REVIEW: Ex:Re (Elena Tonra of Daughter) Union Chapel, Islington – 05/04/2019

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Elena Tonra, of Daughter, unveiled her solo project, Ex:Re (pronounced Ex: Ray) during the tail-end of November 2018. Four days later, the eponymously named album was released. Tonra embarked on a trio of intimate European shows in support of Ex:Re in London, Brussels and Paris. The first stop, performing to a sold out crowd of 800 at the Union Chapel in the heart of Islington.

Recorded in mere months, Ex:Re is arguably Elena’s most devastatingly personal collection of stories yet. Ex:Re, is a deeply moving and affective statement piece ruminating on fresh heartbreak. Under the arched ceiling that appeared to curve up into the sky of the beloved Chapel, Ex:Re played with the same sense of urgency in which the album was crafted.

The nights support came from ‘Herbal Tea’, a 22 year old, bedroom artist, Helena from Bristol, alongside Henry Sharpe on Drums. Presenting as shy and nervous, Helena, opened with a timid “hello”. As the Union Chapel is a working church, alcohol consumption is confined to to the upstairs bar. This created a uniquely intimate sense of immediate community. Everyone there was there for the same purpose: to listen to the music. This engendered gentle acknowledgment of support from the audience who responded with a rousing cheer of encouragement. Rooting for Helena, the more her confidence faltered, the more the audience was there to pick her back up. As the set progressed and came to its conclusion, Helena found her natural groove. In turn, cheers of celebration revelling in her natural musicianship replaced those earlier of encouragement.

After ‘Herbal Tea’ left the stage, it was time for Elena Tonra, joined by Josephine Stephenson (cellist and back-up vocals duty), Fabian Pyrnn (in-house engineer and producer for the album and tonight on drums) and Jethro Fox to take the stage, performing Ex:Re in its entirety. A silhouette of Tonra encased by billowing purple smoke walked onto the stage, stationed left of centre, and the audience was eased into the 11 song set with ‘My Heart‘. Ex:Re had no need to hide behind fancy visuals, they were unmasked and laid bare in front of the breathtaking ornate design of the Victorian Gothic architecture. By virtue of the design of the Chapel, its acoustics were incredible, with the dialogue between Tonra’s soft vocals and a reverberated guitar pin sharp yet rich and warm. The exposing atmosphere of the chapel matched the unfiltered and uncompromising unease of Tonra’s lyricism, complimenting the understated tone that pervaded the evening. Immediately, this thematically subverted what was expected of the setlist, opening with the album-closer, kept the audience on their toes guessing what song would come next on the setlist. ‘My Heart’ blended into ‘Where The Time Went‘, conversely the album-opener. Pyrnn on drums and Stephenson on cello made their introduction to the set and coloured the ever building dense texture founded on Tonra’s soft vocals and guitar. This injected energy, widened the inter-band dialogue to the audience, where the transference of such energy was palpable and foot tapping was irresistible.

The lighting was minimalist and subtle, with the dream-like fog induced lighting permeated the stage; visually embodying the song’s hazy and mellowing atmosphere. Oscillating between the sickly blue backdrop of ‘Liar‘ and ‘I Can’t Keep You‘, the pressing Red of ‘Too Sad‘, to the purple of ‘The Dazzler‘ and ‘Where The Time Went‘. Infrequently, the stark white lights shifted towards the heavens, illuminating all corners and crevices of the carved ceiling above during ‘Crushing‘. Consequently, the breathtaking stained glass Rose window (as pictured below) behind the stage remained unlit. Lit candles traced the outskirts of the balcony and the spotlight remained namely on Tonra. With the heavens closed off, this created an invitingly intimate atmosphere.

