With a fragile and breathy vocal presentation reminiscent of fellow rising folk artist Tiny Ruins, and an offbeat personality that brings Icelandic star Bjork to mind, Christchurch’s Hannah (Aldous) Harding is being widely tipped as a star of the near future. Just-released, her stage-named debut album reveals much more gothic vulnerability than you’d imagine from her lively public persona. Martyn Pepperell talked with Hannah/Aldous mid-way through her first headline tour, about her poetry and process.
Listening to Aldous Harding’s haunting tones, it’s easy to imagine a folk relic from an earlier era, a voice captured in a converted farmhouse in the 1960s rather than a recent studio session. Her self-titled debut album however, while articulated in an aesthetic superficially redolent of the past, speaks in content closer-related to the gritty and often ignored realities of modern day rural New Zealand.
A wild-eyed 20-something with a flair for melodramatic intensity, Aldous Harding (real name: Hannah Harding) wrote the album in her bedroom, while gazing out the window onto Lyttelton, the storied port town she calls home.
“I make the words and the melody first, then I make the guitar do what it needs to do to accompany them,” she relates reflectively, explaining her songwriting process to me in a dimly-lit Newtown restaurant, near the middle of her national tour.
Recorded and released by Lyttelton Records, Harding’s startling debut is underpinned by one central theme.
“All the songs are about the same thing on this album. It’s about the battle between good and evil in all of us, and everything; and how often evil wins. It’s the world’s oldest story.”
Over nine songs, she explores this through tales of wine and bravery, good-hearted hunters who fail to return home with a catch, and meditative reflections on days passed. Mixing the otherworldliness of Celtic Sean-nós songs and Electric Eden-era English folk music (think Vashti Bunyan), with the physical heft of the likes of Nick Drake, she has created a soundworld as magical as it is dark, and ultimately in the full emotive flight of song – heart stopping.
“A lot of my ideas are very gothic,” she muses, sipping her coffee. “They’re old ideas but they’re new ideas. New ideas played in an old fashion perhaps? That’s what I liked about what we did with the album artwork, when you looked at it, you wondered if you had gotten the right record.”
Hinging on two photographs, one of which depicts Harding wearing a trailer trash trucker hat in front of a pile of wood, and another where she stands inside a lolly store, the album imagery is far removed from old-world folk.
“I think artists rely too much on using an old looking image to secure themselves a sense of authenticity,” she continues. “They think older things are better, so if they look older they will sound better. When we were filming my music videos, the people working on them suggested filming at an old farm house and wearing shirts and dresses. We don’t need to do that to be intense and let people know we are serious. We can wear bright colours, there can be a mattress propped up against a wall. This is what happens. This is how people live.”
Born in Auckland in 1990, Aldous started her life in Ponsonby, moving down to Dunedin at age five. Six years later she shuffled out to a farm in Geraldine, later heading back to Dunedin to finish high school. Thanks to her mother, respected Canadian-Kiwi folk artist Lorina Harding, she’s been around music her entire life.
“I started writing songs when I was 15. They were essentially poems I couldn’t accompany. I picked up guitar when I was 18, started playing my songs for people, got a couple of little gigs here and there.”
After finishing high school she boldly headed overseas, travelling through Europe, Canada and the UK in a drunken, wasted haze, before returning home to live in Christchurch.
“I was trying to make my life into a movie people would watch and I would watch,” she laughs.
She worked at a donut joint before joining Lyttelton country/Americana collective The Eastern, spending two years touring with them, including opening slots for Old Crow Medicine Show and Fleetwood Mac.
“That got my confidence up as a performer,” she enthuses.
Harding also teamed for a time with fellow folk singer/songwriter Nadia Reid. Briefly managed by Anika Moa, after meeting her while busking outside of Moa’s Geraldine gig back in 2011, things really went to the next level in 2013. Following discussions with Lyttelton Records’ Ben Edwards, and with support from Delaney Davidson and close friend Marlon Williams, Harding began recording her album.
“Ben, Marlon and Delaney have been listening to me since I started out,” she explains. “I didn’t have to try, there wasn’t any insecurity. I just felt like we were a moving circus doing what we always do. What we do every night for the people.”
With the album released in April through Southbound Distribution, her first headline tour done and dusted and critical praise for her songs and performances rolling in, it’s easy to sense that for Aldous Harding, the best is to come.