Elena Tonra is walking around somewhere in London. I assume it’s London because over the course of our interview I hear about three police cars go hurtling past, each of which she apologises for profusely. Frontwoman for dazzlingly emotive, “fucked-up folk” band Daughter, Elena is nowhere near as pretentious as she could be. She went to a music school in North London, sings and plays guitar, has a cool-as-fuck haircut, and seems totally out of everyone’s league, yet I’m pleasantly surprised to find that she’s exciting, charming, genuine, and heartfelt. I found it very difficult to stop myself becoming totally infatuated Elena and her band, and with thousands of others seeming to agree, it would appear the British music scene has a new addition to their family…
Hello Elena, how are you? I’m fine, not bad, it’s sunny today so I’m enjoying that.
Are you excited about playing Latitude? I’m really excited, I haven’t been before and to be honest I haven’t really been to many festivals, so it’s going to be kind of new, but yeah really excited about it.
You played the BBC Introducing stage at Reading 2011… Yeah that was our first ever festival performance, oh, no, I think we did Lounge On The Farm actually, and then it was Reading, but yeah, that was quite a big thing.
Reading and Latitude are run by the same organisers, but they’re very different festivals, do you any expectations? No, I mean, I think the line-up is incredible, so I’m really looking forward to seeing as many people as possible, then I feel like it’s going to be quite calm with lots of things to do; there’s poetry and art and stuff like that as well. To check out as much as possible will be my ethos for the festival.
Do you like playing festivals, or do you prefer your own shows? It’s kind of weird, I enjoy it, but I think it’s always safe if you have your own shows because you’re expecting the room to be full, so you have that security. With festivals it’s really fun cause you can just sort of play and see who turns up to listen. Like our experience at Reading; it was our first big festival performance and we didn’t think anyone would be there and then pulled quite a good crowd. We were like “Yeea”; we didn’t really expect it, we were looking a bit like frightened deer about to be shot, we were like “oh my god, this is ridiculous.”
You’ve blown up in the last year and are playing to larger crowds, is it odd having larger crowds trying to connect with your music? I suppose yeah, I find it quite difficult to perform, so it’s a weird love hate relationship; I love it and it’s the only thing I’d want to do, but it terrifies me as well. I have a bit of a difficulty in not looking at my shoes for the whole set, so I sometimes don’t even notice the people that re there cause I’m not looking up [laughs, endearingly nervously] So yeah, it takes a bit of time to adjust to the fact that people are listening to you, and they’re standing there and I think it takes time to adjust. The whole feeling of playing in front of people is amazing, but I get a bit scared, I don’t even know if that answered your question, I’m just blabbering, sorry.
I have a few friends that play similar music to you and they feel the same way; putting yourself on the line brings a great feeling of catharsis, but also a lot of nerves. Yeah I think that’s the whole reason why Daughter started; I knew that I wanted to perform, and I wanted to make music, but I needed people around me to give me support on stage. We’ve got a bigger sound now and we sometimes have our mate David who plays as well [as main members Elena and Igor] so with a band it does feel a lot more comfortable.
Is it odd playing with your boyfriend? Does he know what or who your songs are about? Does anybody know? Erm not many people, no, I suppose what I want to tell is in the song, do you know what I mean? I don’t really feel like I’ve ever needed to explain further, but no, it’s not weird playing in a band with Igor; we keep our music very separate.
There’s a question from my favourite film, Almost Famous, that that I’ve always wanted to ask someone and you seem like the perfect person, so here goes: “Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?” I personally think so. From my experience the best songs that I write are those that are the most truthful. So for me yeah, I definitely have moments of ‘down time’ in terms of mood, and I think that’s when I write the most; when I’m not feeling so great.
Is someone like Laura Marling, who’s also playing Latitude, an inspiration? Yeah, I saw her perform while ago, it was probably when she was forming a band, just after her solo stuff. She’s great, you can hear it in her lyrics, they’re beautiful, I think it’s just poetry, she’s really cool. In terms of influences though, as much as I really like her work, throughout my childhood I felt more inspired by male songwriters, which is weird. Because I feel I write about very personal things people might think I was more into female singers, but no, generally men! [laughs]
Was it getting constant comparisons to other artists that inspired the shift from straight-edge acoustic to your more expansive sound? I don’t think it necessarily inspired us to move away, no. I think we were always on the path to where we’re going now; we always wanted to create music that had loads of elements to it, so weren’t really pushed away from the folk stuff. Comparisons are funny, I totally understand that the human brain likes to file things in certain places and whatever, and sometimes it’s nice cause you get compared to people that you like, but I suppose maybe it’s just like a slight ego trip though, even though I don’t think I’m massively egocentric! I suppose you wish you were completely unique, but no-one really is I don’t think, apart form maybe Bjork, she’s really out there. Sometimes it is difficult for us to get these comparisons to other people, but I don’t get upset about it, cause I understand people like to group things.
