Tagged: Aldous Harding

Chasing rainbows with Aldous Harding

The third album by Aldous Harding, New Zealand’s woman of a thousand voices, is called Designer. Its sleeve represents the title vertically – white on matt black, in a form that immediately recalls the pulsar signal on Joy Division’s classic 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. Like Joy Division, Harding’s name is missing.

On the video for the album’s single, The Barrel, the viewer is led through a tube of drapes to find Harding, in black with a white ruff around her neck and a very tall straw hat. She looks straight down the camera lens – until the hat is pulled down to cover her entire head. Later, she dances in a blue mask, and by the end of the song, in her underwear.

It’s surely the strangest, most disconcerting clip we’ll see or hear this year, full of jarring lyrics that the sparse, eerie music highlights. You can make of it what you want. It’s just Harding being Harding, albeit Aldous (her stage name) rather than Hannah (her real one): a born performer, who either compels or repels listeners by virtue of her sheer otherness.

On a Skype call from New Zealand, a conversation that goes for well longer than the allotted time is filled with long pauses, odd digressions and elliptical observations as she tries to explain her art. “I’m not really trying to do anything, you know, they’re just ideas,” she says. “I can only follow these ideas and the imagery around the choices I make.”

Harding is artfully deflecting the possibility that Designer is especially designed. The first songs that came to her, she says, happened while she was on the road, touring her second album Party – the album which elevated her from a Kiwi curiosity to a cult star, praised by, among others, a one-time New Zealand DJ called Jacinda Ardern.

Those songs, she says, were darker than the ones she wrote at home. “I’m unaware of how much of it is conscious,” she says. “Maybe it was a subconscious strive for balance, which is all I feel like I’m ever trying to do. But even that balance is invisible to me; I couldn’t tell you exactly what that looks like. And if I did, it would be incredibly boring for both of us.”

And she quotes Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Harding is no ingenue, though. Growing up, her mother worked in the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, at the bottom of South Island. “I remember sitting in the dingy old dressing room and watching my Snow White video while she was rehearsing … She did clown work, and she’s a puppeteer. So I know how to work a space, which is all my job is, really.”

If you’ve never seen Harding work that space, look up her rendition of Horizon on Later… With Jools Holland, from 2017. It’s a stark piano ballad of just a few widely spaced chords, played by Harding’s producer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey. Harding sings it perfectly, but it’s the eye-popping theatricality of her performance that lingers.

The connection to Parish came about through both bravura and chance: Melbourne songwriter Laura Jean suggested he might like to work with her; Harding inquired; Parish said yes. “I’m not much of a fan-girl,” Harding says. “Of course, it felt amazing. But at the same time, I didn’t grow up desperate to meet these people or work with these people.

“I remember going, oh, great. That’s positive. But I didn’t punch the air or anything.”

Designer’s nine songs are probably Harding’s most focused set yet – or most balanced, as she suggests. But it’s still an enigma wrapped in a riddle, as she deploys, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, different voices from song to song. Trying to pin her down, on record or in conversation, is like chasing rainbows.

“I guess they’re characters,” she says of those voices. But they’re all her. “It’s an instrument, you know – people change the settings on their guitar, depending on where they want to take you, or take themselves. That’s what they’re there for, and because I am a theatrical, diverse person I don’t see any harm in that, in embracing all of those parts.”

“I guess that’s kind of what Designer is about … I knew what people would do with that word. We all know what that word means.” She loses the thread, thinking through what she’d do with that word herself. “Maybe I was going for a combination of, this is something I’ve worked really hard on, you know, in my head, for you to understand or to feel.”

Whether you enjoy what Harding does or not maybe depends on how comfortable you are with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in her work, and her. “That’s how I feel a lot of the time, because like a lot of people, I am a lot of different things at once. And sometimes it’s hard to understand yourself, or accept yourself and whatever state you’re in.

Does she enjoy unsettling an audience? “I enjoy doing the thing that I find interesting really well,” she says, suddenly sounding very uncomfortable herself. “Segments of my generation seem to have an issue with admitting they’ve been affected [by something], you know, they’ve [got their] hands in their pockets.

“Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m not somebody who could necessarily hold your interest in any other way. I don’t know a lot about art and music culture. And I am a little shy, and I like that I am who I am, and I can get up there and do something interesting, knowing that the person up there is not necessarily the person you would meet, and how nice that is.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 26 April 2019

Jess Ribeiro: LOVE HATE

Jess Ribeiro’s first two albums, My Little River (2012) and Kill It Yourself (2016) received a great deal of critical warmth but not a lot of exposure. The first was a dark acoustic folk-blues record with a minimum of instrumentation. Kill It Yourself, produced by former Bad Seed Mick Harvey, added strings and percussion, but still, the songs stood almost alone.

That they did is a testament to Ribeiro’s talent. But whereas those records are sepia-toned, Love Hate is an all-electric technicolour lunge towards pop, backed by guitarist Jade McInally and drummer Dave Mudie (the latter a member of Courtney Barnett’s touring band). The results are vibrant and clearly aimed at introducing the Melbourne singer-songwriter to a bigger audience.

The bright spangles of guitar that burst through the dream-pop haze of opener (and single) Stranger, indicates Ribeiro is out to get your attention. Produced by New Zealander Ben Edwards, who has worked with Aldous Harding, Marlon Williams and Julia Jacklin, Love Hate is arguably more immediately arresting than any of their records.

