Folk-pop singer-songwriter Gordi, otherwise known as Sophie Payten, has wrestled and reconciled with her identity on her new record Our Two Skins. Dropping this Friday June 26, her sophomore album chronicles the inner conflicts, oftentimes isolating discovery and excruciating epiphany she underwent to find her true self.
Like a diamond forged under pressure, this sonic gem was written during some of the most difficult yet formative years of her life. Gordi was touring her debut record Reservoir, had recently completed her medical exams after years of studying to become a doctor and was leaving the safety net of a long-term, but stagnant, relationship.
It was through the exhilaration of falling in love with a woman who she’d known for years that Gordi started to learn more about herself. However, the relationship was blooming in the harsh shadow of Australia’s history-making but excruciatingly divisive marriage equality vote. Although disheartening, it was the bigotry on display from the likes of politicians and the media that convinced Gordi to explore and share these personal experiences in her music.
To dig deeper, Gordi returned to her hometown of Canowindra in central west NSW to record the album. With producers Zach Hanson and Chris Messina, they spent a month without reception, Wi-Fi and only a handful of instruments to create without distraction. Away from the choice paralysis of a traditional recording studio, they could really get creative. They used everything from Gordi’s childhood Casio keyboard to the humble revving of her Subaru to create their own sample sounds. The final product is Gordi in her truest form, without any smoke and mirrors.
We caught up with Gordi to chat Our Two Skins, finding creative beauty in resourcefulness, being a voice against the noise of bigotry and the importance of sharing our stories.
Music Feeds: Hi Gordi, how are you?
Gordi: Good! You know, just doing my best in this current crisis like everybody.
MF: How are you feeling now that the record is almost out there in the midst of lockdown?
G: It does feel a bit like pushing a boulder uphill. It’s a very unusual experience to be releasing it into all this global mayhem. We had to take a step back and think how is it relevant? How does it connect to what the world is going through?
When we announced the record, everyone was suddenly going into isolation. A lot of the record is about another kind of isolation. So, we’re able to draw some parallels and hopefully, the music provides comfort to people in a sense.
MF: Can you talk me through ‘Our Two Skins’ and how the title encapsulates what the record is about?
G: Skins is probably another word for identity and how that can change depending on if you’re at home or if you’re with some kinds of people or family or friends or colleagues. I think as well, you have big questions of identity at a few points in your life, probably as a kid, as a teenager. I found myself having those same questions in my mid-20s and was going through a lot of things in my own personal life.
There were also global issues happening for context. There was the same-sex marriage debate and Trump was becoming president. There was this growing divide between the left and the right of the world and prejudice was becoming seemingly mainstream or something. I was trying to think about how that impacted on my sense of identity and who I was. I guess 2020 is giving everyone bucketloads of context but I think there’s always something there that you have to come up against and can really have an impact on who you are or where you feel you are.
MF: While all of this was happening, you were also finishing your studies and starting a new relationship. Was this the perfect storm to create the record?
G: Yeah, it was basically the perfect storm for a record (laughs). Yeah, I think having to vote on same-sex marriage was abhorrent and really detrimental to a lot of people. Even though it got over the line, there was a large proportion of votes for ‘No’, which was really devastating. And, as you’ve said, then I also had the things I was going through in my own life.
I was 25 and watching politicians talk about someone like me not being able to get married or hearing the Prime Minister say that we shouldn’t teach about bisexuality in schools and rhetoric like that. I’ve had a quarter of a life to come to terms with whatever and develop a bit of emotional intelligence. But thinking about someone who’s 10 years old watching that on the news, trying to work out who they are, thinking, “Oh my god, the leaders of my country are telling me that the way I feel is not normal. There must be something wrong with me.”
So it became really important to me to communicate what I had gone through and look at questions of sexuality and identity in a relatively public manner. I think that you need to counter those tragic lies and stories from conservative people with things that are actually happening so the younger members of the queer community can see their lives mirrored in culture.
MF: That’s so important. I want to talk about the album’s opener ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’, which is all about dealing with that anxiety. Is it true that you wrote it in 20 minutes?
G: Yeah, on a plane (laughs).
MF: Alright, you have to walk me through that because I’m barely capable of finishing a movie during a flight let alone writing a song.
