metaphorical way that goes beyond literal traveling, adding, “I think the songs are thematically related because they all come from different perspectives of thinking [...] about inhabiting this time in your life when you’re trying to make something and trying to be creative.” For Goma, the journey reflected in Smiley Face‘s lyrics is that of the artist and storyteller who is eager, passionate, and full of ideas—but who is afraid, above all else, of standing still.
The track on Smiley Face that reveals the most about Goma’s multifaceted philosophy of artistry and creation is “Secret NRG”, the record’s closer; that urge for creation and the desire to create something profound is also reflected in the music video for the song, which Goma also directed. In the video, Goma inhabits the roles of multiple characters, all differentiated by their clothing and accessories, who slowly but surely go from standing still to expressing wild kinetic energy. The song and video combine to deliver Goma’s message, which is both self-directed and meant to encourage her audience’s own creative energies and break free of stifling monotony and stasis.
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Of “Secret NRG,” Goma remarks, “I wanted to show how we all can move [...] In some ways, it’s really intoxicating to be in your routine because you get sort of numbed out. But then if you do the same thing over and over again, it almost looks like you’re standing still. [“Secret NRG”] is about realizing the potential in yourself, and in all of us, to exact our own futures and do whatever we want.”
The theme of transformation presents itself in a more obviously physical sense in Goma’s videos for “Secret NRG” and “Propel”, both of which involve Goma donning diverse and often-garish costumes, as if trying on these different clothes will allow her to experiment with different identities and ways of being. But does Goma indulge in transformation because of her role as a performer, or is Goma a performer because she loves to transform? Goma responds that it’s a classic chicken-or-egg scenario, but clarifies: “I’m probably attracted to performing and performance because I like telling stories, and usually the most interesting story is a story of transformation.”
Indeed, her stage moniker “Showtime” is itself a reminder for Goma of the importance of transformation on a regular basis: when she’s onstage, she’s in “Showtime” mode, and has to be in a place where she can put other concerns and worries aside and be completely present for her audience.
But Goma also digs a bit deeper into the parallel consequences of too much stasis and too much change: “Philosophically, if you’re not growing and changing, then you’re dying,” yet living completely in the moment all of the time represents a loss of control, veering too much into what she calls “grotesque.” “The ends of the spectrum are either being dead or being a monster, and then there’s everything in between. I like that no one is ever completely secure in where they are on that spectrum. I think it’s constant work and effort to be where you want to be in that spectrum. You have to contend with those ideas every day, and when you think about transforming, [...] you can inhabit that and then think, ‘am I afraid of this, or is this something I can see myself doing?’”
Succinctly: “Do you want to be dead, or do you want to be a monster?”