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
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
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
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes