Sex and Loneliness
Speaking on a wintry day in 2012 - when Daughter were readying their debut album If You Leave - singer Elena Tonra told me: “There’s no happy shit on there. No one should ever really expect me to write anything upbeat.”
Three years later and part of that sentiment remains. “I just feel like there's a little ball of sad in here.” Tonra wraps her fingers into the centre of her palm and pulls a half clenched fist into the middle of her chest as we meet on a similarly wintry day in November just months before Not To Disappear is due out. “Even as a child, there was a deep-rooted sadness in there, it’s just an ongoing part of my brain.” She pauses, as if her words - carried on an unsure tongue - are escaping her mouth uncensored. She sits opposite, guitarist Igor Haefeli to her left (drummer Remi Aguilella is absent, making the most of travelling stateside before the band beginning touring in earnest) and the cold evening air tapping gently on the window behind.
“But that’s okay,” she continues. “A lot of negativity I felt we had from our first album was like ‘Oh, it's really sad’. Obviously the lyrics are hugely personal so when someone said they didn't like my writing, they were essentially saying they didn't like me and they didn't like my brain. I was anxious about the whole thing. This time, I don’t care as much. There is something quite nice about that, even if just for my own sanity, like I don’t need to feel embarrassed about my brain. This is what it does. This is what it thinks. I am openly fine with being a sad person.”
Haefeli looks up from the table and interjects. “Also, don’t forget, sad is such a basic word. It encompasses so many things. It doesn't do justice to that feeling, it doesn't define everything you can do with that feeling, you know? It really depends on what context it's in. There are so many different words for it. You could write so many books about it and never really explain; it's something so inherent. Anyone who is alive has experienced it but some people recognise it and some people can't even put their finger on it.” Tonra nods in agreement.
“It means I started writing in the first place, which I think is kind of beautiful. Obviously there are sides of it that aren’t fun but more and more, I do feel there’s a strength in being an emotion being. I also find myself wondering if a man sang the same lyrics as me, would they be called a poet and considered a brooding, mysterious, romantic figure?” Tonra questions before Haefeli clarifies: “Because for a man it would be so bold to do the same, but because you’re a girl showing emotions is a weakness?” They both nod.
"I do feel there’s a strength in being an emotion being."
Even though her words are hesitant at times, it doesn’t take long to see a new strength in Tonra - a freedom born from ignoring expectations and a bold directness that has manifested itself on the new record, a record that has serious guts. Due in January, Not To Disappear was largely created in London at Cable Street Studios before the three-piece took their vision to New York in order to work with Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, War on Drugs, Animal Collective). According to Tonra, the album is the result of the band “emptying their brains” after years of touring …“some songs happened in one take, a kind of word vomit” she jokes. “I really enjoyed that way of working. Everything felt free and liberating. Even if you find through writing that you're a terrible human being - like ‘I am such a dick in this song’ - it's a good thing. There’s merit in that. It's way more honest.”
The raw immediacy of its creation means the album’s racing rhythms and unflinching lyrics sound as if they’re still processing those original emotions, searching for a resolution to the tensions that can be found at its core. It’s a living, breathing record; one into which Daughter have poured so much of themselves that you can all but hear it gasping for air, fighting to exist. “There are songs on the album that are more aggressive, and songs that definitely have an element of ‘fuck it’ to them” admits Tonra. Haefeli glances to his right: “I was just thinking”, he says. “One of the things I’m most proud about on the record was that it definitely felt like you were opening up in terms of how you wanted to say something.”
It’s like someone removed the filter, removed some of those nagging doubts, I add. “Yeah” they say in unison. “You have this guy normally telling you things” Tonra continues “and you have to be like ‘no, go away little guy, it doesn’t matter, this has nothing to do with you!’ If I was second-guessing myself, songs like “No Care” would not have made it onto the record. Then there are the songs where it is more of a fight. I think “To Belong” is one that maybe doesn’t stand out on the record as much as the others, but really it’s like a little beast. It's like a little 'Fuck you all!’ It’s a similar thing with “Fossa” but this time there’s like a weird little strong man that’s like grrr!!” [sic]
Tonra stops a moment to make fisticuffs across the table and explain that she also imagines him pumping iron, having dumbbells and a tiny little moustache! “Hold me back! Hold me back?!” I joke, forgetting that those words actually feature on another album track “How.” “I think every song has an element of that,” adds Tonra.
