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“Do you see yourself unraveling?”
This question opens Sophie Payten’s second album under the recording moniker Gordi, as she takes a moment to herself in an airplane bathroom while traveling from her home in Australia to work in Europe. From the outside, it might have seemed like Payten had everything going for her, but really she was in a state of flux, having finally completed the exams that would allow her to become a doctor and finding herself transitioning out of a stale relationship and into something more true to her identity. In that instant of isolation, endings and beginnings began to come into focus.
This is the moment of time that launches Gordi’s excellent new record, an album that balances fierce intimacy with expansive ambition. It’s not an album about anything singularly, but encompasses the range of what occurred and who she has become in the three years between releases. She explores sexuality with new-found clarity, gives a lovely tribute to her recently deceased grandmother, and reckons with the idea of identity and the need to share her true self with those closest to her. The resulting piece feels like an honest, personal reckoning, where both the artist and listener can join each other on the journey and emerge as better versions of themselves on the other side.
Recorded with Bon Iver affiliates Chris Messina and Zach Hanson in the secluded town of Canowindra, the album reflects isolation and turns it into focus. Genre lines are blurred to the point where the straight-ahead indie rock of “Sandwiches” fits snuggly beside the cinematic pop of “Unready” and the atmospheric drama of “Volcanic.” Whatever preconceived notions Gordi had built with her early career are largely left in the dust. Just as the album takes on the project of a woman figuring out her own place in the world, Our Two Skins does exactly that with Gordi’s music.
Speaking with Uproxx via Zoom in late May, Payten discussed being a doctor during the pandemic, her relationship with her grandmother that inspired the record, and just what Pride means to her.
How does the world feel in Australia right now?
We’re still pretty deep in isolation. So as of early June, the restrictions are starting to be lifted. Some pubs, clubs, and restaurants are opening for 20 patrons at a time. You can now have up to 20 people in your home. I’ve never had 20 people in my home. I’m not sure that if I wanted to, I even could. People are back in the streets and stuff, and just generally seems less fearful. There’s toilet paper back on the shelves in the supermarket, which there wasn’t for a while. So yeah, it’s definitely not back to normal, but it’s starting to feel out of the depths of all that full-on isolation. Fortunately, in Australia, we just haven’t seen the numbers of infection that other places around the world have. And I guess that’s probably largely due to being an island and being able to shut our borders pretty soon after it all took off.
I know the medical profession was arming itself with everything it could, and there’s been all this talk of these big COVID centers opening and big respiratory facilities, and none of it has happened because the patients have not been coming into hospitals in the numbers that they expected. So, it’s been a largely manageable situation here in Australia. And I think probably much more of a toll than the actual health crisis has just been the social crisis and the economic crisis.
Were you doing medical work with COVID?
I’d quit my job, my medical job, on the 31st of January after working for a year as a doctor. And then I got back from tour in March and I called my old workplace and I was like, “I’m back if you need me, given everything looks like it’s going mental around the world.” And I put my name down with the government body that was organizing all the medical professionals to come and help in these COVID clinics. I had a call back from them and they were like, “You’ll be first on the list of people that will be called when these COVID clinics get set up. And we’ll put you in into one of those.”
There was a two week period where I was like, “Okay, I’m getting ready to go into this and go back to work.” But then the numbers just went off a cliff in Australia and all my friends that are working in hospitals were like, “We have nothing to do, because not even the regular patients are coming in, let alone any COVID patients.” I actually still haven’t set foot back in a hospital.
I feel like it’s the best-case scenario for a doctor, to not be needed?
The psychological effects of isolation, that’s something so many are experiencing now. I found that the album features this juxtaposition between a need for privacy — be it a moment in an airplane bathroom or whether it’s the remote town that you recorded in, your childhood hometown — and then this need for being heard, for being bold in who you are and what you believe in. It feels like a journey on the album. What have you learned about these two states of being along the way?
Yeah, it is the real contrast of the record and something that I’ve had to do a lot of mental work to come to terms with, because the content of the record was really occurring at a time in my life when I was undergoing a lot of identity change, and entering a new relationship and these questions of sexuality. But I think that almost puts it a bit too simply, I’m not really a category person when it comes to sexuality, I’m much more of a spectrum person. And I think it was this lesson for me in life, you find a person for you and that person can take any shape or form.
And that whole experience was something so private, and imagining doing interviews about it and talking to strangers about those elements of my life, I was like, “No way in hell am I going to do that.” But then, I accidentally wrote an entire album about it and we got to the end of it, and I was like, “There’s no way that I’m going to be able to put this out and not talk about it.” So I needed to come to terms with that.
I think the queer community really lacks content about itself. There are not stacks and stacks of role models that you see on TV and film. This story that I’m telling of falling in love with someone at the age of 25, which gave me all these new questions about my identity, it’s one more little piece in the enormous puzzle that any queer person can look to and be like, “Okay, there’s a frame of reference for my life. So if something like that happens to me, I can at least be like, oh, look, that’s something that I can kind of compare to.” I think it’s the privacy of what happened to me versus that public, shared experience, and I feel like the latter outweighs my right to that privacy, because it’s an important story to tell.
That’s awesome. And I feel like the dichotomy comes across sonically, too, with songs like “Unready” and “Sandwiches,” they feel like these big deserved communal experiences. And then a lot of the songs feel more intimate, like a conversation almost directly between you and the listener. Does that play into the process, how a listener might experience a song, be it through headphones or through a performance?
