Indie Rock Group Daughter Explores Alzheimer’s, Loss, And Memory
To the casual listener, Daughter’s sophomore album—Not To Disappear—is just another collection of moody songs about love, sex, and life. But if you’re listening to it casually, you’re going about things all wrong.
Released on January 15th, the album is atmospheric—immersive—from the very first notes of its opening track, New Ways; immediately a journey of helplessness, grief, and confusion has begun. Lyrics that initially seem to trace the woes of romantic love reveal themselves to actually be about youth, family and old age—a peculiar and at times disorienting sense of lucidity, euphoria, connection and disconnection runs through the songs. Not To Disappear is that pesky thing they call a concept album—yet it’s also one of the boldest records you’ll hear all year.
Daughter, a three-year-old English indie folk trio, consists of Elena Tonra on vocals and guitar, Igor Haefeli on guitar and bass, and Remi Aguilella helming drums and percussion. The words “cult sensation” are more than overused when talking about bands, but in the case of Daughter, the phrase makes for a pretty apt description. The London-based trio has sold out almost every venue they’ve played over the past three years, and after releasing a couple of EPs with Communion Records—the independent label founded by members of Mumford and Sons—they signed to the bigger and buzzier British label 4AD in 2013, joining the likes of Bon Iver, Grimes and Deerhunter.
Tonra is notorious for refusing to reveal details of what inspired particular lyrics in interviews (“I like to let the songs speak for themselves,” she says), so I was surprised to hear the wide-eyed frontwoman outline the very personal subject matter that underpins the band’s latest record. “It’s the first time that I’m talking from the point of view of someone else,” she tells me as we chat on a Friday afternoon in London. “The songs are about my grandmother and about how Alzheimer’s has basically taken over her—affected her memory.”
“Then I’ll lose my children / Then I’ll lose my love / Then I’ll sit in silence / Let the picture soak / Out of televisions / Float across the room,” Tonra sings in Doing The Right Thing, the first of the album’s tracks to emerge online ahead of its release.
In Mothers, an emotionally-charged look at the relationship between three generations of Tonra women as they face the impact of their beloved matriarch’s disease, the vocal delivery is as intimate as the sentiment is heartbreaking: “When your face becomes a stranger’s I don’t know / You’ll never remember who I was to you / Carried in the womb / Called mother.” Themes of love and loss, light and dark, youth and aging are explored with the cutting lyrical quality that defines Daughter’s sound.
The chilling tone of this collection of songs showcases the power of Tonra’s writing, and she describes writing the record as a cathartic experience:
“I think I’ve just been trying to understand and come to terms with what’s happening by writing about it. The songs are really special to me because of that. I found myself thinking a lot about definitions of love and family, and how these change during a lifetime.”
The forthcoming album was co-produced by Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, The War On Drugs) at his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Tonra credits both the change of scenery and Vernhes’s meticulous production techniques as essential components for finishing the record.
“When we got to New York, I think that was the real highlight. Even though we went there with pretty much finished demos of what things were going to be, it really started coming together while we were there,” she says. “Working with Nicolas, being in a new city and feeling like we had a lot more energy. There was a moment where it all seemed to fit into place.”
Deeply elegiac lyrics combined with haunting sounds—tinkling tambourines, lilting, distorted guitar licks—create a distinctive brand of alternative rock that’s as experimental as it is folk-influenced. Their generally slow-paced sounds have been sped up and reimagined in remixes to wide acclaim and millions of views on YouTube. The release of their first album If You Leave back in 2013 led to an appearance on David Letterman (“I was shit scared and definitely thought I was about to vomit or fall over,” laughs Tonra) and winning album of the year at London’s AIM Independent Music Awards. (“That was just really lovely.”) Since then, the band has toured almost constantly, traveling across Europe, and to the US, Canada and Australia.
“When we were making our first album, there’s such a history there at both 4AD and Glassnote—so many brilliant records, and so many brilliant artists,” Tonra says. “We work with people that love music. I’d hate to feel like I was with a label that was just worried about how many units we were going to shift in the first week.”
That said, If You Leave was widely praised by critics, quickly playlisted on national radio at home in the UK, and contributed to a hectic two-year-long touring schedule for the band, so it’s difficult to imagine that record sales were slow. But for Tonra it’s more of a vibe thing. “I think there’s the music industry and then there’s just the industry of whatever [the product] is—people wanting to just make money out of music and artists,” she says. “I think that’s a scary world and I’m very glad not to be on that side of things.”
With vivid lyrics like, “I’ll never be your lover / I only bring the heat / Company under covers / Filling space in your sheets” (taken from 2011’s His Young Heart EP), there’s a sense of hollowness; there’s little redemption ringing through all of Daughter’s music—it got me wondering if both the sound and its message directly reflected their personas and outlooks.
“We’re not as dark as people would think we are [based on the music]. I’m definitely not sad and grumpy all the time,” she laughs. Tonra attributes the melancholy of Daughter’s sound to the fact that she and her bandmates write when they’re in a dark mood, but stresses that, in general, they’re “mostly into watching crappy American true crime shows and having dance offs and silly things like that.”
With many of the staple indie band accolades already under their belt, the question of what comes next for Daughter is a difficult one for Tonra to answer, and she takes a moment before responding. “I’ve never been to Brazil or Peru, or travelled down to South America,” she says. “I guess that’s more of a personal ambition, but travel is a big ambition for us as a band too. My dad has travelled there and always said that I should go to all these places. He’s got all these photos of him in the seventies looking really cool. I’m sure I wouldn’t look as cool, but I think I’d like to make my own set of photos.”