New Zealand songwriter Aldous Harding teases with cryptic lyrics and a feather-weight feeling on her third album Designer. Kirsten Johnstone speaks to the woman behind the songs.
The first thing that strikes me about Aldous Harding’s third record Designer is its playfulness. There’s an ease, and a hint of a tease in her voice as it swoops and croons.
The lyrics are cryptic, like fragments of misheard conversations. It sounds like Aldous is having fun, and the videos that accompany the first two singles ‘The Barrel’ and ‘Fixture Picture’ back this up.
The second song on the album, 'Designer' feels like she's gliding through a gallery, interacting with the art.
“That visionary shimmer / Do not lose your young eyes / Laughing at good work with your ugly son / Give up your beauty, designer”
In truth I have no idea what some of these songs are about, and I’ve become fixated on decoding them.
Not that I’ll get any help from Aldous herself.
For the past year she's been based between NZ and Cardiff, where her Welsh partner is from, but she's in New York when I speak to her, about to play a show. She speaks in her usual considered, introverted manner as I enquire about life in Wales.
“I’m as settled as someone like me can be, knowing what’s ahead” she says.
In many ways she seems like an old-world celebrity: enigmatic, shrouded in mystery, and not one to over-share or beautifully curate herself on social media.
Last time I spoke to Aldous, before the release of her 2017 release Party, I was given a list of no-go topics, which included her old band (The Eastern), her family (who are musicians), and her ex (Marlon Williams).
There are no such caveats this time, but it all feels a bit irrelevant now anyway. What I do ask about, are the clear boundary lines she created when she was starting out, and why these were necessary.
“I was very new. And some of the things that people were asking, was stuff I hadn’t thought about, and did not feel comfortable going on a tour through the dark corners of my stream of consciousness with complete strangers. Being a fragile person.
“And I understand that that makes people uncomfortable sometimes, but just because you can buy parts of people...”
Party catapulted Aldous Harding onto the international stage. It was championed by media like NPR, The Guardian and The New York Times, and gained her devoted fans around the world.
Here in New Zealand she took out the Taite Prize. She toured solidly throughout 2017, bewitching audiences as she went, with her magnetic, dramatic, and disarming performances.
A couple of the songs on Designer were in those sets: ‘Weight Of The Planets’, a bossa nova number which is clearly a break-up song (“Glad I pulled the reins on this thing when I did”) and ‘Pilot’, which appeared towards the end of 2017. Accompanied only by the steady plonk of a couple of seesawing major/minor piano chords, she sings of her own awkwardness and anxiety, (“I get so anxious I need a tattoo”) and her attempts to quiet her mind. It was written in 15 minutes. And no, she didn’t get the tattoo.
Some of these songs were written on the road, but the title track was written at her mother Lorina Harding’s house in Geraldine. That song set the template for the songs that followed.
“Once I had that in my head I was like, okay, we’re going to just blow it… blow it away. All of that tension, I’m going to try it another way, and see if it’s still interesting.
“That song was just an unapologetic groove, with unapologetic lyrics. Like ‘we’re going sailing’ - it’s madness! Every time I hear that song I laugh, because I’m serious, but it’s light. And I remember playing it for some people, and them going ‘you can’t say “laughing at good work with your ugly son” you can’t say that’ but it’s a fun way to look at criticism.
“I guess what I was trying to do with Designer was show that I don’t have to be serious to be serious, and that I don’t have to rely on any kind of trauma, or deliver it in any sort of way for it to have an effect.
“There’s lots of ways to work a space and you just have to trust yourself and be prepared for people not to trust you.”
I try my hand at an analysis of one of the songs, ‘Damn’. “When you jump up and down the chains almost sound like a tambourine” she sings. I interpret the lyrics as being about disappointing people, and being frustrated by her own stubbornness. She pulls us out of the Aldous spell with the lyric “Damn it Hanny” - a nickname I’ve heard her friends use.
I’ve almost nailed it, she says, but that it’s not about a relationship other than the one she has with herself. I’m not the first journalist who’s played this game, and she laughs at my frustration in wanting to decode her songs and probing her to find the meaning in them, or the story behind them. But she also has some sympathy.
“I have been that person, wanting to catch a plane, find Neil Young, pin him down, and shake him and say ‘what did you mean?’ I know what that feeling is, but it’s not always helpful to talk things around the table, There’s a healthy balance between sharing, and withholding.
“Even if it’s not what I mean, the fact that people need to know means that it works. Because it’s strong, is it not?”
Yes, these are strong songs, and surprising and complicated, like their creator.
“I’m 28, it’s early. It’s early in my relationship with you, and the people listening, we’ve got lots of time to work it out.”
To record Designer she worked again with John Parish, who produced Party and is well known for his collaborations with PJ Harvey. In the same studio in Bristol Harding refined the songs, trying to retain a looseness, not overthinking them, while also realising the songs “had very specific needs.”
“It’s a very specific intuition, like a mother knows when her baby’s too hot, or hungry, and it looks like some kind of dark art, from the outside but you know, because it’s your thing, it’s your nest, it’s your story.”
If Aldous is the mother of these songs, growing them inside her belly, nourishing them, and birthing them, then Parish is the experienced midwife.
“We just tried to stay on the same page, exercise compassion and tolerance and admitting when we’re wrong.”
She says she doesn’t enjoy the recording process as much as some of her friends do.
“You learn when to hand it over, and when you’ve exceeded your talents, but then at the end of the day when you’re all curled up and the musicians are all there and the morning sun is streaming through and everyone’s in their spot, you go ‘oh, that’s what it’s for’. When it’s done, I feel fulfilled.
“Because I never thought I would ever make anything. I always felt too messy and too malleable, and too distractible, to ever stick at anything to make it interesting. When an unremarkable person manages to make something that other people say is remarkable on some level, that’s quite a feeling.”
I point out that there’s nothing unremarkable about her.
“But that feeling of being unremarkable, that’s part of what makes the music what it is, is all that rubbish. Fear and those things are much stronger than happiness.
“Regardless of how my performance or how, I don’t know, my relationship with alcohol, however that may look, my intentions are good, and pretty playful.”
We’ve been talking for 40 minutes, well over the allotted time. She’s put her coat on, taken the elevator down to the street and lit a cigarette. Her band will turn up soon to rehearse for her first set in over a year.
I ask if she’s well. It's a loaded question.
“You’re only allowed to ask me this because you’re from home.”
She inhales the smoke, and exhales deeply.
"But yeah, absolutely.”
Aldous Harding's Designer is out April 26