“What am I doing in Dubai?”
For most people, asking that question seems almost nonsensical. One does not end up in Dubai merely by accident. However, when that question comes from New Zealand’s stunning “gothic folksinger,” Aldous Harding (real name: Hannah Harding), in her song “Zoo Eyes,” it doesn’t seem so strange. In fact, it almost sounds expected, standard issue, and even normal. It’s not that Aldous Harding is bizarre… not really at all. It’s that her oddness is comfortable and non-threatening.
That’s the beauty of Aldous Harding. While her music can pass as dreamy acoustic folk, there’s a darkness in her vocal timbre that compliments her dense and mysterious lyrics. She’s not as impenetrably avant-garde as Yoko Ono or Bjork at her most prickly, but she’s not quite easy listening either. It’s gorgeous music with a hypnagogic bite.
Take, for instance, the title track from her latest album Designer. It starts out easy enough—a breezy and rhythmic acoustic folk song complete with bongos, but then the chorus comes barging through in a different key and time signature. Add to this an odd 23-second instrumental bridge at the midpoint that dissolves into Low-era David Bowie spaciness. It stops the bongos in their tracks and begins to swirl in psychedelia. But before it gets too warped, it zips right back to those bongos. Coupled with seemingly non-sequitur lyrics like “Give me your finger/A la mode,” it sounds like it could be an atonal nightmare. But in Harding’s hands, it fits together beautifully and strangely doesn’t sound chaotic or out of place at all. Whether it’s the odd juxtaposition of words or notes, she creates a feeling of unsettling comfort… her often un-pierceable and David Lynchian combination of words don’t create confusion. Instead it hints at something deeper and more enigmatic. For Harding, “meaning” is personal and non-transferable.
“I’ve already given others the story,” she says about not revealing the meanings to her lyrics. “It’s not that I want to keep them for myself so much as keep them to themselves. They can be studied if you have the time.”
Her first single from Designer, “The Barrel,” unveils itself at the very beginning when she sings “I feel your love/I feel time is up.” The thickness of frustration and futility in being stranded in a dying relationship unravels in the seemingly quixotic lyrics. “It’s already dead/I know you have the dove/I’m not getting wet/Looks like a date is set/Show the ferret to the egg.” But, as she says, if you have the time to study the lyrics, its meaning may reveal itself.
“I love the puzzles in the work of the writers I love,” she says about the desire to pick apart the symbolism in her music. Like Michael Stipe or Lloyd Cole who feel that once the song is released to the world, it no longer belongs to them but to the listener, Harding feels no responsibility in whatever meaning can be subjectively derived from her chimerical usage of words. “Of course I want everyone to understand [my songs],” she replies. “But someone’s green is my pink, et cetera.”
One thing not in question is the gorgeousness of Designer. An album rife with subtle and gentle pluckings of acoustic instruments, hollow percussion, brushed cymbals, upper octave piano flourishes, and xylophones, it’s a hugely atmospheric and textural record. Witness the beautifully serene and tranquil music of “Treasure.” Airy and intimate and sounding like the musical bed from Francois Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim (had it been soundtracked in 2019 and not 1962), it benefits aurally from the warm production of John Parish. Known primarily for his spirited work on PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love and the emotional precision of Sparklehorse’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Parish brings to Designer a pastoral elegance and amplifies the fragile humanity that Harding demonstrated on her previous two albums, 2014’s self-titled debut and 2017’s Party. “I like space in my music,” she explains on the naked and vulnerable nature of this album’s production. “I want something to wait for. It’s a new feeling for some people not knowing if they’ll be rewarded. I just have a personal balance I try to stay with.”
Perhaps this feeling of “space” is emblematic of her ideas of romance and love and why many of her songs deal with the space that comes with loss, death, or separation. Designer feels rife with themes of finality, goodbyes, and dead ends. In the album’s opening track, “Fixture Picture,” she sings, “Honey, your face is folding up/As the memory kisses you goodbye.” In the title track “Designer” (I give up on your beauty/Shady as the day you were born/I’m leaving you alone with it), she tackles rather nihilistic views on life and relationships. For her, songwriting is an outlet to purge these feelings and release them, but still the emotional danger of being “stuck” lingers.
“Gotta throw up to move up,” she explains. “I don’t feel like I know enough about love to feel any certain way about its changes. But it seems I ‘love’ with one arm openly out the window because I don’t believe I really understand what I’m seeing.”
Returning to the subject of lyrics and how they’re for her listeners to dissect and not for her to explain, she doesn’t get offended by wildly divergent interpretations of song meanings. “I think it’s pretty free for someone to make up their own meaning,” she says. “I know what I meant but I don’t want it wobbling around in someone’s experience. I want you to get it, but I won’t get sweaty drawing it on a piece of paper trying to get a connection today. It changes all the time what I think I want out of my life including the reactions to me and the interpretations of my music.”
So if the songs’ meanings are open to creative extraction, what about the title of the album? Is the name Designer something ambiguous and vague?
“Designer is about everything I could think of and delivering it unapologetically, with feeling and good intentions,” she Mona Lisa smiles enigmatically. “At the end of the day, Designer is a nicer word than “WHAT?”
Or she could have called circled back to the question that started the whole interview and called it “What am I doing in Dubai?”
Either way, which ever answer Aldous Harding delivers, it undoubtedly will be open to interpretation. So what is she doing in Dubai?
Only she knows for sure.
Be sure to catch Aldous Harding at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Sept. 30, and at Underground Arts in Philadelphia on Oct. 2!