There’s a live video of Aldous Harding performing single “Horizon” at Auckland, NZ’s Whammy Bar rock club in 2016. She fidgets and sways on the foreground, pulling at her lip and nursing a menacing stare, delivering lines like “I broke my neck dancing to the edge of the world” with blood-curdling articulation. The performance is downright terrifying in a sort of Lynchian way, the emotion palpable without any context. “That was the gnarliest version,” she recounts of the performance. “I’d drunk five cans of Red Bull.”
Party, Aldous Harding’s 4AD debut, is a meditation of sorts: on love, loss, pain and recreation. The narrative follows a progression that feels kind of akin to molting, with her and the listener emerging after the closing track, “Swell Does The Skull,” with new skin—raw and pink with change. Following many festival appearances and a national tour with Deerhunter, American audiences are just getting hip to the New Zealand songwriter—just in time for her to be working on new music, which she says she’s been playing at shows lately.
We caught up with Harding—first name Hannah—before her Northside dates while she lounged in her Barcelona hotel room during Primavera Sound. Read our interview below, and catch Aldous Harding at the AdHoc x Brookyln Vegan showcase on June 8 at The Park Church Co-Op.
AdHoc: Your stage presence is intense. I don’t have a better way of putting it, really.
Aldous Harding: Yeah, intense works, I’d say.
How do you bring that intensity and primitive emotion out night after night? How do you access that within yourself?
Well, that’s something I’ve been talking to my partner about, quite a bit. At the end of the day, I feel emotional, but where that’s coming from—and where I’m directing it—isn’t always necessarily where people would expect it to be coming from. I haven’t had a hard life, but I’ve got stuff that I can draw from. I’m a performer.
At that show [at Whammy Bar] I’d drunk five cans of Red Bull; that was the gnarliest version of “Horizon” I’d done to that point. It sort of fit, and it felt really good to deliver that song that way. Since I’ve been doing it a lot, the delivery changes, but I do like to kind of keep it to a formula, because that’s how I think the song works best.
It’s gripping for me, though I wonder how it comes across to audiences, especially at festivals, where people might not be as invested or engaged.
Yeah, every now and again, I’ll look into the crowd and I’ll see people turn to the person they’re with and kind of raise their eyebrows—or mutter something, or laugh. But, yeah, for sure, not everyone loves it. Not everyone understands it. That’s not a bad thing, you know?
You mentioned the Red Bulls on that one particular show—do you have a routine that helps you channel the energy you want to show?
I like to be wearing clean clothes. I really like doing laundry. I’m wearing a lot of white at the moment. Having a nice balance between caffeine and alcohol, and spending at least 40 to 45 minutes with the person I’m playing with to get into the zone—get ourselves into the same headspace, so I know they’re with me. But that’s about it, really. Make sure my guitar is in its case. Normal stuff.
I feel like at some point I’m going to need to be lenient, because I’m doing so much and there won’t always be time for all that. That’s what has worked for me so far. But you know me, I’m always mixing it up.
How do you feel about substances—you mentioned caffeine and alcohol—and their affect on you as a person and performer?
I’m still working on that. I’m pretty new to this amount of touring. I think a lot of artists will tell you that once you get messed up a couple of nights in a row, the fatigue gets to you. You make yourself sick, and then it’s about coping. It’s not sustainable, but it’s what we’re doing for now, because it’s one day at a time, really. We’ll figure it out. I think that’s a standard tour for a lot of people. I think after like five years, maybe I’ll change it up.
At this point, I definitely wouldn’t want to try this without caffeine (or both). If I didn’t have my Red Bull and my lager or my Mezcal, I would have to really dig—for now at least. I mean, I’m 26, and I’m still figuring it out. Maybe I’ll go the other way in two years, and stop doing this, and [start] doing yoga before gigs. I don’t know what works.
Your music is very cryptic, so I appreciated the context you provided in the NPR interview without spoiling the mystery—it enhanced the experience for me.
I just gotta say, it’s pretty weird with press stuff for me. It’s so funny to me that people are disappointed when the mystery is scratched down. That’s kind of the point. It’s almost like it’s a test, like, ‘How well have you calculated this journey?’ Sometimes I feel like people want to hear that stuff so they can understand me better, so they can feel more secure about what they think they’re hearing. I know that feeling—of wanting to get inside an artist’s head, but that’s because there’s an urgency that has nothing to do with their art.
It’s sort of like people who get others to fall in love with them to know that they can, and then they leave, because they’ve understood it and they’ve figured it out. They’ve undressed it, and there’s no more mystery. But then when I don’t answer things, people say, “Oh, she’s rude.” Even though that’s my thing! I just do what I feel like doing each day, and I’m not going to stress myself out by calculating by how little or much I should be telling people. It’ll change every day.
So, for example, the interview I did with Andrew [Flanagan of NPR], I felt super comfortable, and it was easy. I just said what ever came into my head. Other times I feel more guarded, and it’s clear they don’t actually know—like they don’t get it. They think they get it, or that I’m on some level with them about how they are getting it, and I really don’t know.
I think it’s interesting to learn about the origin of songs and themes, but I also like to place myself in the experience as well. When I listen to your record, I feel like I’m participating in it in some way.
That’s what I’m getting at. Once the song is written and recorded, it’s basically me saying, “There you go—this is how I think it all went.” And then it’s up to you. I don’t really know what else to say—I actually don’t know how people expect me to be, but I think maybe one of the reasons it’s interesting is because I don’t know. I know what I think about the songs. The songs on Party—they don’t feel old, but I had my time with them. They were about something that I no longer have, a lot of them.
There is a sense of loss on the record.
Yeah, and there’s more there, too. Of course I love my songs, and I really do believe in them. Especially Party; I think I did a lot of growing up between Aldous Harding and Party. They mean a lot to me, but they don’t mean as much to me as the new ones that I’ve written, because it’s potentially quite fickle. Now I’ve got my new favorites. That’s the stuff that I’m feeling now.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing, and I think it’s kind of become a bit of an addiction. I have a whole bunch of new songs, and I love working on them. I really like it—I really like all of it.