Daughter: Relative success comes early

Daughter have just won Indie Album of the Year and toured with The National. They tell Elisa Bray about their intense sound

The quietly rising indie-folk trio Daughter are one of the 2013 festival season's success stories. After a run of dates supporting The National on tour in America, their return to the UK saw them perform to a packed John Peel tent at Glastonbury, leaving the crowd spellbound by 23-year-old Elena Tonra's powerfully emotive, haunting vocals, and the band's washes of atmospheric sound. Today marks their final festival stop of the year, at Festival Number 6 in Portmeirion.

We meet at a bar in central London, where Tonra is explaining some of the inspiration behind their album, If You Leave, which was released in March and last week beat Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away to win the AIM Award for Independent Album of the Year. The song “In the Shallows”, she quietly explains, is “about death and being afraid of that and afraid of what happens after. When we're gone, can you find me because I don't want to be alone. I find death really interesting to write about.” The song, Tonra says, was inspired by her cousin's tale of being visited by a deceased relative, and when the conversation leads the band to recount ghost stories – the aunt that appears, dancing, at her own funeral, for example – Tonra reels back in girlish horror and fascination. “My head's going to explode!” she squeals, arms flailing around her cropped hair that matches the dark hue of her clothes.

The three band members – Swedish guitarist Igor Haefeli, who is also Tonra's boyfriend, and French (via America) drummer Remi Aguilella, met on a songwriting course at a London music college, although they are keen to stress that this is no college band – the band formed outside the classroom, in 2010. They remember their first day of college when each classmate had to perform a song to the class. “I think what drew me to Elena was her songs,” says Haefeli. “It just felt like she really had something. I had moved to London to get into a situation where I was surrounded by people who were really driven by music as I'd felt like I wasn't able to get my stuff done in Switzerland. Just watching Elena the first day, I felt like she didn't have anything to learn. And I went to loads of her gigs by myself outside of school. I wanted to hear the songs again.”

“I remember you were wearing an orange scarf and had a cool haircut,” Tonra recalls affectionately. “I just thought you had an interesting brain so I was interested in listening to you. The production side of what Igor was doing was really interesting and I thought it was very different from anything I'd heard before.” Tonra asked Haefeli to help out on her live shows, and adds: “But I never thought you'd work with me. It was kind of unplanned.” Two EPs followed in 2011, and a signing to independent label 4AD.

Tonra grew up in north London, immersed in the Neil Young and Bob Dylan of her parents' vinyl collection, and her brother's alternative rock CDs. Clarinet and piano lessons were never a success, but in her early teens she found her creative outlet in writing poems, “just expressing various teenage thoughts and troubles”. The guitar followed later, when a friend taught her to play. It was the same friend who urged her to perform live. “To be honest, if I hadn't had friends pushing me on, I don't know if I'd have been confident enough to actually show anyone the songs in a public way.”

Adding her introspective vocals and guitar to Haefeli's guitar and skills in atmospheric production, learned over years of watching electronic acts in Switzerland, gave them their base. Aguilella joined later, contributing his jazz-influenced drums. Last year they recruited a guitarist, another college friend, to recreate the textured layers of their recorded album on the live stage. “It's really nice to be on stage and not have to compromise the full sound of the album,” says Haefeli. “Some songs sound even bigger than they do on the record.”

Such soul-baring lyrics such as “Youth”'s “And if you're still bleeding, you're the lucky ones. 'Cause most of our feelings, they are dead and they are gone. We're setting fire to our insides for fun”, tell of considerable heartbreak for someone so young, and might prove difficult to share so openly onstage. “Live performance is a very different mood from when I'm writing,” says Tonra, softly. “The writing process is pretty intense and it's always a very solitary experience. [Live,] people sing the words back to me – it's a really beautiful thing and it's something I can't be unhappy about because I can see all these people relating to what I said when I was alone in a dark room, overthinking.”

We turn to the inspiration and the overthinking. “I don't know how much you'll get out of her,” coaxes Haefeli.

“When I started writing I had a reason to, because I couldn't communicate properly with anyone else, so I had to write it down,” she offers. A case of teenage shyness? “Yeah. Very much so. Anyway, let's not go into dark places,” she says, casting her eyes downwards. “Usually it's a sadness that triggers things. I haven't written anything that upbeat or happy because I've never really reached that level of happiness when I've found it inspiring enough. For me it's inspiring to write in darker times.”

Has winning the award given them lofty ambitions? “We're just so grateful for the recognition,” says Haefeli. “To us, If You Leave is a sad and introverted album. And if people listen to the record and find some kind of enjoyment from it, that's already really touching.” Tonra adds, with a giggle: “We're not the type to be, 'look over here at us!' We're hard to find.” Not for much longer.

Daughter play Festival Number 6 on Saturday www.festivalnumber6.com

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