When writing her forthcoming debut album Reservoir, which drops Aug. 25 on Jagjaguwar, Aussie singer-songwriter Gordi often employed what she calls the “campfire test.” That is, would the song, stripped of all production and studio rendering, hold up at a campfire?
“I like to be able to just play the song as I first wrote it,” says the artist born Sophie Payten, speaking to Billboard from Sydney. “It gives people a chance to really hear it, I think.”
Payten’s dedication to the bare-bones songwriting process was inspired by James Taylor, Carole King and Billy Joel, all of whom she listened to growing up on a rural farm in Canowindra, Australia, population 2,381. There, she first dipped her toes into the world of music through her mother, a piano teacher, and the hymns the family would sing every Sunday at church. “Still, when I go home now, I sing on a Sunday — but church music isn’t the foundation of my repertoire anymore,” Payten adds with a soft laugh.
Instead, the 24-year-old Bon Iver labelmate leans toward rustic, guitar-helmed melodies about the tangled threads of platonic relationships: a close friend who has drifted away; a complex kinship with a family member. It’s a theme she prodded with the album’s first single, an ode to lost friendship called “Heaven I Know,” and continues with “On My Side,” the live video for which is premiering below on Billboard.
The track deals with needing support, but not wanting to ask for it, through wistful guitar strums, a bone-chilling howl and raw, reflective lyrics — “I’d paint a picture for you here/ But I would sooner disappear,” Payten breathes. Its live singing video, filmed on a wet, windy February day on the Los Angeles riverfront, is the second in a series of live music videos set around the city — the first, for “Heaven I Know,” was filmed in an empty restaurant in Eagle Rock.
“I wrote this song about wanting to tell someone that I needed them to ask me how I was, but for some reason, I couldn’t do it,” Payten explains of “On My Side,” which she wrote in just 45 minutes. “I want you to be perceptive enough that you can tell that I’m sort of hurting and I need you to kind of step up and be here for me.”
Payten first emerged on the indie music scene last summer with the EP Clever Disguise, a folksy, five-track sampling she recorded while working toward a six-year medical degree that she’ll complete in September. (She also took a break to sing backup for Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon when he debuted 22, A Million‘s “8 (circle)” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.) With Reservoir, which Payten engineered with Tallest Man on Earth drummer Zach Hanson at Bon Iver’s April Base studio in Wisconsin, Payten says she’s ready to “go for the big moments” with more experimental tracks that walk the line between folk and electronica.
Does “On My Side” hold up to the campfire test? See for yourself in the new live video below. Then, scroll on for Payten’s full Q&A with Billboard, where she discusses the inspiration for Reservoir, how she got her stage name and performing with Justin Vernon.
What’s your earliest memory of music?
It would probably be standing at the piano with my mom, sitting there and only coming up to her hip as she was sitting down, and she was always filling the house with music. She’s a piano teacher. I remember sitting at that same piano when I was about four, teaching my friend how to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Most of my early memories revolve around that piano. It’s been in our house [in Canowindra] longer than I’ve been there, and it’s all a semi-tone out of tune, but it’s still in tune with itself. It sits in my parents’ living room, kind of looking over their garden, and it’s really this really lovely, idyllic spot. And still, when I go home, nine times out of 10, I’ll start a new song in there, because it’s such a creative and inspiring room for me.
What’s your writing process like, and are there themes you find yourself coming back to?
The campfire test for me is, the type of songs that I write, I think I should be able to sit at a campfire with a guitar and play them on their own without all the production. At the core of it, like James Taylor and Carole King and Billy Joel, you can just play those at a piano, and they’re excellent songs.
At the moment, I can only really honestly write about things that I know, which are, being a 24-year-old, finding the direction that your life is headed and the way relationships fit into that. Obviously, romantic relationships always play a bit of a role. But a lot of the time, [my music is] actually about platonic relationships — longstanding kind of friendships, or family relationships. A good example of that is the first song I released from the record, “Heaven I Know.” It was a song written for the record, and I wrote it last year, about my kind of closest friend in the world. I’d had this dream that we were just older, and we kind of had stopped calling each other, and the main lyrics in the chorus are “I got older, and we got tired. Heaven, I know that we tried.”
I found it really tragic, the idea of growing apart, and that is probably one of the central themes of [Reservoir] — that idea of growing apart from the life that you have known and the people that you have known. Another line in that song is “get lost in this town,” and that’s kind of this idea that especially at the age that I’m at, you’re forging your own way in whatever world you’ve chosen to be a part of. Sometimes, the casualties of that are people or things that you’ve had in your life for a long time. I think that concept of loss is probably one of the most central in the record.
Tell us about “On My Side.”
