Never Let Me Go: Daughter's Elena Tonra in interview

As Daughter explore America's Deep South for the first time, founder Elena Tonra stops to ponder why they're connecting with listeners far and wide

Feature by Gary Kaill | 04 Oct 2013

Daughter are that rare beast: an act whose gradual ascendancy throughout 2013 has been seemingly without fanfare or hype. They are a genuine, old-fashioned word-of-mouth success. Debut album If You Leave, a sprawling, atmospheric adventure, received plaudits for its sharp reworking of indie-folk tropes. It’s a work of beautifully understated dramatics: the delicate precision of its guitars and its spare, elementary arrangements form an uneasy alliance with the dark husk of singer Elena Tonra’s voice and the unnerving candour of her lyrics. A schedule of non-stop touring at home and abroad has seen them win a sizeable, loyal following. And emerging signature tune Youth has seen festival crowds switch from curious to swooning in a (broken) heartbeat.

Elena and band mates Igor Haefeli (guitar) and Remi Aguilella (drums) are part way through an American headlining tour, and she thinks for a moment when The Skinny asks her where she is today. “We’re in Nashville,” she says. “Yeah, it’s amazing really. We’ve not been here [the American south] before; we’re just thrilled to be here. The crowds are, you know, quite up for it in terms of participation, which is great.” Another pause. "I don’t know, the American crowds are just so expressive, I think in both singing and in heckling… in a nice way!”

If You Leave is something of a live performance challenge. A shadowy, intimate work, much of its impact comes via what it dares to leave out: it’s an album that thrives on the space it creates. There are near-silent passages that ask much of the relationship between audience and band. At Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral during their last run of UK dates, the tension, at times, was palpable. You prayed no-one whooped or whistled as the band began by stepping lightly through epic album-closer Shallows. “Oh that was awesome. That was a really special night,” says Tonra. “The setting was so impressive and it was just the kind of space where even we perhaps don’t want to make too much noise. The audience were quite quiet which can be unnerving. You feel like saying ‘Is everyone having a good time?’ Well, as good a time as you can have with our kind of music!“

"When we’re in the songs, it’s almost like a trance" – Elena Tonra

Daughter’s emergence and development feels uncommonly unforced, the album preceded by a series of singles over the last couple of years that culminated in the release of The Wild Youth EP in 2011. It seemed entirely fitting that they announced, in late 2012, their signing to 4AD, that home of artful mavericks and wayward innovators. Smother, their first release for their new label, gave notice of a gradual shift away from a studied, skewed folk to something more expansive and free. Like much of the album, Smother is unflinching (“I’m wasted, losing time / I’m a foolish, fragile spine”) in its deconstruction of the delicate architecture of relationships. Beneath its swelling atmospherics, If You Leave documents “the lovers that went wrong” with a cool head and a level eye; it’s a blackened wonder but there’s no denying that it might not be for everyone. “Yeah. It’s not the easiest first listen,” says Tonra. “A lot of people have said that. They’ll say ‘Oh I’m not sure…’ and then they’ll come back and say they’ve got it, so maybe after repeated listening it starts to make sense. I don’t know. There was never really a plan, as such. We made it in confined spaces and we never really played it to anyone apart from the people we were working with.”

“Production-wise, Igor had help from other people but he was very much in control of that side of things,” Tonra continues.” A lot of the time it was just me and Igor in a flat, coming up with ideas and then we went off for two weeks or so into the countryside in Dorset with our recording gear. So it was all very isolated and because of that we were never really sure how from the outside listening in other people were going to react to it – or even if it would turn out to be something that people could listen to or even want to listen to. A lot of people have been very positive about it. People have said that it makes sense with respect to their lives and experiences and that they’re able to connect with it. Which is surprising and really beautiful: to think that there are other people who share the same thoughts, perhaps, that I have.”

If You Leave doesn’t readily offer itself up. It demands much, challenges the listener to meet it somewhere in the shadows. But, like much of the most singular and uncompromising art, that effort pays back with interest. “Well that’s really nice of you to say. Thank you.” Tonra pauses to consider. “I’m glad you like it and that you took the trouble to listen. Some people have just quickly listened to it and gone ‘Nah – fuck it!’”

John Lennon once said that song-writing was the act of ridding yourself of the demon within, but Tonra is keen to avoid over-dramatising her work. “I can’t necessarily compare my experiences too directly with other people’s because there are people who have been through bizarre amounts of shit in their lives. I’m not trying to say I have a really hard life. I’m just trying to distil what I think. So, yeah, perhaps it is about releasing the demons but you just have to remember that you’re not writing for everyone and, you know, everyone has their own… shit.”

Many of Tonra’s interviews since the album release have tried to uncover the source for her lyrics, something she always appears to graciously sidestep. She’s philosophical about the curiosity. “A lot of people do get caught up in the specifics of why I’ve written something,” she says.” I get questions like – ‘What is this about? What does it mean?’ And I just say that what I wanted to say, I’ve already said. I’ve already written as much as my brain wanted to let me write at the time, through the song. I always say I don’t want to tell people what the songs are about. I’d rather people find out for themselves by relating the songs to their own lives.”

We talk some more about the slightly surreal lifestyle defined by motorway miles and anonymous hotel rooms. The band is unsure how long the If You Leave cycle of promotion and touring will last. We cover the prospect of album number two – “I need a level of isolation for things to make sense. But yeah, there are a few ideas kicking around. There are just no songs as such yet. We’re not jamming in the back of the tour bus!” – and their growing confidence onstage. Tonra recently saw CHVRCHES for the first time, another act whose singer has received the occasional misguided duff notice for refusing to scissor-kick her way across the stage like David Lee Roth, and declares herself a fan: “I don’t get the criticism. She’s just performing the way she has to perform and it’s right and appropriate for what they do. Lauren’s brilliant live. I don’t know what some people expect. Dancing? I’m lucky in that I have a guitar to hide behind; I really can’t imagine what I’d do if I just had to perform without it.”

Daughter’s brooding inner visions are captured in unflinching close-up on If You Leave but it’s onstage where they manufacture drama and test the boundaries of their material. Throughout our interview, Tonra is endearingly self-mocking (“Sorry. Are you sure you’ve got enough to make a feature?”) and giggles non-stop. She does the same onstage – often, if the crowd dares to break those high tension silences, mid-song. It’s an ultimately winning approach: “I’m not the kind of person who’ll just walk into a room and start talking to people. I do have that nervous laughter thing about me, which I think I’ll have forever. I guess that’s the way we perform. If I really fuck up, yeah, I’ll laugh during the song. It’s actually between the songs that’s most difficult. When we’re in the songs, it’s almost like a trance – we’re escaping into our own heads and then you come out and suddenly you’re like ‘Oh shit! People are here!’”

Daughter play Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket on 20 Oct and Manchester Ritz on 21 Oct