Aldous Harding on "Designer" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, November 21st, 2019  

Aldous Harding on “Designer”

Decoding an Enigma

Apr 29, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Aldous Harding is intensely private. She might have grown up in Christchurch, New Zealand but when I ask her about the tragic mosque shootings that happened there in March she respectfully declines to comment. It's obvious she's thought deeply about the tragedy. "It was horrible," she offers. "If I did know what to say or how toI don't think an interview about my album is the place." She also loathes talking about the meanings of her songs. "I don't want to muck with other people's ideas and I don't want people to muck with my mine," the now 28-year-old once remarked, in an interview with Office Magazine. Yet, her songwriting, beautiful as it is, is opaque and can benefit from accompanying cliff notes or some kind of enigma machine to decode meaning. Fortunately, she decides to oblige today. First the caveat: "I don't always feel like discussing [my songs] you know, but I think I will now, just because I'd rather say it than try and figure out how to dart around it."

We're discussing "Zoo Eyes," the third track off Designer, her third album. "Why? What am I doing in Dubai/In the prime of my life/Do you love me?" she sings in the opening lines, drone-like and raw, in the deepest register. When she gets to the chorus, it takes off, a kaleidoscopic layering off "zoo eyes" in ascending falsettosit's ethereal and faerie-like. But what exactly are zoo eyes?

"Imagine the sounds you might hear in a place like a zoo?" she asks, relishing in the silences as she reaches for the right words. "The cacophony of roars, and shrieks, elephants and things: zoo eyes is like looking into somebody eyes and hearing all that."

It is suddenly nightmarish, this Cocteau Twins-reminiscent slice of almost pop. The image it now evokes stays like a cold sweat. Going to the source can be perilous and forever hijack the individual listener's own meaning and impulses. Yet the potential to peel deeper layers of meaning from a canvas so latent and rich is gratifying. One meaning doesn't need to be sacrificed for another to thriveeven if it is the author's.

Growing up with musician parents, Harding, an animal lover, toyed with the idea of studying veterinary sciences. In her 20s, when she did decide to make music her career, she quickly revealed herself a prodigious talent with her 2014, self-titled, goth-folk debut. By the time Party, her sophomore effort was ready for release; she was signed to tastemaker label 4AD. Party received international acclaim and made several of 2017's Best Of lists and the following year won her New Zealand's prestigious Taite Music Prize. She is now in it for the long haul.

Harding is talking about starting her new tour and being nervousNew York is cold and she fears she might fall ill. "I mean if I have to sing 'Zoo Eyes' with a cold, it's not going to be so good," she says with lightness. During her last tour, she became obsessed with how the show must look. She appeared possessed by the different vocal characters her songs called out and wore impossibly pristine white ensembles throughout. "I'm a little unsure what to expect this time," she says. "I have a plan but we'll just have to see. I'm as curious as everyone else I think." As it turns out, she needn't have worried too much. She's the toast of the town when she performs in New York, and later in Washington D.C. where NPR's Bob Boilen is all praise for her.

Harding wrote most of Designer's songs on her last tour, going straight into the studio last summer and reuniting with producer John Parish after her 100-date tour. In playing Party, it became clear to her what kind of songs might be missing from her repertoire so she willed them into being with her pen. "Damn" was the last song to be written; she knew that the album needed a "lull before the lull" (just past mid-point on the album, before a set of four heavier-themed songs) and she wanted a self-portrait of herself as an artist.

"I was pretty terrible about that song," she explains. "John was asking me every day, 'Did you manage to write a song last night? You know you did say you would have it today.' I had to keep my head down, put my hand up and say, 'John, I hear you.' And he would say, 'I know I trust you but we're two days away, now would be the time.'... I had to just sit with it and figure it out."

When she finally gave the song to Parish it was almost nine minutes long. "I knew that wasn't going to fly but I presented it to him in that way, and then we sort of made a unanimous call on which verses to remove," she says. "I can tell I was lazy, instead of saying what I was trying to say I was kind of over indulgent."

