Quietly slipping from a set of wood-framed, glass panel doors, Aldous Harding almost goes unnoticed. “I’ve just been told to leave,” she confesses, gently lowering herself into one of the large, leather couches that line the walls of her label's London office. Alongside, there are discs from artists like The National, Daughter, The Breeders, and Harding herself. Why she was asked to leave the room? “I kept making him laugh," she says.
Harding has just finished recording a podcast but was distracting the host from recording his intro. This is something you don’t hear often or that you might not expect, but Harding is quick-witted and sarcastic. She'sa also a quiet observer; unfolding her tobacco pouch - it’s the one with the stock picture of a kid in a formal blue shirt staring contemplatively down at a cigarette he’s holding the wrong way - she expertly begins rolling a smoke with the precision of a surgeon.
Harding is from New Zealand and her “real name” is Hannah, the daughter of two musicians,. She was born in Auckland, and considers Lyttelton her hometown. Designer is her third record and follows 2017's critically-acclaimed, Taite Music Prize-winning and John Parish-produced Party.
She’s soft; in manner, in the way she speaks, the way she moves; the way she’s masterfully become best friends with Twiglet, the office dog. She’s also been in London for a week, meaning she’s managed to be privy to the strange weather of the British spring.
Creating a smoking area between two formerly residential buildings south of the river, plants climbing either side of us in an effort to reach the light amount of sun, we chat. Every morning when she wakes up, Harding puts on a pair of headphones and meditates, she tells me. It calms her for the day ahead, smoothing out any anxieties before they have time to take root. This ciggie, likely doing the same.
When the shadows become too chilly, we slip into the office she was previously expelled from. There are climbers in there, too: hanging baskets, big windows; an empty glass with a red lipstick stain around the rim, and piles of paper. She lowers the chair so that we’re on equal footing - or more technically, equal sitting. Two introverts walk into a bar...
On Designer, Harding is again working Parish. It was recorded over fifteen days between the producer's native Bristol and Wales. Since Party, the two have further strengthened both their working relationship and their friendship: “It's easy for me to trust him,” she says, “because I know when I play him my songs that he's heard me. That he understands me, or at least he's close to. That's something I don't see in everybody I play my music [to].”
In Wales, Harding got to see the countryside and jumped off the blue lagoon of Abereiddy, a former industrial quarry that the sea has long since taken over. "It was wonderful, but I wasn't present enough to write a piece about it," she says, brow-crunched; every few words mused upon before allowing them out into the world. “But, I mean, you take everything in. Apparently, if you see somebody's face, they can then arrive in a dream 20 years later, because it all goes in and then just pulls from the archives."
Being on the road, she admits, is no different. Poising the idea of the rolling British countryside she’ll get to see again during her sold-out tour in May perhaps having inspired the writing process to some degree. “I think it depends on how present you are,” says Harding. “If you're in a self-sabotaging rock n' roll headspin, you don't really notice those things. Or, you do notice and it's big and it's bright and it's powerful, and then you forget. Because you weren't really there.”
Harding admits she’s in her head a lot of the time. Because of this, she doesn’t find interviews or press an easy part of the job. It makes sense: you sit across from a stranger asking you where your innermost thoughts come from and how you put them down onto paper only to do it again hours later. "I’m trying to respect and see the usefulness in this side of it,” she admits, pausing. “Which I do.” Pausing. “But at the same time, just because it's available in the store doesn't mean I have to bring it to your door with a smile and a story."
"I can't be the person doing and the person watching at the same time"
Harding’s stories are in her songs; they are weaved through their lyrics and sung through all of the voices inside of her. Not to say she literally has lots of voices inside of her, that is. Just that each song has its own and each of them is what comes out along with the words. Many of the songs on Designer, she started writing while on the road with Party. One of these, "Pilot", she added into setlists, including her show at Islington Assembly Hall in London at the tail end of 2017.
Its lyrics strongly paint the picture of time on the road, of certain ill habits Harding found herself falling into on the road to battle thoughts, which she would then get angry with herself for. Whether for having them or realizing them is left up to "Pilot", Designer’s closing track; ellipses before the next chapter. The song has references to sadness and Albert Camus; an existential, absurdist philosopher who claims that ‘he who despairs of the human condition is a coward.’
"Pilot" took 15 minutes to write. “I was having a strange series of conversations with myself,” says Harding. “I realised I was a creature of habit. ‘Pilot’ was me laying it all out and going, 'This is what I think is going on.'" Moods. Fears, anxieties, sadnesses… addictions? "I don't know if I was writing out of emotion or necessity, because I was living it. I can't be the person doing and the person watching at the same time.” It was a confession, she adds, to everyone. “This is just what it is, it’s how I am sometimes,” she further confesses. “A lot of the time.”
Since Party’s release in 2017, it’s the world who has been watching. Despite this, Harding refuses to write for anyone but herself. “My obsession at the moment is producing things that make other people feel in an interesting, listenable way." She rightfully classes this as good work. "I like the feeling of if I write something that seems interesting and John will go, 'That's a good track,' and I'll go 'Right?' Not like, 'Yeah, I'm great', but like it makes sense. Like, he sees it, right? He felt that, right? I like that feeling because everybody deserves to feel good at something."
