Aldous Harding's performance on Later ….. with Jools Holland last week was flooring. Accompanied by a simple piano, the New Zealand songwriter delivered a stark but intense version of "Horizon", a song from her acclaimed new album Party. Standing at the microphone, Harding sung with an intense focus, her animated facial expressions and gestures adding to a performance that was as compelling as it was curious.
While the power behind her sway is perhaps a challenge to the more conservative among us, the unique and fascinating appearance no doubt ignited new passion for many.
I've heard more than one person refer to their obsession with Harding as a sickness, a spreading plague that is hard to curtail. As a relatively new fan of the 26-year-old gothic-folk singer, I'm still in the awe-struck phase, the holy-grail joyfulness of stumbling upon an artist that is running full pelt on a winning streak. It's the gold-medal trifecta: vocally outstanding, lyrically profound, and visually fascinating.
In my growing enchantment with the Lyttelton-born composer I've watched painful interviews where she looks both uncomfortable and yet also not, where she seems shy but could also pass as just quietly confident, speaking only when she feels she has something to say. I questioned why this was so intriguing, realising that it was because she is a sort of living oxymoron, impossible to figure out. Which of course, is just the kind of intrigue that leads to stardom.
My housemate, a New Zealand native and long-time fan of Harding, heard me playing "Horizon" some months ago and came into my room to very seriously question me about what I had and had not heard of Harding's Party. It was to be the beginning of many wholehearted discussions about Harding's work. My holy-grail joy has, pleasantly, never faded. "It screams New Zealand to me," my housemate said. "Southern, disconnected, New Zealand madness – but as art."
Harding's original name, Hannah, certainly doesn't embody the masculine alter ego that is 'Aldous'. The serious, mad-eyed stage persona Harding has adopted evokes the same niggling question that many superstars face when they cross into the realm of fame – is it a product or is it a genuine display?
Described in an interview as focused, driven, and that she knows what she wants, Harding is stated as having three things only that she thinks about when she wakes up: If she has a place to sleep, if she has clean clothes, and her songs. She has been described as the "woman with many voices"; a wild skill she has embraced through trial and error, resulting in a peculiar range of perfectly executed vocal accents. What remains is a most disturbingly poignant and hypnotic harnessing of one's craft. A sum of all her previous parts, what remains is Aldous Harding.
When an artist hits their stride, consumers often lose track of the artist's origins. We see the famous as stars, blazing, afire in the light of 'the big time'. And yet in Australia we are beginning to see locals such as Marlon Williams, King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard and Courtney Barnett hit the stages on shows like Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, and Jools Holland — all of these a profound stepping stone for artists on the rise. There is something hugely gratifying about knowing the place a fellow artist has come from, knowing that they started playing on the same stages you did, sat in the same grotty bars, breathed the same city air. And when we see them in full flight, so magically alive in the midst of their craft, we feel alive for them, tears smarting the corners of our eyes, knowing that one of us made it.
The fact remains that it doesn't much matter what is truth and what is fiction. What matters is that Harding is fundamentally unique, mesmerizingly strange, and unapologetic in her simplicity and in her song. Harding's talent is entwined with her mystery, a territory uncharted by all but Harding herself. The calibre of her work is momentous, and the answer is not to seek truths about her but rather to enjoy the fact that we simply cannot know. We are merely listeners, confounded and inspired.
Lorde and Sheryl Crowe were among the accompanying acts on Harding's recent Jools Holland performance and I asked my housemate if Lorde (an enormous fan of Harding's) performed before or after Harding. "Why?" she asked. "Because," I said, staring at Harding frozen on my computer screen. "Fuck trying to follow that."
Harding's image is as perfectly polished as her many voices, her intrigue a stirring scent you can't quite put your finger on. Often described as serious I cannot shake the feeling that a dry humour lurks right below the surface of all we see. She has the smirk of the Mona Lisa, as if harbouring an obscure and intelligent wit that again tells us she knows something we don't. She is shy but completely un-shy. Reserved but entirely attractive, dark and yet ultimately dazzling. The power of Harding's performance reveals no cracks, no flaws, and yet her lyrics are full of such. Her songs denote the very things her appearance does not: anxiety, tempestuousness, and confusion. And yet it is her obscurity that ties it all together.
Of all the things that strike at the heart of me through her work (as equally great as her vocal style, which prompted my housemate to mutter her response of "Yeah, poor fucking Lorde …") are Harding's words. As a writer she encompasses the kind of Rimbaud potency and nebulous intrigue that most composers hope to grasp. Her lyrics, as stripped bare as her songs, are childlike and yet they ache with maturity, combining universal understanding with poetic observation. She has nailed the Hemingway technique of telling a story in one short line: "If there is a party – will you wait for me?"
There is great solidarity in knowing that artists such as Harding are still emerging to join the likes of odd and stirring women such as Patti Smith, Catherine Ribeiro, Maki Asakawa, and PJ Harvey. It is a relief to know these artists exist, and there is little doubt that Harding now walks on into similar greatness.
Esther Rivers is a Melbourne based writer and musician. Follow her @EstherERivers