Daughter’s Elena Tonra on the heartbreak and catharsis of her debut solo album

Interview Daughter’s Elena Tonra on the heartbreak and catharsis of her debut solo album

The album, under the name Ex:Re, is out this week via 4AD.

Daughter vocalist Elena Tonra has announced details of a debut solo album as Ex:Re. The self-titled album is out this Friday (30th November), and is being previewed by first single ‘Romance’.

Helmed by a whirring bassline and earthy percussion, the track circles around ruminations on the end of a relationship, something the record tackles throughout. A breakup record in the truest sense, the album flits back and forth between feelings of regret, sadness and relief, all laid out like diary entries that provide a window into a process of recovery.

The album was recorded at the in-house studio at 4AD, co-produced by Elena and Fabian Prynn (DD Dumbo), who adds textured, thumping percussion to the album, which also features luscious strings from composer Josephine Stephenson. It still keeps the icy, sombre tones of Daughter, amped up by the subject matter that’s embedded in its fabric, but it also sees Elena breaking out into new ground, most noticeably on the bright, vibrant ‘Crushing’, and the rumbling ‘New York’, which recounts a hazy, drunken stumble through the titular city.

With the album out on Friday, we headed to the studio to meet Elena and talk about the heartbreak that inspired the album, and the catharsis gained from creating it.

Watch the video for ‘Romance’ and read the interview below.

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So, you have a solo album coming out! It feels like a bit of surprise for us - was it also surprising to you that it came together?

Surprising that it came together so quickly, but I’d had it written for a while. When I came [to the 4AD studio] and worked with Fab, it felt like we should just keep moving, and not have that many breaks in terms of making it, just saying ‘No, let’s finish it NOW!’. I didn’t realise that it could be such a quick process.

For a lot of people, Daughter is your thing in their minds - do you feel like the band developed an identity on its own that this album couldn’t fit into?

It’s interesting, because I don’t see Daughter as my thing. I see it very much as a band, but obviously it’s maybe slightly confusing, because it did start from a solo place. I guess because I’m narrating the songs [for Daughter], it feels like there’s a lot of me in it - and there is a lot of me in it - but there’s also a lot of the guys musically too. I wanted to explore the writing that I’d been doing that felt like it wasn’t for that. It felt like it was even more personal than what Daughter’s been so far… which has been also really personal. But this felt like something that was slightly more introverted and I felt like sharing it less to start off with. And then I did open it up to being collaborative at the end, but it was weirdly a point that I wanted to prove to myself: that I could focus in on something and musically take a bit more control and develop something from the very small drafts and ideas on a phone or in a book and create a world around them. That was in the back of my head. What was in the front of my head was ‘I really need to get over this thing, and this is the only way I can see of how to do it’. That was the main goal!

Did it feel like quite an impulsive album to write, knowing you needed to get it out in order to get over this situation?

It was just happening. It wasn’t thought about. I’d set myself the plan of ‘Go in the studio, empty your brain, go home’ and that was what I felt like I needed to do every day. It felt like going into the office. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I kind of thought I was maybe just writing new songs for Daughter, and didn’t really have a plan, then suddenly all these things started coming out and I thought ‘Oh, okay, this is different’. It was quite a long writing process for the album. I think if I’d finished the album a year ago, it would be very different - I actually gave myself time to actually get over the thing I was writing about. It’s nice to think ‘Oh, thank god THAT didn’t make it on the album!’ Just crying into a microphone with delay. There’s kind of not a lot of that actually [on the album], which is weird, to have a breakup record that doesn’t really feature the person you break up with that much. He’s there, but it’s already over, and the songs are the time after, and the processing of it being over is what I was then interested in, rather than thinking about what could’ve changed, or what I could’ve done, or what could’ve been different in order to fix it. I was fixated on fixing it for a while, and the ‘fixing it’ songs didn’t make it!

Does that, in your mind, give the album a feel of serenity, and of letting things be?

Some of the songs are quite angry, and there are the phases and the stages of getting past it. I guess it’s those moments when you’re heartbroken, and how you react to them - it’s weird that most of the angrier songs have become more present on the album, because I don’t feel that angry about it anymore. But I still feel those songs were the best, more so than the songs that were made out of complete sadness. ‘Too Sad’ was just [me] utterly devastated, but the songs that I prefer the most are the one that have a bit more fire.

Daughter’s Elena Tonra on the heartbreak and catharsis of her debut solo album
Daughter’s Elena Tonra on the heartbreak and catharsis of her debut solo album
Daughter’s Elena Tonra on the heartbreak and catharsis of her debut solo album

“It was just living, on paper and in a computer.”

The song ‘New York’ has really vivid imagery - does it stem from real experiences?

It’s real in the sense that I was in New York. I went to New York to write. I thought that I’d just come back with utter shit. There are people in that song that I’d seen while I was recording the second Daughter album, which we made in New York. It was revisiting a place you’ve been to before, and [talking about] how that place has changed, and how things have changed, either for good or bad. There’s also some secret code vibes that only the person who this record was made for - I guess - would really get. I like [writing like that]. It wasn’t necessarily a choice, because to start off with, I didn’t really know if anyone would hear [the album], I was just writing it to write it, for myself. I wouldn’t have even send it to the person - it was just living, on paper and in a computer. It wasn’t intended to be listened to when it was being written.

