Aldous Harding is a young singer-songwriter, the kind usually labeled a folk musician, but she’s been more fittingly described as “New Zealand’s woman of a thousand voices.” She grew up in Lyttelton, a town near Christchurch, and was discovered while busking in the streets. On her self-titled 2014 debut, she has a high, tremulous voice that’s subtly lisped and bent into an accent, and the tone across songs is uniform—subdued, eerie, a vague mood of the medieval. But on her second album, Party, and again on Designer, released at the end of April, her voice splays. Tonally, it might sound as if she’s blowing into a glass bottle at first—every note shored up on warm bass—then she’ll pull some invisible ripcord in the prechorus, and a sustained wail will spring out, cutting through everything like blades on ice.
I first encountered Harding while I was living in England a few years ago. The weather was gray, the political situation was dire, and my bike kept doing this thing where the pedals would lurch and my ribs would get crushed on the handlebars. I bought a helmet and a heavy rain jacket, indoctrinated myself in the pleasures of lukewarm ale, and eventually began looking online for new music—something dark that would hopefully confirm and condense the British situation.
Harding’s songs are not just sad and morose; they’re funereal. Every note climbed out of my speakers like a black vine, curving its way around my flat until the walls breathed a kind of death chill. I felt I should be lighting rows of candles or wearing a suit. Her lyrics and track titles alone relay that skulls are swelling, stones are being cuddled, birds are not singing but screaming, and someone has broken their neck while “dancing to the edge of the world.”
There’s also her face. When she sings, her eyes wheel around ballistically in their sockets, her teeth grit into a grimace, and her lips purse in this muscular way, as if clenching around gravel. The unspoken coordination of features somehow seems orchestral, complex. It’s totally mesmerizing. Even the promotional literature that circulates with her live show explains that she “does more than sing”—her body and face are a “weapon of theatre.” Read More