Sophie Payten, the Australian folk-pop artist known as Gordi, is one of the finest songwriters to ever come from this country. In August 2017, she released her debut album, Reservoir, which peaked at #20 on the ARIA Chart. Following the release of the record, Payten dove straight into exploring her collaborative side; appearing on “Postcard” with Troye Sivan, as well as featuring alongside Julien Baker, Bon Iver, The National, and more. Last year, Payten worked as a doctor at the Prince of Wales Hospital after completing her medical studies at The University of New South Wales in 2018. In January, Gordi released her first song in three years: “The Cost,” with all proceeds going to the 2020 Australian Bushfire Relief. Her second album, Our Two Skins, was somehow created amongst all of this.
On her debut, Gordi was a wanderer, constantly searching through fever dreams. Where Reservoir echoed “that thing you can’t describe, that space that anxious people probably live their life in,” Our Two Skins is completely focused. Recorded in a cottage in the remote town of Canowindra, New South Wales – a hundred meters from her grandmother’s home, where Payten’s family has lived for over a century – with Chris Messina (Bon Iver, Big Red Machine) and Zach Hanson (Hand Habits, Waxahatchee, The Tallest Man on Earth), Gordi honed in on the isolation and emptiness brought on by her rediscovery of sexuality and gender.
Opener “Aeroplane Bathroom” is quietly shattering. Anchored by melancholy piano strokes, Payten’s signature deep, velvety vocal turns soft and airy. “I’m wondering why I haven’t seen myself before in naked nights and sleepless nights / I’m trying to remember, but the contents of my chest are down there on the floor,” she deliberates, her thoughts floundering more than the airplane itself. The track was written in 20 overwhelmed minutes on a plane to a lonesome six weeks in Europe. Highlighting the anxiety of new changes, like her first same-sex relationship; coupled with adrenaline, resulted in the record’s first line being a question: “Do you see yourself unraveling?”
Goosebumps-inducing single, “Sandwiches” pays tribute to Payten’s late grandmother, a “great feeder of the people.” Together with “Extraordinary Life,” Gordi has written her first guitar-based songs. By outlining the mundanity of death (“We made sandwiches and then they said you’d left”) and feeling her grandmother’s presence wherever she goes (“When I think of you a movie-reel of moments plays / We’ll be in the car or after Mass on Saturdays… You’ll say ‘see you round’ or ‘say your Three’ / And now you’re everywhere”), Payten has painted a depiction of grief that’s instantly recognizable and devastatingly poignant.
The honeymoon period of Payten’s relationship with her partner bloomed against the undercurrent of the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite in Australia. Payten was coming to terms with her identity, coping with distance, and the loss of her grandmother. “It was the most devastating way to fall in love with somebody,” she shared in a press release. The intensity of those months is chronicled throughout Our Two Skins, notably at the heart of the record with a triplet of songs: “Volcanic,” “Radiator” and “Extraordinary Life.”
“Volcanic” is what a fatigued exorcism of emotions feels like. For half the song, the tempo is gorgeous and still, before a piano solo begins at half-time and hurries to double speed. By the time you realize it, it’s over. Gordi bears her emotions, the instants where she shuts down and goes manic, “so eruptive and destructive like within, I am volcanic,” she sings with a voice that’s tired of breaking. Meanwhile, “Radiator” sits on the other side of Payten’s emotional spectrum.
Equally yearning and lovely, “Radiator” recalls the moment of resignation to her true feelings. Payten had fallen in love with a woman she had known for years. “I was in a universe of you / Intoxicating / Devastating,” before she concedes, “there was no more hesitating, I had to love you.” What follows is “Extraordinary Life,” a commanding folk-pop track led by an ascending chord progression on the acoustic guitar and all-consuming infatuation. The music video was filmed in Bangkok as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world in March. Gordi and her team filmed wherever they were: the hotel lobby, on public transport, and the local markets, with Payten wearing a mask in each shot. What’s your excuse to not wear a mask?
For a few minutes, “Extraordinary Life” is a welcome escape from the chaos of everyday life. It’s a genuine, blissful love song, capturing the ultimate gesture of love: to simply make someone feel spectacular and give them a life beyond expectations. That action is greater than the existence we’re promised. Payten challenges a soul-sucking existence of working until we drop and ignores individualism by instead, giving her soul to another.
“I will not illuminate your words, I will persevere until it hurts,” Payten proclaims on “Hate the World.” Harnessing her pain, outrage, and confusion by wearing her heart on her sleeve, Payten presents a powerful show of resistance against bigotry. It’s incredible that she holds no ill will. When I think about the 2017 marriage equality postal vote, I remember looking out of my classroom window, seeing the “NO” skywriting plastered right in the central business district of Melbourne and rushing off to cry in the bathroom. For many within the Australian LGBTQIA+ community, the plebiscite and the “vote no” campaign for marriage equality was life-threatening. To this day, I am filled with bitterness that the path to equality was littered with prejudice. I don’t see that bitterness passing.
Our Two Skins began with an upheaval of life as Payten knew it. The album circles to “Free Association,” another heartrending ballad of freedom and empowerment. Payten’s journey through her relationships – family and romantic – is supremely rewarding to witness (and write about!). She is no longer lost or afraid. She is deeply in love, with anticipation for the future. Gordi opened the record asking, “do you see yourself unraveling?”. Her final words revel in serenity. “I want to feel you breathe heavily on me / Want to take for granted all I need / And just sit with you silently.” What a beautiful image.