This summer we look back at some of the best stories of the year. This one, Karl Puschmann's interview with Aldous Harding, was first published in March.
On an otherwise brilliantly bright Wednesday afternoon, dark clouds gather on the horizon.
"If I'm not there to play the music," Aldous Harding says carefully, as she picks her way through her words, "then how I feel about the art doesn't matter."
I didn't know what to expect when meeting Harding. Her darkly enigmatic music, so strange and affecting. Her melodramatic performance so confronting and, at times, frightening. We'd met to talk about her upcoming gig at the Auckland Arts Festival and somehow segued from breezy chit-chat to something very, very real in a very, very short space of time. Barely eight minutes in, I found myself struggling for words. It's fair to say I was not expecting this.
"Come on then", Harding had joked as I'd placed my Dictaphone on the table seven minutes earlier to start the interview, "hit me!". This made it sound like I'd be in charge of our conversation, but I wouldn't be. Not really.
Soon after, Harding, hesitating yet determined, would say, "I clearly have something that's on my mind that I'm wanting to talk about or that… I'm going to". And then we'd talk about, talk around or sometimes not talk at all about the pressures and vulnerabilities that led to her problems with alcohol.
She joked about it, she worried about it, she teared up about it and she broke my heart when she said things such as, "I want to be well enough to enjoy the things I've made", and "it doesn't seem like there's a lot of time".
Before I left to meet her in the sunny courtyard of a Ponsonby cafe, a friend said, "I can't wait to hear what Aldous is really like". Neither could I. Her album Party, which details the end of her romance with fellow musician and long-term partner Marlon Williams, is an intricately heavy, emotionally brutal, genuinely affecting listen that gets under your skin and into your head. It was TimeOut's album of 2017, and my favourite release of last year.
I've also long admired her uniquely eccentric music vids and her overly dramatic, purposefully challenging, live performances, which see her twisting and contorting her very being in order to summon the voices her songs require. In this regard, she's sort of like a human Ouija board.
The most famous, and divisive, of these was her fearless performance of breakout single Horizon on the BBC's live music show Later… with Jools Holland. It's fair to say this freaked a lot of people out with its confrontational ugliness. It saw a flat-fringed Harding, clad in a loose-fitting all-white outfit, dramatically acting out each word of the song like a haggard old crone, wrenching all the beauty out of her face and staring wild-eyed and defiant down the camera. It's a thrilling, singular performance that some people just didn't seem to get.
"I think people were getting it," Harding shrugs. "They saw what was happening but they mistook it for a secret. It was weird because I hadn't come across that before. It made me realise that I was doing fine. That I was on the right track. It's not a secret that I'm, like, 12 different people rolled into one. Like a lot of people are."
Of the 12, the actual person is Hannah Harding. She adopted Aldous as a stage name because she "thought it was a really nice name," and reckoned it sounded like "a manly Alice". But it's Aldous who is the famous one. She's here across from me at the table, direct and thoughtful but also in possession of a scowling silence that's capable of chilling this warm afternoon. But mostly there's Hannah, who is incredibly open and enjoyable company, even while talking about those dark anxieties and deep vulnerabilities that her creative persona works to shield her from.
I ask if the line between the two ever blurs and she says, "Yeah, but not in a Shutter Island way. I'm aware of what I'm doing. I go through phases of what I'm feeling and how I think I should be feeling and it all gets blurred. That's just the nature of what I was doing and how much I was doing that it naturally happened."
She's talking about life on the road, which, as far as I can tell was either the catalyst for or amplifier of, her struggles with the bottle. But it also happens occasionally this afternoon as well. The air noticeably changes when she's in Aldous mode and this has the bizarre effect of putting you on guard, a strange feeling indeed when you're the one asking the questions...
It's all in her eyes. They lock on to yours and rarely let go, which, depending on how it's going, can be either comforting or unsettling. Especially as so much of our talk, both the easy chatter and difficult patches, is punctuated by silences and quiet pauses.
Combined, it's strangely hypnotic and causes the world outside of this small table to slip away. At one point I look around and am startled to see that the once bustling courtyard has completely emptied.
What goes on tour, stays on tour but today Harding breaks the code of the road to retell a story from last year's extensive 11-month world tour for Party.
"When you're touring as much as I did, trying to create the thing I was trying to create, I had to let go of a lot of the things that make me easy to be around. Easy to love. Easy to talk to," she sighs.
