When Claire Gohst was just 17 years old, her family kicked her out of her home in Singapore for being gay. Several years later, the singer and violinist returns to her home country this July to perform at Pink Dot, a major LGBTQ event and concert held annually at Hong Lim Park.
Gohst returns to Singapore as part of her Berklee-based band Paper Citizen which has streamlined all of her lingering feelings into a new EP Distraction, due out this June. But while it’s easy to identify a sort of “full-circle” narrative here for Gohst, the truth is that Paper Citizen’s appearance at Pink Dot is just another step in her journey, one that also includes a local performance Thursday (March 22) at The Middle East Corner in Cambridge.
But every journey has moments that can overwhelm, and Gohst understands the importance of what she’s about to approach this summer.
“Unfortunately, gay marriage is still not legal in Singapore, and we don’t have freedom of speech,” Gohst tells Vanyaland. “There are no out elected officials, and we have no anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ community. As modern as our city looks, we are still part of a very conservative region of Asia. In many ways, it is similar to the more conservative parts of the U.S. While luckily there is no significant anti-LGBTQ violence, there is definitely disapproval and, at times, discrimination.”
Growing up in a strict household as the daughter of a pastor, Gohst was first introduced to music through church, starting piano lessons at age five, and violin lessons at age nine. Come her adolescence, her taste quickly expanded to secular music.
“In my early teens my dad gave me a portable radio, and I started listening to the English pop stations at night,” she adds. “I soon wanted to learn the guitar and drums, but we couldn’t afford it then. At 17, I was kicked out of my house after my parents found out I was gay. I moved in with my partner at the time, who was an aspiring singer/songwriter. She introduced me to Americana and folk music which opened up my world completely. We started performing together as the duo Zsa+Claire.”
As a pair, they played over 300 shows a year, and released their EP Texas Skin in 2011, followed by performances at SXSW. Following their breakup, Gohst turned to Berklee to expand her career beyond live performances and moved to the U.S in 2013. From there new challenges emerged, such as acclimating to Western culture, finding herself as a person, and seeking a deeper understanding of music.
“Before Berklee, live music was all I knew,” Gohst explains. “Learning about music production and engineering has had a huge impact on the way I think about and produce my music. At that point in my life, before deciding to apply to Berklee, I knew two things—that I needed a change in my life, and I wanted to seek musical growth. That meant being exposed to new genres and, importantly, learning how to make music that can compete sonically with songs on the radio. Berklee checked both boxes—it was the only college to offer music production as a major to someone with my skill set — a violinist — and they offered me a scholarship to come study in the United States.”
During her final year at Berklee, Gohst assembled her three-piece indie rock project Paper Citizen, releasing their first EP Postcards in Transit in 2016, followed by two singles in 2017. Now a Berklee alumna, as Gohst’s album Distraction debuts this summer, the appearance at Pink Dot in Singapore looms large. The annual event, which started in 2009, remains rooted in local culture, and only permits Singaporean citizens as guests and Singaporean companies as sponsors. It’s not quite the equivalent of a Pride event in the United States, but it’s one of the closest things Singapore has at the moment.
“Oh, I am nervous! I have never come out like this to my country,” she says. “Paper Citizen is still so young and its identity is only just beginning to form. Even my family still haven’t wrapped their head around it. Singaporean LGBTQ still don’t have equal rights. I’m nervous because members of the LGBTQ community are those who saw me as a ‘normal’ person, and I can’t tell you how much that meant to me at a time when I had nowhere else to go. They came to my gigs, and expressed support for our music. They became my friends and family; they’ve witnessed my growth as a person and as a musician. This performance is for them. Though I’ve been back to visit since coming to the U.S., I wanted to connect back with my roots, to give back and be a part of the community that built me this platform to be able to be an artist.”
In tangent with the release of Distraction, summer 2k18 for Gohst presents an example of musical triumph, self-preservation, and perseverance for LGBTQ+ youth everywhere.
“It’s hard — I remember feeling like I was always doing something wrong,” Gohst says when looking back at her musical and personal past. “Some days will be filled with anger at the world and other days will leave you feeling at fault for all of your problems. There are always people just like you out there, who will love you just the way you are. The internet lets us all speak, and now we’ve got a channel to express our thoughts and feelings in some way, be heard, and connect with other people like us. Be a part of this change, it’s happening all around you. Things are improving and we have to believe that.”
PAPER CITIZEN + ELEANOR ELEKTRA + PORTERFIELD :: Thursday, March 22 at The Middle East Corner, 472 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge :: 10 p.m., free, all ages :: Facebook event page