The hyphenated person is pretty prevalent these days. And no, I’m not talking about people with four middle names, but rather the modern-day freelancers, those who don’t go to work in the same place every day. Musicians have long embodied this standard, often playing in multiple bands or making small contributions to this or that side project whenever they have time off from their primary endeavor. What about the musician whose primary endeavor is freelancing?
This notion came up recently when we got the chance to sit down with Arizona native Jen Goma of multiple bands A Sunny Day in Glasgow, People Get Ready, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The reason she sticks out in our minds is that none of these could be referred to as a side project, and nor, as we found out, does she think of any of them as her “main gig.” So how does it break down then, for Goma? How does she do it? By what sorcery does someone seamlessly split her time between three highly active, out-in-the-world, prolific groups without succumbing to an avalanche of music industry-specific anxiety?
Goma’s tendency to lend her services to whomever might need them started at an early age. She’s never minded being in service of something larger than herself, always happy at the mere opportunity to flex her musical muscle. “I had pretty low standards at a young age, so when anyone asked me to play in a band or sing, I would do it,” she says. “I was in some terrible bands, bad musicals, people’s random rap side projects, etc.”
She’s certainly come a long way since then, though her affinity for working collaboratively and her openness to other people’s ideas have remained fixed. To this day she does not appear to have acquired any sense of vanity. She rhetorically invites me just to look at her gmail, jokingly offering it up as evidence of the amorphous nature of her trajectory in music—a messy vortex of demos, brainstorming, and scheduling conflicts. It becomes clear, though, that she would have it no other way.
But first, she explains how she got involved with each of the three bands:
It was 2009. I had just moved to New York and was looking for people to play music with. I did the Craigslist search thing, which seemed a little dark. Then I saw this Brooklyn Vegan article, “Philly Shoegaze Band Looking for a Singer.” I sent Ben Daniels an email, being like “Hey, I see you’re looking for people to be in your band?” He replied, trying to sound all serious and professional, saying they were considering a bunch of people. So I went down to Philly and that was sort of it. Ryan Newmyer from Sunny Day and I are actually working on a little side project with Kurt Feldman, who used to be the drummer for Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Kip Berman from Pains came to see a Sunny Day show at Cake Shop. Actually, before I was even in the band, Sunny Day used to play with Pains. Kip saw us perform and came up to me afterward and asked if I wanted to do some singing with them. Steven Reker from People Get Ready and I actually know each other from Arizona. We bumped into each other again in New York, standing outside some breakfast place, and were like, “It’s you!” We’ve technically been acquainted since were were like nine but lived somewhat parallel lives in Arizona. When I saw him again, I had already been working with Sunny Day, and he said he was trying to start a band. Then it all just started.
Jen with A Sunny Day In Glasgow at the 2010 Austin Imposition. Photo by Kashish Das Shrestha.
I could not help but sense the presence of an elephant in the room in the context of her work with Pains, from which vocalist and keyboardist Peggy Wang departed in 2013 to focus on a writing position at BuzzFeed. It seemed that there must have been a mild awkwardness to replacing such an iconic figure, especially the only female member. But Goma quickly snuffed this preconceived notion out. “It wasn’t apparent that they were trying to replace her or anything,” she says. “Or that I was filling her shoes. I really didn’t think about it like that because it didn’t feel like a fractured band. Granted, I had nothing to compare it to, and I didn’t know any of these guys in any other way. I guess, the less you’re up on the backstory—everyone's CVs and reputation—the less something can scare you. Kip had some songs he thought would sound good if I sang them, so he sent me some demos, which I really liked. I had some ideas for harmony parts and keyboard parts and in the end, the record came together really well. I love supporting it now that it’s been released, and contributing to what it sounds like live.”
Beyond mere scheduling issues, she isn’t terribly deliberate about her negotiation of her role in each band. Or, it isn’t really an existential issue for her as far as integrating herself into each a band’s particular identity or energy level—it comes naturally. Perhaps that is why she’s so good at what she does. A major motivator she cites is seeing her bandmates take on something new. It makes her want to do the same for herself. She is steadfast in her belief in the band structure as opposed to solo work, although she does play around with personal recording sometimes.
“It’s basically just me dicking around with a Casio with some pedals and things,” she says. “One thing I like to do is cover songs from musicals, because, well, they’re really good songs! The cool thing about musicals is that they’re meant to be performed by other people. It makes me feel so much less afraid of that material, because it’s not like I’m stepping into someone’s shoes to perform a cover. True, they aren’t always terribly relatable but I think sometimes people want to build a relationship with the unrelatable.”
Goma calls on a couple of workaday analogies in describing her humble, chameleon-like approach to being in bands. “There isnt a huge difference between how I think of myself in each band,” she says. “I’m not really trying to communicate with a past incarnation of any of them. I definitely used to ask myself that question, and I wondered if it would be weird to do all of this. It’s like in relationships, everyone has a past before you. And also like in relationships, things aren’t always so linear. There isn’t too much hat-switching, because I’m still just me. Or, it’s sort of like when you look at your email inbox. You get stuff from your mom, your boss, your friend, and it’s all you doing the responding but maybe there’s a slight change in how you interact. That’s how I think about working in multiple bands. Anything you learn is going to be filtered through you. You can try to play the guitar in a certain way, or sing in a certain way, to match something the band is doing, but it’s still going to have you in it. I’ve learned so much from every band I’ve been in, but you don’t always see the origin of that knowledge. I feel best when there’s a deadline and a little bit of pressure. I like to take the pressure away from high-pressure situations. The more you do something you’re afraid of, the more you’ll be able to have fun with it. It takes the mystique away and you get more done.”
Jen performing with Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Bowery Ballroom. Photo by Jonathon Bernstein.
There’s no doubt a lot is getting done. Last month, Pains released their album, Days of Abandon, to which Goma makes a hefty vocal contribution. Adding to that, and by nothing more than a random stroke of coincidence, both Sunny Day and People Get Ready are releasing new albums today: Sunny Day’s Sea When Absent and People Get Ready’s, Physiques. Initially, both had different release dates, but things shifted around, as tends to happen when multiple people are involved (six and four, respectively, not counting everyone working behind the scenes).
When she isn’t playing and recording music, Goma works on her short documentary film series called The Working Life about the food service industry. Two of them are currently out, and one is in production. She also enjoys occasional karaoke, which is no surprise considering her pure and fundamental love of singing. Goma advises, “Don’t fear the song you don’t know.”
Speaking of fear, Goma’s heady hard-work ethic helps her cruise through stage fright. She breaks it down: “It depends what you’re scared of. I’m not inherently scared of people or of performing in front of people. But fear is so dense. It’s a cocktail of so many other things that make you afraid of a specific experience. I like to try to dissect that—have a conversation with the thing I’m afraid of, rather than try to pretend I’m not afraid.”
Whether it’s in front of a karaoke prompter or behind the mic of whatever new musical venture she’s decided to take on, fear—or at least letting fear stand in the way of a new experience—is one thing that’s been absent from Goma’s life, which may be the secret to her prolificness. It’s easy to stick with what’s comfortable, to settle into a particular project. A lot of the time doing so is a good thing, but sometimes a fear of the unknown, from wresting oneself from what one knows is reliable, can inhibit new perspective-widening experiences. Goma is one of the few who operates untethered in this nebulous musical territory, ready to take in all that is offered to her, unafraid of what’s on the other side.