Most of us are subjected to our parents’ sometimes questionable music tastes during our formative years, and as we get older we either embrace those embarrassments or denounce them as godawful. For Sophie Payten, the gauche-for-some Aled Jones served as a link between her tranquil kidlet days and her adolescence. “My mum had the CD, and it had You Raise Me Up and other, y’know, classic hits,” she says of the famous Welsh choirboy’s record. “When I went away [from Canowindra, NSW] to boarding school [in Sydney], my first ever intro to performing was at an Eisteddfod. My mum was a piano teacher, so she accompanied me and I sang You Raise Me Up. I sang it before it was a big hit, I knew it before it really hit the charts,” she laughs. “It’s just beautiful, it’s very soothing. So when I was in boarding school, I was sleeping in a dormitory with 26 other girls and there were so many noises that I couldn’t sleep. I had a Discman, and I had this groovy little case that I could clip onto the end of my bed. I’d put one earphone in every night and it would kind of lull me to sleep. It takes me back to being that little 12-year-old, and going to the big smoke for the first time, and trying to settle down to sleep without my parents in the house. It holds a special place for me.”
That boarding school experience ended up shaping the way Payten would write songs, as she transformed into her moniker Gordi. She believes that “writing about platonic relationships can be a great deal more powerful than writing about romantic ones”; it’s definitely true that friendships can be amazing in their complexity, when you think about the longevity of them. “You’re with these people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for six years,” the musician says. “It’s such an intense experience. Those people become your family pretty quickly, and they watch you grow up so intimately, and hey’re going through the same things as well. It’s a really unique experience. Now I’m 24. I’m going through that period of figuring out who’s going to stay in my life for the long term. I find that really affects me – I’ve been struck by how tragic it can be when you just drift apart, with life taking you in different directions, and you’re watching it happen and there’s nothing you can really do about it because you’ve got to live your own life.”
She mentions the track Heaven I Know as a song which particularly embodies this idea; it’s a gorgeous piano-led lament which contains the line “I got older and we got tired, heaven I know that we tried”, with electronically-warped whispers and murmurs across its simple chords, gradually building into a glittering conclusion. Payten recorded it at Turning Studios in Sydney’s Surrey Hills, a place she found very inspiring. “It’s a beautiful spot; it has this lovely window that looks out of the control room. Unlike a lot of recording studios, it has a lot of natural light – they’re often dark and dank and they’re filled with smelly men most of the time,” she laughs. “There’s a bunch of pianos in there, and I would’ve done upwards of five takes that we included in the song from different pianos. But particularly the grand piano. I started building it layer by layer.”
The murmuring effect she created using a “little machine called an OP1”, into which you can record and then sprinkle the pieces. “I said ‘heaven I know, heaven I know’ into the microphone and then I split it up breath by breath, and displayed little parts as the song went along, which made a kind of idiosyncratic tapestry,” she explains.
Payten also played around with effects while recording the excellent Bitter End in Reykjavik (Iceland); the vocals sound like her voice is being fed like spaghetti through a leslie speaker. “I was singing through a really basic mic! We put it through a guitar amp, then we recorded it from the guitar amp with a really beautiful microphone,” she says. “I just stood in the back corner, as if I was beat boxing, with my hands over the microphone, singing. We did hours of that. I loved that sound so much, I borrowed it for a lot of other songs on the record. All the little vocal loops you hear in the background… it became a really nice texture that’s in a lot of places on the record, to try and link it all together. It gives a bit of a haunting vibe and it really takes me back to the Icelandic winter landscape.”
Reservoir is out August 25 on regular vinyl, limited edition magenta and white marbled vinyl, and CD, via Liberation.