‘What if birds aren’t singing, they’re screaming?’:
Inside Aldous Harding’s head

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‘What if birds aren’t singing, they’re screaming?’: Inside Aldous Harding’s head

A couple of years ago Aldous Harding was just another New Zealand folk musician. Then she found a fierce voice, and started playing a string of mesmerising live performances which now have her on the cusp of international stardom. Henry Oliver sat down with her to try and find out what sparked her transformation.

Aldous Harding speaks with conviction about her uncertainty. “Let’s just get one thing straight – I don’t know anything,” she says firmly with unwavering eye contact, before repeating it at half-speed. “I. Don’t. Know. Anything.”

“The thing I want to say to most questions I’m asked is ‘I don’t know’. Because I think I know but then I get a little offshoot of something that might counteract that thought and then it just turns into this family tree of insufferable confrontations in my own head that I just get paralyzed and I just go…”

‘What if birds aren’t singing, they’re screaming?’

We’re sitting at a small French cafe in Sandringham, Auckland, a few days before she starts a tour that will have her on the road eleven of the next twelve months. She doesn’t really want go into her history. Or her personal life. Or even her songs. She doesn’t want to over explain. She doesn’t want to ruin the mystery, but she doesn’t want to romanticise it either. She wants the music to stand on its own – to be enough. Which is not to say she doesn’t like talking about it per se. She’s just unsure about anything other than the music being crystallised and documented.

I’ve been listening to Harding’s second album Party (out today on Flying Nun and 4AD) since March, carrying it around with me like a secret. And for a few particularly stressful months, Party has provided an unexpected, non-literate comfort. It’s not the words themselves that she’s singing that I’ve found assuring, but the way those words sound when Harding sings them. And this has made me increasingly empathetic to her reticence.

Harding’s music is deep and weird and mythic. It exists in its own world and follows its own symbolic logic. She might not want to talk about her music because she doesn’t want to impose herself on your interpretation of her songs. She might not want to talk about her family and her relationships because her music evokes a world separate from biography, separate from fact.

But if facts are what you want, here they are: Her ‘real’ name is Hannah not Aldous. She was born in Auckland. She’s 26 years old. Her mother Lorina is an acclaimed folk singer. The two recorded a duet when Harding was 13. As a teenager, she became friends with Nadia Reid and the two started playing music together. She played in Lyttelton country band The Eastern for a couple of years. She was ‘discovered’ by Anika Moa who saw her busking in Geraldine but she had actually already been ‘discovered’ by Ben Edwards and Delaney Davidson. She’s had an on/off relationship with country singer Marlon Williams. Lorde is a fan. She drinks a lot of Red Bull.

Aldous Harding. Photo: Steven Acres

‘There is no end to the madness I feel’

Harding’s 2014 debut, Aldous Harding, was recorded in Lyttelton with Edwards and Williams. It sounds like one of those recently-rediscovered ‘60s/’70s folk records which already sounded ancient when they were made. Based around Harding’s voice and guitar, and supplemented by fiddle and the occasional percussion, Aldous Harding is striking not only for its sonic fidelity to those earlier, equally-mysterious musicians, but for its lyrical language – a kind of ancient English that, for all I know, maybe never existed except for on the tongues of folk-revivalists and period drama actors. Although, it’s not so much the words Harding uses, but the Chaucerian syntax and folkloric imagery: blood, betrayal, woods, fires, rivers, isolation, hardship, revenge, death.

“I had a bit of a nervous breakdown and I got really fixated on religion, so a lot of my themes were quite archaic,” she says. “I was honestly thinking in that language. I’m not kidding. Because I believed that somehow it gave weight to how I was feeling. Because it was older. A lot of musicians tend to do that, which I didn’t realise I was doing myself. It’s almost like plucking a bit of history and carrying it around with you somehow gives what you’re doing weight and meaning.

“In a way, I was slightly guilty of that at the start, but that was how I was actually thinking. I had this weird religious… I bought myself a fucking Saint Christopher. I used to stand at my boyfriend’s drum n bass gigs and grab onto it and just try and just blast the thoughts out of my head.

