Elena Tonra writes electrified folk songs about the slippage of the heart. Her London-based band Daughter has been around since 2010, beginning as a duo and releasing several EPs, before adding drummer Remi Aguilella and releasing a debut full-length If You Leave in 2013. After two years of touring internationally on the strength of that album, they holed up for most of 2015 and recorded its follow-up, Not To Disappear, which is out in January 2016. Though most of the songs were written in London, the trio traveled to Brooklyn this summer to record with renowned Brooklyn producer Nicolas Vernhes at his Greenpoint studio Rare Book Room. Over a crackly connection from England, Tonra discussed working with Vernhes over the summer in New York, the album’s accompanying video series, and the bravery of writing about grief.
What moved you to come to Brooklyn and work with Nicolas?
Essentially, we just wanted to work with Nicolas. Obviously, in terms of stuff that he’s worked on before I knew that his taste and our taste were similar. That’s important. But also, on a personal level, when you meet someone and think you’d like to work with them… he is that person. We wanted to go to his studio where he has all these wonderful instruments, toys and gear; to be in his world and record there was really important.
Even though you wrote the songs in London, do you think recording in New York summer infused them with some heat?
I do feel like there is something there, an injection of some summer there, even if it’s just in certain songs being a bit more energetic. The essential writing feels very much like gloomy London, but the experimentation and adventurous side of our instrumentation that came out in New York is quite evident. Maybe lyrically London but musically, it’s summer in New York.
The title of the record is Not To Disappear, and listening to it I hear a lot about the inevitability of loss and death, but the title also suggests this fierce desire to hang onto something.
It really sums up how I was feeling at the time, a lot of the record is about loneliness, really. The first album was maybe an intense study of how a relationship breaks down, and all the kind of different angles you can look at that. This album is more about all the different ways you can look at loneliness. I think for a long part of the writing side of this album I was trying to understand why I can be in a room full of people and still feel completely by myself. Or how I can be with someone romantically and feel completely alone. From my side it’s trying not to disappear, not to lose my sense of self completely. I think there’s an overwhelming sense of that when you hide yourself away, or when you feel not confident about things; you lose the aspects of your personality and who you are and you become muddled up. You want to be alone but it’s not a good thing for you.
I think that was personally in terms of my grandmother, there’s definitely a link there with her and how her illness is taking away who she was. She has dementia now. Obviously, over my whole life I’ve spent a great deal of time with her, whether it was going to her house after school two days a week or whatever. But it’s hard to see in someone’s eyes that there’s going to be a point where she definitely doesn’t know who I am. I worry about disappearing to her, I worry about that day. Because eventually I will. I think as a band too, we’ve had stressful times in a way. It’s almost been a good thing, though. Not to say we have to be stressed out to make good things, but I think in our differences and in our creative differences, we’ve made a better album. We’ve all been fighting our corners on different things through the process and writing and recording. But I also had a worry at some point–and I think that most people probably do–that the band will break up and we’d all fall out and not be friends. Another bloody worry! I’m losing my band, I’m losing my mind. (laughs) So it was all those things. But I think the title is more about my own identity as a person.
I wanted to talk about the connection between the album, the short stories you commissioned from Stuart Ever and the trio of videos. It’s such a cool framework. What inspired that process?
Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard are the couple behind the videos, and they also made our first ever music video for our first album. What I instantly loved about them is the atmosphere they created for that first video summed up the song really well. We met them through our label 4AD and Beggars Group–Jane was working at Beggars Group at the time. We were really suited to their vision, and for this album we were, oh also I feel like the first album we really hadn’t thought about visuals at all, we were so caught up in making the music. So while we were in New York we sent them over some of the songs and lyrics because I thought that’d be a good thing to start from. Then they sent them to their friend Stuart Ever who wrote the three short stories, and he based the ideas around some of the lyrics I’d sent. So he made these three stories and for each video there’s a story he wrote behind it. There’s the one that’s come out already, “Doing The Right Thing,” and the stories in all three videos are linked with a red dress.
Iain and Jane basically made three videos over three days or maybe four days. I was there for two days and it was amazing, but I could tell it was a very stressful thing to do. We went to this seaside town in England called Margate, and it was out of season so it had this lonely, forgotten sort of feeling. It wasn’t summertime when everyone is there with their neighbors eating candy floss. It felt really sad, which was awesome. All the arcades were still going and everything was there, but everything was a little grey and a little bit sad, so for the video it was the perfect place to be. I like working with Iain and Jane and I think they captured the song so well. There’s ideas in the videos that I wouldn’t have thought that would go with the song, but it totally does. And it’s great, it’s really exciting. It’s really great to see how something you’ve made can trigger someone it write something which can then trigger someone to make a video.
Daughter’s music does deal with these heavy things like grief and death that we usually avoid even though they’re such universal things. What is it like to be openly working through those topics?
I never think about what I’m going to write before I do. A lot of it just falls out. It all tends to be stuff I feel strongly about that I didn’t quite realize I did. It’s depressing, but I do think that there’s something there—even selfishly—that’s really helpful. Even with the first single “Doing The Right Thing,” I didn’t start that thinking it was going to be about dementia. I pressed record on my phone and started spouting lyrics. I wasn’t even thinking; it was a bit like a trance. Obviously, I’d kept these things that my mother said to me, or things I’ve seen in my grandmother, like little jigsaw puzzle pieces. Then all of the sudden they fall into place, and it becomes clear that I’m really sad about this and haven’t addressed it. In that way, writing these songs is helpful. Maybe other people know how they feel about things and don’t need to do it.
No, I think it helps other people dig through their own sadness to listen to you do it. Because doing that is really brave.
Thank you. I want to be honest in my writing and I don’t want to shy away from topics because I think that they’re too sad or ‘too much information.’ Talking about sad things doesn’t necessarily have to be depressing. You can make something beautiful even if it’s sad. That’s where Igor and Remi play a huge part. Even in the saddest moments of lyrics, the music is quite hopeful. They help balance it, so it’s not just me telling my sad secrets all the time. I want to have strength in the fact that my writing is fragile. I want to be confident in the fact that I’m not confident, have strength in vulnerability. I want to not be afraid to put myself across as not the best human being in the world. I think there are some songs were I come across as an awful person. But everyone has that.
Not To Disappear is out 1/15 via Glassnote/4AD. Pre-order it here.