When NME meets Gordi, the purveyor of soothing, subtle folktronica born Sophie Payten is relaxing in a dingy pub in Sydney. The 27-year-old leans comfortably against the wooden bar of the Warren View Hotel on the southern end of Enmore Road. She’s in town catching up with friends and doing press for her album ‘Our Two Skins’, out today. I raise my elbows tentatively and she returns the COVID-friendly gesture, bumping funny bones instead of shaking hands.
Things are now normal enough that we can meet in a pub, but the pandemic has already wreaked plenty of havoc on Payten’s 2020 plans. At the start of the year, she quit her job as a resident junior doctor at Prince Of Wales Hospital, intending to tour her new record.
“I’d welcome the opportunity to go back for bits at a time,” she says of stepping back into the medical field. “But I’ve spent the last eight years of my life doing both music and medicine at a million miles an hour – it’s pretty damn nice for once in my life to just focus on music.”
It would be understating it to say the past three years have been a wild ride for Payten. With her 2017 debut album ‘Reservoir’, she soared into the lineups of major festivals like Barcelona’s Primavera Sound and shared the stage with Of Monsters And Men, Metronomy and The Tallest Man On Earth. She found herself exchanging guitar loops with Julien Baker in front of 1,000 cross-legged, dewy-eyed punters in the Wisconsin woods. She fell in love with a woman for the first time.
And now, she’s back on call, though things are looking up on the pandemic front. “If COVID clinics open up, I’m on the first response team in Victoria, which means if a whole department gets COVID at a hospital, they’ll fly in this cover team for two weeks,” she explains.
But right now, she’s focusing on promoting ‘Our Two Skins’, an introspective documentation of grief and loss. On the album, Payten processes the death of her family’s beloved Catholic matriarch, her grandmother Alisa; she comes to terms with her unfolding queer identity; she acknowledges feeling daunted by the sudden gear-shift into an increasingly demanding music career.
The record also charts Payten’s wrestling-match with self-acceptance. With all the precision of a surgeon, she delicately carves out an emotive experience, rearranging the sounds to create a cathartic celebration of all she’s overcome. When the record was finally stitched together, she passed it on to close friend and collaborator Alex Somers (partner of Sigur Rós’s Jónsi), who’d worked on her ARIA-charting debut ‘Reservoir’. She cherishes his feedback, holding it in close: “‘Of everything you’ve ever made, this sounds the most like you’.”
In late 2017, Payten was coming to terms with her sexuality at the height of the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia. I recall that crushing feeling of seeing a high percentage of ‘no’ votes in my home city’s electorate. “I think it was the most unhealthy debate that we could have had,” she agrees.
“Coming to terms with that part of myself in the context of that – I was 25, and I have a good level of emotional intelligence; I had good friends and family, and I was pretty sure of who I was – but watching the politicians on the TV talk about that, I felt so shit about myself,” she admits.
Payten remembers Scott Morrison deeming bisexuality “an unnatural life”, claiming schools shouldn’t educate students about diverse sexualities. “Imagine being 10 and hearing that… You’re trying to navigate that and the leaders of your country are saying shit like that. Yeah, I felt so enraged by it.”
In ‘Look Like You’, she sings, “Were they too concealed in the TV screen / no book I read reminds me of this scene.” It’s a nod to having “no frame of reference” for bisexual and pansexual identities in popular culture. “I’ve never seen a pansexual represented in anything, even in arthouse cinema,” she says. “I think a lot of young queer kids, you grow up not seeing the life you think you might have reflected in anything. You’re seeing boys and girls get married on Neighbours or whatever it is.”
The artist St. Vincent, who doesn’t categorise her sexuality, was particularly vital to Payten during the plebiscite. Realising her queer identity has spurred Payten to seek out stories centering characters with fluid and diverse sexualities. The 2019 French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which a friend slipped onto her hard drive in London earlier this year, stuck with her. “I thought my life was going to look like one thing and then I was like, ‘Huh, no, it’s not gonna look like that. But that’s okay, and here’s a myriad of things that it could look like’,” she says.
