Aldous Harding: From A Distance

© Ellis Scott

WORDS

Aldous Harding grew up in the port city of Lyttelton, New Zealand. Amidst the promo run for her new album Party, she’s perhaps feeling a little homesick. “A lot of my friends live there and it’s where I began playing shows,” she tells me, as she prepares for her performance on the illustrious UK music programme Later… With Jools Holland. “I’m away all the time now and it’s feeling further and further away from me. It’s incredible what time and distance will move.”

As she scans her mind to offer me a glimpse of her hometown, she recalls “houses nestled into the side of the hills. Dogs and beautiful children everywhere. Industrial pops from the port through the night.” It’s clear that she holds Lyttelton dearly in her heart. “I started out there singing with my friends, then it was writing poetry, then adding guitar, then slowly working up the courage to finish songs and perform them,” Harding explains. “My friend suggested that I put them on record, which I didn’t think was such a good idea, but now it’s all I think about.”

This all-consuming mindset has its benefits, resulting in a haunting collection of distinctly gothic folk songs. Explored initially on the singer-songwriter’s 2014 eponymous debut, Harding’s second album Party digs deeper into her emotional core, her voice conveying an acute sense of intimacy over a minimal arrangement of gentle piano chords.

Produced by long-term PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish and recorded in Bristol, the album includes vocals by Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas, whose openhearted style supports Harding’s exposed approach to songwriting. On the track Horizon, arguably Harding’s most theatrical performance, her vocals move from forceful and sharp to a raspy, ethereal croon. The song’s video shows Harding singing directly at the camera in the middle of an open field. Watching her body contort, dressed in pagan-style robes, is a chilling and strangely vulnerable experience – one that spans throughout the entirety of the record.

© Ellis Scott

Released via 4AD, Party sees Harding maintain her stripped-down style while embracing a more experimental role. “It’s quite freeing knowing that I can make whatever I want,” she tells me. Her musical arrangements feel stripped to their bare essentials, usually centring on a few, repeated chord progressions. Yet, amongst the tolling piano, there are a number of unexpected delights – a choir, a drum machine, a saxophone – that all contribute to her chameleonic sound. “The album’s strong because I felt so strong when we were making it,” she explains. “I’m not afraid to try different things now.”

Harding’s fearless approach is apparent in the honesty of Party‘s lyrics. ‘He took me to a clearing/ The grass was warm and the air was soft/ Had me sit like a baby/ I looked just 12,’ she sings on the title track, painting a simple, delicate picture of her mind. “A lot of the songs were written about one person in particular. It’s a softer record.” She pauses. “I’m sorry – can you please give me a minute?”

I get the impression that, for this press run, Harding intends to play her cards close to her chest. Our conversation is not awkward per say, but her responses are sparse, and slowly considered. “I struggle with it some days more than others. Some days promo is all up in my head, and other days, I can’t remember a thing,” she admits. “I would be lying if I didn’t say I wanted people to like the album but at the end of the day it’s none of my business what they take from it. I’ve done my job. Now it’s everyone else’s thing.”

Occasionally, Harding’s voice softens, and she tells me about her plans for the future. “I want to write as many songs as I can before I die,” she says, explaining that music is a form of therapy for her. “I can’t tell you how much it’s helped. I just feel like I can’t go wrong.” It makes sense, as poetry seems like a natural extension of Harding’s personality. It creeps up in the way she phrases herself, her wording and tone. It raises its head one last time as we close the interview and Harding offers a view on love, finally granting a small glimpse into her vision. “Love is whatever you can stand,” she says cryptically. “If you can stand it and want to stand it, you can do anything.”

Photography: Ellis Scott

Party is out now via 4AD
Aldous Harding appears at Latitude Festival, Suffolk, 13-16 July

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