“It was just a bad time. I look back now and know that’s someone with anxiety that doesn’t know they have anxiety and they’re like everybody else and because I was creative I managed to turn into something far bigger than it was. But that’s the only reason I really started playing music, like properly, properly.”

Photo: Steven Acres

Aldous Harding was as much of a critical success as a pastoral folk album can have in New Zealand –  it was nominated for the Taite Music Prize, an award for the best New Zealand album of the year, its single ‘Hunter’ was nominated for a Silver Scroll, the songwriting equivalent of the Taite – and quickly Harding was playing shows all over the country, gaining a fervent following everywhere she went.

“When I first heard the recordings I was just absolutely floored and I hadn’t imagined that the live show could be any better,” recalls Matthew Crawley, an Auckland promoter and musician. “I just started seeing her play at various places and every single time it was a total revelation. You can be really impressed, you can be into a song, but it’s very rare that a performance can properly whisk me away these days. And the shows I’ve seen Hannah play have increasingly been just really gut-punching shows.”

To widen the scope of her live performance beyond her genre-faithful album, she would include other people’s songs in her set, songs like Kate Bush’s high-risk, high-reward ‘Wuthering Heights’, Roy Orbison’s classic ballad ‘Crying’, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s coal-mining chart hit ‘Sixteen Tons’, each song offering Harding an opportunity to expand her dexterous voice in new and often confronting ways.

Both Crawley and Ben Howe, managing director of Flying Nun, tell me about the same moment they each released Harding might be operating on a different level even they, two ardent supporters, had realised: Harding singing Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ by herself, without a guitar. “It was possibly the most stirring thing I’d seen in years,” says Crawley. “It was one of those things where you thought, ‘fuck, this is actually for real’. And people rose to their feet in spontaneous applause. It was quite crazy. That was when she announced herself as a force.”

‘Here is your princess, and here is the horizon’

I missed all this. Harding’s announcement came in a period of my life when I didn’t go out much. I experienced music as recordings, at home, in private. So it wasn’t until her first single ‘Horizon’ was released in February that her force found me. The starkness of the three circular piano chords, ringing around and around as Harding circles with them, expelling scenes from a failing relationship from her chest with a possession and focus that was at first frightening and then freeing. The subtle shift from anxious minor key verses to open major key chorus. The tone of Harding’s voice as she comforts, confesses, and then implores. Her use of ‘babe’ as a recurring rhyme, taking it from affection to bitterness as it builds. And then, of course, the princess and the horizon, both given no obvious context in the lyrics, but so full of meaning with Harding’s vocal evocation and, when performed live or experienced as a music video, her physical enactment.

No mention of Harding fails to use the word ‘theatrical’. And while this can betray a denial of music’s inherent performativity, it’s on ‘Horizon’ where her physicality is most expressive. When she performs the song, her hands are anguished one moment and pointing to the audience with a preacher’s admonishment the next. Her neck lengthens and tightens. Her eyes widen. Her eyebrows arch. Her cheeks hollow. Her entire body distorts to produce the tones her song demands. And, when the chorus arrives, her arms lift. “Here is your princess,” she sings, raising her left hand, “and here is the horizon,” her right arm extending, her finger pointing towards some imagined sky.

“That was a hard one to record,” she says. “Because it’s a performance more than anything. Doing the whole [she raises her arms one after the other in affectionate self-parody] thing. People lap that up, they love it. I actually mean it though, when I do it. And now it’s become something that is actually a habit that I do because it feels like the most natural thing. To not do that, I would have to actually stop myself.”

Photo: Steven Acres

‘If there is a party, will you wait for me?’

‘Horizon’ is, despite its high drama and physicality, a minimal masterwork and serves as Party’s centrepiece. But those expecting to hear more songs like it will come up empty-handed. Throughout the album, Harding’s fingerpicked guitar remains the harmonic foundation for her singing, complemented rather than displaced by an array of sonic and instrumental additions, many care of John Parish, the Bristol-based producer best known for his work with PJ Harvey.

