The sonic textures on Australian indie-pop musician Gordi’s atmospheric album Our Two Skins not only accent her songwriting, but also tell a story. Throughout the record Gordi, aka Sophie Payten, contemplates themes of family – the single Sandwiches is a tribute to her late grandmother – and identity, as well as feelings of isolation, anxiety and desire. A positively international artist, Gordi cut her assured 2017 debut Reservoir with several co-producers in various studios around the world. Yet, for her sophomore, she came home.
Gordi streamlined her recording process for Our Two Skins by limiting access to studio resources to be more inventive and authentic, and spent a month laying down Ableton Live demos for the album in a dilapidated old cottage on a family farm in regional Canowindra, New South Wales. She recruited Chris Messina and Zach Hanson, both associates of her Wisconsin labelmates Bon Iver, as collaborators. The trio brought an array of instruments and tools to work with, but likewise incorporated field recordings from the property to create a soundscape that reflected the space the album was made in. Above all though, Gordi used her voice as an instrument.
Settling in a rural environment inspired experimentation, but also presented technical challenges, not least when a flock of noisy cockatoos descended nearby late every afternoon. The process paid off though. Since its release, Pitchfork has heralded Our Two Skins as "sparse and riveting", and Gordi has received an ARIA nomination for ‘Best Adult Contemporary Album’.
In addition to pursuing music, Gordi has completed a degree in medicine, qualifying as a doctor – something she admits is "a strange combination." Though she planned to tour globally behind Our Two Skins, she's instead gone back to healthcare to work on the COVID-19 frontline in Melbourne. In downtime though she’s been preparing intimate live shows with her four-piece band, following an album launch streamed from the Sydney Opera House. "I think, for the next little while, I'll be working on collaborations and maybe doing some production work with other artists and stuff like that," she says. "It'll be a little while before I put another album out. But I'm in the research and development stage at the moment."
We spoke to Gordi about her creative approach, the role sound design has played, and how she's reconfiguring a live set in support of Our Two Skins.
You had a three-year growth between albums. What did you take away from your debut album, Reservoir?
[Before Reservoir] I really didn't have much experience at all in a studio. I had only done mostly iPhone demos in the years preceding that. It was a huge learning curve. Coming out of it, I guess I wanted to explore different ways of making a record. That first record was sort of everything including the kitchen sink we threw at it. We had a string quartet and someone played a flugelhorn – it was a very maximalist approach.
I was really pleased with how the first record came out and I had no regrets about it. It was a really amazing learning experience. I got to work with a bunch of different producers and engineers and mixers. But I was keen to explore different ways of doing things, and really strip things back to their bare minimum. Looking at a song with all its parts and being like, "What's the minimum amount we have to have here to convey the point?"
But the things I retained from the first record were, "What are the most important things about the album?" And, for me, it's always the songs and the voice that's conveying them.
You recorded Reservoir in different international studios but, with this, you returned home. Did you prefer working in a familiar environment?
Yeah, I did. I think it's different approaches for different records. The first record, I definitely wouldn't have done in any other way. I got to work in studios in New York, Reykjavík, Wisconsin, Los Angeles and Sydney, and I wouldn't have traded that for anything. But the story of this record, from a narrative point of view, called for a much more insular and personal approach. Also I'd spent a lot of time overseas and I just wanted to spend some time at home. I had a few other practical constraints. So I thought, ‘How interesting and cool would it be to try and integrate sounds from the landscape around me in a very real way?’ – which meant building a makeshift studio in the middle of nowhere for four weeks and making an album.
Tell us about your songwriting for Our Two Skins. Did you have fairly developed demos for the album? What preparation did you do?
Half the songs on Our Two Skins are the demos. We went through them and were like, "We can probably keep a good half of these and just make little adjustments to them." And then a few of them we recorded from scratch. But I'm always a big demo-er. The songwriting happens in multiple phases as well.
The initial writing of the song generally is a piano or a guitar or one little riff idea. Then I complete the song in its lyrical and melodic form and make a little iPhone demo – just me and the guitar or me and the piano. Then I take that idea and open up Ableton Live and start making the demo – I’ll decide on the BPM and record from there with a SM7B [microphone], or often I'll just record to a click on my iPhone and AirDrop it to my computer to drop into the session. I think of it like a blueprint, so I'll put in a synth part that might be a placeholder and a bass part. When it comes to actually making the record, we’ll be like, "OK, what can we replace that with that's more unique and interesting?" Or sometimes we'll get to that point and be like, "Nah, actually, it's really sitting well, so let's just leave it."
I think that was the difference coming into this record, as opposed to previously. When I recorded previously, bringing those sorts of demos in, usually we’d scrap it and go from the beginning again and just take that as a bit of a reference. But on this record, I worked with these two great engineers, Chris Messina and Zach Hanson – and, the first song, “Aeroplane Bathroom”, they were like, "This demo is done, this can go on the album. We can add some more textural stuff in there."
