On the momentous occasion of the release of Aldous Harding’s second album, Party, Gary Steel digs up a revealing interview from his heaving archives.
When I chatted with Aldous Harding in May, 2014, she was an almost-unknown Lyttelton-based singer-songwriter with one album just out. I was infatuated with it. Still am. I can’t think of too many albums from New Zealand or anywhere else that are as easy to fall in love with. Having just released her second album, Party, through 4AD in foreign territories and Flying Nun locally, Harding has become a hot property, the next Polly Jean or Nick Cave or whatever. This never-before-published interview transcript provides a great – if brief – insight on where she was at just three years ago.
Gary Steel – I’ve got the flu, so if you hear me coughing and spluttering just ignore it.
Aldous Harding – I got swine flu when it was going around earlier. I was on my back for four days just sweating into a mattress. It was awful.
Gary – It’s gone through every conceivable permutation, and now it’s lodged in my sinuses. Music sounds like it’s coming out of a tinfoil speaker. But anyway, enough about me.
Aldous – No, let’s talk about you. I’m tired of talking about me. [laughs].
Gary – Have you done quite a few interviews lately?
Aldous – I did like an hour-long one last night, but no, I’m up for it.
Gary – Where are you calling from at the moment?
Aldous – I’m calling from my house on the hill.
Gary– That’s in Lyttelton?
Aldous – Yeah.
Gary – You’ve lived there for a long time?
Aldous – About three or four years.
Gary – I couldn’t really find the detailed bio stuff that people normally have, like where you grew up, where you’d spent most of your time, how old you are, that sort of thing. Do you mind filling in a bit of that stuff?
Aldous – No, absolutely not.
Gary – I don’t need to know what your favourite colour is.
Aldous – My favourite colour is fire. [laughs]. We moved a wee bit when I was younger. I was born in Auckland, then we moved to Dunedin, until I was about 11, then Mum met a guy and we moved onto his organic farm in Geraldine for 10 years and they got married.
Gary – This is the Waihi Bush, is it?
Aldous – Yeah, Waihi Bush.
Gary – I love that product.
Aldous – It’s great, isn’t it? I haven’t been taking it for awhile, and I can really feel it. I should really get back onto that, I’m just a bit lazy.
[Says hello to her flatmates].
Gary – What was your overseas expedition all about?
Aldous – Just to travel after highschool, do a bit of soul searching and wanky things like that, get out of my head a little bit, because after highschool you can be pretty damaged, people aren’t really human when they’re in highschool are they? They kind of… they can be quite cruel and just… it’s very hard to learn who you want to become. Then I lived in Europe and Quebec for six months working in a café.
Gary – Were you a highschool achiever, or did you know that you were heading towards being a singer-songwriter?
Aldous – I wasn’t a moron [laughs]. I passed fine. I just didn’t try very hard, because I didn’t think that I would need school for whatever it was that I was going to do. I got university entrance, but I didn’t want to go straight into university or anything like that. Yeah, I was alright, pretty good at some things and pretty terrible at other things. Attendance was my main issue. I spent a lot of time at home curled up in bed staring at the walls. Very healthy stuff. And then I moved to Lyttelton after all that.
Gary – When was it that you started getting seriously into playing music, singing, and when did you start writing?
Aldous – I started writing songs in Dunedin. They were more just like poems, I didn’t really know how to play the guitar. Well I wrote one song called ‘Paradise’ which was sort of like this awful spoken word thing, like the intro to the Dune movie, that lady, a bit weird. But I didn’t get really into it until I came back from overseas and my cousin was really into the guitar and we used to smoke a lot and then play and he taught me a couple of things as well, and then my Dad bought me a guitar, got me a guitar made for my 20th birthday, so that was when I really got into it, locked myself away and taught myself how to fingerpick and whatever.
Aldous – Oh yeah, definitely, definitely. I wanted my own kind of, I wanted my own thing, I think I was quite resistant to her advice, just because “I can do it, Mum!” And you know, we have our little tiffs about it but she’s really proud of what we’re doing here and she’s quite happy to stay out of it now and just listen. Not that she was prying or anything but… My music’s pretty different to my Mum’s. But I definitely started singing with her when I was little. Edelweiss, things like that. You know, the ‘classics’.
Gary – You’ve both got that folk aspect to what you do, it’s just that the inflexions are very different.
Aldous – Mmm.
Gary – And you’ve both performed at One To One. [A Ponsonby Road café].
Aldous – Yeah. But Mum would have performed there when it was still the Atomic, maybe.
