Canada's Zeffira takes odd route to acclaim
Canadian singer Rachel Zeffira is shown in a handout photo. Zeffira is a classically trained musician from the remote but scenic Kootenays region of B.C., a darling of the U.K. music press whose gloomy gothic pop has won raves and well-connected transplanted Londoner with co-signs from the lofty likes of Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie and the Horrors howler Faris Badwan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
TORONTO - Rachel Zeffira is a classically trained musician from British Columbia's remote but scenic Kootenay region whose ornate gothic pop now receives raves from the U.K. music press in her adopted hometown of London — as well as endorsements from Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie and the Horrors howler Faris Badwan.
She's also a pretty experienced liar.
And that knack for deft dishonesty actually guided her through a number of unusually sharp career left turns, allowing Zeffira to carve her unlikely niche in the crowded British pop scene.
"Unfortunately I haven't learned from my lies — good things have always come out of (them)," she laughed in a recent telephone interview from London.
"So now I'm a fully formed pathological liar."
She's kidding. Well, mostly.
It started back when Zeffira was still a teenager. Throughout high school, she had been nurturing a multi-instrumental talent for classical music — piano, violin, oboe — by skipping across the border for lessons in the U.S. She was an exception in her mountainous stomping ground, where most of her friends were interested in heavy metal or country music.
At 17, she decided to move to London to continue her musical education. She lined up a school, a sponsor and a concert at Cambridge University. Upon her arrival at Heathrow, she was promptly deported due to a mixup and sent to the States. She cleared up the confusion, but by then her school had found another soprano soloist. Zeffira had lost her spot.
"It changed the entire course of my life," she recalled.
Here's where she started improvising. She went back to London with no money or place to study. Thanks to a chance encounter with some Australians in a pub, she learned there was a dire local need for supply teachers, particularly those skilled in French.
Zeffira didn't speak French, but she didn't let that stop her. She crafted a glittering resume dotted with various honours and degrees she didn't have and claimed to be a decade older than she really was. She was hired.
"When you're a teenager, you don't have any concept of consequences," she sighed. "I was teaching east London kids who were my age. It was like a nightmare. I don't know about you, but when I had substitute teachers at school, I was really cruel to them.
"I got my comeuppance. I got home and I was like, phoning teachers to apologize for how awful I was."
"I would never do that now," she added, "because I would know that I would end up in prison on serious fraud charges."
Well, she didn't last long teaching anyway. Soon, she took the train to Italy and enrolled at the Conservatorio di Verona, where she studied oboe and opera and finally had the top-rate school experience she'd hoped for in London.
She returned to England with renewed enthusiasm, but was again dealt a swift setback when a critic took in one of her early performances and handed her one of the first reviews she'd ever had.
"It was the worst review I've ever read on anything or anyone — any book, film, TV show, restaurant," she remembered. "It was such a horrific review that I got and it kind of made me stop singing for a while.
"'Cause I thought, maybe no one actually told me that I'm a really bad singer. It was so bad, I thought, maybe I'm a fraud? How could I not have heard that I was that bad? I must be that bad."
It was around this time she met Badwan and her fortunes changed. He helped fill the not-insignificant gaps in Zeffira's musical knowledge — "I had huge holes in the music I listened to — I'd never come across shoegaze, for example," she said, referring to the My Bloody Valentine-influenced subgenre of Britpop — and restore her sagging confidence in her powerful voice.
In early 2011, they formed the duo Cat's Eyes, releasing their self-titled debut album later that year. A haunting, feverish take on '60s girl groups, the well-received record was praised by the Guardian as "poised and beautiful" and hailed by NME as an "unsettlingly melodic triumph."
While Zeffira was no longer hanging on the words of critics, she now had two things back: a direction (pop music) and her confidence. She would need the latter especially for her next move — a solo album.
And approaching "The Deserters" (which gets its Canadian release care of Paper Bag Records on March 12), she certainly didn't lack for ambition. She decided to take care of both the album's production and lavish orchestral scores completely on her own.
(The ethereal organ that fills the disc was also the result of one of Zeffira's fibs. She saw a church that needed an organist and figured, "Piano/organ, it's all the same." The first time they heard her, they said: "You've never played the organ before in your life, have you?" They hired her regardless, taught her how to play, and she became an organ scholar.)
For a novice solo artist, "The Deserters" is uncommonly cohesive and audacious. Zeffira lays her soft vocals atop a series of gauzy baroque-pop compositions — it's as simultaneously beautiful and eerie as an evening stroll through empty wilderness.
She sings with delicate elegance, though doing so requires that she rein in her opera background — forget her training, forget worrying about her diaphragm (though she's a rare pop act who doesn't need a microphone to blast her vocals to the corners of any concert).
As one might expect from someone whose music, vocals and even press photos are shrouded in haze, Zeffira is coy about the inspiration behind her lyrics. But she acknowledges that her Canadian roots are key.
"It was in some ways really idyllic, because the nature is so stunning around there — but it's also quite remote," she said of her B.C. environs.
"A couple of the songs were definitely nostalgia-based," she says, noting that for example the brittle hymn "Waiting for Sylvia" was about someone she knew there.
"A couple of the songs on there are very obviously nostalgic and about Canada. And about maybe missing Canada."
Yet she's made a home for herself in London. She's comfortable there, and she's been enthusiastically embraced.
U.K. critics have fawned over "The Deserters," with Mojo giving the "alluring" record a four-star review and the BBC awarding a particularly effusive rave, one that praises a "perfectly formed and well made" album as well as Zeffira's own "true, rare brilliance."
Zeffira has even inspired her own adoring Tumblr fan page that rejoices in her multi-instrumental prowess, her gorgeous voice and, not infrequently, her robust head of wavy dark hair.
Not that Zeffira's reading, of course.
"I try not to look at it," she says with a hearty laugh. "I really don't. God. No comment."
She hopes the next Cat's Eyes record will be out this year, and she eventually plans on making another solo record. She's thrilled that her record will finally be out in Canada, and that her first live dates at home since reinventing herself as a pop artist won't be far behind.
Honestly, it would have been difficult to find a more convoluted route back. And Zeffira concedes that a certain amount of fortune was involved in helping her find the way.
"I never would have dreamt of doing pop music like what I'm doing now," she said.
"I was just really lucky."
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