Darkness Visible: Daughter on Not to Disappear

Second album Not to Disappear is a vivid re-scoping of Daughter's artful melancholy. Elena Tonra tells us why the search for truth remains at the heart of her lyrical design.

Feature by Gary Kaill | 12 Jan 2016

"Well, actually, funnily enough, that back-of-the-bus jamming didn’t really lead anywhere in the end. Writing on tour just didn’t seem to work at all." Elena Tonra recalls her last interview with The Skinny: a conversation that took place towards the end of 2013 as the band explored the American South. At the time, with debut album If You Leave connecting with audiences at home and abroad, Tonra and bandmates Igor Haefeli (guitar) and Remi Aguilella (drums) were trying to tease out new songs via tried and tested methods.

Could writing be squeezed into the downtime that touring inevitably brings? For Daughter, sadly, the answer was no. "It just wasn't happening. We did a few rehearsals and sound checks, even, where we would just play and jam with each other but I think most of the writing for this album came from us being separated and doing our own thing over the Christmas of 2014, and then just a lot of writing off tour. We got a studio – we rented a place and wrote there. So yeah, back-of-the-bus jams didn’t work." She laughs. (Tonra, in another break with rock 'n' roll tradition, laughs throughout our interview. She laughs before, during and after every answer. It's infectious. More bands should try it.) "Well, actually, maybe a few ideas might have trickled in but, yeah…" 

Tonra is at home in London as she reflects on the handful of shows her band has just played ("We've started to have fun on stage, I think, with these very un-fun songs. Very strange!") as a prelude to the release in January of second album Not to Disappear. Their debut, a modest and unassuming work whose deft shadowplay saw them close their UK touring campaign in front of large, enraptured audiences, always felt like an anomaly.

A spare, trim work of dusky confessionals, with no signature tunes or anthems, it asked much of its audience. Not to Disappear is a gutsier work by some distance: more guitars, more volume, more everything. It's a high-stakes follow-up and this time around, supporting its lofty ambitions, Daughter's singer finds more – in every sense – of her voice. 

"I felt really strange about the writing this time – it was like the words were coming at me" – Elena Tonra

It's not so much of a leap: you can see how the one bridges into the other. But it casts into sharp relief the almost surprising nature of their immediate success. If You Leave was a tender and beautifully crafted record but it was a tough listen at times. "Yeah, we were very surprised it connected like that," says Tonra.

"It felt like a very introverted record. The thing is, I think it's sharing a lot. I think I overshare things in my lyrics – maybe it's that 'telling people all my secrets' thing. I don’t know. It's just that difference between, I'm saying a lot in the lyrics and then it's still like…" She pauses to consider. "I guess it's always been a surprise – we've been playing these shows recently and we've even played some festivals and, oddly, it's connecting, it seems. Already, people seem to get it. It's quite a relief, in actual fact."

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Not to Disappear's grander scale will, over time you suspect, only expand Daughter's appeal. Lead single Doing the Right Thing is at once a more direct hit: accessible without compromise. It's the sound of Daughter flexing, and not just their muscles. "Yeah, it's a bit more confident and a bit more aggressive. The thing is, our sound was developing anyway: the If You Leave songs changed after being toured for two years. Sound-wise, things grew. We invested in equipment and got new pedals and got more into that sort of thing. Our sound had already started to move. " 

What hasn't changed is Tonra's approach to lyric writing. If anything, she's opened up. Two years ago, she wondered whether the music had perhaps shielded much of her unforgiving candour. Now, with Daughter wielding a fuller sound, that protection should have been bolstered but suddenly she's more exposed.

"I think that maybe from a listener's perspective it feels that the lyrics might have changed in that respect," she agrees. "I felt really strange about the writing this time – it was like the words were coming at me, almost coming out as if they were letters, as prose, and I was a bit freaked out because it usually just naturally came out in a more poetic way. It used to feel like the lyrics were a bit more shrouded. But this time it was different. It was coming out much more directly, to the point where I just went with it. While we were making the demos, I'd press record and this rant would just come out for three minutes and some of the songs emerged that way. No Care was one of those." 

No Care, with its stark recriminations, is a breathless howl: a raw catalogue of self-loathing and sexual humiliation. How ("Goodbye to our empty ruins") is the post-break up debris in extremis. Made of Stone ("Love is just easing the waiting before dying without company") squares up the obvious: why do we even bother? 

"I think I've always written from a very personal perspective," continues Tonra. "Pretty much all of my songs are my personal experience. The first album was very much my voice and was about things from my perspective. There are a couple of songs on this album that are not but, overall, it's me. I mean, I do think at times, 'Should I tell everyone that?' But I also think that being honest about something is the best thing I can do as a writer. It's really important to not actually be afraid. And maybe there are some lines that even make me go, 'Ooh, god – why did I say that?' But I think it's a good thing. I think it's a challenging thing and for this album I felt like I wasn't going to push myself to keep these things in." 

At times, Not to Disappear threatens to overwhelm. Its deep musicality is a thrilling progression but there's no escape from Tonra's lyrical purpose and tone. Hopefully, the songs give something back, act as an unburdening. "They do, yes, definitely. The whole reason I started writing in the first place is... I was writing down a lot of things I just couldn’t talk about; things that upset me. Then could just look at them and think about them in a different way, and I think that it just started off with me writing songs that had no music – just an acapella hymn, if you will. I was doing that when I was a kid, just writing lyrics that no one ever saw, really, ever. I was like 'This is happening and I'm going to write it down and I'm going to make something positive out of this.' Whatever it was at that time that was making me not feel positive.

"And so it just carried on, and now it's just like this weird thing that happens now and again when suddenly my brain will go, 'Ooh, wait! Idea!' And that's when I have to race to capture it. I don't really have a structure or a plan, which can be quite irritating. I can't really sit down and force myself to write, which does mean I do go through long stretches where I haven't written and that's quite upsetting. But I think, in fairness, when I do, it does feel like a kind of therapy. There are some songs on this album that I wrote in a flash. Doing the Right Thing was ten minutes of me just not even thinking about it and just writing, writing, writing. Perhaps that's just a different way of me understanding what I'm thinking about; things that maybe I don't really address normally in day to day life.

"That's one song that's written from someone else's perspective; it's basically me looking through my grandmother's eyes, seeing the world in her way. She has Alzheimer's and she's with us and she's not with us at times, but she's just such a beautiful human." Tonra pauses for a moment. "I hope it's OK that I've told you that, by the way." It explains the skewed viewpoint, for sure. It's good to know. "OK, good. I do think that with that song it helps to know what informed the writing. It's just that sometimes people are like, 'Tell us what this song's about!' and I tell them and they’re like 'Oh fuck – is that it?!'"

Not to Disappear is released on 15 Jan via 4AD. Playing Manchester Albert Hall on 21 Jan; Liverpool O2 Academy on 22 Jan and Edinburgh Queen's Hall on 23 Jan http://ohdaughter.com