"There are times when you should be feeling surrounded by people but you feel like you're the only one in the room."
A richly rewarding slow burner, “How” is exactly the kind of regret-filled, stomach tightening track we’ve come to expect from Daughter; Tonra’s earnest questioning and quietly indignant tone carried on silky smooth vocals, the song’s climactic instrumental chorus made all the more powerful by its minimal, down-tempo verses. “How”, along with album track “Alone/With You” speak to the loneliness that runs through Not To Disappear.
“It’s sort of a study of loneliness from the inside out”, Tonra responds when asked what they wanted the album to speak to. “I don’t think it has one clear message – my need to get a dog maybe?! - but it does revolve around different ways to feel alone. Whether that’s feeling alone with somebody you shouldn't be feeling alone with, or in a crowd of people, or when you're on tour and for some reason you just can’t feel” she falters “you just feel like you’re not there, like you’re invisible. I don't know, like you're not a complete human being. It's a very strange situation because there are times when you should be feeling surrounded by people but you feel like you're the only one in the room.”
“There are definitely different sides to that, and different ways to feel alone,” Haefeli agrees. “For me, the way I was relating to what some of Tonra was writing about came when we were in New York, that sort of thing of being in an immense place, this big machine where so much is going on, it’s this monster of a place and you’re just this tiny little thing in the middle of it. “Alone/With You” I know is more intimate than that, but I remember, just being in a random city in the world and just thinking 'Fuck, I'm all by myself,' at that point in time, just emotionally speaking. We are surrounded by very good friends, with the other bands and everything, but....” Haefeli trails off. He needn’t say anything further; most of us have experienced this feeling at least once in our lives.
To be surrounded by people but to feel completely alone; to experience something intimate as though you’re watching from the distance: that’s what Not To Disappear is. It’s an honest, unblinking record – on that choses reality over romanticism, and the messy complexities of human emotion over the superficial tropes of mainstream culture. This perspective is clearly apparent in tracks like “No Care”, where sex isn’t sexy.
“I’ve not really come across many songs that deal with sex in a way that is lonely, or a bit off,” explains Tonra. “Talking about it a way that isn’t quite right. It does make you feel a bit like, 'hey I'm naked now in front of all these people'.”
“There’s no glamourising,” Haefeli agrees. “It’s more like walking in on someone, it suddenly becomes this awkward thing where it’s just two naked people rubbing against one another and you’re drawn to the functionality of the act – where it’s just plainly what it is, and nothing else. It’s so direct.”
And whilst “No Care” is probably the most direct track in that sense, it’s “Doing The Right Thing” that entirely frees itself from metaphor, dealing with Dementia – and specifically Alzheimer’s – is a straight up manner whilst holding onto the song’s raw origins. Keeping those original intentions intact is something that endeared the band to their producer during their stint in the states. “He'd always keep that core of emotional feeling of the song, the …” Tonra stop for a moment, trying to find the word she’s searching for.
“The intention?” says Haefeli. “What inspired the song in the first place, the intention exactly,” Tonra continues. “His goal was to make sure that the intention is really strong and never gets drowned in everything else. That was really important - to have like an emotional producer to work with. It's mainly, not an intention for how people should perceive the album, it’s more just about how it was written and why it was written and making sure that stays true and honest in the end. “Doing The Right Thing” is a song I was really very protective over.”
