It’s been a pretty good year for Aldous Harding, the gloomy folk artist from New Zealand, all things considered. Not only has she transitioned to a new, major label nicely (4AD), but she’s released her second album, Party, which recently received the coveted Album of the Year award from Rough Trade. She played The Haunt in support of this album in a show that was as enchanting as it was surreal; as bewitching as it was beautiful and, for such little stage production, one of the most captivating shows of the year.
H. Hawkline, the supremely talented Welsh singer-songwriter, opened on the night with a solo show. Having seen him many times before with a band, it was initially strange seeing the more stripped-back versions of songs like ‘Means That Much’ and ‘My Mine’, but it’s testament to his talent as an artist that he pulled it off. His last song saw him swap over to the keyboard for an excellent rendition of ‘Last Thing on Your Mind’. Usually quite an upbeat song, it took on quite a forlorn figure, ending the set in a sombre fashion.
There was a strange atmosphere when Harding made her way to the stage. Of course she’s notorious for wanting silence throughout her gigs, which is perfectly fair enough by the way, but there was an inkling of headteacher/student atmosphere around the gig already. Additionally, Harding is an immensely strange performer. There’s a passion to her performance that straddles between the fervent and the downright bizarre. Throughout, Harding gurns her way through songs, with her eyes rolling into the back of her head like she was being possessed by a demon. At other times she locked eyes with members of the audience for uncomfortable eye-contact that felt like it was going to last forever. She’s certainly not going to be a live performer that will appeal to everyone, but there’s a magic to her performance. She’s an artist that cares about her music and for people that reciprocate that feeling, there’s almost a compensation of emotion.
Indubitably, it’s the exquisite music from her second album that makes this performance exceptional. There’s a range to her musical style and voice that keeps her performances diverse and fascinating. ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming’ manifested the best kind of mysterious aptitude that had the hushed tones and quality of Nico, while ‘Living the Classics’ saw her evoking the deep, gloomy tones of French artists such as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Christine and the Queens.
The best song on the night was Harding’s latest release, ‘Elation’. With her bawdy vocal which has a simply timeless feel, it showcased everything great about Harding. She’s an artist that could appear at any time in musical history but, somehow, she still manages to stay infinitely modern. ‘Elation’ mobilised Harding’s pensive folk technique. It was a song that crescendoed under the almost silent drama. There’s a reason Harding likes the crowd to be quiet and it’s for reasons like this. The silence helps Harding create a darker, more sophisticated sound that leaves a spooky atmosphere.
There’s many artists that you could compare Aldous Harding to: Julia Jacklin, Nico, Bjork, Nadia Reid, Julia Byrne, the list could go on and on. Yet there’s a magic to Harding that you simply cannot find in any other artist. With her intense, sinister and completely absurd live techniques contrasting her beautiful, alluring and delicate hymns, it’s a strange experience – but it’s one of the most gilt-edge experiences I’ve had all year. If you loved Party, you’ll love Harding’s live show.