Chris and Zach worked on Bon Iver's i,i, which is not a minimalist album. You have a long relationship with the band, but what was it you were specifically interested in them contributing to the recording?
Throughout 2018 I had been touring with an artist named Sean Carey, who plays in Bon Iver. I was playing keys and guitar and singing in his band, and Zach was playing drums, and Chris was doing front-of-house. So we were all in this van driving across America multiple times.
We just became quite good mates. I was showing them demos as I was writing them because I was editing them in the back of the van on my laptop. We got to the end of that tour and they were both like, "Look, we don't know how you're gonna make your record but, when you decide how, we'd love to make it with you, if that's something you'd be interested in." I thought about it and put it all on the back-burner for a bit.
I'd spent a few months in NY and I'd got all these demos together and looked at them all and I was like, "I think there's a record here." But the demos were so fully formed that I was like, "There's not a mountain of work to do here – I just need people to help me to tie it together." I didn't really want a producer to come in and go from scratch. I think that takes a very specific set of skills and a very particular type of person. A lot of producers like to come in and have total control.
But Chris and Zach were just so happy to be part of the process. They were always very clear – "You've already got the concepts and ideas here, we're just gonna help you make it sound as cool as we can." They're really good at working in any [environment] – you could drop them anywhere, as I did; drop them in the middle of Canowindra.
We kept coming back to the same principle. We'd play something or pick a guitar sound or pick something, and Chris would be like, "Is this sparking joy?" And, if it wasn't sparking joy, then it would have no place on the record. They're very particular about how they achieve sounds, and they're very good with things like reamping. So a lot of stuff from the demos, they were like, "This sounds great, but how can we make it sound cooler?" So we'd run it through a Fostex tape machine or an old stereo and back into the session, or we'd run it through an amp and then record it with a room mic. They're just really creative with ideas like that. They were the perfect people for the kind of record I wanted to make.
They brought some gear over, too. What can you say about the studio set-up in Canowindra and the challenges and advantages of working there? Did it reveal some surprises for you?
The place where we recorded was this little cottage on my parents' farm. We think the cottage was built in the 1860s. It didn't have a functioning toilet when we were there and there was no running water, and when we got there we realized there was only electricity to half the house. So we were like, "Hmmm, have we made a terrible mistake?" But, going into it, we were very clear about what we wanted to achieve – and that was to get the room and the environment quality into the songs. I didn't want it to sound like an album that was produced in a studio. I wanted it to be an experience where the listener would come in and they would almost see the space based on just listening to the music.
It had challenges in that we had a live room and a control room, but there was a creaky door that blocked the two of them. In terms of sound isolation, it was pretty crap, from that point of view! But we were all there for the ride. Luckily, Chris and Zach were so familiar with the gear that we'd really specifically chosen to use that they just knew what to expect from it – and that was regardless of the space they were in.
There were practical things – like at about 4.30pm every day, all these cockatoos would congregate outside so we just couldn't record any sound. So we'd either go for a walk or record synths or something that didn't need a microphone. We'd have to time our recording with my dad using the sheep-yards that were next to the cottage. But some of those sounds then bled into the record, which I think made it more authentic.
You also used field recordings – did the cockatoos make it in there?
I think we tried everything to actually get them out because, no matter what we did with the sound, we couldn't actually make that sound pleasant! But we had a little field recorder and one afternoon we were like, "We need to get some more proper textures into this." So we would walk around the yard. I've got videos of Zach holding the recorder and being like, "Ready, set, go!" and Chris swinging this gate really carefully so we could get that recording. We were banging scrap metal on sheep-yards or revving cars and different stuff like that and then we'd take it back to the studio, bounce it into the computer and manipulate it so that, by the end of it, you're like, "I don't even know what this sound is anymore!"
What were some of the more unusual tech devices you repurposed for this album? Apparently you used a magnetic card reader?
Chris and Zach and I made an Excel spreadsheet – like an itemized list of everything we were going to have. I got the very kind people at Turramurra Music in Sydney to lend us some big items like monitors. But Chris and Zach brought over with them about 13 Pelican cases of gear. They were very specific in what they chose as well.
The magnetic card reader is basically a device to learn language with. There's a stack of different cards and you put one in the slot and, as it goes through, it says whatever in some language, and then the idea is that you repeat it back. But [Chris and Zach] managed to locate these empty cards. So we were able to record onto the cards and run them back through the machine and then re-record that. So little things like that were quite unique.
They had a few random pedal-y things like a Moisturizer pedal. I had this little toy Casio keyboard that we ran through a bunch of pedals and amps and used that a whole lot on the record and [we] used a lot of things like Space Echo and different tape waves and we used this reel-to-reel Fostex tape machine.
