The last time I saw Aldous Harding perform was on a Thursday evening in March at Wellington's City Gallery. Clad entirely in white, and seated on stage with a guitar across her knee, Harding captivated the packed room with her elastic, shape-shifting voice and delicately plucked notes.
As compelling as the material from her debut album was – haunted vignettes that let 60s/70s English folk music, ornamental sean-nós singing, and dense ancient language dovetail together – the high watermark moments of her set were newer. Built on the foundation of her debut, they unfolded with the logic of a dream, and a disregard for the olde world phrasing she'd previously employed. Singing in an unsettling upper register, Harding asked the listeners, "If there is a party, will you wait for me?" Several songs later, she offered a frightening thought in a jazzy cadence. "What if birds aren't singing they're screaming?"
A couple of months later, I called her in the UK, where she's been busy playing shows to promote the May 19 release of her new album Party through 4AD, the legendary British independent record label that gave us the likes of Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Dead Can Dance, St Vincent, and Grimes.
After listening to Party, I found myself thinking about the differences between her old and new songs. I wanted to know more, specifically how her use of language in song had shifted from ancient to something more conversational and contemporary. "It's interesting you bring up the language thing," she says. "When I was making my first record, I think I felt slightly trapped by my mind and my genre. I think in one way, that archaic language I was using came from a kind of mild obsession with the devil."
When Harding talks about being trapped by her mind and having a mild obsession with the devil, she's dancing around what she described to me once as, "The battle between good and evil, a battle that evil often wins." She calls it, "The world's oldest story." It was the overarching theme that connected every song on her debut album, and a suffocating set of thoughts to let inhabit your mind. "I wanted to create imagery that might suggest how uncomfortable I was in my head," she continues. "Archaic language seemed to move those stories along. It took a bit of practice for me to learn how to say what I mean using my everyday language. I don't have to hide behind archaic poetry anymore, and yet it's still poetry, which has made these songs so much more satisfying for me."
While she was working on her early songs, Harding had washed up in the port town of Lyttleton, just east of Christchurch. While she describes the years she spent living there with friends in a flat on the hillside as some of the happiest of her life, she isn't big on reflection. This becomes abundantly clear when I ask her whether she can recount any formative moments that inspired her to pursue music and performance.
I'm not very good at drawing on things that have happened, things I think might happen, or things I want to happen. I'm very much in right now."
"To answer your question, I'd have to really dig deep," Harding admits. "When you lose anything, you have to retrace your path, go back step-by-step and try to figure out where you left it. I don't think about why I do what I do, or why I started doing what I do, because I'm so obsessed with doing it right now, and what it means to me right now. My head is full of songs I'm writing now, and things I am thinking now. I'm not very good at drawing on things that have happened, things I think might happen, or things I want to happen. I'm very much in right now." However, having followed Harding's work for years ago, I've pieced a bit of her history together.
The daughter of Canadian folk singer Lorina Harding, she grew up between Auckland, Dunedin and a farm in Geraldine. After finishing high school, she headed overseas, traveling through Europe, Canada, and the UK in a boozy haze before returning to New Zealand. Harding had dabbled with music since her late teens, so once she was home, it was only natural she'd fall in with musicians.
One of the first musicians who came across her was legendary New Zealand folk-pop singer/songwriter Anika Moa. "I was in Geraldine. She was playing outside of the theatre I was playing at that night, and her voice captivated me," Moa remembers. I asked her to play support for me that night, and thus our friendship began… I'd never seen her before then and was so confused as to why she was here busking and not overseas?"
Moa wasn't alone in her enthusiasm. Not long after, Harding joined up with Lyttleton country/Americana collective The Eastern. She spent two years touring with them, along the way opening for Old Crow Medicine Show and Fleetwood Mac. Performance by performance, she gained confidence. "I was always told it would come really naturally, but I never really wanted to do it when I was younger," Harding admits. "It did feel natural and easy though, and I liked how it made me feel when I knew I'd done a good job and made people feel something."
Music might have only been a dabbling in her teenage years, but the power of theatrical performance had captivated her from early on, and its influence began to pour out. "She is an impressive performer, almost in more of an actor type way where she goes into her inner-inner self and comes back with a haunting sound," Moa continues. "Her songwriting is fucking ace too. I truly believe she is a star, and I hope she reaches them."
