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Interviews, Music

Interview: Daughter’s Elena Tonra on “Not To Disappear”

By: Gemma Mastroianni –

Singer/guitarist Elena Tonra, guitarist/producer Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella of Daughter.

Singer/guitarist Elena Tonra, guitarist/producer Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella of Daughter.

Question: how do you match an album as peerless, wholly immersive, and as widely acclaimed and adored as Daughter’s 2013 debut If You Leave? Simple: up the ante on every level. Building on that record’s gloriously dark intensity, wracked emotion and come-hither diaphanous textures, Not To Disappear, the new full-length release from the London-based trio – singer/guitarist Elena Tonra, guitarist/producer Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella – is a mighty declaration of intent. Profoundly ruminative and lugubrious, bold and direct, it’s arguably even more assertive and compelling than its much-lauded predecessor.

Produced by Haefeli and Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The War On Drugs), Not To Disappear finds Daughter evolving in interesting ways. Recorded in New York, at Vernhes’ studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, there are the usual intricate dynamics at play – Tonra’s gauzy, fragile voice, delivering powerful, anguished words detailing her inner turmoil, fusing seamlessly with Haefeli’s tight, melodic guitar sounds and Aguilella’s rolling drums – but the sound, oozing with depth and resonance, feels infinitely richer.

In our new interview with Tonra, we discuss the new album, how she has developed as a songwriter, and more!

It’s been three years since you released If You Leave. What was the writing and recording process like for you this time around? Was it a conscious decision for you guys to not hide behind as much reverb for this album?

When the first album came out we toured quite extensively for about two years. Within that time, a lot of our sound for both songs kind of shifted as we went on the road and the sound became a lot more distorted and aggressive because the dynamics were changing in those older songs. We were accumulating more gear and peddle. When we went into writing this new record our bassist sounded quite different from when we sounded the first time. For me, I guess the vocal sound and the kind of drowned sound of the first album vocals are something that I liked a lot. I guess in this album it sort of was reflecting how the lyrics were shifting and how the writing was going so it seemed to drown the vocals out would be almost counteractive. It was just a fast production process that we went through and we gradually turned it all down. But yeah I still do drown them live sometimes, sometimes I get my way!

How did your intense touring schedule over the past two years influence this album?

Yeah, I think so. Hopefully it meant that we were better musicians. Maybe if we aren’t, I feel like we know each other and how we work so well. A lot of our arrangements were done in a very loose way and I saw a lot more freedom to explore with this record with different sounds and ideas, which comes from knowing each other that much better. Our relationships and technical abilities have gotten better as the time has gone on, which has influenced the record.

In terms of songwriting, what kind of themes did you focus on with this album, and how do you think you’ve grown as a songwriter?

I never really thought about what themes were in the album until the record was done and I was like, “so what is this overarching theme?”. I guess it’s really weird because it happened with the first record as well where I didn’t really know there was a theme or message from the album until we finished it.

With this album, I think loneliness is the general underlying theme of each song. Each song explores it in a different way with songs about my personal feelings of loneliness in different situations, my mother, my grandmother. With my grandmother its about how Alzheimer’s can affect you and how lonely you must feel when family members are almost disappearing from your memory. I wanted to explore the idea of being conscious of what was happening to you and your memory slowly dissolving.

How have you become more direct lyrically?

I think I didn’t realize but with a lot of songs a lot of things would be disguised as something else, a metaphor for something, or a symbol and people would be trees and rivers. It kind of got to a stage where I wasn’t thinking that way, and I love thinking that way because certain songs would be like “I can really see this and its almost like a picture”. It suddenly became just very much like seeing things as in a like a specific memory. It got to this really conversational type of writing. Maybe its just how I wrote for this record and I couldn’t think of things in that way anymore; I couldn’t talk about my Grandmother and what she is going  through in anything other than being direct. I don’t know why, it just wasn’t happening; it wasn’t a conscious thing. I think this has opened me up and I’m happy because its like “Hey everyone, look at my insides – Goodnight!”

Daughter recorded their new album, Not To Disappear, at producer Nicolas Vernhes' Brooklyn, New York studio.

Daughter recorded their new album, Not To Disappear, at producer Nicolas Vernhes’ Brooklyn, New York studio.

You’ve a very honest songwriter. Were there any songs on Not To Disappear where you stepped back and asked, “is this too much information?”

I did think that but I love it when artists talk about something that is very personal like when a line of poetry in a song suddenly shifts into something very dark – I love that.