G: (Laughs) Yeah, I wrote it in the length of a Simpsons episode. As you kind of said, it was the perfect storm of a couple of months, and all those complicated issues were coming to the fore, but also I was experiencing the adrenaline you feel when you fall in love and start a new relationship. And then I got on this plane, I was on my own, I was flying to Europe to start touring. And it’s like, all the things you’ve been trying not to think about or you’re running away from, you’re suddenly just surrounded by them in your window seat on an A380. And I just went into full panic and felt there was no one who could talk me down. So the only way I could talk myself down was by writing. So I just got out my green notebook and started writing anything that was coming out. Then I went through and arranged the words a bit more. In the space of that first period of the flight, I was like, “I think this is probably a song.”
MF: Was that the first track that you wrote for this record?
G: It sort of was. There’s a song that just came out called ‘Unready’, I’d actually written that at the end of my making my first album. I rewrote it, so I didn’t look at it as a finished song. But that was almost like the pre before this album. That song was like a foreshadowing song because it’s about this feeling I had of standing on a precipice of your life [as it] is about to start and you’re not quite sure what direction that’s going to go in. But ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’ is what I think of as the beginning of Our Two Skins because from there I wrote what became the album.
MF: How long were you writing the record for?
G: I wrote ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’ in October of 2017 and then I wrote the bulk of the record in 2018. But the last song that I wrote for the record was ‘Sandwiches’, which I wrote in February of 2019.
MF: Those were pretty life-changing years for you. What was it like looking over everything you had written over that pivotal time?
G: Yeah, it was interesting, because I do feel like with my first record, I got to the end of writing all the songs, and looked back and I was like, “Okay, what is this about? What have I written an album about?”. This time, I was actually so aware of what it was about as I was writing it and so aware of the story that it was going to be telling. I was spending more time thinking, how am I going to tell this story? And how comfortable am I going to be putting my pretty private life on display, and should I do that and why?
MF: Was that a liberating or scary feeling putting yourself out there in such a vulnerable way?
G: It has been primarily scary, but I had a really nice conversation with my dad the other day when I was sort of canvassing my mum and dad about how it must be weird for them to see me putting a lot of my private life on display. And my dad was like, “You know what? if I had been through what you’ve been through, I’d be doing that as well.” It’s a story worth telling. It’s a voice for a minority group of people, really. It’s another story in a big tapestry of the queer community. And I think that is quite an empowering feeling to think that you’re one more voice against all that other noise.
MF: You returned to your hometown of Canowindra to record with Chris Messina and Zach Hanson. What was the significance of going home to create it?
G: Yeah, it was amazing. I mean, we started our conversation talking about identity and sense of self. It was pretty cool to have had the couple of years where I’d asked the big, fundamental questions about identity and then go back to where I came from and where my family has lived for over 100 years and continue to wrestle with those questions at home with the support of my family and community. And I’d really been overthinking for the bulk of the preceding years touring and stuff. So I hadn’t had a lot of time to just be in Canowindra.
The year before, I’d been on tour most of the year and then came back for a period of six weeks to work in my old job at a rose nursery. I was really close with my grandmother, who I wrote ‘Sandwiches’ about, and she became unwell shortly after I arrived home and they ended up kind of being the sixth last weeks of her life. So I had this real sense wanting to tie up all the loose ends of this story, back where she has lived most of her life.
Looking back on the record and the process of making it, I really don’t feel like I could have made it any other way. That includes with Chris and Zach, because they’re wonderful friends of mine and we’re even closer now because we sat having dinner with my parents every night for four weeks while we made this album (laughs). I know they got so much out of that experience as well. So it was a good lesson in what you gain from being really vulnerable with people I think.
MF: You purposely made the album with no reception or Wi-Fi. Is this how you usually work?
G: For the first record I definitely didn’t. I was tripping off around the world and recording it wherever. But I was thinking about when I first started writing songs and music, I always wrote in Canowindra and I do always find that I’m much more creative and productive when I’m out of a city and I’m a bit cut off and I have to entertain myself or be more creative without a lot at my disposal. There are not as many distractions and I think I wanted to plant all three of us, Chris and Zach and I in that kind of headspace where we couldn’t just have access to anything we wanted or any players we wanted, or we couldn’t spend all day like watching cat videos on YouTube (laughs). We just had to really knuckle down. It was like, total immersion, which I think was really cool. We all really got a lot out of it.
