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

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
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 iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players