‘Folktronica’ and its discontents: An interview with Gordi

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Savannah van der Niet/File

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Sophie Payten, aka Gordi, is the latest musician to be classified as “folktronica” — a term that doesn’t quite describe her style or artistic heritage. Her latest album, Reservoir, is one of the newer releases in this yet to be accurately titled genre.

The album features dazzling electronic sounds, cinematic orchestrations and auto-tune flourishes, all intensely reminiscent of Bon Iver’s latest releases, a band for which Gordi has opened and sung backing vocals. She has released a couple of covers of their songs and Sean Carey, a musician with Bon Iver, has even produced some of the tracks on her latest record. The band’s output is seminal for Gordi’s work, and she consciously acknowledges it.

When asked what her favorite Bon Iver song was, she hesitantly decided on “715 – CRΣΣKS.” “He’s able to sing even more human by making himself sound like a robot,” Gordi said. The voice manipulation and autotune that Gordi and Bon Iver use are not a means of stripping away emotion, but rather an attempt to provide structure to it.

To this end, the emotional quality of Gordi’s songs comes from an intimate subject matter. Compared to the surreal lyrics of Bon Iver, Gordi’s have a stronger coherence in order to deal with the lyrics’ emotional stories. Her ethereal single “Heaven I Know,” for example, records the thoughts and feelings after a close friend moved away, which slowly ended the relationship.

This emotional honesty is channeled through the lyric-writing process. “I would always write as a teenager, and it wasn’t to perform the songs. It was more to get them down on paper as a therapeutic thing,” Gordi said. “I think performing is what I love most, and writing is more of a need that I would always do regardless whether or not I perform.”

But how does the “electronica” aspect of a song highlight its emotional underpinnings? The title of Gordi’s album refers to an emotional reservoir — a sacred headspace or internal sanctuary in which these emotional issues brew. The acoustic performance and transformation thereof, via production, becomes a physical act, manifesting that interiority.

“I think of the songwriting and the production process as quite separate,” Gordi said. “They talk about the campfire test. If you can play it around a campfire, that’s the measure of a good song in a traditional sense.”

Where the production has taken the form of a pastiche of Bon Iver’s electronic manipulation and style, it is based on Gordi’s unique experience and lyricism. This artistic lineage has been populated mostly by men, with bands such as Bon Iver, alt-J, The National, Volcano Choir and others. Gordi’s experience as a woman and its presence in her lyrics are an entrance to the scene that has been a long time coming.

Yet, composition, production and performance have been a triangle of separated events in Gordi’s artistic process — the “electronica” and the “folk” aspects occur at separate stages of development.

As time goes on and Gordi accrues more experience in production, the triangle of her songwriting will condense towards a point wherein the “electronica” and “folk” will condense towards a point that will be “folktronica.” As it stands now, Gordi’s style does not fit in the “electronica” or “folk” description. Her musical style occupies a crossroads — it is given a space to flourish by the emerging, vague genre of “folktronica.”

There are plenty of valid albeit annoying complaints against the use of the word “folk” to describe nothing more than acoustic songwriting; that goes back to the 1960s, when audiences would be divided on “folk singers” who sang originals and those who sang covers. But an undeniable aspect of folk music is the importance of the performance, a sacredness of which Gordi is reliant upon and a devotee.

“If I haven’t been on tour in a while, I get itchy to go out and perform again. It’s like an addiction. You want to feel all those things, even down to the frustrations,” Gordi said.  

While Gordi’s musical style seems derivative of Bon Iver’s, it displays its knowledge, admiration and command of the budding genre. The concept of “folktronica” captures this musical moment in time, driven by emotional experimentation with electronic instruments and tools.

Like with all genres, “folktronica” is a vague word, in this case used for identifying a movement towards the digital processing of acoustically processing emotions. As Gordi presently demonstrates high competence with this musical style, it is exciting to anticipate where she will go from here and how that will affect future electronica-folk singers.

As she reflected on her newfound addiction to performing, even for the frustrations involved, Gordi said, “I mean, it’s great because it’s what I want to do.”

Contact Bryan Nashed at [email protected].

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