MF: You also limited yourself in terms of the resources like instruments and tools that you used. Was that for a similar reason? And how did you narrow it down?
G: When I emailed Chris and Zach about, “How do you guys feel about coming out to those nowhere and making an album?” They were like “Hell yeah!”. We basically made a shared spreadsheet with a whole lot of columns and were like, “What are your five favourite things that you like to work with?” And so that was like a few different key pedals that we would use.
We all decided that we should get a tape machine to run stuff through. So I searched on Gumtree and went to this really weird guy’s house to buy a simple optical tape machine for $600 and we ended up using that a whole lot. We found a little stereo at the shearing shed that was opposite the cottage. And we ended up running a whole lot of stuff back through that.
A big principle of the record was this process of reamping because a lot of this stuff that ended up on the record was actually from the demos that I’ve recorded over the past couple of years. Chris and Zach were great at being like, “We don’t need to spend a whole day trying to re-record something that we already have”. So they were like, “How can we just give it more character and more texture?” So, we’ve introduced some of those characters, like the tape machine or the stereo to add that flavour.
One thing that we actually used heaps of was this little tiny Casio keyboard, which was a toy that I had when I was a child and I found it in the games cupboard in my mum and dad’s house. I was like, “This can be really cool” and pretty much every major synth line you hear on the record is from that. The keys are so small that I had to be so nimble with my fingers trying to press them (laughs). We used heaps of that and we used a lot of my harmonium.
We got a bunch of guitars and would run it through a variety of stuff. And we had a drum kit that we laid blankets over and we would play drums that were covered in blankets. Instead of using a hi-hat, we played the chimney with drumsticks. We had a lot of interesting little characters along the way.
MF: I really love that analogue approach because not only were you able to be more creative, but it sounds way more fun.
G: Yeah! (Laughs) It was really fun.
MF: And I read that your Subaru got a little cameo as well?
G: It did! (Laughs) It had a cameo in ‘Aeroplane Bathroom’. It’s like a deep gurgling that almost sounds like a bass thing. I was outside the house one night and we started revving the Subaru and Chris was like, “Let’s get that!” so we recorded on a field recorder and then took the sample back inside and pitched it down four octaves and that was the growling bass on “Aeroplane Bathroom”.
MF: You took quite a method approach when recording ‘Unready’ as well. Can you tell me about that?
G: We were in the cottage, which is like a kilometre from my parents’ house and we would go there all day. I was trying to nail the vocals on ‘Unready’ and it sits at the higher end of my comfortable register. And I just wasn’t nailing it so Chris and Zach were like, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s get into a new space and maybe that’ll get you in the right mindset.” And so we went over to my parents’ house into the lounge room. It’s an old-style, country home and that’s like the tea-sipping room.
We often joke, because my family has lived in that house for like, over 100 years, I’d be like, “Mum, do you have like this random object?” and she’d be like, “Actually, we do that somewhere in the house”. And Chris was like, “Do you have a strobe?” I was like, “We actually do have a strobe (laughs)”. My brother had it from his uni days and it had a few different lights on it and it was such a cheap piece of shit but we brought it into the tea-sipping room and turned all the lights off. Zach would hit record and Chris’ only job was to turn the strobe light on and off (laughs). So the two guys just sat there in the darkness with this light strobing and I was semi dancing but trying to sing the song and we eventually got there.
MF: What music were you listening to while recording the album? Was there anything, in particular, that was inspiring you?
G: Usually we would come in each day and Chris would light the incense and we’d put on a song that would set our mood for the day. I think leading into the process, I was listening to ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ by The National. I was listening to ‘Are We There’ by Sharon Van Etten. I was listening to a really great record by a Swedish artist named Amanda Bergman.
I was just really obsessed with great records start to finish. The kind of records that you feel like you’re in the room and the drums have a much roomier sound that doesn’t sound so that was heavily produced or in-studio. So I think with the background of all that in my mind, I became really focused on the vibe and the feeling. Zach actually said the other day, “I think sonics were actually an afterthought for us”, which we all laughed at because it probably should have been a priority. We were focused so much on the vibe and the feeling and, fortunately, the rest of it kind of came together.
