Interview: Gordi balancing medicine, music and ‘staying sane’ for St Kilda Festival

Interview: Gordi balancing medicine, music and ‘staying sane’ for St Kilda Festival

Words by Kate Streader

We’ve all played witness to how tough the pandemic has been for musicians and music industry workers, but for Sophie Payten - better known as indie folk singer-songwriter Gordi - the past few years have been an exceptional balancing act.

A trained doctor who had put medicine aside to focus on her music career not long before COVID-19 hit, Gordi has spent much of the pandemic as a frontline worker, filling in wherever she’s needed in hospitals and vaccination clinics.

“I guess, like everyone, I’ve had a couple of years of pretty severe ups and downs,” she says. “Starting with all the opportunities that I felt like were ahead of me being very quickly taken away by border closures and cancellation of shows around the world.

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“And obviously then, I went back to working in hospitals because I was living in Melbourne and there were staff shortages everywhere.”

But despite the chaos, Payton found a sense of community in both industries as they suffered and struggled in their own ways.

“There was a sense, in both careers, that I have of a real collegiality… like we’re all in this together, both in music and medicine,” she says. “In medicine, it was taking a lot of pride in protecting the community and sort of putting yourself forward as someone who’d show up to the hospital every day, even with a risk of infection.

“In the music community, it was more about rallying together to support each other and lobby governments and get together with our peak bodies and work out how to survive.”

Still, it hasn’t been easy weathering the barrage of blows the music industry has copped. She recounts the pain of watching the tour schedule for her 2020 record, Our Two Skins, crumble away in front of her.

“It kind of felt like a grief process, to be honest. I’d worked so hard on getting this record together and I really felt like I went through the stages of grief with it,” she says. “I definitely went through denial and anger and I finally just kind of accepted it.“

Entrenched in identity, the album was a means of self-discovery and introducing that person to the world. Exploring love, life and her own sexuality, Our Two Skins was Payten’s way of coming out after an unexpected love changed her world.

“It was quite confronting at the time to do that. I had to really think about how I wanted the story to come out,” she says. “I basically decided that I’d just go with honesty in the end. And that once I confronted that, it was quite liberating to tell a pretty private story quite publicly.

“I think with all records, once you release them, the story’s no longer just yours. And in this case, that was actually a really special experience because I had so many people reach out and say that it had helped them in some way on their own journey of identity and all that stuff, having honest conversations with family members. And that’s an unparalleled experience to be able to share that with a complete stranger.”

Payten has somehow found time to release two new singles amidst the pandemic, including a collaborative single with her partner Alex Lahey titled ‘Dino’s’ about a Nashville bar of the same name the two frequented while they were in the US, and a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Grass is Blue’.

“I wanted to do the cover of that Dolly Parton song because she had largely contributed to the funding of the Moderna vaccine, which I thought was really cool,” she says.

Whether or not the singles will form a new Gordi record is still up in the air, but Payten promises, “There will certainly be more music just around the corner in whatever form it eventually takes.

As well as bringing forth new music, the year ahead will see Payten back on the road both nationally and abroad including a tour with Paul Kelly and a European tour with Swedish folk artist, The Tallest Man on Earth.

Next month, she’ll perform at St Kilda Festival on the Foreshore Stage on Thursday February 10. The day’s program will also see Daryl Braithwaite, Emma Donovan and The Putbacks and Romero hitting the stage.

“I actually spent a lot of the pandemic living one suburb over from St Kilda,” she says. “And the way that I survived was by walking the St Kilda Promenade every morning and getting outside and yeah, trying to stay sane.

“So it’s quite a nice, hopeful ending to that sort of chapter to go and play on the St Kilda Foreshore to an actual crowd.”

Catch Gordi at St Kilda Festival on Thursday February 10. For the full program and more information, head to the festival website.