In a similar way, descriptions like ‘haunting’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘achingly beautiful’ are mentioned a lot, but it’s difficult to describe your music any other way, do you like that praise? Erm, yeah, I don’t really like reading too much [laughs] It’s really lovely when people say things like that about our music, it’s really complimentary, and it has some kind of impact, but yeah, I try not to read too much of what people say in reviews and stuff. They can completely bum you out, and then do the reverse and make you feel really wonderful, and that’s shit as well cause you get lazy and you just think you’re great [laughs] I like being very pessimistic and working hard because I never feel like I’m good enough anyway…
I was introduced to you by an ex-girlfriend, and it’s amazing how differently I hear your music now compared to how I did a few months ago. Your music manages to appeal to both incredible happiness and deep sadness though, and that’s an incredible thing. Did you always intend to write music that was so relatable? That’s really lovely what you’ve just said, that’s really nice… But no, not really, I suppose I never really thought about it too much. I think it’s just my style of writing. I can write songs better about relationships and stuff like that, so I guess that’s pretty relatable to everyone; people connect to it cause everyone gets fucked over by someone at some point in their lives.
If I was in a position like yours I’d constantly be fighting an internal battle between wanting great success, but also wanting to stay as someone’s new favourite little band, does that ever cross your mind? Erm, yeah, in a way. I dunno, I suppose things have to happen naturally, so whatever happens happens, but I’m really happy with where we are now. I can’t really believe the amount of people that already listen to us, so for me I’m great, I’m good, I’ve cracked it! [laughs] I just feel that where we are now is great, we’re recording an album right now, and if the people who’ve liked us so far like the new stuff then that would just be amazing. I don’t really have any expectations, I never have. We recorded the very first E.P [His Young Heart, 2011] because we wanted to, not because we thought anyone would listen to it. I think we need to kind of have the same mentality for the album; make something that we want to make, and if people enjoy it then that’s wonderful. We need to make it from the heart, not because we have to; make it out of truth rather than just because we feel we have to do something.
The reason I asked is because your song Youth has been chopped and changed, and is being used as soundtrack for ITV’s Tour De France coverage. It annoys me, does that annoy you? I didn’t actually see that cause I don’t own a TV, but my parents told me about it and I watched it. It’s quite funny, I like how literal some parts are; there’s the lyric “If you’re still breathing” and there’s a shot of a cyclist that looks absolutely knackered, it’s great [laughs] but I dunno, I just don’t know how they ever heard the song.
Did you not approach them then? No, we didn’t even know about it, we just heard we were on ITV and we were like, “Oh, how did they hear our song?” But it’s great cause it just means that other people can hear us, and if they like it then that’s good. It’s not really a full indication of the song, no, but it doesn’t annoy me. But then again I don’t have a TV, maybe it’d annoy me if it was always on [laughs].
So what’s next for Daughter, you mentioned a new album? Yeah, we’re actually recording at the moment so that’s why we’re kind of hiding away, that’s kind of our next step.
Can we expect the album to go in the same direction as the previous two records; more leftfield, more atmospheric? Yeah, I mean at the moment we’re experimenting and that’s how we’re working; we’re trying to find out where the songs are going. But I think it’s going to be pretty experimental which I’m excited about, hopefully you’ll like it.
Just to finish on a lighter note, the artwork for your records, are they pictures of you? They are yeah… They’re pretty ridiculous. We have these old boxes of embarrassing family photos and I was just rummaging through and I saw the one of my and my brother with facepaint on [The Wild Youth, 2011] and I think my grandmother took it; my brother’s got ‘Fun Session’ written on a sticker, I’m not sure what it was, I think, you know those ball pits, I think we were just unleashed and that was the result of it [laughs] But yeah, I really like it, I love rummaging through old photos, I think they’re the best, especially when you’ve got a massive box. There’s pictures of my mum when she was like five, dressed as like, I don’t even know, I probably should be telling you this, but she’s in fancy dress and she’s got loads of fruit on her head, it’s really crazy, there’s some great photos, maybe we’ll use that one for the album art.