When I listen to Aldous Harding’s music, I feel I have known these songs forever. Her rhythms and melodies sound as though they are grounded in the Earth. It is as if I heard them from inside the womb.
I didn’t – the New Zealand artist has only been releasing music since 2014, and I only started listening to it around 2019, when I saw her perform as an unlikely support act for Florence + the Machine at a British Summer Time gig in London’s Hyde Park. The stage Harding played on was sponsored by Barclaycard, and the bank’s logo was emblazoned atop the proscenium arch, utterly at odds with what was about to happen beneath it. Out came Harding in a brick-red worker’s jacket and matching trousers, a porkpie hat on her head. She was statuesque and wide-eyed, almost gurning, as she leaned towards the microphone to shake out a beat on a maraca, and she continued her set like this, eyes twitching, gestures theatrical. Here was a performer totally unwilling to act like a female singer-songwriter might be expected to.
Across three albums between 2014 and 2019, Harding, who lived for a time in Cardiff, but is now based in a small town back in New Zealand, has released a collection of songs that could most easily be considered contemporary folk. She sings and plays guitar, there are drums and keys, the arrangements are typically sparse, and the songs are melody-focused. More interesting is her vocal elasticity – the way her tone shifts on the 2017 track “Party” from a creaky, pleading squeal to a delicate whisper – and her brilliant and peculiar lyrics: “Looks like a date is set/Show the ferret to the egg/I’m not getting led along,” she sang on “The Barrel”, which, with more than 39 million Spotify streams, is her biggest hit.
There are real oddities in Harding’s music, as there are in her stage presence. But more immediately striking is the warmth and veracity of her sound and lyrics. On her fourth record Warm Chris, which is released on Friday 25 March via 4AD, Harding stays true to her alluring and unlikely core. Her music may feel eerily familiar, but it is never derivative.
Warm Chris, on which Harding has collaborated again with the producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Jenny Hval), is a brave and rousing record. The smooth drums and twee guitar of “Tick Tock” are undercut by the song’s disorientating lyrics. The characters we hear from – there seem to be at least two, but there are maybe more – sound as though they’re hallucinating. Harding’s voice is a deep prowl, then silly and slurring. “All I want is an office in the country,” she jibes, the word “country” coming out with an unusual amount of tongue.
There’s always something wriggling in Harding’s songs. While her rhythms remain steadfast, her melodies crisp, her vocal affectations – or any semblance of lyrical meaning – are ever-changing. She has an audible willingness to follow a not-quite-fully-developed thought through to its end, whatever the outcome. “Here is the spot where we shot the bubble down,” she sings cautiously on “Bubbles”, over stately piano. Despite the song’s title, the image doesn’t recur, its oddness hanging alone and unexplained. Elsewhere, in “Lawn” (the video for which features Harding dressed up as a lizard), she lets the sound of language guide her writing: “Beside,” she sings, emphasis on the first syllable, “everything I go by/Your B-sides on the lawn/Out on the lawn.” Her enthusiasm to chase instinct rather than a pre-emptive perfection results in a marked frankness that, more than weird, seems true.
For all this playfulness, many of these songs are imbued with melancholy. “Give me an ‘A’/Give me an ‘L’/Kidding, I can’t spell,” Harding sings in the title track over gently strummed guitar. It’s a nursery rhyme turned joke, but she performs it as though it’s a ghoulish admittance, her voice full of longing. Even in “Leathery Whip”, which has lyrics as amusing as “I’ll be all day getting the velvet back to you, Bambi,” there’s guile hovering in the murky deep. The song is the album’s closing track, and is marked by organ-like keys and the occasional strike of a woodblock. “Here comes life with his leathery whip,” Harding sings, over and over, her more “normal” voice – if such a thing exists – doubled by a higher-pitched, more devilish version.
I’m not sure what it suggests about me that this music – at turns bizarre, unlikely and always idiosyncratic – feels so personally nostalgic. Really it says more about the quality of Harding’s writing, that she can express stories in ways that may seem totally off the wall, but which, when preserved in audio, are resolute and grounding. We’re all strange: we’re just looking for recognition.