There’s quite a few mentions of isolation and hotel rooms on the album - has it been tough for you being on tour so much, and is this reflecting on that?

That one song [‘The Dazzler’] wasn’t actually written on tour - it was from the New York ‘retreat’. The drunken retreat session. There is that feeling of not feeling like you have a particular base. It can be exciting and enjoying all these strange perks of a hotel, like ‘Oh, I get to wear this weird dressing gown! Ooh there’s a shower cap!’, but then I’m away from home. It’s quite silly, that song. It was an incredibly sad time, and I was incredibly sad in that room, but there’s a silliness to it. Why do we do these things when we’re in a hotel? Why do we use so much water, so many towels? I’d never do that at home, but it’s this wasteful, spoiled, absurd thing.

After writing the album quite close to the bone, was it difficult looking back at the things that you wrote when you might not have been as level-headed about it as you are now?

It’s kind of like looking at a different person, and noticing things about the behaviour and the language that I was using. The fact that a lot of the songs involve booze - they’re all kind of drunk. That was something that I didn’t really realise until very recently. Even then, I thought ‘Oh, I probably need to think about that. I need to think about how I treat myself and my body’. I don’t think I have a problem with it, but the idea that you could so easily poison yourself, because it’s numbing and you feel better. Seeing the stages of recovering from it…maybe not even recovering from it, because who knows if I’m actually over it, I don’t know. At this point, it doesn’t matter if I’m not, and if I’m not, it’s okay, because I’ve dealt with the fact that it’s done, and dealt with all the stages of how I feel about it, now I’m kind of at peace with it. The anger’s not there anymore, and the anger needed to be on the record in order to get that out. It would be a shame if it felt like that regret and anger and bitterness still lived and I still felt that way about things, because I don’t. People might hear this and think that I’m really angry about it still, but I’m not - I just had to do it to let it live somewhere else.

Is it always your instinct to write about these things?

Yeah I think so.

Is that ever difficult? When your music’s always really personal, do you ever feel like you’re maybe looking for something to write about, and seeking out these situations?

I’ve been thinking about that recently. Am I looking for it, and therefore am I creating it? Am I creating this situation so I can create [music] out of it? Am I fucking myself over so that I can write about that? I definitely don’t want to think that that’s what’s happening, because I don’t wanna do that! This is obviously a very focused record on a particular kind of subject, and generally it’s about human relationships and the lack of, and filling the void of someone not being there, and it’s very much tied into that world. But I just have to, basically, keep thinking to myself that I can write about anything, and maybe I’ve got an idea in my head sometimes that when I’m happy I can’t write. It’s been the case. If I’ve been really happy, I’ve just got no ideas! I can’t reaffirm that thing of ‘You have to be unhappy to write’ because then maybe there is something that tells me ‘Ok, well push that self-destruct button and we’ll see what happens’. I’m being slightly wary of that, and hoping that it’s not a thing, but you never really know, do you? If you see patterns repeating, you wonder ‘Is it everyone else that’s the problem, or is it me? Do I need to figure something out?!’.

There’s a line in ‘Crushing’ about humans interacting with and using machines - is that something you’ve been thinking about a lot?

At the time, it was trying to talk about how I, or how other people have communicated with me, through messages, whether it be texts or emails. Mainly emails, which is why the Re: [in the project name], meaning ‘regarding’, is written as it is. I guess it’s about modern ways of communicating. I’m not on any dating apps, so it’s not about that, but I was thinking about that way of how we show our emotions through our screens, and through computers, and how a lot of the time we’re not saying or expressing how we feel, and it’s these quite detached ways of expressing ourselves. We are just trying to communicate how we feel through these machines and it’s very alien. It’s also regarding attention spans. My attention span is shit, and I forget things all the time and don’t feel like I’m very focused. A lot of people I speak to feel the same, and think that our focus is going, and we just know that we potentially have the answer on our phone. If we don’t know something, we can just Google it. Maybe we don’t store as much information as we used to. I don’t know whether that’s true, but the idea that the attention span is lessening for other people, and towards other people as well, and that maybe people only have a certain number of messages for you to feel like… well, maybe I’ll just ghost you.

The album’s out this week - have you got any more plans for it, or is it going to be a case of getting it out and leaving it alone?

Hopefully a few more shows, and hopefully a video in the making. It’d be really nice to do another visual thing. Right now, I feel like I’d love to take it on the road and play it live, but at the same time, it feels like it can live within itself. I don’t see this as a project that then has another record coming out of it - it just feels like it’s this thing. I’m just really excited to go back with [Daughter] and make another record, so I don’t really know what the future of it is. I’m intrigued, but equally I feel much better after making it, so I feel like it’s done its job.

‘Ex:Re’ is out digitally on 30th November via 4AD.

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