Daughter – Interview – 2016

A 21st century European band, Daughter have become one of the great success stories of the 'twenty-tens'. Made up of a modest trio of musicians who came together at a music college, and hinging on the inspired and forthright lyricism of Elena Tonra, they have – like most great bands do – conjured up an original sound that oozes a passionate melancholy, a profound sadness that has the effect of uplifting the emotions, striking many-a-listener right in the heart. It's seductive heartbreak music, and modern in tone, structure and atmosphere. A little like Beth Gibbons and Portishead without the trip hop, and a bit like more contemporaneous acts such as London Grammar, Lanterns on the Lake and xx. But, like all the aforementioned, Daughter are strikingly original. It's why, for many, it was love at first hearing.

Fronted by the native Londoner of Irish-Italian descent Elena Tonra, Daughter formed in 2010 when Swiss-born guitarist Igor Haefeli became her musical and romantic partner, to be followed by drummer Remi Aguilella from France. With just two official EPs and one album under their belt, the three-piece have become somewhat of a cult phenomenon in a short space of time. And with the eagerly anticipated release of album number two, Not To Disappear, it looks like things can only get even better for a band that initially met while at a music college in London, with no real expectations beyond "making music together." It all really started with Elena dipping her toes in the open mic, singer-songwriter circuit, as a solo artist around 2009/10, singing her soulful, almost r'n'b inflected songs. "It didn’t suit me at all," she says. "As a musician, I’m self-taught and felt I was restricted by my abilities. I'm a pretty poor guitarist. If anyone saw me, technically…

"I wasn't comfortable on stage on my own. I wanted to work with others… and wanting to take the music somewhere. I needed to find other people to work with, and I was lucky I knew Igor. We ended up jamming together and ended up as a two piece for a while."

Haefeli attended one of the acoustic shows that Tonra was performing at and found that "she had this power which drew everyone in." He had originally met Tonra while they were at London's Institute of Contemporary Music Performances, both on a songwriting course. They ended up writing together, and made a demo, followed by a self-released EP, His Young Heart in the spring of 2011, which was recorded in Haefeli's bedsit. This and their growing popularity as a live band saw Mumford & Sons Ben Lovett's Communion sign them up for an EP, which led to BBC radio play, rave reviews, and a quickly developing fanbase.

"We all went to the same school. Elena and Igor were doing a songwriting course diploma, in London," says Remi, explaining how he met the others. A classically trained percussionist, he brings a whole new dimension to the Daughter sound, creating dynamic sounds that include a lot of rolls and subtle, evolving patterns. "I was doing a drum degree, and I was asked to play for their class one day, so I had to play with a bunch of different songwriters, and helped them with the drum parts for a film they had been recording, which had a score. At the time Elena and Igor weren't writing music together, but when they started to do that (after they had left college) and they wanted a drummer for their music, they just gave me a call."

 

In 2012, shortly after headlining a 700-capacity show in London they signed to 4AD in the UK. The single Smother was playlisted by both BBC Radio 1 and 6, and events were moving so fast for the band that they openly worried about it. In December 2012 the band reluctantly appeared on the David Letterman Show, months prior to the release of their debut album, which Tonra described as "perhaps a cart-before-the-horse situation." We didn't even have an album written yet," says Igor. But, you know, some people just know when something is good. Really good.

"I remember early on, our first headline show in London was at The Slaughtered Lamb (2011)," say Remi, and there was maybe about 150 people. And then after that it felt like 400, and then 700, 900. It felt mad, great, pretty amazing. We didn't have a plan, the idea was to play music together. It was a little more natural than some people wanted to make of it," Remi says about the rapid exponential interest in the band. "We had absolutely no interest in what other people were going to say. All we wanted to do was make something we were happy with. If people like it's just a bonus. We want to make something relevant to us, and not something to please others."

The debut album, If You Leave, went top 20, an emotionally mature and quietly intense record that clearly demonstrated that this band were here to stay, if they wanted it. Managing to sound at once intimate, and yet epic and enveloping, within a sparse structure, that revealed a subtle soundscape and fluid dynamics. For Tonra, writing (which she had done since being a young teenager) enabled her to release emotions, using it as a tool to channel them through something tangible, music being the ideal carrier.

A notoriously reticent interviewee, and sometimes awkwardly shy, Tonra writes "about things I feel difficult talking about in adulthood… and dealing emotionally with life." Tonra and Haefeli became romantically involved and the guitarist insisted that they "keep our couple life and our band life separate… I don’t want Elena to stop saying things in her songs that are personal. Songwriters need to be expansive and they need to be unafraid." For her part, Tonra says: "Igor doesn’t question my lyrics. He regards what we do as an art form. He certainly doesn’t try to rewrite my words. I never tell anyone what my songs are about, not even him. I feel they are direct enough, anyway. They aren’t especially obscure".

Previously, Tonra had talked a little about her songs as being: "Breakdown songs, relationship songs. Pretty much all my songs have a personal meaning to me. There are songs that may be a little more about a thought or a mood, but there are some that are very relatable to my life. This is all I'm going to say in the song. If I wanted to say something else I would say it in the song. It's nice to leave it up to the listener, to take away what they would like to take away from it. If I explained every song, some people would say 'wow, that is rubbish, I thought it was about something way better than that'. You have to leave things up to interpretation, I think that is what music should be about. It shouldn't have to be explained."