Anyone who has seen Harding perform live has felt it, too. They’ve seen it. She inspires feelings of disarmament, catharsis, otherworldliness. “I'm an incredibly sensitive person, I think that's clear,” she says, her lips forming more words before they surface. “I'm also very strong, but as for the sensitive side, you couldn't pick a stranger thing for a shy, paranoid person to do.”
While onstage, Harding is anything but. She is ferocious and focused and soft and wild; she believes that if you enjoy yourself too much, then other things suffer. "If I lose myself, I lose sight of the sonic balance I'm trying to create or the textures in the music I'm trying to show." Playing with others, as well, means conjuring up a connection no one outside of that circle can understand on top of the connection that they can.
"We take and we take and we take and then we blame the thing for its availability that we demanded. This is a game of longevity. Be patient."
Silence, as they say, speaks volumes. Evident in the way Harding answers questions and the way she composes tracks like ‘Damn’ with lyrics like “My Mother said / “Why must you drag all the hopes out of bed?” / “I blame the seasons” / We all have our reasons I meant” and its meandering, melodic crawl over the piano keys. That being said, there’s no specific set of circumstances she needs to write, quiet or otherwise.
"Heaven is Empty" was written on a train. "The Barrel" was thought up while cycling to the dairy to pick up something for her mum. Harding also came up with the treatment for the video of the latter, co-directing it alongside Christchurch-based filmmaker, Martin Sagadin. In the video - which has been described as being ‘off-kilter’ and has prompted pleading questions around its meaning - Harding appears, dancing along to the track in puritan garb and a large hat which she picked, she says, because she just liked the look of.
Uncomfortably confused though Harding might be over some of the video’s theories, she mostly prefers to leave it, and her music, up for interpretation. Still, the idea that people were so determined to figure it out, of when and why and how and where, of perhaps the fact she might have lost a baby or the hat represented a condom or it was a call to Sylvia Plath’s "Metaphors" and she was afraid of pregnancy, was odd for a video that was, as she says, just meant to be interesting. Its meaning? “I wanted to bring people into something for a bit, and then let them go. So, that's what that was about, really. People are just so keen to get to the bottom of stuff that's none of their business."
The video for "The Barrel" wasn’t the first time Harding has observed the greater need we, as human beings, have to know the meaning behind art that ought to be left up to interpretation. But then isn’t interpretation the act of seeking out knowledge? Perhaps, but interpretations also exist to be open. "For some people, knowing all this stuff makes it more interesting. But I know what people are like," she says, "We take and we take and we take and then we blame the thing for its availability that we demanded. This is a game of longevity. Be patient."
"I can only see a few steps ahead at any given time...I'm not really good at looking into the future"
Harding is in no rush to let us know everything that makes her tick; something she also holds this true for the people that she admires. "This is a very new relationship between myself, my music and the world. I'm not gonna give it all up at once." We both know it would be less fun if she did, and she smiles as though she's found what she's been looking for. "People don't know what they want sometimes. You need to just take away the options."
Many of Harding’s songs, from her self-titled to Party to Designer are pieced together using metaphors. In fact, during an interview with VICE, she once realized it was metaphors that drew her to music. Metaphors are strong in her lyrics, making it no surprise when the most intensively focused expression appears on her face as she indulges me with one: The Poor Beautiful Ballerina.
Not that Aldous Harding is saying that she is a poor beautiful ballerina, exactly, she stresses; it’s a metaphor, after all. "It feels like if you go to the ballet and you're so moved by this beautiful woman that you get this primal urge to know her secrets and her weapons, she begins, continuing without pause, “Like, 'Where are you hiding this stuff? How did you attain this? How long did you train for?' And I understand these questions when you're moved, inspired, or intrigued by something. I have these questions, but I don't allow myself to ask them.”
This same message could work with other metaphors; with Russian Matroyashka dolls, opening up and opening up until there’s just one tiny, immovable remnant; or marionettes bending too far before breaking. "It's like going backstage and picking up this poor beautiful ballerina and you start taking off her clothes. Then, you take off her shoes and you look at her feet then take her hair down, prod her body and go, 'God, you're strong' and 'What are these?' while you’re moving her limbs around," says Harding in a way you can see the image, through her eyes, is playing directly to her. "She never intended for that to happen."
The Poor Ballerina metaphor is telling when it comes to how it feels for Harding to try and explain why she does this, why she did that, and what she might have in store next. "I can only see a few steps ahead at any given time," she admits, wetting her lips. "I'm not really good at looking into the future."
Harding lives in the moment, for the now. She has to; her world has rapidly expanded fairly quickly and expects people will continue wanting to know it all. The key is to try to not think about it so much. “You can think yourself into a corner. You can think yourself around the world,” she says knowingly. “In the end, it doesn't matter. If it matters⸺you know, people matter, love matters⸺it can't matter that much, because it wouldn't arrive and disappear the way it does and it wouldn't let us lay with it in the interim.”
Every morning after waking, Aldous Harding slips on a pair of headphones and meditates to prepare for the day ahead. Unapologetically, she allows her art to apply as much pressure as it receives; sharing, but by design.