Reluctant stardom beckons for the stunningly talented trio
It’s late November, a weekday afternoon. Crack and the three members of Daughter, along with a small entourage of management and acquaintances, are standing in the turgid rain at the heart of an alarmingly grey Bethnal Green.
We’ve recently finished a photo shoot, and we’re desperately formulating a plan to conduct our interview. We dip in and out of a scruffy boozer playing skiffle music. No chance. The band seem thankfully, charmingly relaxed, but as our mob takes shelter under a bridge, we’re beginning to lose the will, bags and guitars weighing heavy. From the grim distance, one of our party appears. “I’ve found the place”, he says, breathlessly. “You won’t believe it. It’s warm. It’s candle lit. They’re playing Bon Iver.” We reluctantly re-emerge into the mercy of nature. And then we see the establishment in question. Its name: The Sun.
It doesn’t take long once we’ve entered this utopia for everyone to relax, coats discarded and drinks ordered. Elena Tonra, Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella are a relaxed and amiable bunch, bouncing off each other with an air of genuine closeness. Natural and unforced throughout, Igor is the most vocal at first, the reticent and self-deprecating Elena gradually growing into the conversation, Remi relaxed and unhurried, chipping in from time to time.
The trio first met at music college and made acquaintance. Igor had moved to London from Switzerland and met Elena on a songwriting course (“although I’m not really sure how you can be taught songwriting”, he notes), Remi from France to study drums. There was immediate mutual musical admiration. Elena had impressed Igor with her innate sense for songcraft, and he her for his technical accomplishment. The duo had only one person in mind for a percussive role. On those early collaborations Igor acted as a guidance, a catalyst for Elena’s instinctive talent. Her early songs formed the basis for 2011’s self-released effort, His Young Heart. Elena’s ear for melody and a sense of sonic ambition pushed the songs beyond the more traditional acoustic veneer on the EP’s surface. A follow-up, The Wild Youth, emerged later that year on Communion Records. Though barely seven months had passed, the difference in sound, texture and craftsmanship was remarkable. Songs like Love and Youth justified the sweeping boldness of their titles, and the requisite parts of each piece was allowed to flourish by a more defined, confident backing.
Unsurprisingly, things began to gather pace, Tonra’s elfin, demure image becoming a far more widespread sight. As their renown grew, so did their confidence, reaching a zenith in 2012 when Daughter became the latest feather in 4AD’s already embarrassingly feathery cap, joining the ranks of such contemporary success stories as Grimes and Purity Ring, and hugely established artists as Bon Iver and The National. Their first release with the imprint was the expansive and luxuriously produced Smother, this very publication declaring it the fourth finest song of the year.
The band swiftly found an affinity with the US. The somewhat unexpected, hugely auspicious honour of an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman followed. For the band, it all felt rather sudden, but it was clear it would herald a sudden surge in their rise to prominence.
Daughter’s first full-length album If You Leave, has been confirmed for release this coming March. Without doubt one of the most assured British debuts of recent years, it sees each aspect of Daughter’s promise unfolding in breathtaking fashion.
Opening track Winter is an immediate illustration of the band’s growth. Multitracked vocals and glacially creaking tones melt into subtle, impetus-building percussion, dragging the track into a double-time stomp we’ve never heard from Daughter before. Smother’s delicate brilliance we know, while Youth is plucked from The Wild Youth. When there’s a song of such prodigious quality lurking in your catalogue, you don’t leave it off your debut album. Here its widescreen shimmer is broadened further into a grand but embittered statement of loss. Still introduces programmed beats, yet it’s not as surprising an intrusion as one might suspect. It feels natural, effortless. Its function is in the name of complimenting melodic nuances, in tandem with those rich and soaring atmospherics and Tonra’s introverted poetry. Tomorrow may just be the best of the lot, glazed with reverb and awash with glittering guitars, an impassioned, distant call contained at its heart. Shallows is an ethereal, engrossing close.
The sound of If You Leave is impossible to label. The purity of the songcraft is rendered grandiose and romantic; engrossing, compressed epics defined by build-and-release crescendos. It has immediate melodies, it feels young yet indebted to something deep and timeless.
And back to The Sun. The lovely Sun, our shelter. The band seem relaxed with pints and gin and tonics occupying respective hands, but there’s a contagious sense of excitement in their words and actions. And that’s because very soon, a very important album will be released, and it will have their name on the cover.
Having been labelled with the ‘folk’ tag initially, is it something you’ve found difficult to get away from?
I: Not really. I mean, it’s easy to pigeon-hole the girl with an acoustic guitar as a folk singer. And we do have a very strong focus on the song itself and lyrics, and I think folk music has that. But I think folk is something by definition which is very traditional.
E: When I was younger, around the first EP and before that, I went to folk nights. I’m very good friends with Communion, the label which we were releasing on, and they started out very much championing young folk artists at that time. It was something that I was around, so obviously it will have influenced some of my earlier writing.
