“I did think the first time I’d be here there would be a few more people in the crowd, but I’m imagining you all like an NRL match – cardboard cutouts.”
The Canowindra-born, Sydney-based singer-songwriter Gordi, AKA Sophie Payten, sits at a grand piano, talking straight at me. She is on the stage of the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland theatre; I am at home, in Melbourne. That quip, issued by Payten in a deep, resonant speaking voice not dissimilar to the soft-edged baritone she sings in, is received by myself and 200-odd others, all of us experiencing the ascendant musician’s auspicious album launch, her Opera House debut, in a decidedly inauspicious manner – via YouTube.
It’s not the most ideal way to play an iconic venue for the first time, but hey: a show at the Opera House is still a show at the Opera House, and Payten looks appropriately resplendent in an outfit that looks to be made of gold-toned silk. Her four-piece band fills out the enormous stage, an array of instruments, including synthesisers and a harmonium, arranged meticulously onstage like the set of a play.
The Opera House’s top-tier livestreaming system means that every note is sure to be perfectly heard, the band’s every smile or frown captured on tape. In a strange way, there’s an upside to this strange new situation: I, and every other person watching the stream, has a front-row seat, the best possible sound. It’s a democratisation of the expensive seats.
The actual seats of the Joan Sutherland theatre, of course, are noticeably empty whenever the camera pans back to them, but if anyone is equipped to take on that challenge it would be Payten.
On her second album Our Two Skins, released late last month via the stalwart US indie label Jagjaguwar, Payten traces a series of scenes linked by their sense of emotional or physical disconnect. She is an expert at channelling the feeling of being isolated in an expansive space. Aeroplane Bathroom, the sparse, soaring opener, conjures vividly the black hole of a mid-flight panic attack. Other songs describe the entirely specific feeling of falling into a same-sex relationship with no precedent. The live stream’s metaphorical value then, in the context of the album, is actually pretty high; “standing alone in a room meant for thousands” could be a good way to describe the feelings elicited on Our Two Skins.
Saturday night’s show feels momentous for anyone who has followed the path of Payten’s career over the past few years. Emerging in 2015 with a handful of striking songs uploaded to Triple J Unearthed, she was quickly embraced locally and internationally, catching the attention of US indie-folk artist Justin Vernon, AKA Bon Iver, who had Payten perform with him on The Tonight Show as well as at a handful of shows. Since then, she has jumped from notable career milestone to notable career milestone, releasing her debut record, Reservoir, partially worked on at Vernon’s studio, in 2017, touring with luminaries including Sam Smith, and collaborating with the Australian pop star Troye Sivan on his 2018 album, Bloom. Our Two Skins and this album launch, feel, once again, like milestones.
Indeed, it is largely the songs from Our Two Skins that translate fully on the live stream. The early set highlight, Volcanic, with its ornate synth whirrs and heart-racing piano coda, feels as though it was made to resonate in a room like this theatre. The warmth of Extraordinary Life – one of the album’s more traditionally folky songs – is given muscle and heft by Payten’s band, the harmonies here giving the song epic scope. Sandwiches, the penultimate song of the 40-minute set, is an appropriately grandiose final-act high point.
Payten herself is a magnetic presence – despite the occasional emotional disconnect that occasionally comes with the live stream as a format, she remains a compelling performer throughout, carrying herself with the gravitas of a stage veteran.
There are tonal fumbles: the rootsier songs in the set, like the stomper On My Side, feel chilly, cooled off by the fact the communal spirit required to pull songs like these off in a live setting requires the energy of a mass of bodies. Without the intricacies of the Our Two Skins songs, there is little to grab on to in songs like this. But it is hard to attribute these faults to Payten herself, a generous and engrossing performer throughout. It’s a rocky way to take the stage for the first time at a storied venue. No doubt, though, there will be a second time.