The Deserters’ Songs: Rachel Zeffira Interviewed

Rachel Zeffira steps away from her Cats Eyes project to set up a label and release her first solo album, The Deserters. Luke Turner speaks to her about the LP, growing up in a Canadian smelting town, and an unfortunate incident involving an oboe and a tattoo

The last time The Quietus spoke to Rachel Zeffira was for this interview with her and Cats Eyes songwriting partner, The Horrors’ Faris Badwan, whose debut album was an understated highlight of 2011.

Today, Zeffira is preparing to release debut solo album The Deserters, which sees Badwan involved again, but in a non-musical capacity – he and the classically-trained Italian Canadian have together set up a label, RAF Records, to put it out this December. It’s an appropriate month to release the album, which is made up of songs that have a certain wintery feel. Less in any sense of gothic froideur, though, more the contemplative delights of a a chilly vista, and afterwards holding someone close in a room with a good fire and fug on.

Last time we spoke you were doing Cats Eyes recordings at Abbey Road, now you’re off there tomorrow. You seem to like it there…

Rachel Zeffira: Yeah I do, it’s terrible. As soon as I have a bit of money I seem to blow it all at Abbey Road.

Is that your luxury?

RZ: Yeah! I do really like it there. They have new rooms there so it doesn’t have to be so destroying.

Was the whole album done there?

RZ: No, most of it was done at the Pool, but the strings were done at Abbey Road. The bulk of it was at the Pool, the stuff with Toy and everything. It’s just way better for a band, but for an orchestra, Abbey Road.

How did you work with them? The Toy track’s a nice meeting place between you and them, you’ve brought them into a reflective place

RZ: We’re all friends. Panda was in Cats Eyes, then I really wanted to sing with them. We always had fun when we played together, so I wanted to write them a song. But they still added some of their stuff. They’re so musical they just fooled around with it, put synths and things in, put their touch to it. That was a really fun day of recording.

What else did you bring in?

RZ: There’s one track that’s cathedral organ and drums. The mother of all synthesisers, this really huge church organ. That was really fun. I’m organ-obsessed, they’re really great instruments. That was the thing about this album, I don’t normally get to do things like that. I felt really spoiled, I’m going to do anything I want, I’m going to play the organ, nobody is going to tell me what to do. I can play oboe if I wanted to and work with whoever I wanted to.

Going back to the beginning… why did you decide to do this after Cats Eyes?

RZ: It was during Cats Eyes. It was last summer, about a year ago, that I wanted to do a cover of My Bloody Valentine. I did another song when I did that one, and then I kept going, I thought well just do an album. It’s a luxury to be able to do a solo album.

Were you surprised you wanted to do one?

RZ: Yeah yeah. It wasn’t really planned, kind of like Cats Eyes wasn’t planned. During the year I kept doing things… I didn’t even realise I was doing a solo album, until like song number six it was clear I was doing a solo album. It just fell into place. The songs fit together and there’s a thread that goes through it. I really enjoyed getting orchestral sounds, and like you said about reining in Toy, reigning in the orchestral stuff as well because it can become really sickly and sentimental and, well, I don’t want to trash Andrew Lloyd Webber… I wouldn’t want it to sound like Muse or something like that.

Were you an MBV fan?

RZ: No, a lot of the music that I really love now, Faris introduced me to, and people like Toy. My Bloody Valentine I’ve only really heard for the past three or four years, I’m really late to these things.

It doesn’t matter when you find things. They’re good evangelists for music, The Horrors and Toy.

RZ: Yes, they know so much. I learn all the times. They’re always finding new things, and there’s always something coming my way. It’s hard to find true music lovers like that.

With your background totally away from that world, do you think you sometimes hear something in the music that you’re being introduced to that they haven’t spotted? Do you get something quite different from it?

RZ: I think so. That’s hard to answer. It depends on the music…

Most people in bands have always listened to bands, and perhaps make music that reflects that. Does your music have a different personality because you’re coming from a different background?

RZ: That’s definitely true. When I first heard Toy I heard orchestral stuff, and that’s why I wanted to write for them so badly, there’s a story to the music, not just coming from the lyrics.

Did some of the Cats Eyes experience lead to this at all, or are they totally separate?

RZ: Totally separate. I thought it might be more linked but the songs are totally different from Cats Eyes.