Definitely. I remember asking Zach Hanson this question, “Do you like records that are record-player records or headphone records?” And I’ve always put records into those two categories. Obviously, there are some that do both. But my first record, I really think of as a headphone record. And coming into this album, I was like, “I want to make a record-player record,” but then the sonic details and stuff are so important to me that I was like, “Oh, maybe I want it to cross over into both of those lands and try and have a bite of each cherry.”
I wanted to make a couple of songs that you can listen to on your own. And I wanted to make a couple of songs that you listen to with others. The songs that you listen to on your own come more naturally to me, I feel like I’ll write those for the rest of the time. But I find that I have to be more careful with my sonic choices when I’m making songs like “Unready” or “Sandwiches,” because it’s not always my natural instincts. My natural instincts are those quieter moments like “Aeroplane Bathroom,” or something. And all of those songs, like “Aeroplane Bathroom,” “Volcanic,” “Radiator,” they all took the least amount of time because it felt very natural.
The reason I was first drawn to the album was “Sandwiches,” just hearing that song and how it addresses your grandmother’s death with such beauty and specificity. But she also serves as the general inspiration for the album, right?
Yeah. She was 95, and I grew up a hundred meters from her. I used to ride my bike down there and we were very, very close. She raised me as much as my parents did and we’d talk on the phone a lot as I got older. I’d been traveling all of 2018, doing these tours and writing a lot of this record, and then I came home in September of 2018. I went home to Canowindra where my parents live, where I grew up, basically because I’d run out of money. And I was waiting to start my medical job a few months later, but I needed something to tide me over, and so I went back to my old job at a rose nursery in Canowindra where you just stand there waiting all day.
Each afternoon I’d drive back, call into my grandmother’s, sit down and have a cup of tea with her, and then go home. And I was home for six weeks, and over the course of that time, she became unwell and it turned out to be the last six weeks of her life. She went into the hospital in Canowindra and it became apparent that she wasn’t going to come out of there or get better, and she passed in early October on the 6th.
It was a Saturday morning and my mom and dad and I drove into the town, into the hospital, and we were there with all of my father’s siblings, all her children, and we were all around the bed and all taking turns to be beside her. And a few hours into the morning, it was midday and my mom and I were like, “Oh, we should go and get some food for everyone because no one’s going to want to leave here and no one’s really eaten.” So we went down to the supermarket and grabbed some basic supplies and we start making sandwiches; it’s in the little kitchenette next to her room. We were just making them and passing them around to everyone. And people were coming out for a little breather and having something to eat.
Then my auntie called out, “She’s just gone.” We put our sandwiches down and went in and sat around the bed and were all grieving, and I read this prayer out that my other auntie had and we just all sat with her for as long as we could. And like that first line of the song, it’s a nice memory of just holding her hand and thinking, “This is the last time I’m going to really get to do this and feel her skin and smell the way she smelled,” and all of those really sensory things that are so immediate, that you lose just like that.
I tried to write this song so many times and I didn’t want it to be this tragic funeral song or something, and I think that’s why I needed a bit of space. So I didn’t really write it for like five months, but it was a celebration of a really long and wonderful life. It was a total tragedy that we lost her because she was so, so loved, but it was the course of a life and it was a beautiful, natural end. And her passing made me want to come back and feel connected to the place and connected to her, so that’s why I decided to make the record back home.
And it meant a lot to you to be able to let her know about your identity before she passed away, too?
Yeah, it did. She was incredibly accepting, probably a lot more accepting than other people of her generation. She was born in 1923 and yet she was able to accept all of those things and said so to me. We had a really lovely phone conversation just before I arrived home where she said, “I love you and nothing’s ever going to change that,” and then that happened. I got home, and she died six weeks later.
I’m so glad it happened because if it hadn’t, there would have been something really missing for me. And in my own life, it was the end of this chapter, which was the record. The start of it was the start of all this stuff, and then the end of it was her passing and her acceptance of it. And it’s all incredibly intimate and personal, but it’s a really beautiful story.
It really is! Thank you for sharing it. In America, June is Pride Month, and it’s fitting that this is coming out here at the end of June. What does that concept of Pride mean to you?
It has changed a whole lot in the last few years. And on the one hand, there’s this really wonderful Australian comedian named Hannah Gadsby who had this show called Nanette, which was this smash hit across the globe. She’s a queer person and grew up in Tasmania in Australia where homosexuality I think was illegal until 1996 or something outrageous. And she talks about Pride and the queer community and the queer flag, the rainbow flag. And she’s like, “I didn’t really identify with the big parade and dancing on a float. The rainbow flag is hideous and I don’t like those colors,” and all this sort of stuff, which I think is, to a degree, something I identify with, because that very, almost traditional form of Pride is something that I haven’t really experienced, but that going into this experience, what I thought Pride was.
I thought it was dancing on a float and I thought it was waving a rainbow flag and a very simplified version of this month or this one festival that happens, but I’ve really learned through this experience that it’s a state of mind and it’s something that you have to, and should, exercise every day. And it was a big part of me coming to terms with everything that had happened in my life, because on the one hand, you have the shame and embarrassment and all those feelings that come to any queer person when they go through this sort of journey in their life, and that’s on one scale.
And then on the other one is your sense of pride in yourself, but also being proud of the person that you’re with and being proud of that relationship and being proud enough that you would put it on display for the world to look, and I think that that’s now what Pride means to me. It’s like being so proud of the relationship that I’m in and of my partner and of myself in being open to that. That’s something that I’m proud of, for other people to look at me and think or feel whatever they want. None of the fear of judgment will outweigh that sense of pride.
Our Two Skins is out now on Jagjaguwar. Get it here.