I: I don’t think Elena was ever really a folk artist, and we never thought of her in that way.
E: Of course, it’s very hard for us to talk about what exactly it is we’re making at the moment, but there was always a desire to make something expansive in sound, and that’s what we’re trying to do now: to think a little more cinematically.
You often play shows in churches and beautiful concert halls – how important is the choice of venue to you?
I: Very. You know, there are some bands, proper rock and roll bands, who can just play anywhere and put on a show. We’d love to be like that, but we’re so, so picky when it comes to sound. We have to be somewhere where the sound works for us, as well as the visual aspect of the setting. We’re happy to play any venue, we really are, but given the choice we’ll always go for somewhere that resonates with our music. The way the sound reflects off every wall and the way your music feels within that room … the more immersed we can be, the better.
E: Churches have such an atmosphere about them, as soon as you step in … well, I suppose it depends what your views on religion are, but you can be daunted or scared, or just awestruck … every time we’ve played in a church there’s been this atmosphere … I can’t even describe it, just this vibe about the room that feels unlike anything else.
Why do you think you’ve been so well received in the US?
I: I can’t say we’ve really rationalised it. Our first record deal was with Glassnote in the US. The label liked our music, we liked their ethos, and they asked us to go and play these gigs.
R: And even though I felt really scared about doing Letterman – because, y’know, it’s David Letterman! It actually felt really right in the moment. We were about to do our first headline tour in the US, so it was a big introduction.
Who was on the same show as you?
I: Lucy Liu and Rob Corddry. Remi was like Rob Corddry’s councillor, reassuring him that his clothes looked good and he’d do a great job.
R: Yeah, I’ve got a ticket to Hollywood now.
You played Youth, which has been around a year or so. Smother might have been a more obvious choice.
E: Well, when we first got asked if we wanted to do Letterman, we were’t completely sure …
I: It wasn’t just ‘yes!’, it was … ‘fuck!’
E: It was just a case of asking ourselves if we were really ready. And when we decided we were, we decided that, considering it was such a strange environment for us, to play something that we’re really comfortable with. Smother had just come out, but it was more of a nerves thing. We were still working out how to get that song just perfect live.
How exactly did your relationship with 4AD come about?
I: We played a Christmas show in 2011 and some people from 4AD came. They liked it, and we just started talking. It was great, because it wasn’t just some ‘snap-your-fingers’ signing straight away. It took a while to get to know each other, it felt healthy and there was nothing pushy, we didn’t feel like we were just signed off the back of one show. It felt like they knew what we were about before they decided they wanted to work with us.
How tangible has the difference been since then?
E: I think we feel the difference almost subconsciously. Because they have this amazing array of artists associated with them, you feel this … not pressure, but almost an instinct to better things and to progress. That’s what people like Grimes and Purity Ring are doing, they’re pushing the boundaries of their music and their genres.
And presumably 4AD heard the potential within you to push things in a similar way?
E: I hope so. Exploring both electronic and acoustic elements is definitely something we’ve worked with on the album and something we’re looking to progress into: this particular balance of sound. Essentially, what we want to express as a band, and what I hope 4AD saw, was that we don’t feel limited in any sound or genre, and we’re eager to move in directions people wouldn’t expect.
R: Everything we’ve added was definitely our decision and part of how we saw our band developing. We never looked to become anything specific.
Daughter songs are given these bold, all-encompassing names: Love, Youth, Tomorrow. What’s the thinking behind that?
I: There’s definitely something about one word, which is simple and easy, but can also best represent the song, and be so much more suggestive and …
(At this point Remi almost knocks his drink off the table and mutters “shit”)
I: Yeah, Shit is a new song [laughs]. But one word just leaves so much more room for interpretation. So many people ask Elena ‘what are these lyrics about’, and I totally understand why she doesn’t like to explain these things. Because a) it’s very personal, and b) it takes away that interpretative meaning for each individual. All three of us agree that we like the mystery of a song. It’s this idea of projection: it’s seeing something in a piece of art which isn’t really there, of putting your own experience into how you see or hear something.
So Elena, is that the only reason you don’t like to elaborate on your lyrics, or is it more a reluctance to reveal such intimate details?
E: The things I write can sometimes be personal and difficult to explain. But the first thing I hear in a song is the lyrics, and when I listen to a song that I love, I really like to make my own decision about what everything might mean. I never know, and I never want to know. I want to listen to a song, decide what it’s about and think that until the day I die. A girl once spoke to me at a show about the song Medicine and what it meant to her. It nearly made me cry. I didn’t want to tell her what it was actually about, because the way she relates to it is all that matters. It gives the song its own life.
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Daughter play the Field Day festival on May 25th.
Words: Geraint Davies
Photos: Alexander Jordan