Aldous HardingHarvest Sun @ Arts Club 4/12/19
As the cinematic house music fades, a lone figure slips through the stage curtains. Without making a sound, ALDOUS HARDING approaches the mic and reaches for her classical acoustic guitar. The main feature is now in session.
Over the past few years the New Zealand singer-songwriter has developed a significant cult buzz for her fiercely unique live shows, with 2017’s Party and 2019’s Designer (released on 4AD) opening her up to a far wider audience. Cryptic and capricious, her songwriting shifts between neo-folk torch songs and queasy alt.pop, prone to flashbacks of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci-inspired Welsh psychedelia (so, it’s no wonder she’s found a kindred spirit in bandmate and partner, H. Hawkline). This, paired with her deeply intense stage presence, makes Harding impossible to ignore.
The first thing you notice is Harding’s look. Her most recent music videos have paid homage to surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, though tonight she emerges looking like the ghost of a Victorian sailor. Her mother was a Canadian folk singer and puppeteer, perhaps explaining the curious manner that she stalks the stage, heavily reminiscent of Hunky Dory-era Bowie, with some The Man Who Fell To Earth humanoid awkwardness mixed in. Between songs she’s painfully slow, deliberate and mindful of every action. During the first two acoustic tracks, I’m So Sorry and Living The Classics, her eyes roll back and her cheeks crumple into a grimace, as her voice curls in on itself. At times she looks perplexed or hesitant, as if performing at gun-point.
Yet, somehow, Harding’s theatrics never feel contrived. Her angular, Theresa May Dancing Queen limbs and surgical precision simply appear a natural, uncoloured extension of the music. I’ve never witnessed anyone work silence like her, either. Everything is laid bare to the point that watching her can often feel highly uncomfortable. Holding your breath, she wordlessly commands your attention. There’s nowhere to hide. Small talk, standard conventions, it all slips away.
With Harding the underlying pain and absurdity at the centre of everything is worn on the outside. What’s on the surface might look peculiar at first, is soon recognisable as something much more familiar. In her weird, wounded and confounding way you see something of yourself. Uniquely exposed, she sings directly to our collective oddness.
On the rare occasion she does speak, she attempts an explanation. After the stagnant beauty of What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming, she admits, “I know I’m not known for my smiley, easy going presence. Everybody’s different,” adding in, “two things can be real”. A few songs before she says, “I’m quiet because I am focused. I’m not closed. I am open,” finishing with a grin. During the song Designer, Harding reels off lines like a fed-up fashionista, adding extra emphasis to “Give up your beauty”, as if she’s dropping a heavy clue.
Each arrangement is treated with just the same delicacy as well. Sparse and subtle, notes linger, suspended like dust motes. Guitarists lean back, sitting out of entire songs. In Zoo Eyes when a solo line does cut in, the stillness is quickly weaponised, as if you’re stepping out of a fine mist into a concentrated jet stream. Hitting the chorus, the song’s thick pad of harmonies feels like a huge pay-off. Treasure exercises the same restraint. Harding’s eyes flicker before the hook, bringing her back to us, as if its serene tide was about to pull her out for good. Band and audience both quietly attentive, all equally invested; it seems to drive the music deeper.
During the jumbled shuffle of The Barrel, three friends dance, peaches bobbing in their hands above the crowd (referring to lyrics: “Look at all the peaches, how do you celebrate”). Harding’s previously described the song as “serious, but seriously happy”, which adds up, being as joyful as it is abstract and open-ended. New tune Old Peel follows suit. Harding plays a mug with a drumstick while yelping at the crowd as they ape back. It’s quite the contrast to the sincere, heartsick march of penultimate track Imagining My Man. Yet, here’s Harding at her most pure and paradoxical; still singing, sashaying and clattering at her coffee cup as the Titanic goes down.