2013's Bleakest Stars: Daughter Interviewed

Elena Tonra on the band’s breakthrough year…

As the year comes to a close and album shortlists are collated, Daughter’s debut set ‘If You Leave’ will be getting plenty of mentions for its bittersweet brilliance (Clash’s top albums list being no exception). It’s one of the most eerily atmospheric and hauntingly intimate releases in a long time.

It’s an introverted creation, with the melancholic heartbeat of vocalist Elena Tonra lyrically powering the chillingly sparse combination of gentle guitar picking and dramatic percussion. “I’ve lost it all, I’m just a silhouette / I’m a lifeless face you’ll soon forget,” she bleakly pronounces on ‘Youth’. “I’m a foolish fragile spine,” she coos desolately in ‘Smother’, then ends with the tragically insecure thought: “I sometimes wish I’d stayed inside my mother, never to come out.”

But is this merely melodrama? And if not, where does Elena conjure these feelings from? “I think a lot of people have felt like that,” she says pensively about the final line of ‘Smother’. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘If I wasn’t here maybe everything would be better for everyone else.’”

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‘Youth’, from ‘If You Leave’

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It’s a surprising thing to hear Elena confess considering she’s anything but shy and sullen as we chat during the last dates of Daughter’s European tour. She’s full of good humour, reflecting on what’s been a “very weird year” for the band, who’ve almost circled the world performing to rapt crowds at pin-drop gigs across continents.

“It’s been really mad, and I was thinking that if I hadn’t made the small choice to go to college then I wouldn’t have met Igor and none of this would’ve happened.”

The college mentioned is London’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, where she took songwriting classes and met Swiss guitarist Igor Haefeli, and then recruited French drummer Remi Aguilella. But Elena began writing long before that, as a 12-year-old struggling to come to terms with high school, where she didn’t fit in.

“They all just thought I was weird, which I probably am,” she laughs, in self-deprecating fashion. “I had to adjust to people treating me like shit, basically. I had to some way be like, ‘F*CK YOU!’ but I had no way, so I would literally write down f*ck-you songs and put them in a drawer. That was my way of letting it out.”

‘If You Leave’, released on 4AD, sees the tone of the ‘f*ck you’ drawer converted into analysis of relationship trauma. “Now it’s things that I’m maybe too afraid to say to other people… I’m just scared that if I do everything will be lost,” she confides. It’s deeply personal territory from someone who initially wrote songs in the London warehouse Igor was living in around 2010, and never imagined the wider world would care.

Many people are finding cathartic comfort in Elena’s honest confessionals now, but it’s a double-edged sword: “It’s all out in the open now, which is enjoyable, but the album is a pretty weird subject at the moment because it hits harder now than when I wrote it, which is maybe because I was writing about something that I didn’t know would happen and it obviously has now.”

Her positive tone shifts towards the delicate whisper usually heard on record: “I feel like if I start talking to you about it, you’re just going to hear me crying on the phone for about 20 minutes.”

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‘Still’, from ‘If You Leave’

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We ask what kind of music she likes listening to when feeling down, and her positivity returns. “I tend to gravitate towards sadder music,” she enthuses, listing Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Sigur Rós. There’s a similar undercurrent of honesty and vulnerability in all these artists. “It’s exploring these topics that are sad but are truthful, real things,” she says.

“As much as I think happiness can be real I don’t think that I’ve ever been in a state where I’ve been so happy that I’ve wanted to write about it. From my writing perspective the only time I’m really inspired is when I’m writing about things that are really upsetting or that are a little darker,” she explains.

But does that dark side venture into her personality? Does she suffer from depression? “Umm… Not diagnosed. I’m not on some crazy medicine, but…”

She pauses to think. “I would find it hard to go to some kind of doctor and say shit, so I never have.”

Having been on tour for most of the year, Elena’s itching to be ensconced in a room again with only a guitar and her thoughts for company. “The f*ck-you drawer has been replaced on tour with me just whispering into an iPhone late at night,” she laughs.

Daughter will be concentrating on a follow-up album in early 2014. “I used to share a flat with Igor, but now I don’t, so I’ll be in London and he’ll be in Switzerland… so writing might be disjointed. It might be nice to go into our separate worlds and emerge with new ideas. It doesn’t have to sound vastly different as long as there’s internal progression.”

And as for the future, so long as Daughter are making beautifully engaging, lyrically honest music they’ll continue to connect on an emotional level with people around the world. That, and have many an album of the year to come.

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Words: Simon Butcher
Photography: Alex Brunet

This is an edited version of Clash’s full interview with Elena, which features in issue 91 of Clash magazine – find more details and buy a copy here

Find Daughter online here

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