I wrote that about a platonic relationship as well. I wrote this song about wanting to tell someone that I needed them to ask me how I was, but for some reason, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask them to be there for me, I just wanted them to do it without my invitation. The first lyrics are, “I’d paint a picture for you here, but I would sooner disappear.” Like, I’m not going to spell it out for you — I want you to be perceptive enough that you can tell that I’m sort of hurting, and I need you to kind of step up and be here for me. I wrote this in probably 45 minutes. It really poured out.
What was it like filming the live video?
While I was in L.A., we filmed that video, and L.A. had just had this flash-flooding. Luckily, it was over by the time we filmed in the river, but there was all this gross debris. I don’t think much of that footage made it into the video. [Laughs] It again kind of comes back to the campfire test thing. I like to be able to just play the song as I first wrote it. It gives people a chance to really hear it, I think.
What does the title Reservoir mean to you?
“Reservoir” is a term that I’ve used with my friend for a while now. The best way to describe it is your innermost place, the place where you keep things that if you had on the surface every day, you wouldn’t be able to live a functional life. It doesn’t always have to be negative and anxiety-inducing. Sometimes it’s just extreme contemplation, or just having the time to be that reflective. But my friend and I started using it sort of colloquially as saying, “are you a bit in the reservoir today?” Which was, are you feeling a bit down and thoughtful and reflective? The more I thought about this place, the more I realized that that’s the place I go to to write. That’s what [the album] is — this is a representation of my reservoir.
How has your sound evolved since your EP Clever Disguise?
The way I think of it is that the album is a richer, bolder exploration of the same style. A lot of it is walking that folk and electronic line. Some of the tracks are probably a bit more kind of indie-pop. It’s that chance to be able to explore the different corners of different genres. A lot of the tracks on the EP were sort of a bit measured and reserved. Like, we wouldn’t necessarily go for the big moments. But we haven’t shied away from that on this record. There’s been a lot of live instrumentation. There’s live horns, and there’s live strings, and there’s one track in particular where there’s kind of this solo string quartet moment, which really stops me in my tracks every time. It was recorded outside of Reykjavik in Iceland, and they played so beautifully.
You’re in the final stretch of a six-year medical degree. How do you reconcile your interest in science with your musical work?
The thing I like about medicine is that someone’s sitting in front of you, telling you a story, and you have to kind of synthesize it into something succinct and something that makes sense to them. And songwriting is kind of the same. You’re taking a story — maybe it’s my own story, or it’s someone close to me — and then I’m wrapping it up in another form and sharing it with people. Obviously, you wouldn’t’t share it with anyone in medicine. [Laughs]
You performed with your labelmate Bon Iver on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. How did that come about?
I was one of the members of the choir they assembled when they performed on The Tonight Show, which was crazy. I’d been out in Melbourne one night, I think it was after a show, and my manager and I got home quite late. He opened this email, and we read it, and kind of couldn’t really make sense of it at the time, probably because we’d been out all night. But I read the email, and I was like, “what’s a Fallon choir?” Anyway, we got up in the morning, and he was like, “holy s–t, this is a much bigger deal than we thought.” It was one of the highlights, I’m sure, of my whole career. It was really nice to meet them all and have such a nice, musical experience. They’re all such incredible musicians. And then I came back to New York in December of last year to open for them at the Hammerstein Ballroom. [Justin Vernon is ] a lovely guy. He’s super genuine and super interested and interesting. That whole week that we did the Fallon choir thing was something I’ll remember for a long time.
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What do you miss the most about Australia when you’re on tour?
The food. [Laughs] As much as I love all these places around the world, I have to say, the average quality of food at cafes and restaurants in Sydney is really high, comparatively. I think when we walk into an Australian cafe, you kind of know exactly the standard of the food you’re going to get. But around the world, that varies a lot. But I miss my family there, and my two-year-old nephew, and my friends. That sort of stuff is something I’m coming to terms with — that there will be periods over the next decade of my life where I’ll miss a bit, which is a hard thing, especially when my siblings start to have kids and stuff. That’s what I miss most.
How did you choose Gordi for your stage name?
The short version is, it’s a family nickname. My brother, who is about four years older than me, when he was a kid, he made up all these bizarre names. And one of them was Gordon. We have no idea where it came from. My sister shortened it to Gordi. I kept it a big secret, because I was kind of embarrassed. I’d always warn my family before my friends came over, like, “no one say that, call me Sophie.” And then I’d sort of been playing live for a little bit, under my real name, and then my manager, he said to me, “what do you think about playing under a different name? What about Gordi?” And I was like, “how do you know that I’m called Gordi?!” [Laughs] In the beginning, when I was playing shows, I was so embarrassed about it that I actually wouldn’t say who I was. I’d finish, and people would be like, “we don’t know who you are, what’s your name?” [Laughs] But I’m definitely keeping it now.