On the surface it might just be the most devastating breakup song of the year, the kind of bleak beauty that anyone who’s ever loved and lost will embrace on the first painful listen.
It’s called “Youth”, and like much of what you hear on Daughter’s excellent debut album, If You Leave, it’s wrenching in the best of ways. Over an echo-bathed backdrop of incandescent guitar and doomsday piano, singer Elena Tonra wrings every bit of emotion out of lines like “It was a flood that wrecked our home” and “My eyes are damp from the words you left.” When she finishes off the track by balefully intoning, over and over again, “You caused it,” it’s hard not to conclude that somewhere along the way a relationship went very, very sour.
Reached at a Minneapolis tour stop, however, Tonra says listeners shouldn’t jump to conclusions, even if she doesn’t mind when they do.
“I really want people to take whatever they want from a song,” the soft-spoken singer-guitarist says. “If you feel that it’s about love, that’s interesting to me, because there’s an element of that in there. But there’s also things that were heavily inspired by death. Maybe people will pick up on that, and maybe not. It’s why I don’t like to get into specifics about my songs, because it’s beautiful that people will pick up different things from them. I will say that, if I look at things, I think what sometimes happens is a song will shift as I’m writing it. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got this brain that tends to wander into different rooms.”
Based on If You Leave, those rooms are on the dark side of town, with Tonra giving the impression that she’s no stranger to sorrow. Even if she’s reluctant to get into the fine print, Tonra will allow that a cloud hung over If You Leave for at least part of the creative process. Daughter started out as a singer-songwriter solo project and then morphed into something more adventurous when she enlisted the help of guitarist Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella. Haefeli, who has an arsenal of pedals that he’s not afraid to use, plays a major role in the group. Check out his ghost-transmission work on the ethereal dream that is “Winter” and marvel at the way that “Touch” unleashes epic waves of guitar violence three-quarters of the way through.
If both musically and lyrically there’s an angsty undertow to If You Leave, that somehow makes sense. After three buzz-building EPs, the members of Daughter decided that it was time to get out of London and begin working on a full-length. They rented a renovated chapel in an area of the English countryside so remote that things like streetlights and other signs of modern civilization were nonexistent.
Tonra subsequently found herself with plenty of time to think. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. She hints that she and Haefeli, who were a couple by that point, weren’t having the easiest go of it.
“On a personal level, a relationship level, I think it was a time that was difficult for me and Igor,” Tonra reveals. “Without going into too much detail, it was maybe not the best time to be isolated with each other in a very remote part of England. What I remember was that we were not on great terms, but at the same time we were very inspired to work together, if that makes any sense.”
Whether that tension bled into the songs is for Daughter’s fans to determine. Tonra, again, isn’t telling. What’s important is that she’s created a record that’s resonating with people, probably because, well, who hasn’t had a tough go of it and needed somewhere to turn?
“Sometimes people will come to me after shows and talk about how one of my songs has captured a really specific time in their life,” Tonra says with a sense of wonder. “That’s really incredible and it’s really comforting.”