Sometime last winter, you could’ve found Sophie Payten in a basement in subzero Wisconsin, lying in an aluminum vat of lukewarm water while sipping vodka through a straw. It was then when a photographer craned his camera over Payten’s submerged face and, in between teeth chatters, captured the photo that would become the cover of her upcoming debut album, Reservoir.
This sort of semi-torturous dedication fuels Payten’s music career as Gordi, the Australian folktronica soul singer that some people are calling the “female Bon Iver.” The 24-year-old has been sculpting her debut while also studying medicine in Sydney, metaphorically chattering her teeth through six years of college, with her final exam looming in September. Gordi is following two dreams, and, despite the toll it takes, she’s not giving up on either one of them.
“I feel like I owed it to myself, to see it through and finish [school],” Payten says, calling from LAX where she just landed from Australia. She supposes she’s been awake for more than 30 hours, and there’s barely time to rest with her North American tour kicking off the next day.
Reservoir, out August 25 on Jagjaguwar, is a culmination of four years of Payten’s life, detailed with the type of brutal honesty that escapes through the disintegrated filter of a drunken night. The songs are simple and melodic—until they’re not. There’s the calmness of an acoustic guitar, the wholesomeness of brass arrangements, and the silkiness of Payten’s voice—all juxtaposed by glitchy auto-tune and clattering percussion. Quiet tides of color wash seep into each track, building up slowly until you almost forget where you are.
Music was always in Payten’s blood. Growing up on a farm in rural Australia, her parents filled their home with Billy Joel, Carole King, James Taylor, and The Beatles. In between baling hay and shearing sheep, Payten stole away to play her mother’s piano. When she was 12, she left home for school in Sydney, where she shared a dorm room with 26 other girls, losing herself in her Discman to drown out the chatter. There, she began to perform in her school’s chapel. Around 2012, she discovered the music of Bon Iver and the Icelandic artist Ásgeir—two musicians she’d later befriend and play with—and started to blend her concoction of emotional lyrics and the more jarring sounds of electronica. First came an EP, then the Australian release of Reservoir, and now, after opening for Tallest Man on Earth, Highasakite and Of Monsters and Men, she’s introducing herself to America.
Gordi songs, quite simply, are about relationships. She pleads for a receptive, loyal companion on “On My Side,” relieves herself of a lover in “I’m Done,” and longs for compromise in “Can We Work It Out.” Some of these storied relationships are romantic, but Payten finds therapy in writing about platonic ones instead.
“Platonic relationship can be more complex,” she explains. In a romantic relationship, “one person can just say they want to break up,” and that’s that. As for friendships, those can last longer. “These relationships have changed and taken different forms and some got stronger,” she adds. “It’s just a really powerful thing to write about.”
In “All the Light We Cannot See,” she sings about someone judging her without getting to know her first. “You can’t realize/ What you’re missing/ And I know,” Payten sings, almost with a satisfied smirk. The song builds to a climax of jubilant self-esteem—snare, violin, piano, and a layering of vocals, growing louder until Payten bursts into the chorus one more time: “I’ll know better than you now,” she repeats like a mantra. The crucial musical moment was propped up by her friends—a mate in Sydney drumming up a snare part, another person laying down bass—and producer Tim Anderson (Solange, Banks, Halsey).
“It was all these people in my life who added little contributions,” Payten says of her collaborative friends. “It was kind of a happy accident. I was really happy where it ended up.”
The majority of Gordi’s music-making is done alone, however, with just a guitar or a piano. Or, in the case of single “Heaven I Know,” she created her own metronome by counting a 14/8 time signature into her phone and singing over that.
“I wrote that song in the car,” Payten says, recalling a time when she was driving an hour from her parents' house to a medical placement every Wednesday, along with touring her EP. “By the end of August, I had spent, like, 70 hours in the car on my own,” she said. “Throughout this whole time, I had this idea of a song in my head, the main one: ‘I got older and we got tired/ Heaven I know that we tried.’"
The song tells the story of a friendship that faded after her mate moved away, and somehow, the whispered counting—“one two three, one two three, one two three, one two”—adds to that feeling of chugging along on a different path. “It’s about changing over time. It’s just the synergism of it all that really captured my imagination, so I wanted to keep it in there.”
There’s something soothing in hearing her counting. It’s a lullaby for the death of a relationship, a meditation on moving on. And that’s like most of Gordi’s album. Reservoir is quite figuratively the deep-down place you escape to when everything’s getting too hectic around you—perhaps you’re overworked by school or constant travel, like Payten herself. Reservoir floods the listener with a grandiose ocean of melody, waves of comfort and discomfort rolling in and out. All you’ve got to do is go with the flow.Photographed by Cameron Witting