Sunday 16 June 2019

Rachel Zeffira: Why I'll always have Faris

Wispy and mysterious on record, in the flesh singer Rachel Zeffira projects supreme levels of coyness. In her defence, there's lots to be reserved about. Since hooking up with shaggy rocker Faris Badwan of The Horrors for a collaborative LP two years ago, rumours about the exact nature of their relationship have dogged both. After considerable rumination, she's decided the smartest strategy is to say as little as possible.

"I'm pretty private," laughs the 29-year-old Canadian. "If you touch too overtly on the personal side, it could ruin the music. As it is, people think it's weird me and Faris are even in a band together. It is such an unlikely collaboration. On its own that is probably strange enough, without the need to go any further."

Having once stepped out with Peaches Geldof, Badwan, you suspect, has impressed upon Zeffira the importance of keeping your off-stage life out of the media.

Besides, she's right – not knowing much about her personal doings cloaks her songs in a somnolent air of otherworldliness, a sensibility that would surely be ruined were she and Badwan all over the tabloids (it's not a stretch to imagine that they could be – The Horrors are a big band with a Mercury music prize nomination under their belt).

The collection she and Badwan released as Cat's Eyes caught many unawares. Gauzy and understated, where The Horrors are dense, noisy and cathartic, it reimagined 1960s girl pop as fuzz-drenched alternative rock. Some considered it unlistenable, to others it was a stand out of the year.

For her second long player, her first as a solo artist, she has doubled down on the crestfallen gothic persona she honed with Cat's Eyes. Assembled in Abbey Road studios with the assistance of a world class string section, The Deserters is muggy and hypnotic, all banshee coos and droning guitars. In a good way it sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a fish-tank, Zeffira's voice drifting up through the weeds and the murk.

"Abbey Road is actually a very expensive studio," she says. "The upside is they work quickly there. The engineers are so fast. If I'd gone anywhere else it wouldn't have sounded as good and would have taken longer"

From small town British Columbia, the story of how Zeffira wound up plying tortured songwriter pop in London would constitute an article in itself.

On a classical music scholarship to a British university, she was refused entry at Heathrow Airport due to a document mix-up (on the part of the authorities, she insists). As a result she lost her place in a top programme but, determined to relocate to the UK all the same, blagged her way into a substitute teacher position in south London. "It completely changed the course of my life," she says.

"A petty bureaucrat at Heathrow makes a massive mistake and, for the next few years, it had an utterly shocking effect on me. I was supposed to be at school and instead I was teaching without qualifications. I had to go to Italy to go back on track with my singing."

In 2011 she returned, this time with Badwan in tow, for a performance at, of all places, The Vatican. Invited to play at a St Peter's Basilica mass Zeffira and Badwan turned up with a sheaf of Cat's Eyes tunes and a nervous tingling in their bellies. There were complications straight away, with their backing singers initially refused entry on the grounds their skirts were scandalously short (ie just above knee length).

"We had to source pantyhose in the middle of St Peter's Square, which is not an easy feat to accomplish, let me tell you."

In the YouTube video of the concert, Badwan appears riven with terror. Some initial jitters notwithstanding, Zeffira, on the other hand can be seen soon getting into the swing.

"Raised Catholic, it's all second nature," she says.

A self-confessed pop neophyte, Zeffira had never heard of The Horrors when she was introduced to Badwan by friends. Nor, she admits, was she familiar with some of his favourite bands.

"It sounds embarrassing now, but I didn't have any idea who My Bloody Valentine were, let alone The Horrors. It was an education. I felt like a whole new world of music opening up for me."

She blames her cultural innocence to her upbringing. From an isolated corner of Canada, she did not exactly grow up surrounded by the arts.

"People don't think there's a red-neck Canada. My God, there is. In a way, it's worse than the US. Where I'm from, everyone listens to pop or heavy metal. Have you heard of the singer kd lang? She's a lesbian and a vegetarian from a cattle rearing town in Alberta. For years, there was a sign up there, telling her to go home. They were so conservative they pretty much disowned her."

Rachel Zeffira plays at the Unitarian Church, Dublin, on April 14 and Half Moon Theatre, Cork, on April 15.

Irish Independent

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