The Prodigious Daughter

Published April 29, 2013

ABOVE: DAUGHTER. IMAGE COURTESY OF ELIOT LEE HAZEL

If you’re longing for the age of innocence, you can probably relate to Elena Tonra. Along with her London-based Daughter bandmates Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella, Tonra creates heartstring-plucking songs with dramatic lyrics and melodies. On the surface, Tonra’s voice is delicate, beautiful, and pure. But listen closely and you’ll find lyrics that broach dark subjects like death, darkness, heartbreak, and infidelity: “Hate is spitting out of each other’s mouths,” she sings, “but we’re still sleeping like we’re lovers.”

After making two EPs, The Wild Youth and His Young Heart, Daughter is releasing its debut album If You Leave this week. Although the album doesn’t drop in the US until tomorrow, many of the shows on the band’s stateside tour (including tonight’s show at Bowery Ballroom) have already sold out.

We spoke with Elena Tonra about her fascination with death, her crush on Jeff Buckley, and being an “old lady.”

ILANA KAPLAN: Where are you right now?

ELENA TONRA: At rehearsal. I had to go outside because I didn’t want you to hear wailing guitars from the different rooms. So, now you might get the sounds of oncoming traffic. Just in London rehearsing.

KAPLAN: Oh no worries! How did Daughter start?

TONRA: Initially, I was doing a solo project. I went to a college to do a film-writing course for a year. I met Igor on the course. I really liked his work, his own stuff and the way he writes as well. He’s very interested in production and electronics. I asked him to help me with a few gigs I had planned. I was like, “Do you want to play guitar?” It started out like a favor. I didn’t enjoy being a solo artist or anything like that. I was feeling quite limited in my own abilities. I reached out to Igor and I really wanted to work with him. We started jamming, and we found that we worked really well together. We had similar ideas, musically, of where we wanted things to go. We knew Remy, as well, from the course. After the first EP, we were a three-piece. Then we made The Wild Youth and then now, we’ve made an album. It was a really natural way to meet people: college. It started out as, I suppose, a bit of fun, but I always wanted to expand the sound a lot. I always wanted to work with other people. I was really lucky.

KAPLAN: Your songs are very emotional. Are they autobiographical? Specifically, “Candles,” “Youth,” and “Landfill.” Where does the inspiration behind them come from?

TONRA: I wrote all of this stuff down. It comes lyrically out of my head. It’s not a specific day-to-day account, like a diary entry. I don’t want to turn everything into songs. All of the songs are definitely a part of me and what I’ve been thinking: my opinions and my interests. A lot of the songs are from how I feel about things. I quite like writing about death. From that perspective, I don’t know what happens when you die. I’ve never been dead. I’m just interested.

KAPLAN: It makes for great material. Have you had a lot of people close to you pass away? Is that what’s behind these songs?

TONRA: It’s definitely been an influence on some writing, whether it was family or a friend.  That definitely influences you if you start channeling emotions through writing. Initially I started writing because I felt like I didn’t fit in. I just moved to a new school and I felt quite lonely. I think that’s where it all started for me.

KAPLAN: One of my favorite songs off of the record is “Still.” The video is pretty telling. Is the girl supposed to be cheating on her boyfriend in the song? What’s the nature of it?

TONRA: [laughs] I’m really interested in how people interpret the songs. I don’t know. I don’t really want to tell you if it is or it isn’t. I quite like that you have a different opinion of the way I wrote it. It is about two people, and there are reasons behind it. I think it’s quite nice to keep it open for people so that they can figure it out for themselves. I kind of want to be cheeky and not answer.

KAPLAN: Fair enough. Did you grow up wanting to be a musician?

TONRA: [laughs] Not really. I’ve never been the musical child. I have an older brother, and he’s always been musical. He can play piano, read music, and is a really good guitarist as well. He was “musician material.” I can’t really read any music and I’m not a good guitar player, truth be told. It was not something I ever thought I could do. It’s interesting that I ended up here as an awkward person that’s not certainly comfortable being on stage. I’m really enjoying it. I’m not complaining. I feel bad for my brother because he was always the musical kid. I’m like, “I’m in a band now.”

KAPLAN: Who are some of your musical influences?

TONRA: My parents were very influential on my listening from when I was a small child. I was spoiled by good music. My parents have very good taste. My dad is really into Neil Young and Bob Dylan. My mom is into David Bowie and that era. I was brought up listening to those legendary artists. When I was a teenager, I was totally in love with Jeff Buckley. He definitely influenced me in my late teens. I’m getting quite into electronic music. That’s probably Igor’s influence on me, I like everything. I’m drawn into sad music. I quite like listening to depressing stuff in a strange way.

KAPLAN: Me, too. How did you come up with Daughter as your band name?

TONRA: It’s not a very interesting story. I just one day thought about this word. I didn’t want the band to be under my name. I wanted the band to be known as a collaborative project. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with it as my first name. I found the word Daughter. I thought it was an interesting looking word. It looks quite strange, and it looks like it’s spelled incorrectly.  I like the look of the word and the reference to vulnerability. It was also reminiscent of childhood, femininity and stuff. I don’t think the boys mind that it’s a feminine word. They worked with the music for us. It’s strange for us to go under a name. We’d never done that before. It took some adjusting. We had to explain that we were called Daughter, and we were a band. I think now it works for us, and we like it.

KAPLAN: Which song is closest to your heart, and why?

TONRA: For the album, I’m really proud of “Lifeforms.” It’s quite different from the rest of the material we’ve got. I think lyrically it really explored a topic that I wanted to explore previously, and I never wanted to go there because it’s pretty grim. I’m proud that it turned out the way it has. Especially live. I’m really looking forward to playing it. I’m not someone that’s like, “I love my own work.” I’m slightly self-critical and a bit of a perfectionist. Material-wise, it’s a good achievement.

KAPLAN: You’re very young, but your voice is full of so much experience. Do you get mistaken for being older than you are?

TONRA: I don’t know, really. I think a lot of people know my age because it’s quite readily available. Some blogs said how old I was earlier on. I don’t really know. I don’t really have a clue. I think in how I feel about myself, I wish I’d been younger when I was younger. I think I grew up a bit quickly. I wish I was younger than I am in my head. I feel like an old lady for various reasons. I have a yearning to live out my childhood and teenage years and have a bit more fun than I actually did. You can’t really reverse anything now. It’s really good writing material.

DAUGHTER’S DEBUT ALBUM, IF YOU LEAVE, IS OUT TOMORROW, APRIL 30. THE BAND WILL PLAY THE BOWERY BALLROOM TOMORROW AND WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30 AND MAY 1. FOR MORE ON DAUGHTER, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.