Sometimes, you just don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you’re armed with an uncanny understanding of what makes a good song great, even the most well-worn of paths can feel fresh and invigorating. Australian 20-something Sophie Payten – better known by her alias Gordi – is someone who appreciates this. Her songs, at least on the surface, are simple acoustic guitar compositions and piano ballads in the mould of modern folk artists like Laura Marling. But as a recent cover of ‘Avant Gardener’ by fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett showed, there was a little more going on with Gordi’s work. Payten took the slacker-rock groove and Barnett’s signature wry, semi-spoken vocals and completely transformed it into a spine-tingling, cathartic four minutes.
While the songs on her debut EP Clever Disguise may not be totally unfamiliar to some (three out of its five songs have been singles), they further demonstrate Payten’s keen musical sensibilities and her own personal songwriting ability. Opener ‘Nothing’s As It Seems’ is aptly titled. Its thoroughly breezy acoustic guitar and Gordi’s warm vocal tones almost completely mask the song’s dark lyrical underbelly (“Don’t you know what it’s like/ To disappear from someone else’s life” is a particularly crushing combo at the song’s apex). It’s almost like listening to a lost cut from Joni Mitchell’s Blue. ‘Taken Blame’ introduces a more fervent drumbeat and smatterings of electronica. These elements become more prominent on ‘So Here We Are,’ which blankets itself in a light cloak of fuzzy noise and glitchy effects that break up the minimalist piano melody and Gordi’s voice. It’s deeply reminiscent of James Blake, but without feeling entirely derivative. ‘Wanting’ is the most musically full of all the tracks here, multi-tracking Gordi’s voice over a buoyant synth and marching beat. While its lyrics are repetitious, Payten’s wry line “feel like I’ve played this before” adds self-aware charm. It’s almost a shame that these folktronica motifs aren’t even more conspicuous.
The highlight of Clever Disguise comes with ‘Can We Work It Out,’ a peak that mixes more heavily strummed guitar and handclaps with 80s synths you might find on a Ladyhawke record. The upbeat melodies juxtapose again with Gordi’s emotionally wrought lyrics. She laments that “forgetting your is like ignoring the weather” and “every fibre of my being’s agreed/ That what you want can become something you need” in affecting displays of longing. If you’re lucky enough to pick up the deluxe version, then you’ll also be treated to the piano-only version of ‘Can We Work It Out.’ Like Gordi’s cover of ‘Avant Gardener,’ its stripped-back quality lends the song even more emotional weight; she transforms her own song from being an optimistic look ahead to better times to a serious questioning of the state of a relationship, simply through the instrumentation.
Arguably, Clever Disguise sometimes plays it a little too safe with its instrumentation; a little more experimentation and bold flourishes wouldn’t go amiss. Nevertheless, Gordi’s deft lyrical ability and the way in which she frames her narratives musically are signs of a flourishing singer-songwriter on the verge of something special.