Inimitable and intriguing, Aldous Harding is a woman of spellbinding stage-presence. She begins her show at Glasgow’s Art School backlit, bathed in blue light. Sitting alone onstage with just a guitar, she does nothing, says nothing, until the crowd finish clapping.
Her hour-long set begins with the final song from Party, her latest album. When sung in her low warbling contralto, the lyrics to ‘Swell Does the Skull’ sound as if they are in a different language. With exception is the line “I don’t want to be a sinner”, which rings out clearly through the venue, giving the song a sense of urgency, as if she is pleading with the audience.
A keyboard player comes onstage for the next song; ‘I’m So Sorry’. The piano adds little to the already bare-bones melody which is carried wholly by the power of Harding’s voice. She hugs the guitar close to her chest, her chin resting on its shoulder.
One of the most fascinating aspects of seeing Aldous Harding perform live is how she uses body language. Her face contorts with weird facial expressions, almost like she is trying to communicate the song’s emotion without language. She stares into the audience, nodding and grimacing and with eyes bulging like a boxer who is trying to psych out their opponent before a match. When she later sings ‘What If Birds Aren’t Singing They’re Screaming?’, her expressions paired with the unnerving lyrics- evoke the feeling that she is a malevolent narrator trying to frighten children.
Although she moves little during the beginning of the set, she stands for ‘Blend’ and again waits for the room to fall silent before beginning. She bobs along with the music, occasionally inserting arrhythmic dance movements, punctuated by small gestures that are not unlike a subdued version of Mick Jagger’s notorious strut.
She gradually works through a number of songs from Party and plays ‘Elation’- a new release- in which she eases the audience into the story with sweet vocals but then shocks them by bellowing the chorus. In some ways, Aldous Harding is a typical folk singer. Her songs are stories and poems, backed up by simple guitar melodies and her commanding voice but there remains something new and unnerving about her style of singing and performing.
It’s difficult to imagine Aldous Harding in a supermarket, or at home, or indeed any place other than the stage. Her theremin-like voice, which serenades us for her final song ‘Horizon’, almost makes us believe that she’s from another planet. This isn’t for lack of relatability- the lyrics to ‘Horizon’ speak about saying “Good-bye — and not necessarily for any reason at all other than... I've got to go. I'm showing that person two things; their life, and their life with me. And I'm taking one of them away. And that's me.”
With ‘Horizon’ she says goodbye to the audience, and we are left contemplating a life without her.