But that shouldn’t make it any less satisfying in the long haul. There are still hidden depths; the surface is just a little shinier. Following the natural arc of a love affair from chance meeting to attraction to dissolution, and bound together by three short “Vignette” interludes, its 12 tracks are as liable to sneak up on you as they are to jump out.

Love Is The Score Of Nothing, the second single, is the latter. Leaping straight in at the chorus, it uses the zero-sum metaphor of tennis to make the point that nothing leaves you as empty as the end of an affair. “We did it over and over again,” Ribeiro boasts, as the song skips into double time, but romantic defeat leaves her back on the street, alone.

The song crashes to a messy conclusion, before gliding into the slower Painkiller, which posits her lover as a “sweet, bitter remedy” – suggesting the relationship is back on, if only for self-medicating hookups. It highlights the care that has been taken with this album’s sequencing, which ensures a flow of mood, purpose and pace, as well as storytelling.

Earlier in the album, Chair Stare is straight-up lust – but Ribeiro directs it at an inanimate object, a “hard wood, four-legged animal”, with early shrieks of guitar feedback from McInally and alternating stabs and waves of synthesiser. It’s all over in a couple of minutes: Love Hate never wastes your time.

Young Love deploys a slinky trip-hop groove and a more heavily processed electronic sound. It’s one of the sleepers on the album, and proves Ribeiro’s versatility. It’s easy to see her pursuing this angle further in the future. The menacing Goodbye Heart is closer to the sound of Kill It Yourself, with strings building the tension.

Lay Down With The Earth features a shiver of violin and Ribeiro’s plangent vocals over a relaxed motorik groove by Mudie, before the album concludes with Crawling Back To You – which Ribeiro promises she will, right after she’s given herself a stern talking-to for her transgressions. This is an album that deserves to be held up to the light.

First published in The Guardian, 5 April 2019

Marlon Williams: Make way for love

The breakup album is a standard trope of rock music. Bob Dylan set the benchmark in 1975 with Blood On The Tracks; Beck’s Sea Change (2002) is a famous more modern example. Now Marlon Williams – the 28-year-old Melbourne-based New Zealander with the golden throat – has offered his own contribution to the form with his second album, Make Way For Love.

And Williams is making no secret of the album’s source: the dissolution of his three-year relationship with another acclaimed New Zealander, Aldous Harding, in December 2016. He even coaxed her to sing on the album’s penultimate song, the duet Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore.

“I think she saw how important it was to me, more than anything, and that song, more than any other, expresses a feeling I couldn’t put into her words any other way,” Williams says. “I’m actually telling her something in that song, and she’s responding through my words in her voice, so it’s a really important song for me.”

After a long apprenticeship in his home country, Williams burst into international view with his debut solo album in 2015. He was acclaimed for his storytelling gift and stunning voice, a tremulous instrument that’s often been compared to Roy Orbison. His band the Yarra Benders came on like an Antipodean Stanley Brothers, with string ties and high harmonies.

On his second album, Williams let those affectations go, as the songs came in a rush in the wake of his split with Harding. This time, they were mostly written on piano, not guitar. It wasn’t a conscious move away from country, he says, as much as moving towards something much more personal and revealing.

Even before the breakup gave him the material he needed, though, Williams says he wanted to make a more focused body of work. “I wanted to lock into a certain theme, regardless of what it turned out to be. My first album was pretty broad and undefined, so there was a real desire to close off certain things and just really get into one mode.”

Williams had previously been reluctant to draw on his own life for songs, but this time he couldn’t help himself. “It was freeing and exciting in one way, and also kind of terrifying in another. Nick Cave talks about songwriters being cannibals of their own lives, and I’ve always sort of tried to avoid that cyclical drama feeding into songwriting.”

But Williams’ focus in the immediate aftermath of the split helped him to simplify and unify his approach. “I wanted to close off everything else except for one thing that was going to really carry this body of work through,” he says. “So the listener will get to the other side and feel one mood.

“The hardest thing was really trying to tap into the honesty but not getting caught up [in details] that don’t matter, that aren’t essential to the feeling. It took a little bit of a re-set in my brain to get used to it, especially because I’m naturally such a storytelling songwriter. But the thing wanted to come out, so I had that going for me.”

Williams says that for him, the process was therapeutic: “I’m a much more rounded person coming out the other side of that album. But, you know, it’s difficult, it deals with difficult things, because it was so personal. It wasn’t easy in that sense, it was a bit of a gut-wrencher, but it needed to be done.”

And Harding? “I’ve given her the record now. We haven’t really talked about it, but there’s an unspoken respect, I think, (a) for my decision to make the record and (b) for my decision to be pretty open about it. She preserves her privacy and keeps it all about the art, but we’ve definitely got different approaches about that stuff.”

Is he prepared for the possibility of an answer record? “Well, it’s close enough to [Harding’s album] Party; there’s a lot of stories in there!” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be bound in a certain way throughout our lives.

“I can’t not have been influenced by her over the course of our time together. I’ve known her since we were 16 and I’ve always found her to be more musically on point than anyone I’ve ever met, so she’s definitely all over the record in a lot of ways.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 February 2018