Artist To Watch: Gordi
Gordi is Sophie Payten, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from rural Australia, and holy shit is she good at making music. Clever Disguise, the EP she’ll release on Jagjaguwar this spring, is a work of absolute splendor that will almost certainly make her a star. Its five tracks don’t do anything new, per se — they’re just simple piano or acoustic guitar compositions she wrote in her dorm room, fleshed out into objects of high drama via gorgeous electro-organic arrangements. The effect is similar to that of Bon Iver: expansive yet elegant, a weary wintry chill swirling around a tender beating heart. I fell hard for it on first listen, and I suspect many others will have the same reaction.
During a Skype conversation last week, Gordi proved just as winsome as a conversationalist. It was late Monday afternoon in Columbus and early Tuesday morning in Sydney. We spoke about her childhood in a tiny Australian farming town, her creative process, the origin of the Gordi name, her transformative Courtney Barnett cover, her future musical plans — standard music interview fare, yet as with her music, the old tropes brimmed with fresh vitality.
Today we’re premiering her video for “Can We Work It Out,” one of Stereogum’s 80 Favorite Songs Of 2015. Press play on that, and then meet Gordi in the interview below.
STEREOGUM: Clever Disguise is your debut EP in America. Is it your first release overall, or are there some things you’ve released back home that didn’t make it overseas?
GORDI: No, no, this is the debut EP. So we’ve been releasing songs from the EP in Australia for kind of the last year, but now we’re sort of doing a bit of a backtrack in the US because it is new over there. We’re focusing on trying to catch up on all the territories so they can eventually be on the same page. But yeah, putting quite a bit of focus now into the States and I’m really hoping it’ll take off there.
STEREOGUM: OK, so these songs are new for us but they’re not new for you.
GORDI: Yeah, I guess not new for me, which — I was talking to another artist about this the other day — it’s a weird thing when you’ve written a song maybe two, three years ago and you’re sort of just releasing it. But I guess the fact is that a lot of them have only just been recorded in the last six months to a year or something. Even though the song’s been around for a while, the production makes it feel exciting and new again.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and the production is really excellent on these. These are the only versions of the songs that I’ve heard, but how have they transformed?
GORDI: Thanks. We’re very happy with the production as well, and I feel like, in terms of the way the songs are written and the way they’re produced, it’s really a two-phased thing. Even though when I write them I have kind of in the back of my mind how they might be produced, I really try to focus on just the song because I want the songs I write to be able to be played just on guitar and sung or just on key and sung. Because I think at the end of the day that’s what makes a good song, like when it can be stripped back, you know, it’s still all there. But the production’s been really crucial to everything and we sort of took great references from artists like Ásgeir and Bon Iver and Volcano Choir. And that sort of melding electronic with that acoustic kind of sound I think has been pretty important in creating everything, the image and the sound, and it seems to be resonating pretty well with people, so we’re sort of continuing on that path for the moment.
STEREOGUM: So you originally wrote when you were living in a dorm at university?
GORDI: Yeah, I did. I’m still at university but for the first three years I was living in a dorm. You’re surrounded by hundreds of people, so I’d be in my little room trying to not to play too loudly and disturb the neighbors. I went to a boarding school as well, so I’ve been used to playing in little shoebox rooms for about nine years, and they seem to be quite conducive to creativity. So yeah, it’s been a big part of my life, unfortunately, or fortunately, communal living, but a lot of songs have come out of it.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned boarding school. Is that the time you spent in Tanzania?
GORDI: No, so that was — I’m from kind of country Australia, I guess, maybe you guys would maybe call it the outback — but my family live on a farm out there, and there’s not a lot of education opportunities out there, so I came to Sydney to go to boarding school to get a good education. And following school I went to Tanzania for half the year, and it was basically a gap year in between school and college. It was a really important time for me in terms of growing up and learning. Well, you never really know what it’s like to have nothing, but looking around and seeing it right in front of you, yeah, that was a really important time for me as a person. But I had been traveling for a couple of months, and it had been the longest time I’d gone without playing an instrument, and I was gonna be in Tanzania for quite a while. And so I asked one of the camp managers who was in charge of the volunteers, I gave them some money because they were going into one of the major cities, and I asked them if they could buy a guitar for me. So they bought this really shitty little guitar, but that’s what I survived on for the next sort of few months. It was good. It taught me how basically important it is for my sanity that I have an instrument.
STEREOGUM: One thing I noticed about this collection of songs, there’s a lot of longing for reconciliation. Like you have “Can We Work It Out,” and then on “Wanting” you sing, “I’m found wanting you again.” Are these all written about the same situation, or are they all inspired by their own thing?
