In a darkened aircraft cabin, on a 21-hour flight from Sydney to London, Sophie Payten began to sob and hyperventilate, violently. The Australian musician, who records as Gordi, was having a panic attack.
Trapped in the window seat beside her sleeping neighbours, she began to scrawl pages of unfiltered emotion into a small green notebook, distorted ripples of ink radiating from the pen as tears dropped onto the paper. She made her way to the bathroom, but splashing water on her face didn’t help. The cubicle’s fluorescent lights only made her feel worse.
“I had that sensation, like, I was standing on a start line, about to run a 100-metre race and the gun is about to go off. You’ve got that huge, just rush of adrenaline … I could kind of feel it leaving my body and being replaced by just sheer terror,” says Payten. “I felt like I was spinning down a vortex, and I just couldn’t see light above me.”
The attack came at the end of a manic two months. It was late 2017, and she had spent weeks touring her debut album, Reservoir, in the United States, which was followed by an Australian tour supporting Gang of Youths. Right after that, she was due to sit her final medical school exams. Sleeping three hours a night was taking its toll. Complicating things further, she had just ended a long-term relationship, and someone unexpected had entered her life.
“It was this adrenaline-soaked period of just feeling like I was on speed or something … Everything was moving a million miles an hour,” says Payten. “I was having a bit of an identity crisis because I thought I knew myself really well. And then this thing came out of left field; I fell in love with this girl.”
Calm descended only once she began to turn her frantic scribblings into “Aeroplane Bathroom”, the opening track to her soon-to-be-released album, Our Two Skins – a richly textured, cathartic record of rebirth and death that chronicles uncovering new parts of her identity and grappling with grief and mortality in the wake of her grandmother’s passing.
Payten was forced to explore her sexuality as the same-sex marriage debate raged in Australia. “Coming out” isn’t exactly how she describes the experience; she prefers not to apply labels at all. She’d known the person, Alex, for a while, but Payten recalls the relationship shifting over dinner at the Napier Hotel in Melbourne. As other members of the dinner party drifted off, the two of them remained, talking for hours. It felt as though they’d discovered a secret language neither of them knew existed. Things developed over nightly phone calls.
“I’d never experienced that kind of connection before. We basically fell in love over the phone,” she recalls. “I remember a few months earlier I was walking around Centennial Park in Sydney with my friend, and we were just, like, talking about life. I was saying to her I felt like I was only getting a really narrow spectrum of life. Coming up to a quarter of a century I hadn’t felt all the things that I felt I was supposed to feel … and then this kind of entered, like a bolt of lightning.”
The small country town of Canowindra, New South Wales, where Payten grew up, is close knit. She went to Catholic services on Sundays growing up, but her family were moderate practitioners who didn’t let their beliefs get in the way of supporting her new relationship. Still, she felt apprehensive about word getting around the town. It took a long time to even tell her friends, but the last person to find out was her grandmother Ailsa, whom the family calls Armah. She and Payten were close, speaking on the phone regularly, but Armah was nearing the end of her life and Payten was afraid of complicating their relationship. Even now, years later, she tears up during our Zoom interview as she recalls taking a call from Armah while sitting in a supermarket car park in Los Angeles.
“We sort of chatted for a bit and we’re catching up and then she was like, ‘Look, I spoke to Dad, and he told me about you and your relationship.’ And it was like a big pause, and I just felt my stomach dropping,” says Payten. “It’s so cheesy but we always used to sing that song ‘You Are My Sunshine’. She was like, ‘You’ll always be my sunshine’ and said, ‘I love you.’ ”
Armah died of pneumonia at the end of 2018, aged 95. Payten had been on a six-month tour of Europe and America, writing some of the songs that ended up on Our Two Skins on the road, but she was running out of money. She decided to return to Canowindra and save up – a decision that meant she was able to spend time with her grandmother in the last weeks of her life. It also created a window to introduce Armah to Alex, for the first time.
Payten remembers crying in the corner of the hospital ward as Armah embraced Alex, while ruing the fact a bottle of her favourite Moët champagne had been left behind at home. Eventually, Armah slipped away, while the family took a lunchbreak in the hallway, a moment retold on Our Two Skins:
We made sandwiches and then they said you’d left / I read words that someone wrote as they cried / and I tried to think of all the times you told me you were tired
After Armah passed away, Payten remembers her father and his siblings sharing memories of their own father, who had died when they were young.
“I learnt from her passing that there’s something really beautiful about grief. It really is a time to just wade in a pool of memories about a person,” says Payten. “It’s almost, like, each time someone passes, you’re kind of reminded of all the people that have passed, and you sort of … sit in all those memories.”
Payten had already decided to commit to only one year of her postgraduate internship to record and tour her second album, but Armah’s death was the catalyst for Payten deciding to record Our Two Skins in Canowindra, on her family’s expansive farm, Alfalfa.
