If folk conjures an image in your head, Aldous Harding's Party is that image sieved, sifted and twisted, upended like a rock to show the fat, interesting bugs squiggling beneath it. A dark document of ambition and growth and heartbreak, it's a piece of work that, by design, demands patience.
Like her record, Harding speaks slowly, in deeply considered sentences. In the background as we spoke, birds sang and rain plip-plipped, her chin perched on books as she smoked a cigarette.
Harding's roots are in New Zealand's almost bizarrely fertile folk scene — a former roommate, Nadia Reid, has also drawn international eyes — but some time early in the creation of the songs for Party, something shifted, she says. Going over the record song-by-song, Harding says that the turning point arrived while she was writing what would become the album's title track, a song with that slowly swells into a chorus that cracks its shell of restraint, emerging as something almost operatic. "When I heard the chorus [of 'Party'] in my head I kind of went, 'I don't know if I'm allowed to do that,'" she says. "I've done something different, and it feels much better. Fits better. And I... went for it, by the sounds of it," she laughs. "I just got stuck in it, now didn't I?"
Stuck in nothing. Party's velvet-soft sound is a bedding for a gifted weapon-of-a voice. Harding puts on so many masks throughout the album — the shriek, the sullen smoker, the concerned love — but there's something calmly self-assured behind the costume changes. She's always wearing the same shirt. As we spoke, she thought aloud that, maybe, the record is a document of self-imposed isolation in some way, a reckoning with ambition and the costs of trying deeply. Have you ever exiled yourself in order to try and be completely yourself and see what magic may come of it? Aldous Harding is all alone now, all the better to join us.
"John [Parish, producer] and I had fun getting this one together. Turned out fine."
Imagining My Man
"It's just about all of the... tender and frightening thoughts that come with being in love. And growing up, and trying to figure out what the hell it is that you want. And trying to love another person, when you're constantly pushing your own plate away, isn't easy. It's no one's fault, that's just how it happens sometimes. You've just got to ride it out."
Living the Classics
"It's one of my favorite songs on the record. I think there's an excitement, like a positive excitement. The 'drag me back to hell' line, that's me saying 'you can try to take it away from me... but it's very unlikely that I'll let that happen cause I really like it. I like doing it.' Going to move to New York. Going to be a big star. Not actually going to be a star but, you know, I want to be able to take my mom on holiday. Maybe buy myself a house. Have a collection of work that I'm fond of."
"'Party' is... asking someone to be patient. I think so. When I first wrote 'Party,' it was like the third song I wrote for the new album. Ages ago. I could hear the chorus, the way it's presented on the record, as I was writing it — I wanted to have some female support, I wanted there to be like a shrill desperation that I didn't want to do myself.
"I had a lot more confidence making 'Party.' Not in the way that might make people people go 'Aw, that's a shame.' [Laughs] Some people like to do that when you give yourself stuff like that, and you say things like 'more confident.' But it was just confidence and feeling like I could do whatever I want. I wasn't trying to make anything specific — well I was trying to make something specific that I wanted to make. Specifically what I felt like making. When it comes to a specific sound, I don't feel like there's something I need to worry about. I'd much rather do something creative and credible. Like, 'Who am I? What am I trying to say? What do I stand for?' I stand for all of it, because I feel all of it, like everybody. God, I sound like a w*****. [Laughs]
"I wasn't worried about people getting bored. I wasn't. I mean, every so often I'd be like 'Does this need something?' But people just have to wait. [Laughs]"
I'm So Sorry
"'I'm So Sorry' is probably one of my favorite songs that I've written... I wrote it very quickly and confidently. And then I didn't question it. It's about my relationship with addiction, mainly booze. This was like — I'm not mad at myself, I'm not. I'm not like, struggling. But it was kind of going 'Hey I guess... yeah, I guess this might be a thing.' This is a nice way to remember recognizing that it might be a thing."
"Good-bye — and not necessarily for any reason at all other than... I've got to go. I'm showing that person two things; their life, and their life with me. And I'm taking one of them away. And that's me.
"In a lot of ways it was me choosing art over a person, which I didn't necessarily know at the time. And feeling like, in order to do it how I need to do it, I need to be on my own. There are people who like to sit at a dining table with six other people and listen to John Coltrane, [Blue] Train and pour wine. I love that too, but I'm the kind of person who if you give me a plate of food, you give me money or... alcohol.... I want to take it in to the dark on my own, so no one has to see how I approach it. Maybe that's an insecurity, I don't know. I don't feel particularly insecure about it."
What If Birds Aren't Singing They're Screaming
"The song is quite humorous, but at the same time I think it's kind of Randy Newman-esque — there's like, a deep sadness inside that jolly sound.
"For like four or five months of my life I was too scared to like, move around and reach out for things because I was worried that I'd my hands would run into glass, like I could reach up and if I reached up and knocked on the air it would make a noise. I couldn't look at the sky because I was worried that I see a crack. And like, light would start to come. Not nice light — like, someone else's sunlight. I didn't like that.
"It was pretty... rough, coming up with it. Because questions like that are what keep people frightened. Not trusting that things are real. This is stuff you think about when you do drugs, this is the stuff that will drive you nuts. I guess that's why I kept it kind of upbeat and humorous, because I don't want to frighten people, just wanted to remind them that that's normal. And it's real — as real as the stuff you worry isn't. And just don't f****** worry about it. Because at the end of the day it's actually quite funny."
The World Is Looking For You
"This is another love song. Basically like..., 'I'm tired. I miss you. You're busy and I'm... Sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind.' That's that. That's all I have to say on that really. It was the first new song after [first record] Aldous Harding. In my head that's what I was up for. I mean, I love that song. I think that singing performance and uncertainty, I think it really works. It's nothing like the rest of the record."
Swell Does The Skull
"Yeah, it's closer to the first record in the sense that it's got that kind of... back. It's not so... modern. It's got an arc. There's still an archaic fume to that one."