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