Daughter: TAS In Session
There is a brutal undertow to Daughter's deceptively gentle songs; vocalist/guitarist Elena Tonra's confessional lyrics, bolstered by guitarist boyfriend Igor Haefeli's tempestuous electronic flourishes and drummer Remi Aguilella's propulsive dynamic, brim with pain, fury and aggravated beauty.
The London trio releaed two powerful EPs in 2012, His Young Heart and The Wild Youth, and they'll release their debut album in early 2013 via Glassnote and 4AD. The group launches a headlining tour in the UK on January 14 in Norwich, playing their biggest show to date at London's Hackney Empire on January 24.
Daughter visited The Alternate Side this fall for a remarkable session which will air this Friday, December 14, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. EST and streaming on the TAS site. Watch videos of Daughter live from Studio A and read highlights of the band's interview.
Kara Manning: You’re in the process of wrapping up your debut album, aren’t you? When will that come out?
Elena Tonra: Hopefully early next year. We’re still finishing it off at the moment.
Kara: In October you played ["The Late Show with David Letterman"]. He was obviously in love with you. How was that experience?
Elena: I had no idea how that came about! We were so shocked. We don’t have an album out or anything so we were kind of scared of going on in the first place. We were like, “We’re not ready! This is a big show!” A friend of ours has done it before and we were very nervous. We decided, Oh! Go on then!” It was amazing. It was the strangest experience to be on a TV set to have seen all of the little buildings and the set. Amazing to be there.
Kara: You’re going to start off today with “Candles” which is off your first EP, His Young Heart, which was recorded in Igor’s bedroom. Is that true?
Igor Haefell: Yes, I used to live in a warehouse. It was an old piano factory, so you could make noise late at night and we recorded the EP.
Kara: You’ve jumped from making an EP in your bedroom at the beginning of 2011 to recording your album at Abbey Road? Not all of it?
Igor: There’s a misunderstanding! We got our track, “Smother,” mastered there and we’re going to get our album mastered there as well, but we haven’t recorded at Abbey Road.
Kara: But you’re still going to have it mastered at Abbey Road.
Elena: Yeah, that’s cool enough, to be honest!
Kara: Will “Candles” be on the final album?
Igor: I don’t think so. I don’t it will be on the album. It doesn’t look likely. We’re last minute people, [we do] last minute changes. Maybe.
Kara: When I first heard “Landfill,” last year, [what struck me] was this fragility and atmospheric beauty, yet with lyrics that rivalled, with pain and depair, Trent Reznor. There’s this alchemy that happens with your music that takes you somewhere very personal. I’m assuming that it’s very personal for you as a lyricist, Elena? You started solo and then met Igor in a songwriting class?
Elena: I started out, basically, with just an acoustic guitar. I mainly just started out writing poems and lyrics and I couldn’t play anything. I just had a load of pieces of paper in my house, loads of scribblings, and then I taught myself a bit of guitar so I could make sense of everything that I was writing down. It started out like that: a weird, crazy, strange habit that I had of keeping lots of thoughts on paper.
Kara: Were you always this candid and raw in your lyricism? Or did working with Igor and Remi allow you to feel more free and have that bravery to sing this material?
Elena: Definitely in terms of the confidence, to sing it, I think it’s much easier to be with other people onstage than it is to be by yourself. I don’t know if lyrically it’s changed — my lyrics have changed over time, I’d be embarrassed of my old stuff. But in terms of the way I write, I always had a style of writing that I think I’ll always have. That’s the way I seem to make sense of things.
Kara: Igor, what you found with [Elena as producer], layering [the songs] with atmospheric sounds as you do, what is it about the two of you that clicked initially? Where did you find that chemistry? You’re boyfriend/girlfriend too.
Igor: We didn’t start playing music together until we finished our course, but there was definitely a mutual interest in each other’s music. It started out with Elena asking me to play guitar for two of her shows. I was looking for a job and couldn’t find one, so I spent two days looping the demos that she had and trying to find the space to do something without [getting in the way] of the song. It was a very gratifying feeling. You don’t want to fill in all the space. It’s quite intense.
Kara: Elena, you seem to have real confidence with your voice and I’m wondering what your relationship is with it?
Elena: I think I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. If any vocal teacher were to see technically what I was doing, they’d probably want to kill me.
Elena: I’m not very nice to my voice, to be honest.
Kara: Do you smoke?
Elena (whispers): We don’t tell anyone! But yes! Mom and Dad … (laughs). I suppose [my voice] has developed because of the way I am, but it might be deterimental. I might find in a few months that I just can’t talk anymore. I should warm up a bit sometimes.
Kara: The song “Youth” has the most extraordinary lyrics, but given [your] boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, Igor, do you ever listen to what Elena has worked on and said, “Wow, really? Are you okay?”
Igor: Yes and no! I just think you can go as far as you want with music and lyrics. Obviously, it’s definitely a door to something within the writer, but it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with that person. It’s a great way to get it all out, a catalyst. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with her (laughs), but it’s a way of getting those dark thoughts out.
Kara: Remi, when did you join the band?
Remi Aguilella: I always kind of played with Elena before Daughter became a band. Shortly after His Young Heart EP is when we had the first gig together.
Kara: Now that you’re working together as a trio, how has did that alter the way that you made the full-length album? A lot of it, originally, was made with you, Elena and Igor, together. Having a real band, was there something about the propulsive element of the drums that altered things?
Remi: Definitely. I think it gives it that punch, that kick, that was needed. Some of the songs, I find the way that the songwriting is developed is getting more and more focused and concentrated in a slightly more aggressive way. Not in a hostile way, but there’s a bit more grit and passion to it.