Gary – The album is so fully formed and so much of its own thing. Is that the realisation of something that’s happened quite recently, or has your style, and have those songs been around for a while, kind of building up?
Aldous – Well, ‘Hunter’ is the oldest song. I wrote that about four years ago, and the rest are all kind of spread out over the last four years. And it’s been… I’ve found this line and I’m sticking with it, because it describes it pretty well. The album’s just about the story of a battle between good and evil that’s in everybody every day. Just the things that you let in, and the things that you let hunt you or get you down. And so all the songs are basically around that, they take different forms around that idea. Pretty standard stuff, really. Just you know, yeah… it’s nothing nobody hasn’t written about before, just… [laughs].
Gary – Well, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s how we articulate these things.
Aldous – Exactly. Yeah.
Gary – What strikes me is the nakedness and the level of intimacy, I guess. The willingness to make your voice sound… you don’t even need to know what the stories are about to feel what you’re saying. That’s something you don’t hear so much in contemporary music. Do you feel vulnerable when you’re doing that?
Aldous – No more vulnerable than I do all the time. So I guess it’s just kind of like… but singing my original songs can be a reminder I guess of how vulnerable I have felt. The songs don’t frighten me anymore. There was a time when I used to listen to myself singing them and think ‘I’m not going to make it am I? This is some dark stuff!’ But they don’t frighten me anymore, and I hope people like them for the stories and understand that they’re not there to scare you or make you depressed. It’s more like a you know… yeah… I have burrito under my fingernails. I went out with a girlfriend last night and came home a bit drunk and demolished a takeaway burrito and I have it under my nails. So God knows where else it is. I’ll deal with that later, I guess!
Gary – Is that a Christchurch burrito?
Aldous – A Lyttelton burrito. Porthole, good burrito. If you’re ever in Lyttelton, come by the Porthole, get yourself a burrito, stellar cuisine.
Gary – You’ve mentioned the darkness of the material. In reading about your performances it sounds like you leaven them with some quite humorous stuff… is that something you’ve done consciously? Someone mentioned that you do some covers. Do you still do that?
Aldous – Yeah.
Aldous – Yeah, when we were touring we had a set that we followed. And we played for about an hour and a half and the first half was that we played the album through in order as it’s recorded, and the second half I’d put my guitar down and we’d do like a standup, and do all my favourite songs. I think it’s just… I don’t want people to leave feeling… It’s nice that they can feel my original songs, but I don’t want to scare them, I don’t want to make them feel like they wish they hadn’t been there, and the covers that we do, they’re basically all my favourite songs. Like Toto’s ‘Africa’ is my favourite song of all time. Someone said ‘you wouldn’t think so’ and I was like ‘What? Why not?’ It’s a great song! I guess it’s a way to tell people that I wasn’t intending to turn out this way, this weak and… I had dreams! I have ambitions to be a happy person. I think people find it quite interesting to see… and it wasn’t intentional. So many people said to me on tour: ‘man you should ditch the covers because your songs are so much better’, and someone said it makes people lose respect for you. And I said ‘well, anyone that doesn’t like ‘Africa’ by Toto quite frankly doesn’t have my respect. Yeah, people were saying things like ‘ditch the shitty covers’, ‘it’s just cheesy’, but we kind of do our own thing, and there’s also a chance for people to hear… it’s a chance for Simon, my guitar player, to show people that he’s definitely one of the best in the country. He’d kill me for saying that, but he is. And it gives me a chance to show people that I can sing a lot louder than they thought that I could.
Gary – The album is such a mood piece. It does what an album should do, it carries you along the whole way. But it would be a heavy burden to carry to have to perform that set of songs as an album, without you being able to have a bit of fun with it as well.
Aldous – Yeah, I don’t really have fun with the originals. My banter, it varies on how I’m feeling, but usually it’s pretty light. I don’t just burst into tears and start running around for something sharp or anything. I just tell people ‘this one’s a bit heavy, but you’ll get over it’, you know. ‘We’ll get through it together’. Because without all the anxieties, without all that, I’m actually a pretty fun person, but for awhile I was struggling to see that part of me. I dunno, whatever.
Gary – In terms of your singing style, it’s a very unusual enunciation.
Aldous – Um… um…
Gary – Is it something you just found yourself doing?
