Interview: Elena Tonra and Igor Haefeli of spectral alt.folk group Daughter
The two discuss death, debuts and messages from beyond the grave
‘To be honest, I had a bit of writer's block. The second EP, The Wild Youth, had been received well, but I'd got the idea into my head that I couldn't write anymore; that I had lost my way’.
Baring one's soul is no stranger to Elena Tonra, the soft-featured nucleus of London-based trio Daughter. If You Leave – the group's debut album – had the vocalist divulge the contents of both her heart and head through a blend of soft bleats and stark strains.
‘I was freaking out because I hadn't been able to write anything,’ Tonra confesses. ‘I thought getting out of London would be a good idea. Have no distractions at all’.
Accompanied by Daughter's guitarist Igor Haefeli – her partner and the band's musical backbone – Tonra retreated to an old, converted chapel in Dorset with a smattering of instruments to ‘be in the middle of nowhere, with no internet, no TV and no one else around.
‘It was a beautiful setting. It was a bit eerie. It was January – super-cold and misty – but it seemed like a perfect setting. There was nothing else but to focus on what you were doing. You couldn't escape it then; you just had to write’.
And write they did. Their sanctum sanctorum witnessed the creation of half of the songs which now rest on their stunning debut, with the spectral locale pervading the full nocturnal landscape of If You Leave.
Lines like ‘buried deep within there's a human / and despite everything I'm still human’ fittingly made the record a sanctuary for those of a hyper-sensitive nature (quite fittingly, considering the duo’s own refuge). However, Tonra's malaise on If You Leave doesn't merely rest its worried head alongside the dissolution of a relationship; it also climbs into bed with perhaps the most chilling associate of loss: death.
On 'Tomorrow', she exhibits an acute, deep-set fear of losing someone close, yet not at the hands of a break-up but the Grim Reaper’s, lamenting, ‘when the sun comes up / We'll be nothing but dust… don't bring tomorrow / because I already know I'll lose you’.
‘There are a few songs about death. I was thinking about that … um…’ she utters in a thick London brogue, before curling into herself with a nervous laugh. ‘That sort of thing.
‘A close relative said a stranger came up to her and started saying she had messages for her, from someone who had passed. I don't know how to explain that. I don't know how somebody who is a complete stranger knows about someone else's life like that.
‘That confused the hell out of me,’ Tonra laughs. ‘There's something slightly unnerving about it, but also it brings you to some kind of peace too. It’s interesting and terrifying at the same time. That dread of loneliness of when you die; do you see anyone again or is it nothingness?’
Tonra’s lyrics have received both praise and criticism for their poetical leanings, such as 'Winter's description of two lovers drifting apart like ‘two sheets of ice’.
Words the BBC heavily lauded, the Guardian called 'overwrought', but Tonra assures her lines aren’t deliberately embellished. ‘I do read poetry, but I think it's just how my brain works. I obviously just see things in that sense’.
She breaks off, to laugh, ’My friends actually take the piss out of it. They say, “Oh you gonna put some body parts in this, and some nature too?!” It's just how it pours out of my head!’
Carving out their own sculpture of funereal alt-folk has also allowed Daughter to impress their elegiac signature on even the most upbeat of numbers; Daft Punk's disco smash 'Get Lucky' was transformed into a poignant paean, with Tonra's vocals haunting bass-lines like the sweeping echoes of a phantom, while Hot Chip's 'Ready For The Floor' was overhauled into a sombre threnody to the wee small hours.
In the ten months since we tipped Daughter for big things, they’ve witnessed the debut LP break pierce the UK charts, embarked on a slew of festival dates including a double-slot at Glastonbury, supported arch-miserablists The National on tour in America and had record label 4AD bleed singles 'Smother', 'Human' and 'Youth' into the public domain.
Add that to a slot on Letterman (which you can watch below), lucrative exposure on Grey's Anatomy and a mammoth worldwide tour not scheduled to break off until December, and it's been an incredible (if manic) journey for the troupe.
‘The past four years have been intense’, Haefeli stresses. ‘Even before Daughter [Tonra and Haefeli met while studying song-writing and later added drummer Remi Aguilella]. We're hectic, but I now want to work on some music. Set something up so we can be creative. I'd really like to have somewhere remote to go to again’.
If You Leave is the clearest harbinger yet of their lasting success, but Tonra appears unworried by its commendations; in fact, she seems irreversibly boosted by its acclaim, perhaps this time with the knowledge that surroundings steeped in isolation are the catalyst for her creativity.
‘I have been writing new material’, she whispers. ‘A little bit. It's hard though. Some bands can jam on tour, but for me, I need to separate myself for a little bit somewhere.
‘When I shut myself away, it somehow just comes out’.
Tonra's wide beam suggests the writer's block she encountered before appears to have finally been laid to rest, and through a bright set of teeth, she grins, 'I've now got this itch to create'.
Daughter play Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket on Sun 20 Oct.