The Sensory, Surreal Making Of Aldous Harding's Sound

Her new album, 'Warm Chris', is — like the singer herself — full of magic

Singer Aldous Harding. Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

The alter-ego of Canterbury’s own Hannah Topp, Aldous Harding, is the kind of artist whose fans are often feverishly devoted, and seldom casual.

While early audiences may have not known what to make of her inscrutable lyricism, theatrical gestures and poses, and those unforgettable, intense, defiant stares, it’s no understatement to say that, these days, Aldous Harding is her very own brand of superstar.

While modern success is often measured purely in streaming numbers — and with 39 million Spotify plays for her 2019 single The Barrel there’s still plenty to crow about in that department — it’s the gushing reviews from established bastions of culture such as The Guardian, Uncut Magazine, and career-making music website Pitchfork that hint at just how respected Aldous is out there.

For her legion of committed fans, eternally eager to see what their curious champion will do next, the stranger she becomes, the more their adoration grows. With each fresh batch of songs comes a new array of voices, images, and characters, all of them adding to the mystique and mythology of the inimitable Aldous Harding.

Now, with a brand new album, Warm Chris, out jointly on cult-favourite UK label 4AD and Flying Nun, Viva couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend some time peering into the mind of one of Aotearoa’s most uncompromisingly distinctive and internationally renowned exports.

On the other end of the Zoom call, we find Aldous enjoying a moment in the last minutes of dappled evening light, shifting intermittently from spot to spot in the leafy backyard that is unmistakably a South Island setting. With a warm greeting, and a quick virtual tour of her mother’s garden, we settle in.

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

It becomes clear, almost as soon as our conversation begins, that run-of-the-mill interview questions along the lines of “Why did you call the album Warm Chris?”, or icebreakers about planned tour dates, are best left checked at the door.

“These facts, they’re true, but are they interesting?”

There’s a Yoko Ono song that features the line,

Ask the dragon why she’s crawling with eight legs

And she says, “Dunno, I’m just doing it.”

Ask Aldous why she does what she does, and the answer could just as easily be the same. Some people just don’t do small talk, and with a mind full of magic, Aldous is one such someone.

“What I recognise is that my way of speaking, a lot of people think that it’s…”

She takes a pause, the first of many. While some of the answers Aldous gives might initially be mistaken for aloof or evasive, it becomes clear that this uncompromising artist merely takes the time and space required to formulate her most real and honest reaction, even if it means halting mid-sentence to change tack.

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

“I think a lot of people aren’t used to people self-editing. I do have this sort of overachieving strain in my cells; I can’t just do any old thing, and the same goes for interviews. I don’t feel obligated to give an answer that’s above what’s real, you know?”

There is something refreshingly open about the consideration given to each question. Over the course of our hour-long Zoom call, it’s clear that it pains Aldous to have to over-analyse her work, or retrace her creative steps.

“I try not to overthink it. The only time I really think about it is in moments like these where I’m being asked to describe the process, and the purpose behind the process. If the point of these interviews is to get to know me, this is what I have to say. I have to sort of respect my gift, or whatever it is, by not opening it up for science.”

It’s a fair approach, and as much as it has the potential to make a music writer quiver in their boots, perhaps we don’t need to know why the album is called what it’s called, we just need to enjoy it. Casting our minds back to the classroom, most of us can identify with the way books, film, art, and even music could have their essence sucked out by having to pick apart and scrutinise every line and detail.

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For Aldous, the world she aims to build with her songs is much bigger than the usual “verse, chorus, verse”. Performance, imagery, and movement are all factors she brings to the artistic table.

“I don’t feel like a musician,” she asserts, with a startling confession.

“I almost feel sometimes like the Jim Carrey of the indie world, I really do. One day I’m just gonna come out in my Warehouse dressing gown and go, ‘Just kidding!’”

The man behind The Mask might not be the first name that springs to mind when considering the nature of Aldous, but with her many-faced expressions, a voice that can boom in one song, and shrink to an intimate whisper in the next, and a way of decorating her fearsome presence with absurdism, she may not be far off. Your average singer-songwriter Aldous is not.

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

“One of the reasons it’s difficult for me to go back and recall and draw people a neat map of my workings, and my feelings about my workings, is because I was so… present… at the time. The point is to disappear. A lot of the time music for me is a place to disappear.”

We’re talking about, and sometimes pointedly not talking about, the process and sensations around the recording of Warm Chris, her fourth studio album to date. Aldous continues, offering an explanation that veers apologetically into the surreal.

“I was having a conversation with the memory, the young wishes, the television programmes I’ve seen, the food I’ve eaten… it’s just chaos. Once I’ve received all the information in that chaos, I try to translate it into music. But again,” she adds, in good humour, “not a musician.”

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In so many ways, from her many and varied vocal stylings, to the array of outfits and looks in her music videos, the artistic entity of Aldous Harding would, to all appearances, seem to embrace change like a chameleon at the florist.