Aldous – The songs that I wanted to write… they just didn’t sound… like I couldn’t sing them any other way, and now that’s my voice, and that’s how I do things now. I find it really, like it comes quite naturally, but it’s quite a challenging way to sing, because it’s always shifting, and when you write different songs, it requires you to do different stuff with your throat and your face, to be able to pronounce certain words with those afflictions [sic] of the voice. It’s good for me because it keeps it strong and it keeps it interesting and… yeah… some people say that I sound a bit Celtic, but I don’t know where that came from, I wasn’t trying to do that. [Breaks into comedic Celtic song].
Aldous – It pays not to think about it. [laughs].
Gary – I can imagine that some people would say it’s an affectation, and some people will say that, but you just need to look at a huge variety of songwriters, all of whom have their own… actor’s hat.
Aldous – Absolutely, I don’t worry at all about what people… the way people feel about my voice and what I’m trying to do with it. It’s not part of… they’re meant to serve the songs. If I wanted to write songs that danced well with the Kiwi accent then I would, but I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will feel that I want to do that, and I’m happy with the way my voice has evolved, and like I said it’s a challenging way for me to sing. And you can sing any way you want to, and it’s your right as a performer to sing any way you want to. It’s like Aldous, I wanted to change my first name, so that I didn’t feel so attached to everything that I do with this project. It is what it is.
Gary – One thing that strikes me… in many ways for me, as a listening experience, it’s the sound of the voice, first and foremost. I know you’ve talked about it a bit in other interviews, the almost drone-like aspect and the way the songs move along at their own pace, and you end up listening to the finer modulations of your voice. Amazing record.
Aldous – I’m glad you like it. I like to hear when people like it. I haven’t heard anyone say they don’t like it yet, but there are probably plenty of people who don’t like it, but you’re not going to tell someone you don’t like their record.
Gary – You’ll find someone somewhere, but don’t take it personally.
Aldous – I never do.
Gary – In terms of the production and so forth, how did you hook up with Ben?
Aldous– He’s an old friend of mine, and he recorded Ben and Delaney, and they’ve just started up Lyttelton Records, but I knew him long before that. We had talked about doing an album a couple of years ago, but of course with the earthquake and a bunch of other stuff it just took much longer than we thought it would. I love recording with Ben. He knows who I am and he knows more or less what I want, and it’s like working with family. Making a record with him and Marlin was my ideal setup.
Aldous – Yeah, we had to piss in a bucket under the Wunderbar. There was a space that we were using under the Wunderbar and it didn’t have a toilet or anything. It still doesn’t have a toilet. But the place was really good, it was really big, and we set up everything in this kind of warehouse, and there was just a big white bucket and we all did wees in it.
Gary – Where you recorded was it an actual studio or…
Aldous – No, we just set it up. Put the instruments and the mikes and stuff in there. And a desk for Ben. It just looks basically like a carpark underground.
Gary – Because it’s a really nice sounding record.
Aldous – Yeah, it wasn’t all recorded there. Half of it was, and half of it was recorded at Ben’s studio, which is coming along, and I really recommend anyone wanting to make a record to… don’t overwhelm the bastard… to have a go at recording there, because it’s just such a good space and he is a lunatic. And he fosters puppies, they take in puppies, and look after them until they get homes, and make sure they go to a good home. So the place is usually filled with little dogs. Which is quite nice, for the anxious. So if you’re having a bad acid trip just find the dog, find the dog. I know you probably can’t put that in the magazine.
Gary – I can try.
Aldous – You can try. I don’t want people to be mistaken and think that I do take acid because I don’t because I’m not an idiot.
Gary – And what of the future?
Aldous – I’m probably going to start distributing the record in Australia and Europe and Asia. And then I’m going to be opening for Tiny Ruins up in Auckland, and Lawrence Arabia, at the Crystal Palace, and then I’ll play with Marlin, and then I’m going to do a little mini tour in Australia, of Melbourne and Sydney, just play some shows.
Gary – You’ve made some connections with international labels?
Aldous – Yeah, I don’t know how they did it but they found me, so I have to make some decisions I guess.
Gary – Have you got a lot of songs, a lot more than the nine on the album?
Aldous – There are a few more, but they weren’t part of the album I wanted to make. I don’t have too many more, to be honest. Maybe three or four more.
Gary – So you belong to the meticulous school of songwriting.
Aldous – 23.
Gary – Wow, just a young ‘un.
Aldous – Just a baby. [laughs] So you can expect some pretty average things from me in the future.
Gary – You’ve got the big sell-out tour to look forward to and the compromised edition.
Aldous – Lose all my hair, grow my tits down to the ground.
Gary – Lovely talking to you.
Aldous – I look forward to reading about myself.