Visiting the town now you’ll see grain silos sticking out of golden swaying fields of wheat and canola. At the time of the album’s recording, however, the land was stricken by drought, and barren fields stretched out in every direction. Alfalfa’s rugged beauty, history, memories and ephemera are tangible elements of the record, a source of sound as much as the players and their instruments.
Together with her friends Chris Messina and Zach Hanson – producers and mix engineers who work at Bon Iver’s studio, April Base – Payten converted an old, unused farm cottage into a makeshift studio for an intensive, month-long recording session. This current age of enforced isolation and social distancing renders the act of wilfully placing yourself under such conditions somewhat ironic, but the decision was an intentional decoupling from the anything-goes approach Payten took while recording her first album.
“That’s when I feel most creative, when I don’t have everything at my disposal. You know, how I might make one sound if I don’t have that thing,” she says. “It’s like creating unique moments out of nothing. We wanted to place ourselves in that sort of isolation. It was just the three of us – no one else played on the record.
“It meant we thought about it every waking moment for four weeks. We couldn’t go out for dinner or go blow off some steam. It was like we were in that cottage for that whole time. And that sort of immersion was incredibly special.”
Instruments were set up in a room with a tiny fireplace and a window that looked out onto a paddock, windmill and big gum tree in which roosting cockatoos would kick off at 4.30pm each day, creating a mandatory tea-break. The noise of stray livestock wandering over from the nearby sheep yards would sometimes interrupt the recording sessions, too. Wi-fi was out of the question – half the house didn’t have electricity – and the lack of running water necessitated the use of a long-drop by the shearing shed.
Payten, Messina and Hanson placed microphones in the kitchen to record the reflective, bouncy sound and short reverb coming off the lino floor. They also roamed the property with a field recorder, banging sheep ramps with bits of scrap metal or recording the jingling chain locks on farm gates.
The piano line on the track “Radiator” was originally recorded in Berlin, before being run through a wasp-nest-infested stereo they found in the shearing shed in Canowindra. Payten remembers listening to the stereo with her dad as a kid, arguing over the station choice during sweltering 45-degree workdays.
The noises and textures the trio collected were digitally augmented, as on “Aeroplane Bathroom”, which features a stark piano composition, initially intended to be nothing more than a demo, recorded on an upright Gulbransen piano Payten’s dad gave to her mum as a 30th birthday present. Payten and her siblings all learnt to play piano on its stained and weathered keys. She recorded the perpetually out-of-tune instrument with a cheap microphone, before digitally retuning the notes, which lends the song a warped, stuttering quality.
“That’s where I get most excited about music, where I can take something that’s, like, so beautiful and organic, and just kind of manipulate it … so it has those extra little textures,” she says.
Alongside lessons from her mother, Payten’s musical education began in the church. She still has a fondness for hymns and religious music but laughs at the mention of a “religious education”, saying the Catholic Church was more of a focal point for the community to gather around, rather than a dogmatic guiding force in her family’s life. That said, since entering a same-sex relationship, she feels alienated and betrayed by institutional Catholicism.
Religion and spirituality are separate in Payten’s mind, and the role the latter plays in her life has changed with age; she describes herself as a fatalist, that while not believing in an old man in the sky, she does believe that some things happen for a reason. Now she thinks of a potential afterlife in metaphysical terms rather than a literal bountiful paradise.
“When I had a grandparent die as a child, I didn’t have to be like, ‘Well, they’re gone now.’ You can kind of be like, ‘I can still talk to them, they’re in heaven,’ ” Payten says. “I think now I have a different way of thinking about that. By thinking about a memory, that’s how you are connected to someone that’s passed, rather than a place like heaven. That’s essentially why religions exist, so people can deal with death.”
Looking through this lens, Payten thinks running out of money and returning to Canowindra for the last few weeks of Armah’s life was more than mere coincidence. And it’s from the experience of sitting at her grandmother’s bedside that Our Two Skins takes its name.
“I was sitting beside her and touching her hand and was very aware of the fact that I wouldn’t get to do that again,” she says. “That’s sort of quite a final thing, someone’s skin, you don’t get that again. I was reflecting on the things that I learnt from her throughout my life. Her sort of big mantra all the time was that everything passes.”
Payten didn’t get to ask Armah where she thought she would go when she died, knowing that, despite her Catholicism, her grandmother was afraid of journeying into the unknown. Cooped up in Melbourne, far from the open fields of Canowindra, during lockdown, Payten is also staring into an unknown of sorts. Her incomplete medical internship hovers, an open question. Unable to tour Our Two Skins, she’s been left feeling purposeless and, at times, depressed. But living in isolation she has found deep solace in Armah’s mantra: everything passes.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Skin craft".
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