While more musically linked to Aldous Harding as the first singles suggest, Party serves as a significant evolution of Harding as a songwriter, a singer and as an artist. Her language is contemporary, her songwriting reduced to its most potent parts and her sonic spectrum widened. Party ticks and bounces and buzzes and drones. There are synths and choirs and programming and samples. It’s an album of soaring emotion and minute detail.

“A lot of the stuff on my first record was stream of consciousness and now that I’m calm and I feel like I’ve got room to be considered,” Harding says of her development as a songwriter over the last three years. “And I take pride in my songs in terms of really trying to put them together as a song rather than ‘I want to get out as much of this poetry as I can’. That’s fine, let that be your initial spark, then you pull things out and you start to realise that it’s not actually all about you all of the time.”

More than anything else, the album is full of voices. A choir, musician Perfume Genius, Parish himself, and, of course, Harding. She’s forceful and strong, she’s small and delicate, she’s low and guttural. She’s a folk singer, a jazz singer, a pop singer. She’s a shapeshifter. She’s everyone and she’s no one.

“People always love to mention that I have lots of different characters and lots of different personalities and lots of different voices when I’m on stage,” she says. “And, you know what? That’s absolutely fine. It’s not a misread, but I don’t see that as an issue. I just sing the song how I think it should sound as a song.”

“When I first started playing, my voice was so tiny and I didn’t know I could do all this other stuff with it. And now that I’ve figured out I can do that, I like to experiment with different things. Someone said to me once, ‘oh your real voice is just like your speaking voice, but you sing, and I was like, ‘what the fuck does that mean?’ What the fuck does that mean?”

Photo: Steven Acres

‘Take Mum to Paris, jump on the big beds’

With a multi-continent tour looming and a record on the way that will be reviewed in major publications around the world, I ask her how conscious she is that her life is about to change. She knows it’s a trap and tells me so.

“I know the ways it’s going to change and that’s stuff I can’t control,” she says, “but the stuff I can control, I’m really excited for because I know that I really want to do it and I really want to do it well. And I believe in it. And I can say that and mean it and that’s nice.

“I just forget to be grateful that things have gone well for something that I didn’t necessarily want, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not really wonderful. Because of what’s happened, I kind of need to stop and go, ‘OK, even though up until now, you didn’t really work that hard, you know that you’re going to have to work hard now’.

“Up until a year ago, I didn’t feel like I’d worked hard. The songs fell out because I was unstable and trying things… The first time I felt like I’d actually worked really hard was when I went on my second European tour and playing every night and I actually had to focus and it became a bit of an endurance thing, which I haven’t had to do before.”

With the opportunities she’s become more ambitious. She’s growing up, she says, getting more confident and finding ways to turn her anxiety into excitement, into a focus, into energy. “I’m a little unnerved at how keen I am to be touring again,” she says. “Like, I’m worried that I’m going to say things like ‘I’m just trying to stay on top I’m just trying to keep up’. Because that’s how I feel a little bit – like I gotta keep touring and every day I’m not on the road I’m like… it’s weird. It only took one tour to make me really keen for it. Playing shows, being with my band.

“I used to hate it. Everything about it. Probably because I didn’t believe in what I was doing.”

So why’d you do it? I ask.

“Because people told me that I was good at it. But now I’m more confident. I really like it.”

‘The beauty is so close to me’

Party may not appeal to everyone. For some, Harding’s voices, both in their intensity and their elasticity, will read as affectation and the album will stick slightly in the throat. But most, who find their way amongst its drama, it will not only be one of their albums of the year, it will engrave itself on the inside of their skull, it will softly enter their daydreams and violently invade their nightmares. The girl with the thumb in her mouth. The lilting saxophone. The nasal eeeeeeeeeees and aaaaaaaaahhhhs. The screaming birds. The hard-won happiness. The princess and the horizon. There will be Aldous Harding, the woman and the myth, living in their heads, refusing to leave.

 


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