“Our intention was clearer” — Daughter talks battling writer’s block and exploring new influences

photo: Anam Merchant

Daughter has made emotional devastation an art form in and of itself over the course of a pair of EPs and now a pair of full-lengths, including their latest, Not To Disappear, a masterstroke in aching yet dreamy, deeply melancholic art-pop. Before the band played their second show of a U.S. tour in support of the album at a century-old movie theater and venue in Somerville, Massachusetts, vocalist/guitarist/bassist Elena Tonra, guitarist/bassist Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella sat down with Substream to talk about how it came together.

Igor, I’ve seen you play your guitar with a bow before in the live setting. Did you pick that up from Jónsi from Sigur Rós?

So they’ve been an influence on you.
HAEFELI: Massively, yeah. Actually, I didn’t really use it so much on the new record. And I definitely don’t use it on any of the new songs that we play live. Just because—I use the bow on “Alone / With You” on the new record, but we ended up sort of hacking that up and making it sound a bit more electronic as we usually do on stage. But yeah, no, I mean, I just loved how expressive it was and the sounds you could get with the guitar like that. I think Jonsi’s a lot better at it than I am, but…

It creates a really cool visual.
HAEFELI: Yeah, yeah, it’s nice.

Elena, I’ve read how this was a very personal record for you. Did you pull from any life experiences that happened before 2013’s If You Leave that you just haven’t touched upon before?
ELENA TONRA: To be fair, I think it was mainly—there were a couple of things that were, I guess, sort of starting to happen before If You Leave was made. Especially, I guess the topic of my grandmother is a heavy one, and one that slowly, progressively…[her] memory deteriorated, and things like that. That started before If You Leave, but I hadn’t really touched upon it until this album. And I think a lot of the songs are mainly about the time period between If You Leave came out and now. So it’s kind of this chunk of my life expressed in this album.

You also hinted that you had writer’s block approaching Not To Disappear. How did you overcome that?
TONRA: Mm, yeah. Well, I had been writing in a very specific way—at least it felt like that—and songs were coming out in a certain way, that when I was writing for this album, the way I was writing was a lot more conversational than in song form. Especially things like rhyming—it just wasn’t falling out of my head that way. So I started to get quite freaked out that I just couldn’t write anymore. [Laughs.] And then I just kind of went with it, and thought that, “This is the way that my brain’s working,” in a more direct way, then I should just try it like that for this album. And follow it. Just went with the writer’s block, almost—it’s a strange thing.
HAEFELI: I think, ultimately, what it says about that time is that [Tonra] didn’t really have writer’s block, you were just discovering a new way of writing that you felt wasn’t—you were not lost, but moved on from the way you were writing songs before.
TONRA: Yeah, yeah. That’s true.
HAEFELI: And discovered that was just another direct, honest way.
TONRA: Just another phase.

I also read about how recording the album in New York provided the band new perspectives. I’m sure you’ve all been there before for shows and press, but was there something about an extended stay that imprinted upon the band?
HAEFELI: A little bit. I think we had a lot of the record ready before getting to New York, but what was meant by “fresher perspectives” is that there’s a point where if you are in the same space, everyday, for months on end, focusing on the same thing, there’s some point where what might be glaringly obvious is just obvious. You just can’t see it. And so just taking the time to go to New York and set ourselves up there, suddenly, there was this breath of fresh air that we all had. It really helped in that way, and the process, and definitely new ideas came about as well.
REMI AGUILELLA: Also, the season. It was May, June when we were in there. The days were a lot longer, so you’re going into the studio—even if you go in the morning, it’s bright out, and then you can take a good break for lunch and not be forced to stay inside. You can just go outside and be in the park, if you need, for a few minutes, and then just come back in and it comes to your head again. That was good.
TONRA: Yeah. Vitamin D. We’re lacking that in London.

I noticed that Not To Disappear’s track listing is sequenced in similar way to If You Leave’s: You start with the bread-and-butter Daughter, these slower, super-immersive, almost tragic atmospheres, and then get looser and more experimental in the middle of the album. “Alone / With You” back-to-back with “No Care” reminds me of the 1-2 of “Tomorrow” and “Human.”
TONRA: Mm. True. I didn’t think about that.
HAEFELI: Interesting.

So it wasn’t intentional.
HAFELI: No. It’s definitely our sensibility at work, so, if sometimes we do things in a similar way, it’s just because that’s how we instinctively feel like doing it, I guess.

