I’m sitting in a church beneath a large picture of Jesus Christ on a cross. Blood is gushing from his feet and I’m guzzling expensive cheap wine. An anxious Woody Allen style character runs from pillar to post sorting out final details and it’s safe to say St. Andrew’s Church in Holborn hasn’t seen this much retro ’70s fashion filling its pews since, well, the ’70s.
So it’s surreal enough already when a church organ with parts dating back to 1750 starts playing behind me, accompanied by a choir all decked out in matching denim. Rachel Zeffira’s voice rings out, as does the assembled orchestra and then the singer emerges from behind the organ.
It’s as grand and surreal an entrance as you’re likely to see at any gig this year, and it perfectly matches the scope and ambition of the music that Rachel Zeffira is reaching for, released in solo debut album form next month.
“I’m from a small place on the west coast of Canada called The Kootenays,” she’d told me a week previously while rehearsing in St. Andrew’s. “The nearest city is Vancouver, which is twelve hours away, and it has the world’s largest copper and zinc smelter, which pours mercury into the river. It has some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen and it makes Twin Peaks look like a big city.
“My dad emigrated from Italy and most people there are Italian. It’s like nowhere else. You can fly there, but it’s the world’s most dangerous airport. To get there you have to fly through a hole in the mountains and if it’s cloudy, you can’t see so you just have to wait in the air and the wings can just ice up and the plane goes down.”
“It’s a really remote place then,” I say. “Did it influence some of the space and dynamic in the album?”
Rachel Zeffira: “Yes, definitely – I hated it when I was there, but now I’ve come to appreciate it.”
Olly Parker: “Every interview mentions the fact you were classically trained, what was the journey that took you from that to the music you make now?”
RZ: “I always thought I’d be a classical music professional. I was working as an oboist in a symphony orchestra and I thought, ‘Now what? What’s the next challenge?’ Then I thought I’d be a soprano and I was determined to sing, but the deportation changed the course of my life completely.”
Yes, a ‘deportation’. It seems a bungling border official under the guise of guarding our fair country perceived Rachel to either be a benefit cheat or a threat to national security and promptly sent her back to Canada.
“It meant I never got into the typical classical circuit,” says Rachel. “I went to Verona to study instead and I sung a lot, and I was pursuing my goals again then, but when I came back to London I started wondering if all the preparation you had to do – no heating, no air-conditioning, no talking on the phone – was really worth it for the hour on stage.
“Once that seed was planted I realised I don’t actually listen to opera. I like some opera, but it’s not my favourite type of music and it was around that time I met Faris ([Badwan], Horrors frontman and other half of Rachel’s other band, Cat’s Eyes).
“At that point I found that I started cancelling gigs, and I used to live for gigs, and when I met Faris I’d pretty much decided not to sing anymore. We used to swap music – he gave me CAN and Neu! and at first I hated it, I thought it sounded like health spa music, but now I love it. I had a huge void of certain types of music and the void I had Faris knew everything about and it was vice-versa, so we exchanged lots of things and I learnt so much. What I listened to changed and once my tastes started changing so did the music I’d play, then Faris convinced me to sing again.
“The people who succeed in Classical Music have to do so much preparation, they give up their lives to do it and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I never practiced, I would forget to go to concerts I was playing a major part in.”
OP: “Was it a case of finding a way to express yourself that suited the way you are?”
RZ: “Definitely, this suits me more, I have a defect and I’m chronically lazy. It suits me to do things last minute.”
Now I have to interject here. How can someone who put on a show at the Royal Festival Hall with a full orchestra, a debut show in a church with choir, orchestra and organ from 1750 and another show at, y’know, the Vatican – it’s on YouTube if you don’t believe me – possibly describe herself as lazy?
I find it more than a little odd that music that reaches into genres as disparate as classical, girl groups and shoegazing, and is staged with such huge scope and ambition, could possibly be described as being “last minute”.
“Originally, the church show was just going to be me playing the organ and piano,” she says, “but then I realised I needed some help with other instruments that I play on the record and it just kept building up. The Royal Festival Hall show, it was like the night before, and I thought ‘I’d better write the string parts’, and it was all thrown together last minute. It’s the way I work.”
Cat’s Eyes’ Royal Festival Hall show was remarkable precisely for the way the band used its string section. When a group gets the money to do something like that the instinct is to soak everything in strings and brass and it becomes saccharine. Rachel Zeffira, however, has a deep understanding of the way you use classical instruments in this form of music; restraint, space and dynamic are far more important than bombast.
This instinct is demonstrated on her debut album, ‘The Deserters’. The album features collaborations with TOY and S.C.U.M drummer Melissa Rigby and was engineered by Ben Thackeray, who previously worked with My Bloody Valentine. However, Rachel wrote, produced and played many of her instruments herself.
“The My Bloody Valentine cover [of ‘Loveless’ oddity ‘To Here Knows When’] was the starting point for this album,” says Rachel. “It was a real challenge to do it and I really liked doing it. Then I kept writing and then it evolved from there.”
OP: “So what are the themes running through the rest of the record?”
RZ: “It’s just clear that there are threads through the record. There’s a theme of nostalgia and desertion, but not in a bad way as there are many different types of desertion. I find in the songs you can always find someone in there who is a deserter. It’s not a grand statement, it’s not blatant, but there is a subtle thread, and then there’s the musical thread of the instrumentation.”
Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left’ is mentioned as inspiration for the string arrangements in particular, but you can also trace remnants of the usual modern contemporary female suspects in ‘White Chalk’ era PJ Harvey and Cat Power. But there is something in the scale and ambition of Rachel’s sound that sets her apart.
‘The Deserters’ will be released by a new label called RAF (Rachel and Faris, duh), who will also release the second Cat’s Eyes album sometime next year and then hopefully move on to do some releases by other artists. Although there are no concrete plans yet, Rachel does plan to continue collaborating with members of TOY and S.C.U.M on new projects.
As the orchestra departs the stage I wonder what she can do to top it next time. The only things that are certain are that there are no plans yet (“that’s just not the way I work”), and that she definitely will find a way to top this somehow.
“The inspiration can come from anything, not just music,” says Rachel. “I hate being repetitive, the only thing is it has to keep evolving and hopefully improve.”