“Music, for me, feels like a bit of a disguise,” Australian singer-songwriter Sophie Payten says, elaborating on the title of her debut EP, Clever Disguise, recently released by Jagjaguwar under her artist moniker, Gordi. “You’re up there performing your heart out on the stage, but you don’t feel like you’re pouring your heart out. It is personal, but at the same time, you feel a bit anonymous. You can deliver all these messages that might be close to a diary entry, but because it’s wrapped up in a song, in a melody, it feels like you can say whatever you want up on stage and it won’t have any repercussions.”
The term “clever disguise” is taken from a lyric to the EP’s centerpiece track, “Can We Work It Out.” Notions of disguise and anonymity are apt for a songwriter who performs under a different name and splits time between a career in music and working toward a degree in medicine. Payten, 22, currently is in her fifth year of a six-year degree. When she was in high school, she knew that she wanted to work in an industry that would allow her to connect with people, but even though she had been writing songs on the guitar since she was 13, she didn’t think that music would be an option.
“I was in a science class in high school,” Payten remembers, “and we were looking at why practice makes perfect, the science behind that. We were looking at the example, funnily enough, of someone playing a guitar and why, with every time you practice a song, you get better at it. You can play it faster, without as many mistakes.”
In the class, Payten learned that messages from the brain to the hands were recognized more quickly by neurons with repetition. Curiosity with such concepts steered her toward an academic path in medicine.
“I’d never been so fascinated by something,” she says.
The songs on her EP—acoustic guitar and piano-based compositions colored with layered vocals, gently atmospheric electronics, and sometimes galloping percussion—were written in her dorm room at university in Sydney. With the help of grants, scholarships and awards from her homeland’s state government, she recorded the EP, one track at a time, over the course of 18 months. Near the beginning of this year, she earned buzz for a piano ballad reworking of Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener.”
When Payten began gigging with some frequency, her manager suggested that she perform under a different name and proposed that she use Gordi, her family nickname. No one outside of Payten’s family knew of this nickname, but her manager heard it because he had dated her sister for a time. Payten was skeptical and ran the idea by some friends.
“They just pissed themselves laughing,” Payten recalls. “Slowly they came around to it, and so did I.”
She previously had recorded an EP of songs written in high school but was dissatisfied with the production, and that EP, entitled Away, never saw a proper release beyond being shared with friends. Looking back, Payten says that she had no creative vision for the songs, likening the recordings to demos. Subsequently, she began to listen to a wider range of music and in 2014 heard Icelandic singer/songwriter Ásgeir’s album, In the Silence, which inspired how she wanted to sound.
“These songs, on this Clever Disguise EP, a lot more thought has gone into them and the way that I wanted to produce them,” Payten says. “So I listened to people like Ásgeir and Bon Iver and Volcano Choir, and how they were doing that folk indie-pop with this electronic world.”
Payten grew up with three siblings in the rural town of Canowindra. She began taking piano lessons at age four, learning only classical pieces and taking music exams each year until she was 12. She also was classically trained in singing. Her mother is a piano teacher but didn’t want to instruct her children.
“I learned a lot through her anyway,” Payten says. “She taught me how to transpose by ear. We’d listen to something and then work out how to play it on the piano. All four children in our family had piano lessons but with the one other piano teacher in our small country town, ’cause mom said if she taught us we would never practice.”
At local eisteddfods, Payten would read poetry and sing, perhaps a folk song or something from musical theatre, such as “Where Is Love?” from Oliver! Sometimes, Payten would perform with her mom, but never with an instrument. At 10, she picked up the guitar because her brother was playing, sparking her interest. Still, it was a few years before she began to put chords together with singing. When she turned 12, she was about to head off to boarding school in Sydney, and for her birthday, her parents gave her a guitar, Missy Higgins’ debut LP, The Sound of White, and the music book for the album.
“It had all the chords in it,” Payten recalls. “So I worked my way through that, and that was how I learned to play chords. She had a lot of songs that were in a particular key, like E-flat major, so every song I wrote for the next year was in E-flat major. That was what introduced me to it. We had a lot of those songbooks sitting around our house: Billy Joel, The Beatles and Carole King.”
Payten encountered many musically gifted students at boarding school. She would form small ensembles with them, and they would help her flesh out the songs that she was writing. On Sunday nights, at the end of chapel service, a student was expected to perform.
“Nine times out of 10, it would be me because no one else really wanted to do it,” Payten remembers. “I would often get up and play songs that I had written, but I was too nervous to tell people that I had written them.”
When she was 16, she performed her own composition, “In the End,” in front of an estimated 4,000 people (about 1,000 students plus their friends and family members) for the school’s music festival. She’d written parts for some friends to play along on violin, viola and piano while she played guitar.
“That was the first time I told people that I had written something and then played it, and it was a wonderful feeling,” Payten recalls. “People really responded to it well. So then I thought from then on I’d be honest about the fact that I’d written these songs.”
Looking back on her songs from high school, Payten remembers writing about her relationship with her boyfriend at the time and cites hyperbolic tendencies that connected on the level of watching TV shows such as One Tree Hill.
“These days I try to go for more simple language rather than that inflated emotional stuff,” she says. “A lot of the songs that I write, they probably sound like they’re about romantic relationships, but a lot of them are about platonic relationships and friendships, because I feel like those relationships can be a lot more complex than a guy and a girl, because often they’re the same thing over and over again—someone’s heart gets broken and it’s all the same story. But I feel like relationships with your family or your friends are complicated and complex, and I find that they can often give a lot more inspiration than just the simple crush can.”
At the time of this interview in early June, Payten was prepping for her debut LP, looking into producers and studios, and laying down demos that will form a blueprint for when she begins recording. She’s been desperate to perform newer songs and already has an album’s worth of material, but she’ll continue to write until she enters the studio. Next year, she plans to cut down on her studies to focus on music and touring, doing two months at a time so that she can finish her degree by the end of 2018.
“It’s a really fulfilling career,” she says, referring to medicine. “I think it’s a pretty good thing to be able to come back to eventually.”