"[Deerhunter's] Bradford Cox was like, 'you really should watch that boozing, that drinking'," she says, imitating the voice of a boring old man. "I was like, 'yep, I know'. And he said, 'you don't want to see how that ends'. And I was like, 'shut up Bradford'."
It's not a particularly funny story but we both laugh at its punchline. Maybe it's the way she tells it? Or maybe we're both nervous about where this is going.
"The sort of person I am, to do what I did, I was never going to just… get away with it. I'm now being forced to respect that. I will have to do things differently. I'll have to. I'm still getting over what I thought I had to do to myself to get through that amount of work. Being the kind of person that I am."
What did you have to do?
"Ahh…" she sighs, looking away. Then she says, "All sorts of stuff", without further detail.
The air is still. Then she says, "If you want to do this, you've got to last. You've got to be well enough to carry your ideas. I'm not saying I've got great ideas, but if I do I need to be able to deliver them. I'm optimistic but I'm also not stupid. I know how these things can go."
"Because I'm a young person I feel like I should feel like a young person. I don't really want to give all that up. It's just so wrapped up in the creative, you know? It felt like a bit of a hot glue job, emotionally, for me. I had to do a hot glue job because I was rushed. I wanted to be rushed. I've never been a slow burner. It's gonna be the thing I have to watch more than anything; the hot glue job on the person I need to be to do this. It's a scary thing for a f***ed up person to do. It's not an easy thing knowing that you're, you know, have so much work to do and not…"
She trails off. Quietly she says, "it doesn't seem like there's a lot of time."
She's been so honest, said so much, but yet I can't escape the feeling that there's something more that she very much wants to say, if only I would ask the right question so that she can. But I can't get to the words. I search for them, asking different things in different ways and realise I'm flailing hopelessly. Across the table, I sense Harding silently encouraging me, as hopeful as I am desperate that I'll get there. But each question only disappoints and the light grows dimmer as I stumble aimlessly, and then anxiously in the growing dark.
Dejected I say, "I can't find the question you want to answer."
The words hang there. Harding looks down at the table, a thousand expressions flashing across her face as she considers who to save, me or herself.
Eventually, she looks up and smiles softly.
"There's nothing," she says and the light flickers out.
The sun continues to shine as we sit silently in the metaphorical dark. I can't help but feel I've failed her. She recomposes herself and straightens up in her seat as an air of studied professionalism descends. There's no mistaking the shift in mood. Wherever we were going, we're not now.
"Why did you want to play the Arts Festival?" I ask, because I have to say something. Her answer is short and obvious.
She was asked to play and said yes. The next few answers come back clipped. She has learned how to make her darkly intimate songs translate to the open air of a festival stage. She doesn't like it when people talk during her performance.
We talk like that for a while as birds sing – possibly scream.
I try again. Previously she'd said work had started on a new album. I ask how that's going.
"Good," she replies unblinking and elaborating not at all.
When it becomes woefully apparent that's the extent of her answer I ask if she's wanting to keep it under wraps.
"Ahh…" she says, breaking her stare to look away and across the empty courtyard, "but that makes it sound like I think people care".
But people do care, I say. As someone who loves your music, I care.
"Well…. I managed to write most of the record while I was on tour so…
… I'll see…
… it goes."
I'm not entirely sure how - dumb luck on my part maybe, generosity on hers more likely - but the air shifts and the elongated silences that punctuate so much of the interview defrost and become comfortable again.
I tell her I'm fascinated by the art she's putting forward and the process behind it but I'm unsure how much of that she wants to give away.
"What part," she asks, "are you fascinated by?"
Harding's gaze is locked and her tone is quizzical, which is unnerving yet oddly reassuring, and leads me to a very different place than I intended to go when I started talking.
Without wanting to sound trite, I say, all of it. Those strange, haunting songs, the daring and provocative performances and now, speaking to her, it feels like maybe I should be worried about where she's at in her own emotional health and wellbeing.
"Are you saying you're worried about me?" she asks genuinely surprised, her voice cracking into a whisper.
I think I might be now, I say.
Her voice is warm and her eyes comforting when she says, "don't be".
Then she softly repeats those two words, "don't be", only this time her voice breaks and for the second time during our conversation her eyes tear up.
Shortly after, my Dictaphone gets turned off but we stay a while longer. We talk and for long periods we don't.
She gets up and hugs me goodbye.
"Be well," I say.
"Don't worry," she says gently. "I will."
I leave. My head's reeling but comforted by her parting words. It's only later that I have the sudden and awful thought that perhaps I wasn't the one Aldous Harding was reassuring.