 

The mystery surrounding Elena Tonra, her lyrics, and her relationship with Igor Haefeli, are just some of the ingredients that make for a heightened fascination for this most unassuming of bands. One who decided to call themselves Daughter, a name that feels comforting to Tonra, a woman who says she had a good childhood, and good parents.

"I think the reason I write sad songs is that there is always a sadness to draw inspiration from. I don't know if that is just me, or if everyone has a sadness within them, but I always have that side in me to explore. With everyone, there is a dark side to themselves. In every moment, there is a negative side. If I didn't write, and have a way to expel that, it could be self-destructive, but because I have an outlet it seems all my songs are of this nature. Those sad moments allow me to write."

In late 2014 the band started work on their second album. "We've played so many shows that the first album became rockier on stage and we're playing with that dynamic," says Haefeli. "What seemed to happen when we played live, the quieter moments on the album became even quieter on stage, and the loud, busy parts, became even busier and louder," says Remi. "The bigger the spaces – even though you have the microphones and the sound engineers doing their job – somehow you have this urge to go a little louder. You have a tendency to feel a little naked, and covering it with a bunch of sound. That somehow makes it more comfortable." Although Haefeli adds: "You can try hard to be heard and it has the opposite effect. If you're immersed in your own sound and don't care what other people think, quite often they'll end up listening."

"We've had some very enthusiastic audiences, even though our music is depressing," says Elena. "There's something comforting about hearing people make noise even during the really quite moments. But we've also played a lot of church shows, which can be deathly silent, and that is also cool."

Indeed, they played in Brighton in the extraordinary gothic style Victorian church of St. Mary's back in January 2013, to a capacity crowd. Three years to the day (January 17) they are playing Brighton's Dome, again a gig that sold out long ago…

 

How did you approach making this record? "We had been touring for two and a half years," says Remi. We went straight from touring the EP to recording the first album while still touring. We really wanted to take some time off with this one, to get down as many ideas as we wanted, take our time and be happy with the vibe, and go into the studio knowing that we don't have to leave the studio until we are done.

"Elena is the only one who will write lyrics, and she'll use chord progressions, on the piano or guitar. Igor then does his little magic, arranging the song with her, and I come in and try and figure out what kind of energy I want to give to the song. That's what tends to happen the majority of the time."

Produced by Haefeli and Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The War On Drugs), Not To Disappear was recorded in New York, at Vernhes’ studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Like the first album there are intricate and subtle dynamics at work, but there is also greater depth, and a richer palette on record. From the euphoria of Fossa to the poignant and gentle sweep of Made of Stone, Tonra's vocals are once again faintly haunting, while both Haefeli and Aguilella up their musical games considerably. “A lot of it started with individual ideas,” says Tonra. “Igor would write some instrumental stuff, and I would go away and write more tracks, learning how to use Logic, and how to realise something in a fuller way than just guitar and voice."

Having Vernhes in the studio was instrumental in helping the band further discover themselves, and to be more expansive and adventurous with their songs. “Nicolas was wonderful,” says Tonra. “We’d been living in London, and demoing and writing here. We’re perfectionists, pulling in different directions, so it was really beneficial to go somewhere else to record it, just for a change of scene. Working with Nicolas was a real injection of energy.”

“To me, music is like a very fragile Jenga,” Haefeli says. “You move one piece, then you have to move another piece to balance it. Elena is much more of a ‘pure’ artist. For her, it’s always about capturing the ‘moment’. In that way, we’re polar opposites, but I think that’s what brings some of the magic to it.”

The previous album's motifs of loss, alienation and loneliness are again the main themes, while her now trademark brutal honesty delivers a number of memorable blows, such as "There’s only been one time where we fucked, and I felt like a bad memory" as she sings on No Care. “Writing has always been a bit cathartic for me,” she says. “The new songs came out in a way where my writing was different from before. Initially, it freaked me out because I thought I had writer’s block, but I realised it was just how my brain was working. On this record, I’ve gone to places I maybe wouldn’t have been that comfortable with before. I guess there are a lot more sexual references, that kind of lonely interpretation of sex. But I thought, if my brain isn’t trying to hide this stuff, then it obviously means I should talk about it. It feels like I’m being braver, which is liberating.”

Most of the songs, I don't know what Elena is singing about," say Remi. "I know the general themes of the songs, but I would never want to ask her what the exact story is. I don't think she would like it. They are so personal. I don't think it would be very fair of me to go and ask even though we are very close friends. I want to give her some privacy, and I think she probably needs it."

To add further interest in the album, the band commissioned filmmakers Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard (directors of the Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth) to create three films for the album. "We'd worked with Steve and Jayne before (for the song 'Still')," say Remi and thought they were incredible. The idea was to create an atmosphere, over multiple songs. We gave the lyrics for all three songs to Stuart Evers, a short story writer, and he came up with short stories for all three, based on those three songs. All three videos were all shot over three days. I would not want to do that to them again! It was Stuart's interpretation of the lyrics. The song, Doing the Right Thing – I think Elena would probably have killed me if she hadn't talked about it already – is about dementia, how it affected her grandmother."

“Expressing your emotions isn’t a weakness but a real strength,” says Tonra. “I think with this new album, there’s less hiding. I used to hide a lot of my themes in poetry. But now, there’s no veil."

Jeff Hemmings

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