Interspersed between songs were moments where there was a dissonance between Tonra’s nervous stage persona where she often qualified moments with a distinct Tonra-giggle against the backdrop of intensely morose lyricism. Before proceeding onto ‘Crushing‘, the third song of the set, Tonra was giddy with equal parts nerves and excitement, where the awe inspiring beauty of the Union Chapel struck her. Tonra exclaimed “It’s so amazing to be here, what an amazing place … I’m overwhelmed“. Later in the set, the chemistry between Tonra and Prynn evolved further, It was as if the audience were voyeurs watching the band having fun rehearsing. With fly-on-the-wall intimacy, in one moment where Tonra’s nerves faltered, Prynn corrected Tonra when she had started to play another song, Tonra quipped “the old dazzler… sorry you are starting”, before the moment was punctuated by her distinct nervous laugh again as she started before Prynn. Later again, after receiving an electric shock from her guitar, Tonra’s wickedly wry sense of humour made the crowd chuckle. Tonra mocked herself where she joked that the audience would have a story to tell about the evening, “I’ve just seen someone get electrocuted“. It made it all the more shocking that the songs that followed were written by someone who appeared as affable and unassuming, when these songs reveal an antagonist within her narrative. ‘New York‘, characterised by hazy hallucinations of agonised drunken slurs and rants, which thinly veil the crippling pain of drunken loneliness. Similarly, in ‘The Dazzler‘, Tonra ponders upon her excessive self-indulgent experiences of drunken intimacy in hotel rooms. The bubbling moodiness and raw anger, directed towards the ambiguous ex, was most impactful during ‘Liar‘. From the delay pedal, out seeped a reverberated, pitch increasing, ‘Lie’ melisma. Repeated, bouncing off the walls of the chapel after the conclusion of each verse. The delicate airy vocal delivery made the impact of the anger much more troublingly devastating.

Closing the set, Tonra declared “this is my last song”. Here, there was no need for introductions. The crowd collectively clapped, in time with the pulsating urgency of the stuttering, murky drum beat, to the instantly recognisable, lead single, ‘Romance‘. Throughout Ex:Re’s set there was barely a phone in sight, a testament to the combined intimacy of the venue and Tonra’s arrestingly unashamed and bluntly honest lyricism. It is a rare sight to see, an audience transfixed in an hypnotic stupor. For Ex:Re’s encore, this ethos for honesty carried through where Tonra remarkedwe haven’t any more songs left to play you! It would not be unfair to assume, that at this point, many fans of Daughter, under the chapel’s roof, were hoping that Tonra would have treated them to fan favourite’s from Daughter’s back catalogue, dusting off singles such as ‘Youth‘ to pad out the allocated stage time. Tonra avoided such unnecessary and frivolous self-indulgence. Whilst the set clocked in at just over an hour, it was decidedly concise and emotionally unrelenting.

Ex:Re treated the audience instead by launching into the encore covering The Korgi’s, ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’. Red bled through, discolouring the orange-tinged smoke whilst Tonra, with the delay pedal pressed, pled “I need your lovin'”. There was a visceral intensity as Stephenson (on cello) and Prynn (on drums) interweaved with Tonra’s reverberated cries as the tension was released through one final densely textured crescendo. It is not hard to imagine that Tonra has carefully selected ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime‘ for the set closer, to mirror her own personal journey she has undergone whilst creating the body of work that is Ex:Re. Much like the meaning behind the lyrics of ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime‘, she has exorcised and been shaped by the grief and ghosts she has spent the album grappling with. The meta encore was a nod to the introspective enquiry of Ex:Re. Pronounced ‘Ex-Ray’ playing on ‘X-Ray’ and also ‘Regarding Ex’, this album looks into this fresh heartbreak to see what is truly there, “with time away, understanding it a bit better.” Through her self-reflexivity, Tonra proves she has undergone a metamorphosis, evidenced by the nights performance. As urgent and cleansing the recording process was for Tonra, understanding her pain was key in her recovery. In turn, the process, for better or worse, has transformed her. Wherever Tonra’s solo project leads her, it is likely forward as she is now unshackled and able to move forward. There was a deep sense of gratitude from Tonra, not just with introducing the members in the band (“They’re amazing!“) but also gratitude aimed towards the audience who has respected the music she has entrusted “you’re great and I love that you’re all here.” With this grounding her, I would not be surprised if we see Elena Tonra as Ex:Re haunting more London venues with more tales of heartbreak soon.

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