I remember you saying you were trying to write girl group songs and then evolve it. Was there a similar kernel with this?

RZ: There’s definitely no girl band references. But I think I can see, out of all the artists, if I’m forced to pick a reference then Nick Drake, from the way that the songs are arranged. And the lyrics a little bit.

Was that something from when you were younger?

RZ: Again that was new. But I was just totally blown away by the string arrangements. They’re just really really good, and the songs were good. I wasn’t thinking ‘this is what I’m going to make it sound like’, I’d sit down and just keep writing.

What were you listening to before they introduced you to all this new music?

RZ: Bits of everything, not just classical music, but not Spiritualised, not My Bloody Valentine, not Sonic Youth. Noisy guitar music was gone, unheard of. It was an important gap missing.

But since filling that gap you’ve found that it’s an area of music you can engage with creatively?

RZ: Totally. I didn’t really go looking for it. I didn’t read music magazines, I didn’t go to the right gigs. It was more jazz, pop, even country. Heavy metal. Everything but that, almost.

But even though you’re responding to that music, it doesn’t sound like it.

RZ: No, because there are no guitars on it, apart from the Toy one, and even that isn’t like a hazy guitar, it’s playing quite clean notes. I really love it, probably because it still seems really exciting and new to me.

Thinking about it, you’ve got Faris, Rhys and the Horrors, Toy… what is it about you and these English gothic men who like staying up too late?

RZ: Haha that’s an accident!

What shaped the lyricism?

RZ: I guess again I didn’t have a plan. Some of the songs are based around my home town, which is quite an unusual, interesting place, remote in Canada, Vancouver is a 12-hour drive away. It’s really beautiful, there are mountains and rivers and then the world’s largest lead and zinc smelter that dumps mercury in the river that we go swimming in every day. There’s a huge Italian community. My dad was born in Italy, and there’s Italian spoken on the streets. I didn’t really like it growing up, but now looking back there’s nowhere else like it. Some of the songs I guess… I don’t like going into detail about lyrics because it ruins things. Leave it to the listener.

Were you around people who were into music?

RZ: Metal. Just the metal. It wasn’t apart from that. Put it this way, I kept it a secret that I played the oboe. I didn’t really go showing off about the oboe, I wouldn’t have had many friends. It’s a really big sporting town, lots of hockey players, but definitely no shoegaze to be found.

I have a tattoo… I was going to get an oboe tattoo when I was 17. I couldn’t afford a full oboe so I was going to get a reed. I called up the tattoo artist and told him I wanted a tattoo of an oboe reed, and he started killing himself laughing. I said ‘I can bring in the oboe reed’ and he started laughing even harder. He said ‘I think I can figure it out’. I thought he seems like quite a cultured tattooist. So I went down the next day, and he drew on my leg. I looked at it, and female genatalia had been drawn. I looked at it and said, ‘What’s that?!’ He said ‘that’s the ovaries right there’. He’d drawn ovaries on my leg instead of an oboe reed. Now I’ve got this tattoo. Sometimes people think it’s nunchuks, sometimes people think it’s a varicose vein. Everyone has guessed different things – except an oboe reed, obviously.

Were your family musical?

RZ: There are no musicians in my family, but they love music. I was really bad at everything else… it was the only thing I could do.

When did you leave Canada?

RZ: When I was 17. I went right to London, then I went to Italy, to study at the conservatory though I never finished, then back to London.

Will London be where you stay?

RZ: My mum was born and raised in London. I’ve got family here. I always knew I was going to move to London, when I dreamed of leaving the lead and zinc behind. I’ll be here for a long time.

After this record, will you do another solo thing?

RZ: I love arranging. I did all the arrangements on this album. I’m not going to go back to opera or anything. I never really listened to it that much anyway, for fun, just when I had to do it. I can play all that stuff when I want on my album, I can play oboe… I feel like I’m talking about oboe way too much. It’s not very cool, the oboe.

Last time we spoke, you mentioned a metal album. When’s that happening?

RZ: Cats Eyeballs? That’s coming, my friend, that’s coming.

Rachel Zeffira’s debut LP The Deserters is released this December. She plays St Andrew’s Church, London this October. Visit the Eat Your Own Ears website for more information

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today