Meet Sophie Payten, aka Gordi – a young songwriter hailing from rural New South Wales, Australia. Her hometown of Canowindra boasts a quaint township, whose nurturing green landscapes helped foster Gordi’s creative intuition growing up. Her latest album, Reservoir is a resplendent collection of heart-tearing Folktronica, which features the singer’s rich contralto voice, engulfed in an ever-morphing sway of the electronic and the acoustic. The calibre of Reservoir is reinforced by the artists involved in its production, from Ásgeir collaborator Alex Somers to Bon Iver drummer and supporting vocalist S. Carey.
Backyard Opera caught up with the artist to chat her exquisite release, recording in Reykjavik, and she managed to keep it cool meeting Justin Vernon for the first time.
“… the music that I love and that I find really moving these days is music that challenges your idea of music and challenges those boundaries of genres… folk-electronica is a good word to understand it... but I feel like we're moving away from genres as a concept…”
BYO: Congratulations! Your album's out, are you relieved?
Gordi: Yeah, I am relieved, it's sort of funny because it hasn't come out in America and the UK yet, just because it comes out midnight in every territory, so Australia's first which is kind of nice. It is funny, all these lovely messages and stuff this morning, it's kind of like your birthday but on steroids.
BYO: How long did it take you to write it?
Gordi: Four years or something, because it's not like I was like I'm going to make an album, I just wrote songs for ages and then after a while I was like I should maybe make an album. Then I just got eleven songs that I'd written and put them on there. The first batch of recording that I did, because I did it in bits and pieces, was July of last year. I did a week and then I'd be back at uni and then I'd have a week off and then I'd go back to the States and do another week. So, I did four weeks of recording between July and December of last year. Even though it took a while, it was pretty much like a day per track. We'd record all the stuff for that particular track and then there were little bits added like some drums. It was not until the January of this year that I took a proper chunk of time off and I went to Iceland and America and spent six weeks finishing the record, which meant recording three new songs and then sitting with the whole thing for a week, and constantly editing it basically. Then the whole thing finally got mixed.
BYO: Did you find that it helped being able to stagger the process?
Gordi: I think it did. The first week that I did in New York was a good example because we did five to seven days, every day in the studio, and you get so wrapped up in it. We did five songs there and only one of them ended up on the record. Not different songs, but we weren't happy with the production so we redid the songs. You're so close to it, you can't see flaws and stuff, and whereas this meant that we could do a bit, think about it for a couple months, and go back. So, by the time I had that final week and it was constant, I felt like I had a good perspective on it all.
“Alex had this beautiful studio which was this one-room wooden house, no control room or mic booth or anything, it was just one room which had all his instruments all around the outside, including the vibraphone once owned by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, all this crazy shit”
BYO: You had some amazing experiences recording with Alex Somers, who's collaborated with Ásgeir. What was it like recording in Iceland?
Gordi: That week in New York also taught me that it's a lot easier and a lot more productive for me to go to where the producer is, because they have their set up and all that stuff. Alex had this beautiful studio which was this one-room wooden house, no control room or mic booth or anything, it was just one room which had all his instruments all around the outside, including the vibraphone once owned by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, all this crazy shit. It was just a really musical experience. I was staying across town and it was the middle of winter and I'd wake up every morning and I'd walk across the snow, a 15-minute walk in the city, get to the studio and we'd have 12 hour days there. It was such a free-flowing style of working, because there wasn't a different room, everything was ready to go. So, he'd be sitting at his computer and he'd be like 'let's do that' so I'd just jump on it and do it. It was really instantaneous, and it was also just him and I, we didn't have people coming in and out of the studio all the time. Between us, most of the instruments in the room we could play so if one of us couldn't do it another one would try, it was really rewarding.
BYO: Did you go into the recording having a strong vision of what you wanted, or was there a lot of spontaneity?
Gordi: I tried to have a balance, because between March and July of last year I'd done the demoing phase. We had a bit of a blueprint of what I wanted the songs to sound like and I had a one page on each song, with five reference tracks that I want it to sound like and this is what I like and don't like in the demo. But demo-itis is a real thing, and if you get too focused on the demo then it disrupts creativity completely. I think it's important to be flexible in the studio and be able to go with an idea if you think it's good. Say with Alex, with 'Bitter End', I went in and I was like I want it to have these contrasts of sparse vocal and guitar, and crunchy percussion sounds with strings and a restrained epicness to it.
