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