Gordi: The pop star doctor who answered the Covid call

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Jess Gleeson.

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Gordi makes music which mixes organic and electronic elements

Singer-songwriter Gordi thinks it’s “incredibly selfish” not to wear a face mask during the coronavirus pandemic. As a practising doctor in hospitals around the state of Victoria – the current “epicentre of Covid in Australia” – she’s perhaps more qualified than most musicians to talk on the topic.

Other music artists such as Noel Gallagher, Ian Brown and Jim Corr have all recently rejected the face covering and there have been anti-mask protests around the world.

Gordi, who decided to scrub up and help out on the wards again after coronavirus put paid to her tour with US indie-folk stars Bon Iver, is urging anyone with a mask aversion to reconsider.

“As someone that is going to work in these places everyday, where health workers are putting their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk – to wear a mask is not asking you to do a great deal,” the 27-year-old tells the BBC.

World Health Organization (WHO) advice says non-medical face coverings should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible.

In Australia, the rules vary from state to state, and recent outbreaks in Victoria have meant that everybody must wear one whenever they leave home.

The Aussie folktronica artist, whose real name is Sophie Payten, acknowledges that the case for the effectiveness of them “isn’t hardline” but believes “there is evidence suggesting their effectiveness”.

She says: “It’s becoming a sort of respect thing. If I see someone walking down the street in Melbourne without a mask on, I think, ‘Screw you! You think that you don’t have to do what the rest of us are doing?’

“Taking those measures to protect the vulnerable people in our community, and if you’re lucky enough not to be a vulnerable person then do what you can to stop the spread.”

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Jess Gleeson

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She has been working as a doctor in hospitals in Greater Melbourne, Victoria

True to her word, the junior doctor is seen sporting a mask herself in the video for her new track Extraordinary Life, which was filmed in Bangkok in March.

The ethereal and “stripped-back” song appeared on her “incredibly personal” second album, Our Two Skins, which she decided to go ahead and release as planned in June. It will be explored in greater depth with a series of alternative versions on her forthcoming follow-up EP.

“It kind of marries all my favourite things about music; organic elements with some distortion and electronic elements,” she says.

At the start of 2020, after eight years of juggling both, the singer studiously placed her medical career on hold. She moved out of her Sydney flat and headed to London to commence a series of intercontinental tours with British band Bear’s Den, Icelandic folk-rock act Of Monsters and Men, and her friends Bon Iver.

“I said to my manager, ‘Man, this feels like too good to be true’, and of course it was!” Gordi laughs, referring to the postponed gigs.

She soon flew home, and after volunteering her medical services again, was eventually asked to help out in one of the country’s most densely populated regions, from August.

Throughout a stringent recent regional lockdown, she’s been living with her partner and her partner’s mum in Melbourne; taking extra care to sanitise herself before going to and from work.

“The thought that you could bring it home and give it to one of your loved ones is frightening,” she says.

‘Unease and panic’

The city has been under tighter restrictions than other areas, including a curfew and stay-at-home orders; and anti-lockdown protests have become a regular sight. It has just started to ease its restrictions, provided the numbers keep going in the right direction.

Gordi has been picking up shifts in a variety of hospitals across Greater Melbourne, covering medical staff who have been sent home to quarantine after becoming exposed to the virus.

“The mood, as soon as you set foot in the door, there’s this real unease and panic,” she explains.

“Before you set foot in the ward you have to kind of don all the PPE [personal protective equipment] – the big gown, the mask, the face shield – and you’re just constantly sweating in that all day, and people are really out of their comfort zones.

“Normally someone doing my job – you take some blood, order an investigation, type some notes on a computer, see a patient,” she continues, “For all of that you’re having to wear all this gear and the containment of infection just feels impossible to conquer, so you’re constantly on edge thinking, ‘Oh god, did I just touch my head before I’d taken that glove off?’

“You’re constantly chasing your tail.”

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Jess Gleeson

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Gordi’s second album was recorded in an old cottage on her family’s farm in Canowindra, New South Wales

Since the release of her record, Gordi has worked on a palliative care ward (re-purposed for Covid patients) and in a rehabilitation hospital. She dealt with one patient who had developed a brain tumour and then contracted coronavirus on top – meaning she could not be visited by her family.

The musician and her fellow healthcare workers are tested for the virus every two weeks, and she admits the “scary scenario” is at times “overwhelming”.

Reprising her role as a doctor in such a crisis, has given her a fresh perspective on her music.

“When I’m deep in the music world I feel quite self-indulgent,” she says. “I’m writing songs about myself and I’m talking about myself in interviews, looking at photos of myself, and posting about myself on social media.

“Going back into medicine where it’s entirely focused on the other person, you know you’re helping someone.

“But then interestingly this year, the amount of people flooding my inbox saying, ‘This song has helped me through this’. Oddly enough, through music you can reach more people, more quickly than [you can] a patient for a consultation.”

While coronavirus did rob her of seeing the world (for now, at least), perversely it did allow the world to see her perform a live-streamed gig in an empty Sydney Opera House.

Which is surely both a dream and a nightmare for a performer from Down Under?

“It will forever be one of the highlights of my career,” she beams. “Growing up 300 kilometres west of Sydney, playing the Opera House was like… I wrote it on several pieces of paper as a teenager as something that I would like to do one day.

“I did think more people would be there!” she jokes.

Gordi had always intended to go back to medicine at some point, although not this soon.

The “constant shifting of gears” this year has at times left her “teetering on the edge”, both mentally and emotionally. But she’s determined to make it work, as both music and medicine “give me fulfilment”, she says.

“I think I need one to escape from the other.

“Covid has been a terrible tragedy to so many people, but for me it’s just been a gross inconvenience.”

Gordi’s new EP Extraordinary Life drops on 28 September, and her second album Our Two Skins is out now.