Elena Tonra isn’t a keen swimmer, but oceans pervade Stereo Mind Game. It’s a matter of distance. Daughter’s third record, the band’s first studio album for seven years, grapples with what it means to be separated, from loved ones and too from yourself.
“Oh it will likely kill me / That I must live / Without you / Because I can’t swim,” Tonra sings, whisper-like, on “Isolation”. It’s a classic Daughter song that basks elegantly in deepest despair. Yet here there’s a sense of something beyond despair too. “I’ll compose myself / I’ll get over it,” Tonra continues. On Stereo Mind Game, Daughter tend to sorrow by fixing it in time. Doing so makes it more real, like the flower – dried, pressed and remembered – on the album’s cover.
Daughter – the trio comprising Tonra, Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella – formed in 2010. After releasing two studio albums, If You Leave (2013) and Not to Disappear (2016), and the video game soundtrack Music From Before the Storm (2017), they chose to take some time off. But not before jamming together in Los Angeles, in between a support tour with The National and their first headline shows in South America. It was here that a new album started to germinate.
Over the next couple of years – during which they worked on their own projects, including Tonra’s solo record as Ex:Re – Daughter met occasionally to write together in studios in London, Portland and in San Diego, where Haefeli lived for six months in 2019. The record’s central romantic figure is someone Tonra met out there when she visited from London. They shared a significant connection, but she knew the Atlantic lay between them.
It’s this that she sings about on “Be On Your Way”, a longing but resilient song about an enduring connection that is also undefinable. Where previous Daughter songs mourned old relationships, here Tonra is accepting of whatever the future brings. “A friend said to me recently: just because something ends, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t real,” she says. Haefeli likens the revelation to the pressed flower image: “It’s still there. It still exists. It grew that spring.”
Daughter began recording the album’s twelve songs in earnest in 2021. Haefeli, who lives in Bristol, met with Tonra at Middle Farm Studios in Devon. Aguilella, who is based in Portland, Oregon, recorded his drum parts in Bocce Studio in Vancouver, Washington. Haefeli produced a number of the songs, while Tonra produced “Junkmail”. They co-produced the rest.
The longing to close physical distances – a feeling that only grew during the pandemic – has seeped into many of these tracks. On “Wish I Could Cross the Sea” we hear voice notes from Tonra’s young niece and nephew, who live in Italy. “(Missed Calls)” features another voice note, in which a friend describes a dream. Fed through some modular effects, it becomes glitchy, and haunting. These messages, attempts at connection from loved ones you’re unable to see, “can pull you out of the well”, Tonra says – but only if you pick up the phone.
When you let others in, beauty can arise. Deep feeling comes from the bows of the 12 Ensemble, the London-based string orchestra, who play on many of the album’s tracks. Arranged by Haefeli and Tonra, and orchestrated by Josephine Stephenson, their parts were – fittingly – recorded at The Pool, a space in Bermondsey, south London, which is a former swimming spot. A brass quartet also brings a new sonic warmth to “Neptune” and “To Rage”.
And for the first time, Tonra’s is not a lone voice. On “Dandelion”, which glistens with Haefeli’s chime-like guitars and Aguilella’s rousing drums, Tonra plays call and response with herself. Haefeli leads some vocal lines on the exhilarating “Future Lover”, and on “Neptune”, a choir appears. These vocalists are the string players of the 12 Ensemble. “It’s one of my favourite moments of the record,” Tonra says, “when suddenly, the crowd joins. It’s a very lonely song. But even when I’ve felt the most alone, arms have reached out to me.”
In order to maintain relationships with others, we must first make peace with ourselves. “Party” recounts a significant moment: the night that made Tonra realise she wanted to give up alcohol. It’s a topic she has written about before, but she needed distance to see it clearly. Haefeli borrows her image: “This time you had climbed out of the well,” he says, “and were looking back down.” It’s the song she’s most proud of, and the one that lends its lyrics to the album title (“Some stereo mind game I play with myself”), which refers to the conflicting voices we all have in our heads.
While Daughter’s previous work found power in emotional honesty, Stereo Mind Game welcomes opposing feelings. “It’s about not working in absolutes,” Haefeli says. After more than a decade spent depicting the darkest emotions, Daughter have made their most optimistic record yet.