Silence is golden for eclectic trio Daughter, whose morbidity is strangely uplifting, finds Aidan Smith
LONDON is a great music city but because it gets absolutely everyone, from the bright-eyed young contenders to the established world stars making just the one UK stop-off, audiences can be blasé if not downright rude. The first time Igor Haefeli heard future bandmate Elena Tonra perform, he couldn’t believe that people would talk so loudly over her songs.
“For anyone who comes from outside London, it can be quite shocking,” he says. The keyboardist is Swiss while the third member of the hotly tipped Daughter, drummer Remi Aguilella, is French. “Maybe if you come from a town where hardly any international bands visit, and Remi is the same, that’s an inevitable reaction. But it seems to us that you have to be Kraftwerk to make them shut up.”
Haefeli adds, though, that Tonra did succeed in quelling the chatter and captivating the crowd – not least himself. “I was really fascinated by her songs, there was something magical about them. The place went quiet pretty quickly. She was singing with just an acoustic guitar but she had this power which drew everyone in. The minute the show was over I was trying to find out where she was performing next.”
Haefeli had come to London in search of like-minded musical types, having got bored and frustrated in his home town of Neuchatel (“Switzerland’s Newcastle,” he laughs). Tonra was at the same music college, as was Aguilella, because she’d become bored and frustrated with an act which in those days was called folkie and wanted to write better songs and improve as a guitarist.
“I still don’t think I’m any good on the guitar but I’ve managed to change the focus of my songs,” she says. “I definitely think you have to write shit ones before better ones come along. For me, the focus of the songs changed as my interests changed and I guess that was about growing up. Before, I was mainly interested in boys who weren’t interested in me.” And now? “Oh, death,” she adds cheerfully. “That’s the big thing now.”
Daughter most certainly aren’t Kraftwerk but Haefeli’s electronic texturing has brought comparisons with Bon Iver, Sigur Ros and The xx. They admire all these acts and in the case of The xx for the spaces in their songs. Daughter’s sound is more dense but Haefeli says silence is still important to them. “There are spaces between Elena’s words that I should fill and some that I definitely shouldn’t.”
Haefeli, 23, and Tonra, one year younger, speak to me separately but from the same London flat as they’re a couple as well, the romance happening before the musical hook-up. On debut album If You Leave, all the songs have one-word titles in the style of Joy Division/New Order. Fans of the Tour de France will be familiar with the track Youth which soundtracked TV coverage with apposite lyrics (“Setting fire to our insides for fun”). But when Haefeli speaks of Tonra’s ability to silence the mob, you guess he might be referring to lines like: “Throw me in the dirt pit.” Or maybe: “I want you so much but I hate your guts.”
Does he worry that the relationship might get in the way of the band, or vice versa? “No, because so far we’ve managed to keep our couple life and our band life separate. We’ve spoken to other couples in bands who’ve told us they’ve struggled with that, particularly in the songwriting, but I don’t want Elena to stop saying things in her songs that are personal. You can get therapy from that, but in any case, songwriters need to be expansive and they need to be unafraid.”
Although proud of the record, Tonra says she’s nervous about its release. “I’m trying not to think about it too much although they’re good nerves, I reckon.” She admits that as a live act they can be shy and retiring. “Being awkward people, it’s hard to be on stage, but at the same time we do enjoy it. I’d like people to know that.”
Certainly she’s bold enough to sport a striking bob that’s been catching the eye of the style mags. “Are you going to call it a bowl-cut? That’s what everyone says.” How about Baader-Meinhof chic? “Well, thank you. I think.”
Her exotic name comes from her Italian-Irish parentage although Tonra grew up in far from exotic surroundings. “A suburb of London which actually exists in the shadow of Watford, if you can imagine such a place.” No one’s heard of it, she says, and it takes a few seconds for me to prize “Northwood” out of her.
She’s always been unsure about what her father did for a living. “I mean, he wasn’t in the Mafia, but it was something boring and officey. He won’t mind me saying that.” Nevertheless, it was her dad who came home one day with Jeff Buckley’s Grace, an album which, if it didn’t quite change her life, then definitely changed her teenage scribbling, beginning a more deep and meaningful phase.
Buckley was already dead and without prior knowledge Tonra claims she suspected as much, just from listening to his singing. So what’s with her big interest in death?
“Well, like most people I’ve had some experience of it. Deaths through old age which weren’t a surprise but also a couple of shocks which were pretty insane. You can say so much about it. Will we meet anyone when we die or are we going to be completely alone? Yeah, I love a bit of death.”
If You Leave (4AD) is released on 18 March. Daughter will be playing this year’s T in the Park.