Elena Tonra, Alone But Not Lonely
Daughter’s frontperson, already beloved for her bravely desolate lyrics, launched a new solo project—Ex:Re—to provide her most devastating songs yet. But she’s far from lonesome.
Just moments after the dissolution of a romance that meant the world to her, Elena Tonra hit the road with her band, Daughter, to promote its wildly popular, pop- and folk-infused second album, Not to Disappear. Touring, an all-consuming activity, almost entirely prevented her from reckoning with the emotional fallout she was experiencing. The solo project that she created in an attempt to begin healing, Ex:Re, thus didn’t even start to jell until a full year after the breakup. It’s only now that she decided to surprise-release Ex:Re’s self-titled debut album.
“I had to store any emotion about it for a while, because I knew that I had to go on stage every night,” Tonra says, sipping ginger turmeric tea in a swanky Williamsburg hotel basement restaurant. Her outfit is primarily black—an old fuzzy coat, a vibrant velvet top—save a scarlet-red scarf, but she’s not at all gloomy or down when she recalls the events that inspired her to form Ex:Re (pronounced “x-ray,” even though it means “regarding ex,” because Tonra loves a good play on words). It’s clear from how frequently she laughs and jokes as she talks about the project that she’s successfully worked through the fallout that defines it.
It took her a while to get there. Sure, she knew she’d eventually have to work through her breakup the way she knows best—by writing songs—but even after Daughter’s tour ended, there was yet again more work to be done. Upon returning from the road, Daughter composed the soundtrack for the video game Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, and it was only after completing this project that Daughter’s members decided to take a holiday. This period, for Tonra, turned into writing Ex:Re. (“Why didn’t I just go to a beach? It would’ve been so much better,” she jokes.)
At this point, it was late 2017, and a full year had passed since her breakup. She wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It would be a very different record if I’d made it when I made the soundtrack,” she begins, before assuming a melodramatic, gravelly, sardonic tone to describe what it would’ve sounded like if she’d made it earlier: “Please, don’t leave me, come back!”
When it came time to record Ex:Re this past July, she had progressed far enough in her emotional rebuilding to pursue collaborators. She recruited her friends Josephine Stephenson, who contributed cello and vocals, and Fabian Prynn, whose coproduction and drumming—which tends to operate with featherlight, jazz-infused precision, as compared to Daughter’s often more heartbeat-like, high-as-cliffs percussion—especially helps Ex:Re’s songs expand past the gutting scarcity of Tonra’s initial arrangements. There is, notably, no presence of Daughter members Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella; although Tonra describes them as “family now,” Ex:Re is truly her own project.
“It is a breakup record, but he’s not in it.… It’s all about the memory of this person and the way that certain scenarios have since then led me to think about him or compare people to him.”
Ex:Re, in its final form, isn’t a breakup album that comes off as a pity party. It’s instead a document of intense self-reflection and devastation. As she wrote the album’s lyrics, Tonra let whatever was on her mind hit the page. The album is thus a brutally upfront, no-bullshit recount of self-destruction. Whether built on hush-hush acoustic strums (“Crushing”), Stephenson’s “amazing, slide-y drunk cello” (“New York”), gentle but bitter piano (“5AM”), or acidic, burning electric guitar rumble (“Too Sad,” “I Can’t Keep You”), Ex:Re’s intimate, heart-on-sleeve songs will get into your head, as inescapable as wrenching post-breakup thoughts.
Recurring images abound across Ex:Re, as Tonra identifies the behaviors that defined her own bad habits. Alcohol as a numbing agent is the most frequent, such as on “New York” (“I was drunk / New York, New York… I’m seeing things I’m missing / I miss him and I hate it”). Hotels, constant time spent in them, and the loneliness they can bring are nearly as common, such as on “The Dazzler” (“I keep begging for late checkouts / Let me stay here / Let me live here / In room 232 / ’til I expire”). Casual sexual encounters pop up now and again, such as on “Romance” (“I thought of another the whole time / Who would have never stared me like that / See he saw me as a human / This one thinks I’m a slaughterhouse”). And of course, there’s general post-romance glumness and ire, such as on “Too Sad” (“I see your fingerprints / On household things / I’m too sad to touch / I feel your skin / On human beings / I’m too sad to fuck”).
Tonra focused so strongly on examining her own behavior that, unintentionally, she excluded something pretty significant from her lyrics: the ex himself. “[Ex:Re is a] strange record,” she says, “because it is a breakup record, but he’s not in it…. It’s all about the memory of this person and the way that certain scenarios have since then led me to think about him or compare people to him.” Although it began as an attempt to, as she describes it on “Too Sad,” “write [him] back here,” she ultimately realized that she was “trying to write him out of me.”
And that she did. Striking out on her own with Ex:Re, she’s successfully excised her ex from her being. Now, she says she feels detached from the person who wrote Ex:Re. She’s not that self-loathing character anymore; instead, she’s focusing on herself. In other words, writing Ex:Re’s debut gave her the healing she sought, and she’s deservedly proud of that: “I love it. I really do.” FL