Aldous Harding - The Sunflower Lounge, Birmingham
“What do you think of the turtleneck vibe, rock and roll? Yeah, I wasn’t sure.” So opens a warm and witty – with plenty of rock and roll under the surface – night of out-of-time gothic folk stories from friendly New Zealander Aldous Harding, who is touring in support of last year’s critically acclaimed self-titled album, and her forthcoming release ‘Party’.
Carefully spoken Harding charms the audience with dry witted anecdotes, signalling she won’t be pinned down, via endearing self-deprecation and vulnerability that may feed back into her music. Harding’s music describes what it must have been like to live in an ever present reality where death was always close at hand, where death arrived at an early age of natural causes or inflicted by invaders who arrived suddenly and without warning, and with this unpredictable death came the prospect of hell.
While there is no simple analogue to our own modern day fears, Harding not only transports us through time and space, but to our own subconscious: no mean feat. A new song ‘Swell Does the Skull’ is indicative; Harding is both vocally and visually possessed by ghosts summoned to this time and place by force of her writing, her facial contortions not only an expression of herself but an expression of others, a spectacle that is both disconcerting and magical. Now these ghosts are here they demand our attention.
The venue has a cosy reputation, its 120 capacity being half full may heighten the atmosphere as Harding recalls, “This is a little different to the show I played last night. There were quite a few people screaming; there were 200 people there and I actually prefer this.” A new song ‘I’m So Sorry’ is introduced with “The recording’s better”, but while tonight’s live arrangement is less complicated without saxophone it’s clearly reproduced; earlier she’d described herself as a “weakling” after she asked the sound desk for more vocals – she’s anything but. However, the door loudly opening and closing disrupts matters despite Harding laughing it off (“Is it just me or am I making everyone leave. Maybe it’s my jokes. I can assure you I’m very funny without a turtleneck on.”)
“One more sort of depressing song, then I’ll do something a little bit nicer” introduces ‘Stop Your Tears’, the track that gave Harding a wider acceptance. A man in the audience taps his friend on the shoulder as if to say, “This is the one” and receives an approving nod in return. Like much of Harding’s music, the song is sad and heavy but needs no disclaimer, her floating vocals and precise guitar transports the audience via their individual interpretations, perhaps some to Samuel Beckett’s lost Ireland. In contrast, “What if the Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming”’s terrifying premise summons Louis Armstrong’s ghost.
Harding bravely closes her hour long set with a new unscheduled song due to concerns over her voice, a decision affirmed by her tour manager in the audience. Tonight’s star can be difficult to pin down but the closing mutual appreciation as the audience plead for an encore is clear for all to see, she thanks all for attending who correct her with, “No, thank you.” Her tour manager remains concerned about song choices (“No, I’m not going to do that track Liv. She’s like, ‘If you do that track I’m going to kill you’ with her eyes.”) Thankfully death remains contained to Harding’s music, even promising “I’ll brighter next time, without a turtleneck.” Whatever her tone and attire, those in attendance tonight and their friends will be there.
Swell Does the Skull
I'm So Sorry
What if the Birds Aren't Singing, They're Screaming
Stop Your Tears
Press photo credit: Justin Strother