They say nerves make for a good performance, and in the case of Kiwi gothic-folk singer Aldous Harding, it couldn’t be more be right. Clearly quivering with performance anxiety, a petite Harding sat perched atop a stool clutching her acoustic, shooting nervous glances around the fairly full Gasometer Hotel band room.
It’s hard to imagine why the charming singer-songwriter was so apprehensive, especially given this – her first ever headline run around Australia – comes off the back of a successful UK & Europe tour. Opening in Melbourne – her adopted hometown where she lives with her partner, fellow crooner Marlon Williams – I perhaps ignorantly assumed would be of comfort to Harding, but for a pernicious perfectionist, every show starts with a great degree of stage fright.
The bulk of the mesmerised crowd were seated for the show, rather unexpectantly, swaying ever so slightly with their eyes closed and soaking in the savage serenades. A deep and dark chanteuse, Harding conjured up visions of fresh-faced virgins running barefoot down boarding house halls circa 19th century. With her hair loosely tied and parted down the middle a la Florence Nightingale or Virginia Woolf, Harding had the look of an enigmatic literary figure, alone and twitchy, with her guitar.
She opened with a brand new song, ‘The World Is Looking For You’ and her voice instantly transported everyone from pub band room to cinematic misty moor landscapes. “I haven’t written my setlist, shit!” she remarked, her thick New Zealand accent cutting through her singing voice like a hot knife. “I am stressed out!”.
Songs from last year’s debut album came thick and fast, as Harding relaxed a little and cruised through slow burners ‘Beast’ and ‘Small Bones of Courage’. Williams cameoed on her duet, ‘Swell Does The Skull’ (cutely written about the shape of Marlon’s head), calming Harding down with his presence and harmonies. Celtic-infused and gentle, her unique lilts and pronunciations were like no-other’s, spinning elaborate stories of melancholia into fictional folklore.
Self-described “hit” ‘Hunter’ was played roughly in the middle of the set, complete with Gregory’s transcending intro solo. “I am bleeding in the river,” came the ambiguous lyrics, as Harding again painted a gorgeous conflicting picture of uncomfortable serenity. A broken-hearted balladeer with fingers merely caressing the strings.
Friends Simon Gregory and Ben Woolley joined her on stage to provide backing guitar and vocals respectively, but it was Harding’s arresting own voice that shone through. Some more new songs debuted too, most notably the slightly more upbeat ‘Party’ and the blackly comical ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming?’ (eerie keyboards courtesy of Laura Jean).
The achingly beautiful ‘No Peace At All’ was eased into the tail end of the night, before the promised “fun things” drove the setlist into interesting cover territory. Harding jerked and winced to the popcorn pops of Gregory’s electric intro on Toto’s hit ‘Africa’, before breathing in for her best Kate Bush airy soprano impression to belt out ‘Wuthering Heights’.
In the encore was her highly-anticipated rendition of The Big O’s classic ballad ‘Crying’, and she ended on her haunting original ‘Stop Your Tears’ with a lingering and fragile coo.
Harding is a puzzling performer. In a good way. A really good way, and her masterfully articulate and poetic lyrics make her a welcome addition to the local folk scene. She sings with other-wordly maturity, yet simultaneously, airs all of her anxieties at once, just like every other 24-year-old. There’s an enviously old soul wrapped in dry wit coming your way and it’s Aldous Harding.
ALDOUS HARDING TOUR DATES:
Friday 14th August
Finbox (Upstairs), Thirroul
Tickets on the door
Friday 11th September
Junk Bar, Brisbane
Aldous Harding’s self-titled record is out via Spunk Records. More info on Facebook.