Kara: You also worked with Rodaidh McDonald as well, who produced and mixed The xx’s first album and just mixed their second album. Did you seek him out or [did] 4AD loop you in with him.
Igor: It came through different channels. We met up with him and had a chat about what we wanted to do and it felt like the right thing and he was the right person for what we wanted. We wanted a lot of freedom with how we recorded it and someone who would let us loose, celebrating that more than being anxious about it. We worked a lot in our flat, just recording certain core instruments, and brought all of that to the studio to work some more on it.
Kara: Looking at the eight songs on the EPs, plus your singles “Smother,” “Run” and “Tomorrow” which you’ve been doing live, how much from the EPs will transfer to the album?
Elena: We haven’t fully decided. I think there’s a lot of new material so we’d like to completely explore a new thing.
Kara: You’ve been living with these songs for so long.
Elena: A long time. I really enjoy playing them still. There’s a few that I’m like, “Oh! Not again!” You find that you get tired of them and something happens that reinvents them. You can look at arrangements again and again for songs that you’ve had for a long time. In terms of EP songs, obviously we’re still very much last minute people, but I think we want to just break away slightly from the EPs. We’re very proud of them and we’re not trying to hide them, but we want to show the progression in sound that we’ve been working on this year.
Kara: As far as your backgrounds, Igor, you’re originally from Switzerland. Elena, where are you from?
Elena: I was born in northwest London.
Kara: Remi, where are you from?
Remi: Born and raised in France.
Kara: Elena, did you grow up in a musical family?
Elena: Not music players, but in terms to listening to music, my parents were very heavily into their music. I was brought up with a lot playing around me and I have quite a lot of older cousins as well. One was quite into UK garage music and grime (laughs) so I listened to that for a bit. I had a lot of different influences from different people in my family.
Kara: When I first heard about you, there were a lot of comparisons to Cat Power or Laura Marling, but I was fascinated by the fact that you were very influenced by male singers and songwriters. Who were those people who pushed you along?
Elena: When I was growing up, my dad was very much into Neil Young and Bob Dylan so I had amazing songwriting fed to me (laughs). But it wasn’t really until I heard Jeff Buckley … that’s when … I don’t know. That sounds really cheesebag, but that’s when music almost clicked. I love him.
Kara: Igor, growing up in Switzerland, what were you listening to or what was thrust upon you, other than a lot of Eurodisco.
Igor: Eurodisco was more of a German thing (laughs), but there is actually a lot of electronic music in Switzerland and good electronic music as well. I would go out and listen to that and go and see small bands. I lived in a small city. I took guitar lessons for a while and played with different bands. I was listening to Radiohead, Sigur Rós and Björk; a lot of electronic music.
Kara: Did you see yourself becoming a producer?
Igor: No! The reason why I started recording stuff is because I bought recording equipment to record demos for the songwriting school I was going to go to. I was saving money to go there so I spent a year working and spent a good amount of that money on recording equipment and got really into it (laughs). I just developed that when I moved to London.
Kara: Is “Tomorrow” a more recent song or an older one that you’ve been playing with?
Elena: It’s actually an older song that we’ve reworked quite a lot since it was first written.
Kara: Do you write lyrics [first]?
Elena: It definitely varies, to be honest. They both tend to come together at the same time. “Youth” is one; I started playing the guitar riff and then sort of scribbled. It mainly happens if I don’t have something to play and I’m sitting on a train and I’ve got my notebook. It is like a poem, almost, that you transfer to music.
Kara: I’m amazed at the trajectory you’ve taken; it’s been really fast. In January you’re embarking on your biggest UK tour so far, you’re playing Hackney Empire which is huge. Do the three of you look at each other sometimes and wonder [if you’re going too fast].
Igor: We definitely notice that we have to try to keep the pace. We were never really prepared for this because it just started very quickly. At the start we used to have jobs.
Kara: When did the shift happen? Igor: Funny enough, it went progressively very quickly. Last year we played two headline shows and the first was 100 [people] and then it went four times bigger to 400. I’m trying to make sense of it.
Elena: We did do some support shows. We played with Beirut recently and with Ben Howard on his tour. Support tours are very interesting because there’s not very much pressure; you’re the first band on, and no one really cares (laughs). That may have built us some people, if they came to the show early and they liked us. That was a helping hand in finding new people who listened to us.
Kara: The process of recording the album, how long did that take?
Igor: It’s still happening. I don’t know if it will ever be over, in a way (Elena laughs).
Kara: Are you perfectionists?
Elena: (laughs) Terrible.
Kara: Who is the worst?
Igor: It depends for what. I think it’s probably me, but Elena can also be quite particular about her vocals. We can all be like, “This is amazing,” and she’ll want to …
Elena: Re-record it! (laughs).
Igor: Then, sometimes, the first take works. It depends on the song.
Kara: The lyrics to “Love” are searing and brutal, but it made me wonder who you read? What writers you read … or if that’s even a source for you?
Elena: It’s not really. I’m quite inspired by life experiences. I suppose I’m inspired by other songwriters. Well, I’m banging on about him (laughs) but Jeff Buckley, for instance, I find his lyrics very interesting and magical. David Bowie. I think I admire lyricists a lot so if I listen to a song, that will be the thing I’ll listen to, whereas other people listen to the guitar riffs or the bass line. But it captures me when I listen to lyrics.
Kara: Given the personal nature of your lyrics, do you sometimes wonder if whomever you might be writing about is aware of the song or their impact upon the song?
Elena: Well, there are some songs that I’m like, “Well! I hope you hear this one!” (laughs). I don’t know! I guess I don’t really think about it. Maybe I should.
Kara: Is “Love” about love?
Elena: In a strange, warped kind of way (laughs).