Not to Disappear, the sophomore full-length from English indie-folk trio Daughter, plays like a musical companion to director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia." Throughout, singer Elena Tonra explores relationships familial and romantic.
Not to Disappear, the sophomore full-length from English indie-folk trio Daughter, plays like a musical companion to director Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia."
Throughout, singer Elena Tonra explores relationships familial and romantic, delving into everything from her grandmother's struggles with Alzheimer's ("Doing the Right Thing") to budding flirtations gradually undone by self-doubt ("To Belong"). At one point, the singer posits "maybe I should get a dog or something," though it's not long before she's again pining for some kind of human connection - a sentiment shared by virtually every character in Anderson's sprawling drama.
"I think a lot of my interests revolve around human beings. I have this fascination with how we interact with each other, and our brains and how they work," said Tonra, who joins her bandmates for a concert at Newport Music Hall on Sunday, April 3. "I appreciate the relationships I have around me. They inspire me a lot to write."
It's not always an easy task, however. Witness the heavy-hearted "Doing the Right Thing," where in a span of 10 words the singer manages to capture the devastating toll Alzheimer's can wage on a person's mind. "Then I'll lose my children/ Then I'll lose my love," she sings atop minimal instrumentation, as if the song itself is fading as mercilessly as these accumulated memories.
"I love my grandmother, and I wanted to express that, but I couldn't gloss over her illness and how it affects me and my family," Tonra said. "It's not the easiest song to listen to, and it's certainly not the easiest song to play every night. But sometimes talking about things that are not easy I find weirdly rewarding."
The concept of motherhood also surfaces frequently on Daughter's latest. On "Mothers," Tonra paints the mother-child relationship in a one-sided, "Giving Tree"-like light - "You will drain all you need to drain out of me," she sings - while another tune takes a more straightforward, biological stance ("We are built for reproduction").
"I do reference [motherhood] a lot, but I don't know why," the singer said. "Someone tried to tell me once I had mother issues in a very psychoanalyzing way, and I was a bit like, 'I don't know about all that.' I do think my relationship with my mother and grandmother, as I've gotten older, it's gotten clearer, and I understand it more."
Growing up, the musician used to view her mother as her polar opposite. "But as we get older I see we're really not," she said. "And I think that's very common."
In addition to a physical resemblance that increases with each year, Tonra said she shares her mother's stubborn streak - "I think we're not aggressive people, but if someone wrongs us we can't let it slide," she said - along with a fiery side she further attributes to her lineage ("I come from a line of very strong Irish and Italian women").
While outside relationships helped forge much of Not to Disappear, Tonra's self-understanding, and the ways these various external forces shape and direct her choices, remain central to the album. On "Alone/With You" she navigates the push-and-pull between seeking comfort with another and exerting independence, while "Numbers" finds the frontwoman repeating the words "you better make me better," as though willing a relationship to bring out her best.
"I went through a long time of not enjoying my own company, and I think that was a problem," Tonra said. "It's a hard thing, having companionship and not losing yourself to be with another person, or being someone you're not. I like people around me who bring out the best in me, and I hope I bring out the best in everyone I like."
Songwriting and poetry have long functioned as a way for the singer to untangle these knotty emotions.
"Writing is something I've chosen to dedicate pretty much the loneliest of times to," she said. "As a kid it was my therapy, and I would go home from school and write for hours. I haven't had a hard life by any stretch, but I'm quite emotional, and [writing] helps me deal with my emotions. It's a coping mechanism."
As a result, there's a sense of lightness that can accompany the close of recording sessions - "When [Not to Disappear] came out … it felt like the weight had risen," Tonra said - not to mention the lift she gets from listeners connecting with these most fragile, exposed moments.
"With a song like 'Doing the Right Thing,' hearing other people's stories and hearing about their experiences [with elderly relatives], it makes it all make a bit more sense, which is why I tell everyone the [most negative] aspects of my life," she said. "That's a positive, when people are like, 'I've been through this, too.' It's how I know we're all the same; we all have the same feelings and emotions. It's a really beautiful thing."