The finished song, however, is perfectly formed. A sparse piano ballad that channels Vashti Bunyan, with a lolling rhythm as if in a rowboat, on a lake with only the gentle breeze for company; it brings an enormous sense of wellbeing. It's vaunted by her poetic lyricism, as she astutely employs the image of a tambourine as a metaphor of her as music-maker. "Damn a shammy, I'd thought I'd made a tambourine," for when she presumably got it wrong and didn't have a song. Knowing the effort she now places on her songwriting and sometimes at the expense of others she apologizes: "Sorry I was late and you didn't get your weekend." Yet she ends with a playful revelation: other times songs can come to her without any agonizing, without even trying"Damn it, Hanny/When you jump up and down/Your chains almost sound/Like a tambourine." Harding might be guarded and at times come across as dour but Designer is warm and full of humor.

There's a general levity that pervades the whole album, pointing to an artist, growing into their craft and personal life, yet comfortable with their difficult choices. The first two songs "Fixture Picture" and title track "Designer" both reconcile choosing art over matters of the heart"better to live with melody and have an honest time," she sings on "Fixture Picture." There is a cheekiness to "Treasure," and you wonder if she's found a new love when she purrs: "I've got my eye on you now treasure."

For three years, Harding who now resides in the UK, was part of one of Lyttelton, New Zealand's most famous pairingsinextricably tied to its folk scene's resident heartthrob Marlon Williams. He recently had a cameo in A Star Is Born, as the Roy Orbison upstart. Williams, who now resides in LA, had a hand in producing Harding's debut and has talked openly about their relationship, claiming they will "always be tied together." She sang on his last album, the duet "Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore," though when first approached, she told him to "go find someone else." In the end she did capitulate. They appear to have a loving respect for each other, but an even higher regard for their métier. The song is about their breakup.

What is it about Lyttelton and the various acts (Harding, Williams, Nadia Reid, French For Rabbits, and Neil Finn's favorite Tiny Ruins) that have broken out of this small coastal scene to international acclaim? Harding concedes that there is something romantic about a small port town but also offers a sobering take: "There are a lot of drugs and alcohol. It's sort of where sometimes it feels like that's where creative types go to die. There's two bars for every person who lives there sort-of-thing. Everybody knows each otherI don't know what's in the water? It's like anywhere, you've got one thing with one personand, it's community isn't it?"

Community is a recurring theme in Designer. So are fertility, motherhood, and the goodness that exists in the world-be it in the existential humanism as propounded by French rebel poet Albert Camus or in Wordsworthian pursuits of nature. All these themes intersect in album standout, "The Barrel," and acutely so in the bizarre accompanying video-where there is a terse equilibrium between the awkward and beguiling. She was going for a vibe and sweeps aside the online chatter of it being about abortions and erections.

When asked what she hopes her music will do for listeners, she replies with insouciance: "Anything, whatever they can get out of it."

So it's perfectly fine to listen to a Harding tune and feel confounded. To come out of her concert, like many have done, unsure of what they've just witnessed. To be truly mystified by her facial expressions on her Later with... Jools Holland performance of "Horizon." Or be simultaneously bewildered yet innately understand the witch's mask she reveals under her phallic-like bonnet and Amish get-up in the video of "The Barrel." You may not like it or get it but it does make an impression and provoke an emotion, memory or sense of place. You can call her weird and laugh at her or with her. But she does draw the line at making you feel unhappy. "It's not meant to make people feel bad," she says emphatically. "My intentions are always good."

Yet, she has received her fair share of criticism, as is expected for any one with a fearless, singular vision, as hers. She agrees: "I think when you have the freedom to do whatever you want and when you are a diverse performer, and not necessarily afraid to look stupid or try things, or hide yourself reallyyou have to be prepared for the responsibility of being able to do whatever you want, and that other people have that right in their own way...because I am an artist and I know what it's for and what it means. There's room for everything. You just have to be prepared to carry it."

But has anyone ever got her meaning so wrong that she's had to speak out?

"Yeah! Someone got 'Horizon' pretty wrong in Germany," she answers, "and I had to explain to her that that's not what I'm trying to say. I'm not even going to say what it is because it was so rough and lame. It was really dumb and not at all what I was trying to say. And maybe that's my [fault]. I feel like sometimes I give people too much credit and sometimes people give me too much credit."

She claims it does not upset her when people get it wrong. "I think I care less and less," she adds. It is not solely her responsibility, she feels, to engender meaning or propel listeners to that place of affecting emotions that she operates from; as she writes the songs mined from her own inner life and begins with the best intentions. "But," she concludes "it's always nice when somebody does get closer and it makes them feel more-that's nice."

www.aldousharding.com

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