MF: You’ve described that writing ‘Volcanic’ was like an exorcism for you but I also read that it helped you connect with your grandmother before she passed. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
G: Yeah, for sure. I was in Sweden with my parents and we’d actually just watched Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ on Netflix. I was watching it with my mum and dad. Hannah had described her sexuality and being in Tasmania and how she was made to feel and the prejudice of people. My mum said to me at the end, “I hope you’ve never felt like that.” And I was like, “No, I haven’t”. I, fortunately, have a very supportive family and community. And it kind of just led into us chatting about basically letting my 95-year-old grandmother know about this new relationship I was in, which had these curveball questions about sexuality and stuff like that. I was like, I just don’t know that I can do the conversation with her because I just don’t want to put her on the spot and I don’t want to affect our relationship. And my dad was like, “I think you should really think about it because you might regret it if you don’t”.
Anyway, I went into my room and we were going to bed and I started writing ‘Volcanic’ and I felt that sense of panic again. I’ve written about being in that panic state before but I think ‘Volcanic’ was the first time I really dissected the feeling and tried to live inside it for a minute. Coming out of that, I could look back on the feeling and analyse it or hold it away from myself, which probably helps me process it a bit. As the month went on, my dad had the conversation with my grandmother that I felt I wasn’t capable of having. And the ending of the story was loving and accepting. We had a beautiful relationship until she passed a couple of months later.
MF: I love that you followed ‘Volcanic’ and ‘Radiator’, which are super intense songs, with ‘Extraordinary Life’. It’s almost like a big exhale after those two tracks.
G: Yeah, totally. I think the first half of the record is probably more that anxiety-driven and panic-driven stuff. I wanted ‘Radiator’ to be the end of that side A of the record and come straight after ‘Volcanic’ because I think of those two songs as a bit of a pair. And, ‘Radiator’ describing that period of falling in love, but being very scared about it. And like the last line being, “intoxicating, devastating”, which summed up all those feelings.
‘Extraordinary Life’ is kind of like a little breath that starts the next side of the record and on the B side of the record, it’s not as tormented. There are songs like ‘Hate the World’, which is about the general prejudice and I wrote that after seeing ‘Nanette’ and about the same-sex marriage debate and all that stuff. Then there’s moments like ‘Look Like You’, which tap back into that anxiety, I guess. But ‘Extraordinary Life’ is really the moment on the record of nothing else matters and you’re in this new relationship. You’ve found this person who completes your life in a way you didn’t think was possible. I was trying to articulate that in a song that’s really just totally pure joy and elation rather than mixed up in all of that anxiety that the rest of the record really.
MF: So is it kind of like part A and part B are like our two skins? One part of us is riddled with anxiety and trying to wear different masks for people and the other is our identity in its truest form?
G: I think so. ‘Extraordinary Life’ and ‘Free Association’ are about being in love and like being in a new relationship and ‘Hate the World’ and ‘Look Like You’ are looking a bit outward like what’s wrong with the people that take issue with two people being in love?
MF: You’ve said that you wanted the record to be a message of, “This is me, there’s nothing left to hide behind now”. Do you feel like you’ve actually achieved that with the album?
G: I definitely do. It was a pretty excruciating, but amazing time. Now it’s sharing this story. I think the cool thing about releasing an album is you write something about yourself, you write something personal, but then you offer it up as a story. It’s no longer just yours, which I think is actually a really amazing thing because you get to share in that experience.
MF: It’ll be a little while until you can take it on the road, but is there anything you’re going to do to celebrate the album release?
G: Yeah, it comes out in a couple of weeks and I was actually chatting to my sister the other day. I have a sister and two brothers and all their partners, so we might all go out and have a little celebratory dinner the night it comes out or something. Which would be nice to just hang out with family.
MF: When live gigs are back, are there any songs you’re especially excited to perform live?
G: Yeah, I think ‘Extraordinary Life’ actually. I’m currently deliberating over how we do that live. And I’ve got a few ideas. So yeah, I’m excited to see it come to life.
Image: Jess Gleeson