On first listen, alt-folk whirlwind Aldous Harding‘s style seems run-of-the-mill, in the style of Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, or Joanna Newsome, or pastoral Nick Drake, with lilting vocals, strumming acoustic, and little else but an occasional bowing saw, or flute. Witnessed in person, the music becomes sinister–yet inviting, hauntingly painful, and smoldering.
Recently introduced to the wide world from New Zealand, the diminutive Harding sang with the lilt of a giant – or a squadron of them – at The Gothic Theatre last Tuesday night. Filling one of two warm-up slots for Atlanta indie perennials Deerhunter, she and her accompanying pianist (and life partner) Marlon Williams promptly stole any extra energy from the venue before the Deerhunter even began a final soundcheck.
First Intro to US Audiences
The Harding the US is seeing onstage for the first time this year is anything but pedestrian, and even calling her music alt-folk is an undersell. Musically, her folk approaches centuries-old parochial ballads that might be heard at today Scottish festivals, or in between bloody Game of Thrones vignettes. But they come from an even more sinister, deeply dramatic origin – one that feels proto-gothic. Harding’s stage presence enhances the terror, the passion, the psychosis that one might imagine could be behind such perfect gems – especially if that listener were raised on slasher movies, true crime novels and serial killer bios.
At her most tame, Harding held the intensity of PJ Harvey onstage – minimalist, yet explosive – but these were only a few seconds at a time. Most of the time, she glared at the audience – or some threatening alter-audience only she saw beneath the glare of the stage lights – with facial gesticulations that ranged from mild distaste to abject pain. She would traverse emotions from frustrated boredom to legitimate disdain, and then to outright disgust, seemingly from a terrified, abused foundation. The glares contrasted beautifully with her voice – at once sultry and smokey, and wholesome and throaty, in the style of Victoria LeGrande, or Nico.
Circulating beneath that warbling croon was a constant nervousness, a level of fear that seemed to make Harding mouth disparate consonants and vowels with the same vitriol and discomfort as she revealed difficult feelings and experiences, or nightmares. Her irascible stare, wide mouth, and huge expressive eyes also recalled a young Patti Smith, albeit on an interesting mixture of barbiturates and speed.
A Masterpiece Cover of “Crying”
The duo’s second-to-last song was a cover of Roy Orbison‘s legendary “Crying,” and no better-fitting juxtapositional anthem could ever have been picked. This staged version encompassed and magnified every ounce of Rebekah Del Rio‘s nightmarish version–“Llorando”–from the Hispanic theater in David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive.” Dripping with every level of psychotic longing, every ounce of abject fear of total loss of control that Del Rio imbued into the masterpiece, Harding’s version also embraced all of the overdriven, suicidal heartbreak implicit in Orbison’s masterpiece. Harding belted out the tearful lament in a huge, infinitely ominous way that belied her slight frame, and absolutely killed the audience.
She finished with “Horizon,” a beautiful, anthemic curse of a song. Harding’s best of the night enveloped the existential anathema of choice at the millisecond one alights on a razor’s edge between existence and oblivion. The angst was anchored by nothing more than Harding’s intense poetry and some fist-heavy chords on the keyboard. As she literally served the audience with the choice between our princess and our horizon, there was almost a sense that she felt the need to check her hands, to make sure the warm, sticky blood of choice had really fallen off. This is how real the angst and joy in Harding’s music is, and – if “Horizon” is any indication – it’s an intensity that will be enjoyed, influential, and resonating for a while. It’s just starting now.
Consider yourself lucky to have witnessed it, if you have, or make every attempt to get in front of Harding. It’s just starting now.