Julien Baker Talks Daughter’s Not to Disappear

Daughter confront negativity without reservation, the quietly jagged music and forlorn lyrics combining to “find a subtle way out…not to disappear.”

Artists and listeners are always searching for something new. But in a cultural climate where attitudes towards music and art are perpetually evolving, the task every musician is burdened with, the task of creating something unprecedented, has become even more daunting. The newfound immediacy and accessibility of music has filled the gap between pop culture and subculture, broadening horizons of taste and inviting rapid developments in style, but it’s also made it more difficult for artists to distinguish themselves among the overwhelming stream of new material.

This search isn’t about a shallow attraction to novelty, but a desire for music that attaches innovation to depth. What makes a song, record, or band stick out amidst the infinitely fragmented realm of music is its artistic truth. We have an appetite for reality, a preference for meaningfulness over method, a need for substance.

The records that endure through the never-ending quest for the new effectively communicate an emotion, establish a bond between listener and creator that transcends musical category. Artists capture our attention by creating a valuable exchange of feeling with the listener.

Daughter does just this.

The London trio’s sound has certainly grown, from the bareness of 2012’s Wild Youth and His Young Heart EPs to the beautifully somber 2013 album If You Leave. Not to Disappear continues this development by boldly shattering preconceived stylistic boundaries in an exercise in self-discovery.

Not to Disappear is not simply a collection of songs but a coherent body of work. Although the album, recorded with Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, the War on Drugs), is not a complete departure from the band’s signature sound, it couples its familiar melancholy with unexpected rawness.

“New Ways,” the first track, sets the tone for the rest of the record: the song begins with a slow progression and airy vocals reminiscent of If You Leave’s quiet, doleful style, but is interrupted by piercing guitar and a sweeping instrumental portion that characterizes the dramatic ethos of the record to follow. While the record retains some of the hallmarks of Daughter’s former work in the ambient guitar of such songs as “Mothers,” even Not to Disappear’s more subdued songs have an aspect of abrasiveness.

Added production elements stress this dissonance, as in the transition from “Mothers” into the jarring first notes of “Alone/With You,” and in the sudden juxtaposition of ethereal keys with uptempo snare in “Fossa.” Prominent percussion contributes to the album’s wide dynamic range; Remi Aguilella’s poignant drumming oscillates between sparseness and aggression on the single “Numbers” and the frenetic “No Care.” Guitarists Igor Haefeli and Elena Tonra complement this range with shifts from glistening clean tone to growling fuzz, intricate playing supported by subtle but commanding bass riffs. Each musician’s ability to navigate the sonic field shows in songs such as “How,” whose refrain shows the extent of Not to Disappear’s astonishing fullness. (Seriously, I haven’t heard a three-piece fill out the frequency spectrum this flawlessly since Rush.)

Yet for all of its diversity, the record demonstrates cohesiveness behind its organic spontaneity. There’s an obvious precision in the way that every part of each song is essential. The single, “Doing the Right Thing,” incorporates elaborate instrumentation, but by purposefully stacking parts, the band avoids overcrowding the track. Each riff serves the song as a whole; strings and percussion come in and out to accommodate the rise and fall in intensity, guitar joining the low synth only to drop out, leaving only bass and vocals. Abrupt shifts like this are all over the album, and they give every song an interesting dynamic arc. It’s what makes tracks such as “Fossa” so impressive — the song jumps between full instrumentation and almost none, with seamless tempo and time signature changes that show off the group’s ability to write and execute complicated parts without sounding disorganized. “Made of Stone,” the final track, similarly contrasts haunting emptiness with layered fullness during a slow build of guitar and cymbal swells that dissipates into a lone, faltering progression swallowed in feedback, over which vocalist Elena Tonra delivers the crushing line, “You’ll find love can’t exist.” Despite being more adventurous and varied in sound, Not to Disappear’s artful layering suggests an intentionality about the songs’ creation that unifies them as pieces of a single, thematically consistent work.

The highly conceptual quality of the record is just as apparent in the lyrics. With the ambitious arrangements adding dimension, Elena Tonra’s words combine prosaic straightforwardness and poetic complexity. Whether they’re banal inner monologues, such as “I hate walking alone — I should get a dog or something…” or more abstract lines such as “Structures of whispers/pass through our veins,” Tonra’s words cut straight to the marrow with a powerful lyricism. The narrative style of songs such as “Doing the Right Thing” immerses the listener in a commentary on life using sentiments that are at once individual and universal.

In interviews, Tonra concedes the “sadness” of the lyrics but remains unapologetic about it. The forlornness and isolation carry over from the band’s previous work, but here, Tonra approaches with more candor than before. Open declarations such as “I don’t want to belong, to you, to anyone” (from “To Belong”) mark a liberated determination that denies ownership of the self to anyone but the speaker. This focus on internal self-definition carries through the record, allowing the songs a newly formed poetic license that challenges lyrical as well as musical boundaries. The words heard over the alternating heaviness and quiet of “New Ways” seem a delicate but insistent statement of the album’s lyrical thesis: to “find a subtle way out…not to disappear.”

Rather than attempt to veil negativity, Not to Disappear confronts it without reservation, in the hope of exposing the most intimate parts of the psyche. Tonra slays the metaphorical “Angel in the House,” following Virginia Woolf’s admonishments (in her essay “Professions for Women”) on writing about the unpleasant and dark — Not to Disappear rejects the fear of discussing sadness openly and authentically portrays very real emotions that all human beings encounter. The unrestrained honesty of Tonra’s lyrics mirrors the provocative aggression of the album’s overall musical feel and reflects unwillingness to compromise artistic intent. Not to Disappear not only functions as catharsis for its creators, but as a heartbreakingly powerful experience for the listener, unrivaled in its genuineness.

Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker released her sophomore record, Turn Out The Lights, via Matador Records in 2017. Follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here.

(photo credit: Nolan Knight)