There was definitely a few times in this record where I was like “Does everyone need to know that?” but at the same time, I think I needed to keep those things in. I don’t like editing those things , I am very much someone who does something and goes back and changes it around. Even if something doesn’t rhyme, sometimes if you don’t go with your instinctive thoughts they can get lost if you change those things around.

If I’m going to say something I would rather it be really uncomfortable than slightly uncomfortable.

You’ve added more samples and electronic beats on Not To Disappear. How did those sounds work their way onto the album?

We started to work with electronic elements and different sounds in the first record but they were never really prominent. They were always kind of  either always in a bag of other sounds and soundscapes, never really loud.

With this record, we went away for a little bit after touring the first album we all took our little separate breaks from each other and a lot of the ideas that we were coming up with were electronic and I guess it’s probably just working from computers a lot. I’ve started making tracks now – I used to just go straight to a guitar to write. Now I have logic and really think about the whole thing. I love weird sounds and there is just a vastness to those electronic sounds that you can shift them and make them endless – its great. I feel like they naturally crept onto the record. I am happy that we have experimented with them because it shows that we can make whatever sounds we want.

For If You Leave, you never really rehearsed the songs before recording them. Was that the case with this album?

To a certain extent, yes. We did rehearse them- before we went to New York, we went into our little studio and basically just played through everything because we felt that as much as If You Leave sounded like it did for a reason, it was kind of silly to think that we should have rehearsed it because it is what made the album what it is. That’s what your first album should be, just finding your way.

With this one, we felt like after touring the first album and seeing how they really can change when you play them together live, we wanted to go into the studio with an understanding  that if we were to record the whole thing live or atleast the guitar and drum elements, this is how we would do it and we would be ready for it. Having that rehearsal time strengthened our idea of what the songs were doing, and what the arrangements were.

The songs on Not To Disappear feature a deeper texture and sound. How do you approach the songs for live performances? 

Because they are quite layered, we seem to always write songs for more than three human beings to play. We have a live musician that tours with us and her name is Lucy, she is absolutely brilliant. She is a multi-instrumentalist so she plays keys, bass, guitar, and triggers electronics. We approach it with an idea that basically we just don’t want to rely on track or anything like that.

Even if we have electronic sounds we want them to be hand triggered. Everything we play live as it would be, we try and get everything like all of the sounds of the record live as well, which is hard. I like the idea of us actually playing everything. We could totally rely on  a backing track but it just isn’t something that we want to do. We have a few loops here and there that run, but yeah. I still do have a vocal harmony and doubling pedal but just to have her kind of harmonizing over vocals live is always so nice.

You’ve released three videos so far for “Doing the Right Thing”, “Numbers”, and “How”. They have a consistency in their visuals, and almost a short-film-like quality to them. Was that ultimately your goal?

Yeah! We have worked with Ian [Forsyth] and Jane [Pollard] before, they did our first ever video for “Still”. They are amazing and were really interested and making it like a short film so they involved their friend Stuart Evans who is a short story writer and wanted to make it so it wasn’t like a music video but that you were following characters from beginning to end. They wanted different elements that would represent us as a band because they know that we hate being in music videos. They are almost like treasure hunts as they feature different symbols and things from the past, Daughter related things.

But yeah, the idea to make three short films for us was really important. I think we have always been so interested in having really beautiful videos and as much as we have had a pretty tight budget and time scale (three videos in three days) which is mad but they just look so unbelievably beautiful.  It is so magical to work with people to get what you’re about and for us we get what they’re about and just that whole team and everyone working on it was unbelievable.

What was it like moving from London to New York? How did the change of scenery give you a creative push?

I think it really did and it helped. We were working and living in London for a year and a half before moving to New York and we stayed in New York for two and a half months. We went there to work with Nicholas [Vernhes] in his space and in his studio and it was nice.

There was just something about being in a new place and we had a task in mind that we had obviously demoed everything we needed in a year in a half but we knew at this time that we needed to re-record these songs and come back with an album and we knew that we had a time frame to make something.

What was so awesome about it was that being in the city and having a holiday feeling and having that excitement that never really weared off. The whole time I was there I was really excited to be there, and that meant that as much as 12 hour days were tiring and we would argue with each other, the idea that I would go back and be in this really cool urban apartment. I could pretended that I lived there and I would wake up in the morning and get coffee or go to the park or watch people walking their tiny sweet dogs; just all these things that made being in another place less stressful. It made us focus our assets.

Daughter will perform at Glastonbury 2016. Buy tickets here.


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