Stopping by Singapore to perform at Laneway Festival, Aldous Harding talks about holding mysteries and the power of one too many Red Bulls
"I'm not as famous as you probably think I am," responded Aldous Harding when a journalist asked how she engages with her fans on Instagram. At last count, the Kiwi singer-songwriter had 12,000 followers. If you stopped any random person on the street and utter the 28-year-old's name, you'll probably be met with a blank stare. But on the grounds of Laneway Festival Singapore two weeks ago, where she would perform later that afternoon, a mention of Harding will elicit an awe-struck response.
Two albums into her career, she's finally making her debut performance in Asia. The daughter of two folk singers, Harding released her sophomore album, 'Party', last May, two years after her eponymous debut record. It's gotten praise from fellow Kiwi Lorde, whose favourite new song was the guttural piano-driven 'Imagining My Man'. A notable departure from the gothic folk style that was often associated with the artist, Harding noted that it's difficult to describe the kind of music she makes now.
"I don't really know where it falls, but I think that I've moved away from a lot of the structure that my songs seem to take on the first album," she shared in a roundtable interview. With alextbh still performing at the neighbouring Garden Stage, the six of us huddled close, intently listening to the soft-spoken musician. "The way I moved out of it was very organic, not forced. I think that's the way with a lot of artists, you know? Even if it sounds worse, you're still growing. I don't really think about that too much."
Decked in her signature all-white outfit, Harding arrived armed with a Red Bull — she chugs up to four before a show — and had been getting by on a diet of Pringles, a Milky Bar, granolas and five cups of coffee. Having just arrived into Singapore the day before, she was due to perform in New Zealand and Australia for Laneway Festival, before going halfway across the globe to the U.K. and Paris. Though her schedule's a hectic chart, her downtime involves listening to a lot of Yoko Ono and George Harrison. While she doesn't read as much, Harding squeezes in some time for How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey.
Her nine-song set in Singapore started with the guitar ballad, 'Elation', before ending with 'Pilot', a new song. The relatively smaller crowd at the Cloud Stage stood transfixed, half-swaying, half-frozen at the sheer force of her understated artistry. Harding's voice, at best, is a volatile beast — haunting, fierce, sorrowful and delicate. Her best instrument, its vocal style ranges as she sings, possessed in performance. Accompanying such deliveries is her face, which morphs as each emotion escapes. As a viewer, it's hard to be feel anything but confronted by her penetrating gaze. Up close, her green-brown eyes are pools of mystery, darting about as she measured her response to each question.
"I'm just singing the songs the way I remember wanting to sing them as I was writing them," she responded, when asked about her performance. "It's kind of a bit simple, really. If you have too much Red Bull, it's easier to keep up."
Harding's songs aren't particularly literal for her. Take 'Horizon', a song she wrote in just under 10 minutes. As she belted out "here is your princess, and here is the horizon" with one arm outstretched, another rose soon after to welcome the other option. A track about giving someone a choice and knowing that you've already chosen for them, it has little to do with actual fairytale beings. Humour is injected into her words too, if you listen carefully to 'What if Birds Aren't Singing They're Screaming'.
"I think a lot of my songs come with a wink but they're not necessarily intentional even if they were, I wouldn't tell you where they are," she said with a glint. Noted for being rather tight-lipped about the meaning of her songs, she continued: "It would be a thing for me to walk through one of my songs with a complete stranger. I don't know. I'm not particularly good at talking about what's done, what's already there for you."
At long last, Harding took another pause when asked about the most crucial part in being a performer and musician. "Doing something interesting," she surmised. "Because it's difficult these days. Holding mysteries and sounding really good is not enough."