Payten’s queerness didn’t become clear to her until her feelings sparked for her current partner Alex, their relationship growing out of long conversations over the phone. In ‘Free Association’, the closing track on ‘Our Two Skins’, Payten poses the question: “Is it dangerous to love you like I love you?” Asked how this sense of danger presented itself, she explains, “I think it was a loss of control. And I’m definitely someone who likes to be in control of my life and my situation and of my emotions – I like being very in check.”
In our conversation, Payten is deliberate with her words: they flow from her quickly, but they’re still measured and careful. “I never say anything unfiltered,” she says. “[In] this period of totally falling in love, I was completely out of control – in the best way – and that was the first time I’ve spoken to someone, my now-partner, without thinking.” She notes surrendering to an “extreme vulnerability”.
“I was like, ‘If you dump me, I will be destroyed’,” she says, and laughs. “I’ve been in a fair few relationships. I would always check in with myself, and I’d be like, ‘If this ended I’d be okay’.” In their early days, Payten recalls hoping her partner would handle her feelings with care. “And she did.”
Dedicated to her late grandmother Alisa, the sweet, sombre ‘Sandwiches’ is the “heart and soul” of ‘Our Two Skins’. Encouraged by her parents, Payten told 95-year-old Alisa about her partner before she passed away. Alisa met Alex and greeted her with open arms. The rest of the album was matched to “the feeling of this song,” Payten says.
Put together in a cottage called Goodwins on Payten’s family farm in Canowindra, ‘Our Two Skins’ was produced with the aid of her Minnesotan friends Zac Hanson and Chris Messina. The record seamlessly balances a mix of smooth and the gritty. On ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’, Payten’s clean and gentle vocals feel like a soft, warm hug, contrasting the prickly ambient noises layered throughout the song. “The gritty thing is my Subaru revving the whole time, but it’s pitched down,” she explains.
Payten’s car wasn’t the only odd instrument on ‘Our Two Skins’. Distortions created with a formerly wasp-infested stereo found abandoned in a shed on the property are laced throughout the record. You’ll also hear farm gates and machinery crashing and clanking. “You get all these really natural little artefacts: buzzing and humming and stuff. That’s what makes us froth over music,” she says.
The result is a record that evokes specific rusticity – Payten wandering Canowindra’s unpaved dirt roads or lying in the farm’s dusty, drought-stricken fields – though pieces of the album were written and recorded all around the world. Payten composed ‘Extraordinary Life’’s buoyant, floating harmonies while singing in a reverberant hotel shower, and banged out ‘Volcanic’’s sped-up arpeggio transition on a grand piano behind the kitchen of the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin, which she then captured with her “shitty” condenser mic.
Chasing inspiration and cobbling together recording setups in hotel rooms around the world is a far cry from the life of a doctor. When I ask Payten what drew her to medicine, she sips from her Natural Lager and says she was attracted to the practice as an act of service, finding comfort in alleviating discomfort.
“I really like the type of problem-solving that it is. And you have to think a lot on your feet,” she says. Her partner would watch her come home exhausted after 15-hour shifts, once catching Payten falling asleep before her head hit the pillow. While some artists lay down their weary heads after a day of press, Payten would don her stethoscope and head to a hospital ward.
“Music I find frustrating because I think about myself all the time,” she says. “I look at a photo of myself; I read interviews that I’ve done. I’m on my social media; I’m learning my own songs. It’s so inward-looking, and I find that really exhausting. Whereas medicine, you’re always outward-looking – I think I need that in my life.”
But she adds: “I think if I gave up music, it would be denying this very central part of me that is important to my existence.” Payten needs to be Gordi, too – and we’re all the more grateful for it.
Gordi’s ‘Our Two Skins’ is out now.