Love that name. I can only find one instance of a well-known Aldous, and that is the male writer Aldous Huxley. It is a very rare name, but one that has only helped give the New Zealander Aldous Harding a distinctiveness. It’s certainly memorable, more so than her birth name of Hanna.
From the timeless folk sound of the beautifully intransigent ‘Stop Your Tears’ (I will never marry my love / I will die waiting for the bells / Death, come pull me underwater / I have nothing left to fear from hell) to the fiddle-infused ‘Hunter’, and the utterly hypnotising ‘Two Bitten Hearts’, Harding’s music is perhaps best described as gothic-folk, full of haunting prose-tales that speak of tenaciousness in the face of bloody reality. This latter song from her début album is just her, a quivering voice, an acoustic, and occasional snatches of ghostly bowed saw over six and a half minutes, the rhythm of the guitar unchanging throughout, the effect intoxicating and quite beautiful as she sings as if in a trance.
She has said that her music is primarily motivated by fear, “It’s been the same fear I’ve had for… years. I don’t know where it comes from, but I don’t think the drugs in my youth helped. It doesn’t debilitate me, I can still charge around and I don’t feel so alone in a crowd. I had to figure myself out after I lost it. I had to figure out why I got there and once you’re in that sort of place you don’t have a choice.”
Harding has shown herself to be mature beyond her years, her music recalling the likes of Sandy Denny, Vashti Bunyan, Joanna Newsome, and early inspirations Nick Drake and Neil Young, although her music is hardly directly influenced by any artist in particular; “The Aldous Harding record isn’t easily placed because it wasn’t trying to sound like anything. It was quite organic,” she says.
But she can sing about death and tragedy like those greats; the album made in a time in her life when things weren’t so good on a personal level, something she is a little reticent to talk about. But when you see her live, she simply wraps herself in the moment, seemingly self-hypnotised, with a darkness clouding her face, lost within her stark yet riveting guitar playing and fantastical stories, that she has called ‘gothic fairy tales’. Indeed, on stage she will sometimes sing unaccompanied, such as at last year’s Great Escape, where she set aside her guitar to sing Edith Piaf’s version of ‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien’ (No, I Do Not Regret Anything). The show was part of her first ever European tour, where she travelled solo except with an Italian manager by her side; “I’d finish a gig and I’d be struggling with the language barrier and having people fall all over me, and she’d just tell everyone I was tired and take me to where we were staying,” Harding has said. “Then she’d tell me, ‘I’ve bought you a pack of cigarettes, and I’ve got Clueless loading on the laptop’. She thought I was the weirdest thing in the world.”
The daughter of veteran Kiwi folkie Lorina Harding (Aldous was only 13 when she co-wrote and sang on one of her mum’s album tracks) she is a Christchurch local (but now based in Australia), and whose records are released in New Zealand by Lyttleton Records; Lyttleton being a port town to the north of Christchurch (host to the 1974 Commonwealth Games), whilst Lyttleton itself was a location for some of the scenes in Peter Jackson’s 1996 horror movie The Frighterners.
A home for the indigenous Maori for about 700 years, Lyttelton Harbour was discovered by European voyagers passing by on 16 February 1770 during the Endeavour’s first voyage to New Zealand. Although still a busy port town, Aldous Harding’s music is helping to put this historical port back on the international map, via her folk-flavoured songs that are imbued with magical stories. She took some time out to answer a few more questions:
How’s it going, and where are you?
Well, thanks. I’m in a hotel in Melbourne.
Can you tell me about where you live now, and what you like about it?
I live with a friend and my partner in Lyttelton (fellow singer-songwriter Marlon Williams). Swim a lot, party. It’s nice to be home.
What characteristics do you and other Kiwis share!?
Frivolous use of the word “literally” I suppose. The urge to get out. Then come back. (Ahe and Williams moved to Melbourne in Australia for a short while, before moving back to Lyttleton recently)
Can you tell me about your musical upbringing, what inspired you, and how you began to learn songwriting?
I listened to the radio. My parents. I wrote poems that turned into songs, then needed the music so eventually gave into learning the guitar like everyone else.
You’ve said that you consider your songs as ‘kind of gothic fairy tales’. Are they based on other people, your experiences or are they literally made up?
It’s a combination. These things are difficult for me because sometimes I feel comfortable to discuss it and other times I don’t. There are interviews/radio shows out there I’m sure, where I give you the truth about certain songs but I couldn’t tell you what or where they are. My feeling now is it isn’t really anyone’s business where it comes from. Would I ask somebody if they liked a particular song because they themselves fantasise about drowning themselves or their babies? I know exactly what my songs are about and I try not to tell people, because a friend of mine really loves ‘Stop Your Tears’ and I made the mistake of telling her what it’s about one day. Now she has to distract herself and look elsewhere when I sing the last verse about being at the river with the baby, because she knows too much.
Literature seem to be a big part of your life, and informs your music. Is that fair? And what books have you read recently that you would recommend?
References have been made and absolutely good writing inspires me all the time. I’m reading Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Cancer Ward’ at the moment.
I love ‘Two Bitten Hearts‘, its droning qualities, and the sound of the bowed saw. Can you tell me a bit more about that song?
I wrote it about my boyfriend at the time. I was so worried he would leave because I was so spooked and irrational at that time. It was sort of a lullaby to trick him into thinking I was an angel.
You’ve got two shows coming up in Brighton very soon. Have you been to Brighton before?
Yes, I have. It was lovely. I was there for The Great Escape. I look forward to this year.
When can we hear your new album? And how, if at all, will it be different from the first one?
Shhhshhhshh! The songs are nicer, a lot sweeter and a lot calmer. I want the next record to be a combination of my healing songs and the things I like since then.
Between March and May, Aldous is on tour in Europe and the UK, culminating in an appearance at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton, 19th-21st May. While on tour, she will be road testing a cycle of new songs, before recording a new album in the UK in July.