“we recorded these strings in a studio right outside Reykjavík, it was a group called Amiina who are amazing players… the strings came in and we were like 'oh my god', I had tears in my eyes. It was just the most beautiful thing… those sorts of moments you can't plan for because it just relies on the raw talent of the people playing…”
BYO: Are there things that you thought would never be on the album that are on the album?
Gordi: Reykjavík, it was a group called Amiina who are amazing players, and we didn't quite know what we were going to do with it so we just had it inserted in a section of the song. We were listening to the song start to finish and the strings came in and we were like 'oh my god', I had tears in my eyes it was just the most beautiful thing. I was like 'I think we need to leave it alone, and let them have their moment'. Those little surprises... because it's not like we charted the string parts, they were improvised and then we'd be like we like this section and this section, and make something out of it. So those sorts of moments you can't plan for because it just relies on the raw talent of the people playing which is really cool. And 'Heaven I Know' was another good example; I didn't know how well it would translate from my head into an actual song. And the counting thing I was so set on having, I think that moment surprised me on the record even though I wanted it and fought hard to keep it. I was driving my car and I was like it'd be cool if this song had counting in it, and actually hearing it on the record was cool.
BYO: You've toured with Bon Iver as well; did you learn a lot from them on that tour?
Gordi: I was just trying to be cool [laughs], the whole time I was like I don't want to come across as too 'oh my god' or like I was totally blown away. I met them for the first time when they performed for the Jimmy Fallon show and they wanted to assemble a choir of six female singers. I went over to do that, and on the first day of rehearsals they were like 'arrive in this location at Manhattan at 10 am' and I felt like I was going to be sick I was so nervous. I was waiting outside and they arrived, and as you would expect they were the nicest most chill people ever. I literally just shut up and watched them and I listened the whole day, and the record they put out last year was hugely influential for me. Then I ended up supporting them at their New York show in December, which was insane and really cool.
“I have quite separate influences for the song-writing part and the production part. Missy Higgins is a good example. I wasn't taking as much influence from that for the production side but she writes killer songs with beautiful melodies”
BYO: You mentioned reference tracks, how do you reconcile having so many influences and how do you work with that?
Gordi: I think for me, I have quite separate influences for the song-writing part and the production part. Missy Higgins is a good example, like I wasn't taking as much influence from that for the production side but she writes killer songs, with beautiful melodies and verses and choruses. I've been looking more to artists like Ásgeir, when I heard his record for the first time back in 2014 that was kind of what started me on everything with that folk-electronic hybrid that he does so well. I know it had been done before but for me it was new, it was like I'd been hearing it for the first time.
BYO: Do you find that with the electronic music aspect there's more of a range of expression?
Gordi: I think so and I think the music that I love and that I find really moving these days is music that challenges your idea of music and challenges those boundaries of genres. I feel like folk-electronica is a good word to understand it on a basic level, but I feel like we're moving away from genres as a concept, like the Bon Iver records are a perfect example, like what do you call that? I think the key thing with references is that I try to never have one reference track because then you make a copy of that track, which is not what I want. So, I try to have at least three or four so that you end up with something that's more unique. Nothing is new, everything you do is kind of borrowed, but if you take enough from different people it feels unique.
BYO: Your album is incredibly eclectic, the start of it has an electronic leaning and then you get towards the end and you start to hear natural acoustic instruments.
Gordi: It was pretty cool to have such free reign. I often think about comparing it to what it was like making the EP. In the EP I was so self-aware, I was trying to nail the folk-electronic hybrid, like I'd make a song and be like there's too many folk elements, let's add some electronic elements to try and balance it in this zone, because it was the first thing people were ever going to hear and you need to carve out something for yourself. When people then listen to you they're like 'ok I know generally what to expect'. Then by the time I made this record I was like at least people have that reference point, and now I can do what I want within that framework. So, it was nice for some songs to be much more electronic and some songs be totally folk, and that be ok in the context of my whole body of work.
BYO: Did you ever worry about the reception of the record because of how eclectic it is?
Gordi: I was worried about that, that the biggest criticism that the new record would invite was that it was trying to be too many things. The way I reconciled with that was by the fact that I genuinely liked the stuff that we'd done for the record and that the key was having different anchor points. The vocals are the anchor point of the whole thing, and the style of song-writing that's another common thread through it all, so you can slap whatever coat of paint on it you want but at the heart of it it's still the same thing. In every song, no matter if it was electronic or acoustic, I focused on harmony and using different techniques whether it was bass notes in tenths or singing through a guitar amp, there's different little things we dropped through a whole lot of the songs to try and unify it.
Gordi’s album Reservoir is out via Jagjaguwar