It’s not every day that you get to sit at your dining table with a hot mug of coffee and send a friend request to Aldous Harding over Skype.
But at 9am on a fine Autumn morning last week, that’s exactly what I did. Luckily, she accepted, and five minutes later we were discussing foreign film plot lines and examining the word ‘Dubai’. Thankfully the camera wasn’t turned on, or she would have seen me place my hands over my mouth in a real ‘pinch me’ moment when she started singing the opening line to my favourite track on her majestic new album, Designer. Transcribing our conversation was tough, because there’s no real way to accurately portray the cadence of Harding’s voice and the length of each and every pause as she contemplates her answers. Maybe the best way to read her responses is to insert an imaginary ‘…’ every couple of words. Maybe I noticed how purposefully she spoke because it’s so rare to witness someone actually think before they talk. Make that lesson number 2,463 I’ve learnt from listening to Aldous Harding.
Hello! This feels early to be calling you.
Oh no, I’m in the UK and it’s 10pm at night here.
Oh, that makes much more sense—I’ve never been asked to call a musician at 9am in the morning before. Anyway, let’s talk about the new album. Were all the songs written on the road?
Four of them were.
How do you have the chance to write when you’re on tour? How do you carve out that space to be able to get in the zone?
Well, I don’t really have a zone. I don’t need a zone. And it’s not like, ‘Oh, check out my zone-less, boundlessness, you know what I mean? It’s just that I can kind of do it anywhere; all I really need is my brain. I mean, I can certainly begin anywhere. Obviously I need to learn the music if I’m away from an instrument or I’ll write it and then I’ll learn how to play what I’ve written in my head. I know it’s really dull—I know artists that are very place-specific or headspace-specific about that sort of thing, but unfortunately for you, I’m not one of them!
Haha, that’s okay. You’ve recorded this in Bristol again, is that right? Was it working with John [Parish, producer of Party] that made you want to go back there for round two?
Well, I sort of toyed with trying something new, not because I didn’t enjoy it with John—quite the opposite—it was more that I thought the evolutionary thing to do would be to work with somebody new on something new. But I lost interest in that pretty quickly because I just think that John has a very good understanding of me and my ideas and the things that I write about, and I wasn’t really interested in making any new friends.
This might be a stupid question, so excuse my ignorance, but do you think where you record, geography-wise, influences your sound?
Okay, so that was a stupid question.
No, it wasn’t! But the answer is just… no. [Laughs].
I asked that because this record sounds almost European to me—like watching a foreign film but in English. Do you get that vibe at all?
Interesting. Well, here’s the thing—I don’t really know enough about foreign cinema to draw up those comparisons because I have no idea what that means! Like, I have a vague idea. I don’t mean that it’s wrong. I just have a very vague grasp of art and music culture. And obviously I listen to my music in a very different way, but I think that’s a really interesting thing to hear.
Well, if it were a film, what do you think the basic plot line would be?
Oh, no! I don’t know. Um, I suppose just unapologetic ambition and that you don’t have to honour and wait—there’s a lot of ways to hold honour and hold weight and hold seriousness, and I don’t necessarily have to do it the way I have before. And I’ll make what I see and what I hear and it’ll be what it’ll be and that’s all I’ll ever be able to do I suppose. And that’s… fine. [Laughs].
I know you don’t like explaining your songs, and I don’t want you to have to be literal, but are you saying, ‘What am I doing in Dubai, in the prime of my life?’ in the song ‘Zoo Eyes’?
Amazing. That sentence just sums up a large part of my family’s life after my dad moved there for a year. Assuming you went there, what did you think of the place?
I’ve been there maybe a couple of times in transit. But I did not write that line in Dubai. I suppose it was an interesting word that rhymed with ‘Why’. I was writing on the spot in the car and I had a melody in my head and an idea for the chorus and needed to take it down to start, so I sung ‘Why’ and then I kind of looked out the window, patted on my knees a couple of times and then went, [Aldous begins singing in a hauntingly deep voice] ‘What am I doing in…fucking…Dubai?’ But it’s about imagery, right? But I should have known better, I should have known that people would ask me about that because how many songs have the word Dubai in it? The fact that we’re even having this conversation means that it worked, though. It made people want to know why. Like, who is in Dubai? What do you mean?
It’s true, I don’t think I’ve heard another song reference Dubai before, ever.
Which is crazy to me! It’s a significant part of the world! It’s as much a thing as the word ‘Love’. It’s like, why not? It’s there, it’s part of this world. And I know it sounds silly, but these are the sorts of answers to these questions.
I wanted to ask about your stage persona vs. your recording persona. You have a real presence on stage that is almost like an act in itself. But when you’re just by yourself writing or recording, do you find yourself making any of the same gestures at all?
Well when I sing and perform, a lot of what you see is me trying to get the right sounds. Because it’s an instrument, right? There’s lots of muscle, so it bends and you can let less air out, you can let more out, you can drop your chin to get lower. In the same way, somebody will take a deep breath to prepare them for the next step in anything, the things that I do with my body and my face are me preparing for the next step. Sometimes it’s me saying to myself, ‘Come on!’ or ‘Wake up!’ or ‘A little less!’ or ‘A little more!’ And of course that is part of the performance, but it’s not all for show. That’s the dynamic that I guess works because I am going through all these different things and I suppose people find that interesting to watch. There may be nights when I feel like I can’t do more than sit with my hair in front of my face and play into myself, but that’s okay. Then there’ll be other times where I’m feeling open and I will move about. It’s like any other life process, I suppose.
Designer is out April 26 via 4AD / Remote Control