Higher calling

She was raised strictly classical, but between her Cat’s Eyes project and her new solo album The Deserters, Rachel Zeffira’s rock conversion is pretty much complete

Fri, Apr 5, 2013, 01:00

So seriously – and we really mean seriously – how on earth did a fragrant Canadian soprano singer end up in London hanging out with skinny, hairy rock stars?

Well, reveals Rachel Zeffira, you can blame her Irish mother, who was raised in London amidst a wide network of Irish families and relatives, and who, along with Rachel’s Italian father, travelled to and settled in a remote part of Canada, during which time Rachel persevered with parentally-enforced classical music training.

What else? At the age of 17, she had planned on studying at London’s Royal College of Music but was erroneously deported from Heathrow, losing her scholarship to the RCM as a result. Cue the Italian connection: she upped sticks to Verona in order to finish her musical education (as well as to learn the language), stayed with relatives of her father, and – holy moly – promptly nabbed a gig singing for Pope John Paul II.

Er, beg pardon? “Yes, it was towards the end of his life, and part of the concert was a sequence of sacred Polish music.”

Following this, Rachel moved back to London, plotting a singular music course that hadn’t really figured on hitting it off with The Horrors. Following this fateful meeting, says Rachel, “my music route changed quite dramatically”.

Having fractured the circuit that would enable a classically trained person to find work, Rachel’s levels of resourcefulness informed her subsequent musical adventures. With one foot in the classical landscape, she was able to earn a crust, but as time went on she discovered that her other foot – by now wrapped up in The Horrors’ blend of pop and psychedelia – tapped a tune more readily.

And then in 2011 came the band Cat’s Eyes – a standalone group/noir/psych unit featuring Zeffira and The Horrors’ Faris Badwan. Debut album Cat’s Eyes was afforded high praise – to the point where Zeffira said goodbye to soprano and hello to rock.

“My classical music friends say that I’ve gone over to the dark side, but mostly it’s been a natural shift,” she explains. “There are, of course, completely different elements to it – notably, the style of singing. If I had crossed over from a more instrumental side of things – like, if I’d been an oboist or violinist – it would have been less noticeable, because on stage at least there’s a sense of musical familiarity. But the singing style of a soprano – not using microphones, projecting the voice – is so different.

“With Cat’s Eyes, I’m singing quietly, directly, into a microphone, and being dependent on monitors to hear myself. The other thing about the crossover is being able to sing my own songs, which is a very positive thing for me. So it’s that – and the noise in the auditorium! In classical music venues, you can hear a pin drop, and if someone opens a plastic wrapper for a sweet, they practically get kicked out of the hall. Whereas in rock music venues, you can get heckled and it’s okay! But, yes, really, despite the differences, the transition is natural, I feel.”

Not only natural, according to Zeffira, but also more liberating. The way she tells it, she had to let the classical training go. “There’s a level of perfection to classical singing, plus its techniques, as well as preparation. I mean, days before an opera, I wouldn’t speak, I’d write things down on a notepad. And I’d be careful about what I ate . . . With Cat’s Eyes, I threw all of that away, and I can do pretty much whatever I want.

“That said, I wouldn’t want to give into the stereotypical notion of classical music as being really uptight. For me, personally, I would get stressed out before opera performances; I would worry about hitting a high note perfectly, so for my personality pop music is more liberating. It got to the point where you’d be asking people to turn off the central heating, the air conditioning, crazy diva stuff.”

We’re glad you mentioned “crazy diva stuff” Rachel, because it’s true that Cat’s Eyes once performed in the Vatican, isn’t it? And it’s also true that in order to perform there at a mass you actually told fibs to the Vatican authorities? Five words, Little Miss Soprano: You. Lied. To. The. Vatican.

“Oh, no! Look, seriously, I kept the contacts from the show I did in Verona for Pope John Paul II, and after Faris and I finished the Cat’s Eyes album, I recognised a kind of sacred, hymn-like sound to it. So I rearranged some of the songs for a choir and organ, and I got in touch with the Vatican again – although I didn’t say it was a Cat’s Eyes gig. Yes, I wasn't that honest, but I also didn’t want to offend anyone. In fact, it wasn’t offensive, because the music was quite calm, and it seemed to me that no one knew any better!”

Well, yes, but you did lie to get into the Vatican. People have been incarcerated for less. “I know. I did lie, didn’t I? It was bad of me . . . I’m a very naughty girl, but I did the confession thing and said 10 Hail Marys. My mother, needless to say, was not impressed or happy.”

Now thoroughly absolved from her venal sin, and following on from Cat’s Eyes, Zeffira has recently released a solo album, The Deserters . The traits it shares with the music of Cat’s Eyes are down to Zeffira’s agility with pop-music norms, contemporary psychedelia (assisted by the band Toy) and classical music’s instrumentation (just hear what she does to the album’s sole cover, My Bloody Valentine’s To Here Knows When ). All in all, Zeffira’s music is testament to a grounding in music she at one point loathed.

“Well, my parents pushed me into training for classical music – I started at the age of four, and I hated it. I also don’t like being told what to do, so I really struggled with the practising every day. It was when I started singing and playing for fun that I began to enjoy it.”

And just look at her now: Deportee! Musical turncoat! Religious heretic! Horrors fan! “I don’t regret the training now at all, of course. I’m just so grateful to my parents, because music is the only skill I have. I suck at everything else – I have no other talents at all.”