GORDI: Yeah, I mean I guess that it’s pretty obvious that all of my songs are pretty personal, and yeah, I guess they’re usually about events that have happened, relationships that have happened, different things like that. But I guess the general theme is reconciliation, and most of the songs are there to be some sort of progression. Like the verses, if you read them in order, and then you read the bridge, I like there to be some sort of progression of the story throughout the song rather than just tack on a verse here and there. So in “Wanting,” the song starts and finishes exactly the same way, so the idea behind that was that the line comes back, “Feel like I’ve played this before.” The whole idea of the song is like, “I’m such an idiot” — you just think, “This keeps happening to me, and I can’t” — it’s like Groundhog Day. Just you think you learn from some relationship you’ve been in not to do the same thing again, and yet it happens all over again, you know? The songs, while they maybe on the surface seem entirely about longing for someone else, it’s much more an introspective thing. It’s reflecting on what I’ve done to screw something up, or what I’ve learned from whatever it is that’s happened. But yeah, it’s really important to me that the songs convey a message, whether it’s obvious to people or not I don’t really know. But if someone sat down and read the lyrics I would want it to read like some sort of metaphorical story.
STEREOGUM: How did you end up performing under the name Gordi?
GORDI: The short answer is that it’s a family nickname and I have no idea where it came from. My elder brother was pretty weird as a child and called me all these different things that were really random, and one of them was Gordi. And he doesn’t know where it came from either, but it’s kind of the only one that stuck. So all through my high school years up to now they’ve always called me Gordi, and I’ve always kept it a massive secret, even from my friends. Like no one knew, and I was always like pretty embarrassed about it, and whenever my friends would come over I’d always like ward up my family and be like, “Don’t call me that today, call me me Sophie.” And then my sister started going out with this guy who now, down the track, is my manager, and he was saying to me, “You know, have you thought about” — because I was playing gigs under my real name — and he said, “Have you thought about going under another name?” And I was like, “Oh I don’t think so.” And he was like, “Oh, what about Gordi?” And I said, “How do you know about Gordi?” And he told me, “I always hear your sister call you that!” So he put that name on a poster for a gig that I was playing, and then I saw the poster and I was like, “Man, I didn’t clear that with you.” And from that it just sort of snowballed. I’m happy about it now, but yeah, initially there were some doubtful moments.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned growing up on the farm. How remote was it? It must have been fairly far out if there weren’t really good schools around.
GORDI: I guess in terms of Australia you can get much more remote than where we are, but it is 300 kilometers west of Sydney, and there’s no kind of major hospital there or major grocery store. Like, there’s just some little shops. But it’s a really nice community, and we live about another 20 Ks outside of that on a farm, so there’s enough there that it constitutes a town. But it was a fantastic place to grow up, and it’s the kind of place where I had a whole lot of relatives because my family’s been there for four generations and we’ve lived on that farm for 120 years, so it’s a very important place for me. And I still consider it my home but I kind of am based in Sydney now because unfortunately the live music market in Canowindra isn’t quite as vibe-y as the one in Sydney. But yeah, it’s really important to me, and I often go home. And you know, that’s where I started writing music, in our living room where the piano is. My mum teaches piano, so it’s sort of very instrumental to all of this.
STEREOGUM: We’re premiering the video for “Can We Work It Out.” Can you talk a little bit about the vision for that?
GORDI: I sat down with the director and talked about what we wanted it to reflect, and I guess the video has probably a broader meaning than what it does in the actual song. It’s translating the “Can We Work it Out” message to lots of things, to relationships, to the world — this general longing of an individual to just work out whatever it is they want to work out. And there’s a lot of references to futuristic stuff. We took this idea of fortune telling, which seems like a pretty abstract sort of thing, but it’s like looking into the future or looking at how things are gonna pan out for you and wondering whether you can change the course of what’s gonna work out. Basically it’s a snapshot of all really different moments that are kind of echoing the same message, but eventually it comes back to this shot of a guy and a girl in this embrace. It’s a really quick shot, but it’s a really central shot to the whole video because it’s like, you’ve got all those things to think about and try to work out, but you know for most people in the world it comes back to the relationships in your life. So yeah, those were sort of some of the messages we were trying to get across.
STEREOGUM: I also wanted to ask you about covering Courtney Barnett. I wrote this when I posted it, but it seems like draining the wry sense of humor out of a Courtney Barnett song shouldn’t work, but making it kind of more dramatic like you did actually worked really well. Did you have any trepidation going into that?
