How the Horrors helped Rachel Zeffira blossom

She was about to be an opera singer –and then Rachel Zeffira was deported. So how did she wind up in a baroque-pop outfit that set her up for solo stardom? She tells Elisa Bray

Just when she was set to launch her career as a soprano in London where she would be performing at a classical concert and securing a sponsor to pay for her education in opera singing, Rachel Zeffira was accidentally deported. Bang went the opportunity to perform at the concert, as did the sponsor, and that put an end to a future career as the next opera star.

“It changed the course of my life,” says the 29-year-old Canadian at a London cafe, any bitterness long since evaporated. “I got accidentally deported – it was a complete mistake. They had to hire another soprano for the concert and so the sponsor had to pull out and I lost my place at the music school. I knew it changed everything.”

Being a resourceful and very brazen 17-year-old, Zeffira used her dwindling savings to fly back to London and, on her arrival, wove a number of lies to make a living to fund her rent and singing lessons. She fabricated a CV, claiming to be 26 and the owner of a Masters degree, and ended up in Dagenham as a supply teacher. “Basically, I committed serious fraud.” With her angelic voice and tumbling dark curly hair, it's not surprising that she got away with it.

After a year without music, with her classically trained background – she had played oboe, violin and piano since childhood – Zeffira moved to Italy where she took roles in operas (the lead in Romeo and Juliet, and Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) and enrolled in music school, before returning to London.

“I'm just not cut out for school,” she admits. “I'm not very good at following rules. Anything I'm supposed to do, I automatically don't do.”

Despite their differing musical backgrounds, Zeffira found her musical and romantic soulmate in another boundary-pushing, non-template-following musician, Faris Badwan, frontman of garage-rock band The Horrors. Together they formed Cat's Eyes, whose debut album was one of the highlights of last year, reinventing 1960s girl-group songs with haunting, gauzy distortion and reverb. “The Cat's Eyes thing came out of nowhere,” she recalls. “I really didn't think I would end up doing pop, ever. But I'm so happy that I am.”

Today we are meeting to discuss Zeffira's debut solo album, The Deserters, which combines her classical roots with her newfound pop guise, as orchestration is perfectly packaged into beautiful baroque-pop songs. Before meeting Badwan, other than classical music, Zeffira had grown up surrounded by heavy metal-loving peers in the Kootenays, an isolated Canadian town of 7,000 people, but certainly no guitar-pop.

“It was pretty much anything but the kind of music Faris listened to. I didn't know what shoegaze meant; I'd never come across My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized or Sonic Youth. My tastes have changed dramatically.” When the pair met, Zeffira had already put opera behind her, and the pair exchanged mixtapes. Badwan would send Zeffira shoegaze and 1960s girl-group songs, and she would teasingly return her own versions with an ethereal spin.

“Everything was by accident,” she recalls. “I made fun of a girl-band song and did my version. He liked that and then I kept sending him stuff when he was on tour. We just started doing stuff for fun and then we'd written an album and recorded it.”

The Deserters happened in a similarly unplanned way. Zeffira had suffered a loss of confidence with her voice, and it was Badwan and Bobby Gillespie who encouraged her to sing, and more recently, to make a solo album. She even sent the Primal Scream frontman a song-in-progress from the new album.

“He said it was spectral, and haunting,” she says. “I owe him a lot. I was really self-conscious of my voice for a long time. Bobby said a couple of things which made me think I should do it because he and Faris believed in me.”

Initially, she had planned to make an EP while Cat's Eyes were on hiatus, but before she knew it, an album was taking shape. Although there is something of the haunting quality and the gauzy filter of Cat's Eyes, Zeffira was keen to keep her solo project distinct and separate. For a start she decided to produce it entirely herself, and all the orchestral scores were Zeffira's own. She took inspiration from another of her new discoveries, Nick Drake, and his subtle use of string arrangements.

“I wanted to write every note and trust myself to do it on my own. I wanted it to be acoustic because I didn't want it to be like Cat's Eyes. What I didn't want was a really overblown orchestra; I didn't want it to be too musical-theatre-sounding. The songs are quite subtle. I love working with orchestras; it's like having a painting palette, the dark and the light.” True to her word, Zeffira also almost performed the entire album herself. Alongside the contributions of members of art-rock band Toy and S.C.U.M's drummer, the majority of the classical instrumentation was played by Zeffira herself – oboe, English horn, piano, cathedral organ, and much of the strings.

“Whenever there's a full orchestra, that's an orchestra. And I don't play trumpet. But I play pretty much every track. I wanted to play oboe because I was an oboist for most of my life. I played piano and violin since I was a kid, so it was the past, present, future – everything being used in the album.”

It certainly had nothing to do with saving money, as proven by her insistence on drafting in a trumpeter to play just four notes at her debut solo concert in London last month.

“That's where I waste money and drive my manager crazy. It's so important to me; I couldn't take those four notes out.”

She observed the theme of desertion taking hold, “but not in a sad or negative way,” she asserts. “It could be someone deserting their old ways, or it could be the desertion of a bad person, or a country. Canada,” she adds, pointing vaguely to the album's autobiographical themes.

The Deserters is being released on the pair's own RAF Records, which cutely stands for “Rachel and Faris”. She's amused that “not everyone gets it,” some thinking it's the Royal Airforce. Home is in Highgate, north London, and Zeffira describes her bohemian surroundings as full of instruments, collected on her global travels. There's also an Olympic-sized ping-pong table that takes up the entire living room.

“It's not tidy. It's a bit immature-looking, probably.” She pauses, suddenly embarrassed.

"You can probably tell it's where someone lives who is definitely not rule-following.”

But we can be glad that Zeffira doesn't follow rules. It makes her one of the most intriguing and exciting young songwriters today.

'The Deserters' is out on RAF on 10 December on RAF Records

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc