Published Apr 24, 2019Aldous (Hannah) Harding is happy that her music makes people feel uncertain. The New Zealand-born singer-songwriter recalls a special moment when somebody confessed to her that Designer, Harding's third record, made them question their taste.
"That was the biggest compliment that I can receive," Harding tells Exclaim! from her current residence in Cardiff, Wales. "Making somebody wonder whether they have the problem, rather than what my problem is. Not that I want to put people in a bad spot, I just mean there's room for everything. There's a path for everything."
The songs of Designer, like Harding's previous releases, are ambiguous. In interviews, Harding rarely discloses specifics about the meanings of her songs, which creates space for listeners to interpret them and to reflect on their own experiences.
"Because I'm a nobody, surely it's an interesting thing or a nice thing to see a nobody or just a regular person do things that makes you question your taste and feel things," Harding notes. "That's what I look for in music anyway: I want someone to confuse me to the point where I look inwards rather than at what they're doing."
Before taking this past year off, Harding finished a 100-date tour in support of her second record, Party, and immediately went into the studio and recorded Designer in 15 days. With such a hectic schedule, the probability of suffering from burnout seems high, but Harding says that she hasn't faced any issues with sustaining her creativity.
"[Songwriting] is something that I've not ever really struggled with," Harding explains. "I believe in myself enough to not get hung up on what other people are doing, or what I should be writing, or the nature of how I'm writing. I'm just able."
Harding's sound has swelled since the sparse folk of her self-titled debut in 2014. On 2017's Party, Harding's arrangements became fuller and darker, but now, on Designer, a welcome lightness is woven through layers of pop and folk sounds. This luminescence is most striking on standout track "The Barrel," which has a playful bass line that begs to be danced to — as Harding does in the track's brilliant video — and in the title track which, likewise, grooves to a sunny rhythm.
"These songs are not necessarily about how easy it all is, it's just a different approach," says Harding about the playful nature of Designer. "Why can't, instead of playing with our joy in the dark and not talking to each other, I reach over and give your hand a squeeze whilst tapping my foot?
"I didn't want to rely on the heaviness," she adds. "I realized that there's an opportunity to see if these talents, or whatever, are able to go beyond me being super emotional with my guitar.
"The mood has only changed feet — it's not gone, it shifted. I just wanted to show that you can be here. You can be serious without being serious. You can be seriously joyful, or seriously unapologetic in your joyfulness. It's just a different approach. They're just thoughts, they're just ideas, right? We all think cool shit. I just have the means to show more people what that looks like for me. I wanted to show that there's lots of ways to work with space and you don't have to explain yourself."
On the final track of Designer, the minimal piano ballad "Pilot," Harding describes coming to terms with a dizzying amount of choices: "I get so anxious, I need a tattoo. Something binding that hides me. But when the time comes to design it, it opens up like height under a pilot." It's a moment that speaks to what Harding on Designer inspires listeners do: contemplate the endless possibilities and to find peace with uncertainty.
"Designer is meant to mean whatever it means. We know what it means. For me, it is just an unapologetic look into a normal people's achievements. We're all people with the ability to achieve, but you don't have to do anything. You can do anything, but you don't have to do anything.
"I know that sounds like it cancels each other out, but that's just how it works. I arrive at a place and I think, 'Okay, well this is me now.' I talk myself down and I take a walk and I'm somebody else. It's just exhausting and so all I can do is be in each phase as it comes and do my best in each one and that's all I do. It's not particularly interesting stuff but it's true."
Designer comes out April 26 on 4AD.