GORDI: Yeah, I did. Well, first of all, thank you very much for that review, I read that and I saved it on my desktop. But I did, I had so much trepidation about it because I was like people are either gonna hate this or, you know, not hate it. And I’m a massive Courtney fan, and part of why people love her song is because of that wry humor and the way she delivers it.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of an Australian artist called Paul Kelly, but in Australia he’s like one of the forefathers of songwriting basically, and in all his songs he tells these great stories. I was just mucking around, I was actually at home at my parent’s place and I printed off the lyrics to “Avant Gardener.” And my manager was at home with me at the time, and I was just kind of mucking around on the piano because I was trying to find a new cover to maybe throw into the live set. And I just started playing this song, and he was like, “Yeah, we should do something with that.” And after I had done that and stripped it back and played it, it sounded like a Paul Kelly song. It sounded like this great piece of songwriting and this ballad that I don’t know if Courtney ever intended for it to be. I know she puts a lot of time into her lyrics, and it definitely pays off because they’re so intricate and so idiosyncratic.
We spent a day in the studio actually recording the song “Wanting” for the EP, and we had an hour to spare at the end, and I said, “Why don’t I just get in and record this real quick?” So I sat down and I recorded it and then did a couple more vocal takes over the top, and yeah, it’s funny how well it’s been received because it was, unlike other songs where you spend hours and hours and weeks and weeks on it, it was just this pretty nice organic thing that we just chucked down and then showed to our label guys at Jagjaguwar. And they were like, “Yo, let’s make this the way that we announce you to the world.” I was happy with how it all went.
STEREOGUM: You’re playing Sasquatch Festival in Washington this year. Have you ever played in the States before?
GORDI: Yeah, only once. It was the first time I had been to the States. It was October. I came for CMJ, so the only place I’ve been in America is New York. That was basically when we were finalizing everything with Jagjaguwar, and that was sort of the focus for that trip. But yeah, this’ll be the first time that I’ve come and played outside of that, and probably the first time that I’ve come with the sole focus on really getting my sound out there. I’’s really exciting to play at Sasquatch. I can’t even wrap my head around it. My manager sent me the lineup to Sasquatch a few months ago; I was like, “Cool, why are you sending me the lineup for this festival outside of Seattle? There’s no way I’m gonna be able to go.” And he was like “because we’re in the ‘and more’ section.” And I was like, “Holy crap.” So I’m so excited about that, and then we’re gonna be playing a bunch of shows across the country for two weeks after that so I’m very excited it.
STEREOGUM: What is your live setup right now? Are you solo, or do you have a band, or what?
GORDI: I have a band. It’s a three-piece band, so I play guitar and keys and obviously sing, and then we have a guy who plays keys and bass and some triggers, and then we’ve got a guy on the drums. And we try and do a real mixture of sort of live drums and then SPD electronic type drums because that’s what we’re trying to do, that whole hybrid of acoustic and electronic music, and we’ve tried hard to really replicate that on the stage. I like playing solo, but at this stage we want the live show to really echo what’s on the record, and so to do that we need a three-piece band.
STEREOGUM: You’ve got the EP out and you’re playing some shows over here. Do you have plans nailed down for the second half of the year yet?
GORDI: To be honest, not yet. I know there’ll be another trip to the States, but we’re just working out when that’s gonna be. And I am still balancing being at school, so we’ve gotta factor that in — I have my exams in November, so it’ll basically have to unfortunately hinge on that. So I might be making a trip over in December. But next year I’ll be taking a year off school, so we’ll be able to just go exactly when we need to go. In the middle of the year I’ll be recording a full-length record, aiming to come out in the first half of next year. And the second half of this year we’ll be focusing on sort of trying to get another good support slot and also doing some more headline shows to introduce my music to the world.
STEREOGUM: You sound like you’re trying to finish your degree. What are you studying?
GORDI: It’s medicine, bachelor of medicine. Which, you know, is obviously not hugely conducive to starting a music career, but we’re making it work for the moment and kind of taking it one step at a time and making decisions as I have to.
Catch Gordi on tour:
04/28 Brisbane, AU @ The Tivoli (w/ Of Monsters And Men)
04/29 Brisbane, AU @ The Tivoli (w/ Of Monsters And Men)
05/04 Melbourne, AU @ Palais Theatre (w/ Of Monsters And Men)
05/05 Melbourne, AU @ Palais Theatre (w/ Of Monsters And Men)
05/22 Dublin, IE @ Whelan’s (w/ Highasakite)
05/23 Manchester, UK @ The Deaf Institute (w/ Highasakite)
05/24 London, UK @ Village Underground (w/ Highasakite)
05/27 George, WA @ Sasquatch! Music Festival
05/30 San Francisco, CA @ Swedish American Hall
06/01 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo (Neon Gold’s PopShop Presents)
06/04 Minneapolis, MN @ Icehouse
06/06 Chicago, IL @ Schubas
06/07 Toronto, ON @ The Drake
06/09 New York, NY @ Rockwood Music Hall (Communion Presents)