Aldous Harding is coming back to New Zealand. In the lead-up to her shows, she spoke to The Spinoff about live TV, maturity, and the weirder interpretations of her songs.
Aldous Harding is calling from her home in Wales. Only a couple of minutes in, the call drops. I worry I’ve said something to upset her. I was told she can be a difficult interview; hard to read, a little vague. She calls back almost immediately. She’d forgotten to plug her phone into its charger. She is, for the record, a delightful interview.
I ask what I’m supposed to call her. Aldous? Hannah? Ms Harding? She laughs. “Whatever you want, I guess.”
Harding is an artist’s artist. Each aspect of her work — from the music to the lyrics to the performance to the video — is somehow raw and exquisitely crafted at the same time. She defends herself from praise deftly. “I feel like an unremarkable person just trying to do something remarkable and I don’t really know that there’s a difference,” she explains. She says it quickly. This is something she knows.
She ponders the implication that she’s a craftsman a little more slowly. “I think imagining has never been a problem, in visualising futures or things I would do differently. That’s never been an issue. I just try to find the best way to present what I’m imagining. I don’t have a luscious music knowledge or anything like that. All the work is from my gut and then refined, I suppose.”
Harding is reluctant to say she’s talented, but she knows what she’s capable of. I ask her if her humility is imposter syndrome or just being practical. “Probably a bit of both,” she admits. She isn’t shying away from her abilities; she’s just recognising that she, like every other artist and person on Earth, is constantly growing. “I think if I believed in myself completely, in all aspects of my life, there’d be no point, you know? It would potentially be harder to find joy and fulfilment.”
Her first studio album was released in 2014. With five years of international acclaim under her belt, does she feel more mature? “It certainly feels like maturity,” she says. “It’s not actually necessarily up to me to have fresh ideas or to be bouncing off the walls, and the more that pressure is relieved I feel like I’m able to talk about it, rather than do it, which is maybe where some of this music is coming from.” Slowing down is a welcome stage in anyone’s career. At 28 she’s not old, but she’s old enough to use maturity as a reason to chill out a little. “I have an excuse to just be at home and practise preservation.”
Of course, she doesn’t stay home preserving herself every day. She’s old and calm today, but maybe not tomorrow. “This sense of freedom that you have — I don’t always feel that,” she admits. “Because I’m a regular person and one day I’ll feel mostly content. And then the next day I wanna burn it all down.” That’s part of life. “That’s where you really have to be patient with yourself, I think: you don’t have to know why you’re doing it. You don’t necessarily have to have purpose.”
I tell her this sounds pretty zen, and she laughs. “I’m not a very zen girl.” However, she does value the moment over the grand scheme. When I ask her what her role in the music industry is, she’s not sure she has one. “I’m just existing within it. It’s important to have role models, and it’s important to look up to people and to be affected so that you find yourself, and things like that, but I don’t know where I would put myself beyond that, really.”
When she writes music it’s not for a particular audience. “I kind of write until I feel a balance,” she says. That’s changed a little over time. “My writing seemed to be a lot more aggressive when I was younger. Not in sound, but there was a desperation that there doesn’t seem to be now.” These days, she’s less desperate. “I write because it’s my job,” she says. There’s obviously more to it — the joy, the craft, the growth — but she’s right. Her job is being a singer-songwriter, and she’s settled into it.
“I like to have done well,” she admits. “I like to be patted on the back and have someone say ‘you made jam out of that’. I’m not above that.” She likes to hear she’s done well from people she’s previously complimented; “people I admire, I suppose”.
However, she’s very aware that accolades are a poor motivator. “If I’m doing it for respect, I feel like I’m letting a damaged part of me drive,” she says firmly. “Do you know what I mean? It can’t be for reclaiming pride — for me, anyway — because it will steer in the wrong direction eventually.” Balance in motivation is as important as balance anywhere else. “A dash of vengeance is fine, but if there’s no humour in it for me, it isn’t real.”
Harding’s music has been subject to fervent fan interpretation. She’s open to this. “If people arrive at a place about it, I’m not going to tell them that’s not the right place, especially when I’m not gonna take them anywhere else.” That being said, some of the weirder interpretations can get her goat a little. “People were going on about ‘The Barrel’ being a womb and I was like a condom and there was a part of me that was desperate to say, ‘can we just take five and not?’ But then I was like, I’m not going to publicly shame. If that’s what they get, they’ve lived different lives from me, they’ve got different points of reference. A lazy comparison to me is spot on to somebody else and if I was going around trying to lasso up all the wild comments cast, I wouldn’t have time to write more confusing shit.” She’s surprisingly relaxed while she says all this. She ends the thought with a little que sera, sera attitude. “Whatever it is, is what it’s supposed to be, I suppose. As long as I’m doing my thing, everybody wins.”
She did her thing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon recently. It was Harding’s first time on live American TV. She agrees it was a success. “We went in, we dressed up, we did our business and then we left.” The experience was a new one in terms of pressure. “It was not enjoyable knowing we had one shot,” she says. “It made us feel like we didn’t know what we were doing in the moment. When you are put under that much pressure, it fills you with doubt. Of course, you do it and then you go, ‘oh, that’s just pressure.’”
What was the actual performance like, though? Harding’s partner, musician Huw Evans (H. Hawkline), has been listening to our conversation. He remembers the performance and chimes in. “I remember Jimmy Fallon shouting ‘Aldous Harding!’ and then it went black and then he shouted ‘Aldous Harding!’ again and it was over,” he recounts. I can almost hear Harding nodding in agreement through the phone. “I’d say that’s spot on.”
Though she lives in Wales and performs in the States, she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Harding is back here at the end of August to tour her critically acclaimed album Designer, performing in Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland, with a second night added in Auckland after the first quickly sold out. The show in Wellington has now sold out as well.
For Harding, creating music is a source of pleasure for herself as much as her audience. Finding new ways to express herself — whatever medium that comes in — is an opportunity for growth, and therefore joy. “I expect myself to think something weird, and that weird thing has now kind of expected me to be able to do something with it,” she says, explaining part of her drive to create. “One day I might wake up and I won’t have anything that I want to talk about, or the imagery stops. And I won’t be upset.” She pauses for a long moment. “But it’s unlikely to happen.”
Harding’s publicist checks in with us; it’s time to go. I’ve been very chill throughout this interview, but as we say goodbye I can’t help but gush a little. “You’re a really cool person, Hannah,” I say. “Oh, I dunno,” she replies. “You haven’t seen my flat.”