“It’s the most upsetting song to me, because it’s not about me. It’s about my grandmother, and it’s about my mother,” Tonra continues. “I have to put up with my own brain and my own insecurities every day and it doesn’t make me that sad, it’s just obviously there and is something that keeps ticking around my brain and keeps me writing which is actually probably not that great for my mental health but great for making records. When I began writing “Doing The Right Thing” it wasn’t about my grandmother or my mother, then it suddenly took a turn …” she pauses and takes a deep breath … “about how my mum is affected by my grandmother and just, it’s a really strange sadness that I’ve been keeping at bay for a while, not talking about, and not even fully admitting to myself that it’s making me sad, then it just suddenly poured out of me. When you write a song like that, like you didn’t mean to, it’s a bit intense. For me that is the saddest song, and the most difficult to play. I just didn’t know how we would be able to go about making that together”
"It's hard to get three people...to agree on something. Creativity comes from those tensions and from those disagreements...but I think actually that’s made it a better album because we’ve all been pushing each other to do different things, things that maybe we wouldn’t have done if this was three years ago."
Haefeli’s ears perk up. “It was a slow, slow song. It was pretty drone-y and I kept on feeling like it wasn’t right. I kept saying please can we try changing it somehow and she was like no, no for the longest time.” He turns to Tonra, who with a cautious half smile says: “The thing is, whenever we’ve written you’ve always had a picture in your head, whereas I’ve had memories. I guess because I’m writing from something specific, from a place that I’m familiar with, I’m more attached to the reality rather than seeing a totally new space that I visualise stuff in. It’s more like I’m reliving it, or playing a videotape of something that’s happened. You’re way more visual than me, which is great - but we definitely differ in that respect. I just felt it was one of those really made of glass things that could really fuck up if we over thought it. I was afraid of it not being the song I thought it was but it’s actually ended up being the best version of the song it could have ever been.”
They both agree it was travelling stateside that allowed that to happen. “It was definitely New York” Haefeli nods. “It was going there and suddenly gaining fresh perspectives. It was the sun and the concrete” he reels off in one rapid breath, his vivid visual inspiration springing to life “the unbearable heat, feeling very much alive and getting this interesting evening light. It was driving through LA at night. Even really early on, “New Ways” became the driving through LA at night song.” To which Tonra smiles and agrees, one of the beautiful thing about music being that the meaning can change in the briefest of moments as contexts and lives shift.
Thinking more on the push and pull between her and Haefeli, Tonra continues: “It's hard to get three people, or four people with Nicolas, to agree on something. Creativity comes from those tensions and from those disagreements but yeah … It has been a weird, trudging through mud album to make it some ways but I think actually that’s made it a better album because we’ve all been pushing each other to do different things, things that maybe we wouldn’t have done if this was three years ago.”
She’s not alone in feeling that way; Haefeli picks up this thread later in the evening. “The album was difficult to make. For me, I think the process was the thing I was most interested in. It’s about the how. How it was written. How it starts. How it ends. In a way …” he hesitates the same way Tonra had at the beginning, glancing her way as if checking to see if what he’s about to say is ok “… making the record could have been the end of it as well. There was so much Elena had to say, and it was very much about loneliness, and feeling invisible, but we could have just disappeared too. We could have just gone on for ages until we self destructed or called it a day. It was difficult coming off tour and out of that world, emotionally speaking. So the album, and the title, is also a bit about that really.”
“About …not quitting the band?!” Tonra, with a slightly concerned look on her face asks jokingly. “There has been some slight turbulence in how we interact with each other. I think that’s a good thing in terms of the stuff that’s come out of it but also I think we were both really desperate for this album to work, to prove a point, like we can reconcile stuff, like we’re okay.”
Not To Disappear isn’t a struggle to listen to, it’s not a difficult second album from that point of view, but the band's internal struggles are held up to a mirror, their emotions burning vibrantly on its fractured surfaces. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, and depression – they’re rallied against and accepted in equal measure. Everything is dealt with face on. “There is definitely more fighting to be done” Tonra says as our thoughts turn towards the future. “Even if it’s just with myself. I feel like it helps to overcome that side of your brain that tries to make you stay in bed and not go out of the house. Even that is just like...that’s a huge part of it as well. To fight that person, because that lady is mean, and she deserves to go away.”