It’s just your natural ebb and flow at that point.
HAEFELI: Yeah, exactly. We spent a lot of time on sequencing, and we know we probably went through every possible version.
TONRA: I think the final sequencing as well, had to do with this story of everything—how it travels in terms of storyline, even though the songs are about different things. But it’s almost like you’re starting a film from start to finish that and how that makes so much sense with each other in a way.
AGUILELLA: There were definitely some songs we could tell—
HAEFELI [to Tonra]: Did you say “makes sex” or “made sense”?
TONRA: Made sense with each other.
[everyone laughs]
HAEFELI: Okay, I thought you said “makes sex with each other.” I was like “Okay…”
TONRA [laughing]: Stop. How would that make any sense? It wouldn’t “make sex” with what I’m saying.
HAEFELI: I was just gonna ask what you…
AGUILELLA: It doesn’t make any sex.
TONRA: It doesn’t make any sex with what I’m talking about.
HAEFELI: It kinda actually makes sense to say “makes sex,” like it doesn’t connect. [Laughs.]
TONRA [laughing]: Okay. Um, that was dirty banter.
HAEFELI: I think you invented something there.
TONRA: I have.

I kinda thought I heard you say that too.
TONRA: Did I? Maybe I did say that. I didn’t say that. But I could have. Why not?
[Aguilella tries to answer again and is interrupted by the audible, excited squeal of young women through the walls.]
HAEFELI: I think doors have opened. [Laughing.]
TONRA: I don’t understand!
HAEFELI: I think some girls…

They put cardboard lookalikes of you on stage.
AGUILELLA: Are they backstage, or something?
HAEFELI: No, it’s just because the orchestra pit is right there.
HAEFELI: So, we’re just hearing them. It’s the ghosts of winter past.
AGUILELLA: Sorry, to go back—there were definitely some songs from the start you could tell were like, opening tracks, like “New Ways” from the start I think. There was the idea we wanted it to be the opening song, and some were like, “Oh, yeah, this is toward the end of the album” from the start. Again, just because it makes more sense to have an introduction and conclusion on the album.
TONRA: Yeah, we’ve—especially with “Fossa,” it felt like our end song. And then “Made Of Stone” is like this…
HAEFELI: Prologue.
TONRA: Yeah! It didn’t quite fit [anywhere else] and had this kinda quiet outro thing.

Were there new influences that came into play, musical, literary or otherwise?
TONRA: I think musically, from If You Leave to Not To Disappear, we, especially for me, I was becoming a lot more interested in electronic music and especially very ambient—

More downbeat.
TONRA: Yeah, yeah. And I think that, even, we all tried to use that a bit more in—for a long time, I’d only ever written on guitar, and then when it came to this album I was like, I really want to make tracks on Logic and use my computer as a songwriting tool. So that was introducing ideas into demos—especially toward the start of making this record, we each brought some ideas that we’d been working on, and found a lot of them actually had electronic elements in them, so we’d obviously—
HAEFELI: Yeah, that was one of the few—we didn’t have a plan, but we definitely had, like, a few things that we wanted to explore more and one of those was the electronic side of what we had kind of touched on a little in If You Leave. There’s a few bits here and there, but we wanted to make more of that side of it.
AGUILELLA: We had a lot of time to prepare as well. We rented a studio in London—or a room that we set up as a studio to demo all of our songs. So basically as long as we wanted, we could go in this place and come up with different ideas. A lot of the drums, for example, on If You Leave were done coming up with the parts or knowing the part was gonna work in the studio itself, whereas for Not To Disappear it could be done in the demoing process and then I could sit on it for a little while and say, “Maybe this is not what this song needs” eventually. So it felt easier.

Any musical qualities you were trying to convey on the album? Or any you noticed come to life after that?
HAEFELI: Musically, I think again, the electronic side for sure. That was the idea of…I really wanted it to have a contrast between the warm, organic sounds and something a bit colder and harsher as well. Partly because of the idea of loneliness. Whether it’s being alone—like for example in a larger city. Just give it a bit of that slightly sterile sound in a way. But then also have real moments of release and where the sounds are blooming in a warmer or enveloping way. Just kind of make everything a little more bold and kind of there instead of dissipated, defused.
TONRA: Some of the songs have a bit more of a live sound to them than maybe anything on the first album. And that was our goal, anyway, was to record everything in the same place, which we hadn’t done for the first album. It had kind of been recorded all over the place.
HAEFELI: Like a jigsaw.
TONRA: Yeah, pieced together. This album was everything—even though we had demos, which we had recorded, pretty much all in New York in that one place. I think it feels like it’s got this core around everything, it’s harmonious. But I think our sound probably changed while we were playing live, touring on If You Leave, and dynamically I think we’ve kind of gotten louder, more aggressive as time’s gone on. Our pedal collection and guitar collections [have] grown, so that’s probably something that we wanted to obviously represent in the record—how that sound has gotten a little more aggressive.

I was replaying If You Leave the other day for the first time in a while and did notice the change—it’s fuller, more confident and forceful.
TONRA: That’s good to know. [Laughs.] I don’t know, really. The first album is just feeling your way around. You don’t really know what you’re doing or what you’re trying to create. With this one we were a bit more focused maybe.
HAEFELI: I think it’s exactly that. On the second record our intention was clearer. We knew more what we wanted. We knew how we wanted to do it, and all those things. It takes time to figure it out and to make everyone happy but ultimately when we got to New York we had a fairly clear idea in mind of what the record needed to be. S