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The New Zealander can be an unnerving presence. Shes also one of the most original songwriters around. She talks about Meatloaf, Apocalypse Now and why her generation is so frightened

Look into Aldous Hardings eyes. Its hard not to. To be fixed by her gaze is to be profoundly unnerved. This is a large part of the appeal of this New Zealand musician, whose music is as disquietingly beautiful and unsettling as her image.

On stage and in videos, the strangeness of Harding is intensified. Take the video for her new single, Zoo Eyes: shes dressed like an overpainted clown from a Jodorowsky film. At festivals this summer, she wore burnt-orange workmens clothes and a porkpie hat, her eyes twitching, her mouth gurning like a silent film comedian. If felt like watching the deeply peculiar child of Patti Smith and Buster Keaton or a wayward musical niece of Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey.

Despite the avant-garde approach, Harding is popular: shes sold out shows for her tour and headlines Londons Roundhouse next month. Young women who present themselves as she does, daring you to turn away, are rare these days. Shes also a discombobulating, impressive presence one-on-one, as I discover.

Terra Nova in Roath Park, Cardiff, is a lakeside cafe, noisy with mamgus (Welsh grandmas) entertaining their grandchildren. Harding is moving seats when I arrive to meet her: kindly giving up her big table for a couple. Im rain-soaked and I apologise for looking damply unprofessional. Oh no, you look perfect, she says. The phrase sounds sweet in her mouth, but also slightly sinister.

Watch the video for Zoo Eyes.

Harding lives nearby with her boyfriend, Huw Evans, AKA H Hawkline. (Before dating Harding, Evans went out, for 10 years, with Welsh musician Cate Le Bon; the two women share band members these days, which must make arranging tours interesting.) But Harding doesnt know what the local scenes like, she says just as she didnt in New Zealand: I spend too much time in my own head.

She talks very slowly, deliberately, precisely. Shes learning Welsh, she adds (she says it in the Welsh language, word by word, thinking her way through the sentence). Im very interested in how things sound. The details. Yes.

Born in 1990, Harding began life as Hannah Sian Topp. Harding is her stepfathers surname; he married her Canadian folk singer and puppeteer mum, Lorina, when Hannah was a teenager. A question about her stepfathers influence on her life, which she has mentioned elsewhere, is rebuffed, as are others; she doesnt like to answer questions if I dont feel like the answers going to come out in a natural, musical way.

Her mother remains a huge part of her life. She was the martial arts master twirling sticks in the video to Hardings breakthrough 2017 single, Horizon; her daughter appears in the video wearing black, eyes red-rimmed, possibly reaching out to her mother (although, as always with Hardings lyrics, the clues suggesting this are undone by other riddles and red herrings).

A clip from 2009 is also online, of Harding singing with her mother in a Wellington bar. The song, Exactly What to Say, is one they co-wrote about a typically fraught mother-teenage daughter relationship. You think that I dont listen, that I dont have a clue, Lorina sings, tenderly, but the things that happened to me back then/ I dont want them to happen to you. Harding duets, a ponytailed, hoodie-wearing 19-year-old, singing towards the floor about wanting to learn from her own mistakes. Aldous arrived a few years later. The name Hannah Harding sounded so much like a country singer. And Aldous She gurns. It may have been me seeing an Aldous Huxley book, but there was no deep association. I just thought it was interesting and looked good written down. And I just slipped into her and didnt look back, as corny as that sounds.

Like a cross between Kristin Hersh and PJ Harvey: Aldous Harding at Concorde 2 in Brighton last May. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Harding hints at darker moments during her early 20s: times when she was drinking too much and when things felt overwhelming; early interviews mention her taking acid at church and the songs on her eponymous debut are full of cries for help. That album certainly begins joltingly, with Stop Your Tears, which she sang then like a long-lost, broken folk singer. I will never marry, my love, it begins. I will die waiting for the bells/ Death, come pull me under water/ I have nothing left to fear from hell.

Ive always been, like a lot of people, driven by fear, Harding says of that time. Always focusing on the fire on the rope, as opposed to what the rope is coming from. She feels shes changing now. And by 2017s Party (which documented her break-up with New Zealand singer-songwriter Marlon Williams, albeit abstractly), Aldous was getting bolder. Her performance of Horizon on Later With Jools Holland saw her wild-eyed, gesticulating theatrically, practically spitting into the camera. It felt as if someone was like, Can I have a bite of you? and I was like, Have it all, then. Is that what you want? And then, that feeling just went on and on. She was pleasantly surprised people responded to her, she says, but also I wasnt surprised.

Then came bolder artistic choices. In the video to Blend (2017), she dances in turquoise hotpants and bra, the camera objectifying her body as she glares at the viewer (comments on her YouTube page are, wisely, switched off). I recognised this as an outfit inspired by the Playboy Bunny scene from Apocalypse Now, I say, and she suddenly beams like a child. Do you love Apocalypse Now? I took to that film like a child with a toy! I felt like it was speaking to me and only me. It was like a puzzle. And a comfort.

Why a comfort? Maybe it was the presence of Kurtz at the end of the river, she suggests. The idea they were moving towards dread. And that was a comfort? Yes! Do you ever have dread? Do you ever look at your life and go, Oh, God, theres so much more time to go!?

Im the opposite, I say worried about life going too fast.

But are you open? Im all, Oh, my God, theres so many hours in the day. So many years in my life left. She says later: There are very few things in the world that make me feel a feeling, really.

We discuss music thats made her feel things. Meatloaf, she says: I love how the poetry and the strength of his voice made up for how ridiculous it was. Neil Young: If Im feeling confused, I always listen to him, and go, Thats how things should sound. In the sense that its music that leaves me hopelessly baffled by his intentions, his secrets. She was also a huge fan of Lisa Left Eye Lopes from TLC. She was so weird, so strange and so cute, but she was not vulnerable. I also realised I dance the way I do because of her: the arms up, the hips forward. She shows me, jutting out her chin.

Watch Hardings duet with her mother in a bar in Wellington.

Her recent album,Designer, also has a foot twisting gently in the realm of pop, although its catchy songs still have wrigglier, murkier lyrical roots. Take the sweet guitar-pop of The Barrel, full of puzzling phrases such as show the ferret to the egg and more emotional ones, such as when you have a child, so begins the braiding/ And in that braid you stay. Her ever-changing voice also leads the mood of the songs: gently heavenly on Weight of the Planets, sadly stern on Heaven Is Empty. On the title track, Harding sings the lyric give up your beauty with relish.

She has never tried to make art thats arresting, she says. All I ever wanted to do was to do something interesting. But she will admit that shes trying to work out whats missing in music. Im trying to hold your focus as an unremarkable person trying to do something remarkable.

And shes doing this while theres an aversion in her generation to admitting that youre even trying, she says. Why does she think this? Because there is so much to lose. Its like when people go to acting school and someone will say, Now, I want you to scream at the top of your lungs and they dont want to. They dont want to watch themselves fail. Fail at what? Hardings look lingers in my head long after I leave. Fail at what is basically being human.

Aldous Harding tours the UK and Ireland from 29 November (at the O2 Institute Birmingham) to 7 December (at O2 Academy Bristol)

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