“It’s something that keeps happening to my work, and I think that’s fairly normal. I feel confident to change, I feel confident in change. I can’t speak for other people but I’m somebody that can be proud, and ashamed, and hopeful, and free, and closed, and open… all within the space of six seconds. And they all make you want to do different things.”

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

One of the most notable moments on the new album is closing track Leathery Whip, featuring Jason Williamson of UK post-punk act Sleaford Mods as a guest vocalist. Known predominantly for his humorously angsty, politically charged spoken-word rant-songs, it’s an initial surprise to find him here actually singing.

Trust Aldous to enlist a guest singer who doesn’t normally sing.

“I knew that he’d be able to make any sound that I asked him to. He did that in one take, and I said, ‘I want you to just sing it. Be me, don’t be me… but you have to sing it’. You know when people write records on instruments they don’t really play, you get all these happy mistakes? That’s what happened.”

While everything else in the Aldous approach seems subject to revision, when it comes to recording her albums, there’s just one pair of hands that has twiddled the knobs and woven production wizardry across both of her two most recent albums.

Following 2017’s Party and, more recently, the 2019 album Designer, Warm Chris marks the third time Aldous has entrusted her songs to well-respected British record producer John Parish, whose notable credentials include a long history working with PJ Harvey, as well as the likes of Perfume Genius, Tracy Chapman and Sparklehorse.

“Stability is not really something that I’ve ever been attracted to, and I think that my relationship with John is one of the best things that I’ve done for myself. I have preconceived beliefs about my limits and my purpose, and John sort of directs me away. He yells at my shadow, and makes room for my artistic evolution.”

It’s rare to hear Aldous speak of being proud of something, but there’s a definite sense that, despite the inability to access memories of the process, the resulting album is one she is excited to share with the world. Rightly so, it’s really rather brilliant.

“I feel moved by the whole experience. I feel moved by relationships inside the record. This is gonna sound a little witchy, but I think my relationship with the Muse is intact.”

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

It’s not the first intimation of an innate perception when it comes to forging new working relationships. She has, she tells me, a type of sixth sense for when these things are right. Hearing her speak about the album’s drummer, Seb Rochford, who leads UK experimental jazz band Polar Bear, gives an insight into how Aldous uses her instincts.

“I’d never met him, but as soon as we met I did have that spooky feeling of having known him a long time. My spirituality and superstition can be as positive and hopeful as it can be paranoid and unsure, and so it was nice to have somebody else who pretended like they knew something everyone else didn’t.

“I’m quite superstitious, artistically. I really do believe in things happening for a reason, and it’s the same with the way I use my voice, the way I use my body, I use it to fill gaps in my artistic universe. I sort of take control by letting go, which I think is why I become so many different things, and so too for the performances.”

Almost keen to address the question of her on-stage presence before the question is asked, Aldous goes on to offer her own explanation of the inexplicable.

“I really do think sometimes that people have forgotten what happens to the body when you’re really emotional and in something.”

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She’s speaking here to the naysayers who might accuse her of “putting on” some of the grimaces and facial contortions that come part and parcel of an Aldous Harding performance.

“I think a lot of people have an idea of what somebody singing should look like, and what feels good for me doesn’t necessarily look the way they expect it to. When I’ve got a big box of groceries, no one expects me to look like this…”

Harding gurns with a fake smile and strikes a pose.

“There’s this big bomb of physical guesswork going on ... I’m gonna look how I’m gonna look.”

Naturally, no modern conversation can get away with skirting the issue of that pesky virus, and its effect on both our personal and professional lives. Despite scuppering plans for an international tour or two, Aldous says that having spent the majority of the pandemic in the South Island, she feels she’s had it relatively easy.

Photo / Hohua Ropate Kurene

“I spent quite a while in Bristol where things weren’t so good. I got stuck over there for two and a half months past my due date to leave. I was basically locked away in a basement for two and a half months. I watched a lot of New Zealand films like The Piano and Whale Rider. I could have got upset, but I realised that that was my hard bit.”

For many whose craft would ordinarily see them spending most of the year touring the world, the concept of home becomes more foreign with each subsequent trip. The pandemic has disrupted untold numbers of creative careers, but the unexpected silver lining for some has been the rare chance to nestle and embrace the comfort of just… being.

In the case of Aldous, this enforced calm before her upcoming touring storm has meant being able to walk the hallways of her very own abode, and experience something of what others might call a normal life.

“For somebody that’s never had their own space, the house feels a bit like a set. Everything feels like when people have nurseries, but there’s no baby yet. I’ve painted the walls, I’ve got all the stuff, but there’s no adult to be found.”

As her American tour looms, the new album launches out into the musical ether, and international uncertainty abounds, for now Aldous Harding is finally able to spend some time being Hannah. At home.

“I can do no wrong in those walls, that’s what home is for, but I’m not used to that. Who knows, in time, maybe I’ll learn to let it look after me, rather than the other way around.”

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