In 2013, Harding headed into local audio engineer Ben Edwards' recording studio The Sitting Room. There, she turned the songs she'd been writing in her bedroom and testing out on stages into an album. After an initial limited edition release through Edwards' boutique label Lyttleton Records, Harding's self-titled debut started to catch ears outside of New Zealand. Overseas touring followed, as did re-releases of the record in different territories, and more recently, the opportunity to record Party with PJ Harvey producer John Parish in Bristol.
Over a few intensive weeks, Harding, Parish, and a cast of special guests including Perfume Genius' Mike Hadreas (one of Aldous' past touring partners and a Parish collaborator) carved out the album. "When I dropped into the studio on that first day, we had coffee and a bit of a laugh and got right into it," Harding recalls. "It was like, okay, what are we doing first? We're going to record 'Imagining My Man.' John, get on piano. I'm going to get on guitar. We laid it down, and we were straight into the album."
Not only did they complete Party on time, they completed it with time to spare, and they were happy. "I was concerned with getting it done, and making sure it felt how I wanted it to feel at the end," Harding continues. "I was in business mode so that at the end we could all have a moment. I didn't want to waste time experimenting or jamming. Doing what we did was more spiritual for me than any jam session I could imagine."
Viewed as a body of work, Party takes it cues from the likes of Scott Walker, Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom and Vashti Bunyan, letting evocative piano figures, dirgey woodwinds, and strident rhythms rise around the minimal psychedelic folk landscapes of her previous work. Song by song, Harding explores the powers of metaphor and theatre, taking on a variety of roles that includes folk singer, balladeer, and chanteuse, in the process evoking her past and exploring her future by remaining firmly rooted in the moment.
Audio engineer, Ali Chant of Toybox Studios, worked on the mix for Party. Writing to me by email, he offers some thoughts on Harding and her work. "When I first heard the tracks and met her, I was struck by what an intriguing, funny and complex person she is. I immediately started to get a sense that the persona of Aldous Harding was like a skewed mirror image of the real her, and definitely something coming out of the subliminal."
Like Chant suggests, in totality, Harding isn't just what you get on record or in her arthouse music videos. This becomes particularly apparent in concert. Dr. Nabeel Zuberi, an Associate Professor in Media & Communication at the University of Auckland - and a music thinker well versed the English folk and post-punk traditions - saw Harding play for the first time earlier this year. After she came up in a casual conversation, I sent him an email. "The show was theatrical, but she wasn't even the slightest bit remote as a star, instead quite intimate and local for someone who seems on the cusp of a 'brilliant career.'" he writes. "[It] gave me the impression that Harding is an artist with a strong, idiosyncratic vision that seems unruffled and quite unique."
Much like Moa, Zuberi is quick to identify the theatrical aspect of Harding and her music. Alongside theatre, something else that spoke strongly to her from a young age, and hangs heavy over her music, is the power of metaphor. "Actually, when you bring up metaphor, I think you answered your question about what inspired me to pursue music," she admits. "When I discovered metaphor and what it meant, I got really excited. That was what really pushed me through into music."
"Some people are good with sitting with a metaphor and coming up with their own meaning for it, but most people need to know what it means, and can't relax until they do."
As she's learned over several years of touring, and the release of her first album though, making use of metaphor can be a double-edged sword. "It's kind of a drag," Harding says. "Some people are good with sitting with a metaphor and coming up with their own meaning for it, but most people need to know what it means, and can't relax until they do." She freely admits she's been guilty of this as well. "I've wanted to go screeching up to people I admire and say, what the fuck did that mean?" Harding laughs.
These days, however, she probably wouldn't, and she isn't particularly keen to explicitly explain her songs in detail either. "In giving that person asking about your song something, you are taking away from so many other people by making its meaning tangible. Once you do that, not everyone can access it anymore."
Following Party's release, Harding will embark on more performances throughout Europe, America, and the UK. "I'm aware that this might not last forever," she admits. "I know that things aren't always as they appear, but for however long this lasts, I want to get on with it. This thing I'm looking through is very small in circumference, which means that is where all my energy is going. I'm so in this moment." She pauses briefly. "I know it will get old. I know I will miss my family. I know one day I'll want to come home." But will it; and will she? The questions doth beg themselves.
'Party' is out May 19 through 4AD and Flying Nun Records.
Image: Ren Kirk