An interview with per[sona's Joshua Aaron Goh.
A project spearheaded by musician and producer Joshua Aaron Goh, per[sona brings a fresh brand of alternative rock to the Singaporean scene, reviving sounds pioneered by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead.
Released under Maker Records (Bakers In Space), their recent debut EP These Algorithms Don’t Work Anymore is a pensive and layered exploration on the journey of overcoming self-defeat and accepting oneself. Utilising ambient layers alongside an electronically imbued rock edge, per[sona manages to set themselves apart from their peers and forge an invigorating sound that is truly their own. In the interview below, Joshua shares with us the experiences and influences that culminated into what eventually became per[sona.
per[sona's debut EP - These Algorithms Don't Work Anymore
What pushed you to start making music as per[sona?
I thought I was going to die. In January 2019, I ended up in the ICU for three nights for internal bleeding, and on the first night at the hospital, I didn’t really know what was going on. But in that situation your head goes wild, and you’d think of the worst possible thing that could happen right? Then I thought to myself, “If I die next week or next month, what is one thing I regret not doing?”
I’ve always wanted to make music – I’ve been picking up instruments and writing songs since I was in secondary school, but I never felt I was good enough. So all the music that I wrote and produced ended up being thrown away. But when I started thinking about all those regrets I would’ve had, at the top was not pursuing music – not putting out the stuff that was inside me all this while.
That’s how I started per[sona, with the idea and intention of just writing and producing what I wanted to do. Whether it was good enough or not – I just didn’t care anymore.
per[sona came out of the idea of “How much of my true self I put out there?”. Be it on social media or how I portray myself, I wanted to be as real as I could be, but I also wanted to create a persona at the same time, to create some separation between how I was and the work that I was making. The whole tension that came from that evolved and gave rise to the name.
And the square bracket?
There’s no real reason for it actually. I just thought it looked cool, but I guess there is a reason why it’s an open left bracket – it isn’t closed because I wanted per[sona to be something open-ended, without any confines or limits.
per[sona is the brainchild of musician and producer Joshua Aaron Goh. Photo: JX Soo.
What does your songwriting process look like?
It always starts off with me finding sounds. Writing this EP, I’ve always had some sense of direction in the back of my mind, be it thematically or lyrically. I could be writing about losing someone, or life and death, but the process always starts out with the sounds first, be it a synth patch, a pad, or even a guitar line sometimes. And where it’d remind me sonically of a theme at the back of my mind, I’d write towards that. Lyrics always come last because it’s my least favourite thing to do.
If you had to pick, which of the 5 tracks off this EP These Algorithms Don't Work Anymore are you the most proud of?
That’s a tough question. I think Up/Away is one – it was a song that I took from a previous project and it meant so much to me that I couldn’t throw it away. It’s definitely the one I’m proudest of lyrically, especially since I’ve never considered myself a wordsmith or a particularly strong lyricist. But musically and sonically, I think Splinters is the song I’m the most proud of. It’s just musically more exciting, with polyrhythms and all the good stuff that I’m a sucker for.
Your songs mostly deal with complex yet earnest emotions in a very cathartic manner, and to me they always seem to end on a hopeful note. Why is that?
I guess all artists write out of pain. Sadly, pain is a great way to inspire you or motivate you to write stuff. For me, that’s where I start off – but having been through quite some stuff in my life, I just felt that it doesn’t help anyone if it stays there. But of course, I want people to relate to my music, so it was important to me to have that tension between keeping it real while also giving people that sense of hope. I’m not exactly someone that’s happy-go-lucky, and neither is my music.
My take is that real life is full of shit, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. There are times where it’s gonna be like shit – no one can avoid those times, but it’s important to look out for the times where it’s not. That’s why I frame my songs that way.
per[sona playing at Houg's "Boy" Single Launch. Photo: JX Soo
From the likes of "Version" or "Come Above It" we can tell you’ve been through quite a fair bit, having matured as you’ve faced these struggles. How much of the songwriting process played a part in helping you heal and/or come to terms with yourself?
The songwriting process did help me heal in the sense that I had to face my pain. Pain isn’t something most people want to face, but writing these songs made me face my pain and emotions head-on, a lot of which I thought I already dealt with or suppressed. I healed by getting to confront them – and realising that “Hey, I’m really feeling this way about this thing”.
As a songwriter, the process also allows you to try to look at situations in a more objective manner. When I write, I write mostly in a first person perspective. But every now and then, I get to look at things objectively, and it gives you perspective on a macro level, you know. So even though I knew my emotions were true, and everything I went through was very real, zooming out and looking at things from afar helped me gain closure for a lot of things in my life.
"My take is that real life is full of shit, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. There are times where it’s gonna be like shit – no one can avoid those times, but it’s important to look out for the times where it’s not. That’s why I frame my songs that way."
Anyways, your singles all have very striking and tasteful artwork. What's the story and idea behind those?
I wanted people to try and collaborate just from listening to my music and integrating it into their art forms. If you notice the art on the first 3 singles, there is a painting in the middle and stitching that builds around it. The painting is done by Janet Ma, the stitching is done by Kimberly Ho, and the graphic design that puts it all together in the final artwork is done by my guitarist Zon Chan.
I wanted the stitches to add an organic element to an otherwise flat artwork. As you realise, the artwork also gets darker with each single, to show a journey and a contrast leading up to the EP.
The artwork from per[sona's first four singles.
Being the main creative force behind per[sona, what was the collaborative process like with your sessionists and producer Leonard Soosay?
I made all of the initial demos myself, but when you work on your own, there’s only so much you can do because you’re limited by your own abilities. When we went to the studio, we changed parts or chords on the go as we were recording. Shawn, my bassist, added some notes and changed a few chords along the way, which really helped to elevate some of the songs. Leonard really helped a lot with the vocals, fine-tuning some melodies with me, and he had quite a lot of input with some of the synth sounds too.
All in all, the process took around 6 months. Half the production was done from home, which were mostly the ambient sounds, pads and pianos, and the rest was done at Leonard’s studio (Snakeweed Studios), where we mainly focused on tracking the live instruments.
It’s obvious your influences are mainly 90s alternative rock bands with more experimental tendencies such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead – what drew you to that sound?
When I first discovered Nine Inch Nails in secondary school, I had never heard ambient sounds and textures like that anywhere else before. The closest band I knew of at that time with similar sounds was Sigur Ros, but Nine Inch Nails really struck a chord with my teenage self. I was way edgier and angstier at the time, but as a performer and artist, seeing Trent Reznor’s persona has always left an impression on me that’s never left.
The Fragile, in particular, is one of my favourite albums of all time.Even for how heavy it was, it wasn’t all just head-banging all the way through – it had this real groove to it that I appreciated a lot.I know that The Downward Spiral is the classic choice, and the more critically-acclaimed album, but I felt that The Fragile always emotionally resonated more with me.
As for Radiohead – be it chords, time signatures, or musical ideas, they’re always up there musically on another level! Despite not being not as well-received as their other albums, The King Of Limbs is my favourite Radiohead album. I love songs like Bloom where there’s an odd-time snare going on alongside beautiful melodies. Thom Yorke’s vocals are amazing too.
I’d say they were two bands that really shaped the way I listen to and create music.
What are some artists, in your opinion, that everyone should be listening to right now?
Woodkid is one that I’ve been listening to a lot recently. Shoutout to Axel Serik for introducing me to him. Vocally, he reminds me of Sam Smith but instrumentally the music it’s heavier and darker beats with orchestral elements and I really enjoy it all put together. Another band is a band from the UK called Another Sky.