Then we found this old stereo in the shearing shed opposite to where we were. The guys undid the wiring at the back of the stereo and we were able to plug the session into the stereo and run tracks through it. Then we would put a mic sitting inside a piece of poly pipe up next to the stereo and re-record it and run it back into the session. So we had weird re-amping techniques. We used to cover up the drums at the end of each day with all these blankets, and one morning we came in and Zach started playing them with the blankets on and that ended up being the drum part to “Extraordinary Life”. So a lot of the things were just weird, happy accidents.
What role did Ableton Live serve in making this album in terms of vocal processing and experimentation? It sounds like you were using it even in that very early stage?
[Live] was most prominent when I was demoing, because that's the DAW that I use to make demos. You can hear a lot of my amped vocals in “Sandwiches”; there's a chorus-y part where I sing this repeated line and I used some of the virtual amps within Live to get a particular amped tremolo vocal effect. That ended up being used throughout the album. In “Aeroplane Bathroom”, the warbling synth part is one of my favorite Ableton samples, which is that Canadian Boards preset [in the Core Library] put through a few different VSTs and stuff.
A lot of the piano I used was this piano of my mom's. It's a semitone out of tune and so I would basically record an entire take of the piano into Ableton and then digitally retune it, which gives it this skipping and warping sound – and that became quite an essential piano tone on the record, which I thought was really cool. Then [I used Ableton for] pitching things up and down within octaves on “Volcanic”, “Aeroplane Bathroom” and “Radiator”, getting different samples and reversing them and putting some delay on them – that was all within the constants of Ableton and made it onto the final thing.
You've played the Sydney Opera House – and you have more live shows on the way. How are you recreating this album in that setting?
I had to get a lot of [my live set] ready for the Sydney Opera House show. I went through each song we were gonna play and the different stems I have with all the different songs, and basically loaded them all into an Ableton session. Then I went through and was like, "What are we able to replicate live with the amount of people we have? Are there any really intricate background parts that are just gonna be impossible to play on stage?" So we do play with an Ableton track. But I try to just keep in there little extra bits we literally don't have enough hands to play.
The guy who plays drums for me hooked up the Ableton session to a bunch of drum triggers on his [Roland] SPD. So every time he hits the tom on, say, “Unready”, it will trigger within Ableton the specific tom sound that we use on “Unready”. When we played at the Opera House show, he had a bunch of the organicy-sounding samples from “Aeroplane Bathroom” that we had in the Ableton session. He ran them through a Pedaltrain and then would hit a sample and could, in real time, put delay and drive or whatever it is on them, which is really cool.
The guy who plays keys for me uses, I think, mainly a softsynth – so [he] has his own Ableton session running the specific synth sounds that we've used. Then I'll have an electric guitarist and backing vocalist… I think the electric guitar in this sort of setting is pretty versatile, because you can make it sound like a guitar or a string sample or a harmonium sample, or do all that reverse-delay stuff.
Then I use a TC Helicon VoiceLive 3 to build a patch for each song and usually try and emulate a lot of the vocal techniques that I use throughout the record – like from tune to amp to vocals to different delayed techniques. Then we'll have another musician playing some strings and stuff. I'll play piano and guitar.
You obviously enjoy collaboration, because you've worked with other artists on their projects – Troye Sivan, then latterly you recorded with Willaris. K. Do they give you the freedom to try new things?
Yeah, I think so – that's part of it. You do place constraints on yourself within your own artist project. You think, "Oh, is that really in-line with something that I would do?," or you sometimes put rules on yourself. Working with other artists, you can totally break out of those rules, but you also learn so much.
From making my first record and working with all those people to now – whether it's Willaris or Troye or whoever – every session you can take so much away from, because people have such different processes and come to making music from such different angles.
I feel like I've rarely walked out of a session having not learned anything. So it's just a constant process of change and evolution. Working with other people is where the exciting stuff happens.
At one stage you briefly gave up your medical career for music. Will you now try to balance these two roles in future?
I've been doing casual medical work. I'm living in Melbourne – the pandemic has been running rife here. At different hospitals lots of doctors have been getting exposed to COVID and then they have to go home for two weeks, which means there's huge staff shortages. They've gotten doctors who aren't full-time employed like me to come in and fill those shifts. So I've been doing intermittent work.
I think that's where I'm at, at the moment. Music is my focus, but I have this other degree and career that is handy in times like this. So I've been doing work here and there. I've also started studying again, doing a Master of Public Health.
I really enjoy doing both. But I think life has shown so far that things are very unpredictable, so I feel lucky to have a couple of things that I can turn to, to keep myself afloat and amused.
Text and interview: Cyclone Wehner