Becoming a liar can have its advantages, at least in Rachel Zeffira’s case. Fibs and resourcefulness eventually led to the Cat’s Eyes (a duo with The Horrors’ Faris Badwan) member’s solo debut effort, The Deserters. And though the album’s not completely autobiographical, Zeffira knows something about desertion. The classically-trained singer and multi-instrumentalist left her home country of Canada at age 17, and since then she’s been deported, faked her way into teaching, and made a living singing opera, writing orchestra scores and choral arranging before setting her sights in the baroque pop music realm. Hive spoke to Zeffira about the haunting, orchestral-tipped Deserters, which she wrote, scored, self-produced and recorded at Abbey Road, and how a single event changed the course of her life.
With the songs on The Deserters, you seem to explore metaphorical and literal desertions.
There’s a theme of leaving Canada, here’s like definitely some nostalgia in there and some of the other themes of desertion are things like people giving up old ways, like the way they used to be, and some of the things are not about me. I don’t really like spelling it out too much, but nothing’s about lovers, for example. Some of them are about other people that had sort of a really brutal type of desertion in their life, but there’s different types of desertion on the album — both good and bad. So the good kind would be maybe you know someone changing, giving up really bad personality trait or something, like in the song “Star,” and then some classic cases of desertion like leaving home [“Silver City Days”].
As a multi-instrumentalist, is there a particular instrument you gravitate towards when writing? Do you have tons of instruments laying around?
Our living room is just like silly now because there’s a massive organ in the middle of the bloody floor. And I mean, any hopes of having a nicely decorated home are just completely ruined by the amounts of amps and instruments and wires and stuff it’s just I mean, I have to climb over the organ to get to the kitchen and stuff now … Not only that but I bought an Olympic sized ping pong table with the hopes that I’d be able to set that up somewhere near the organ. For songs like “The Deserters” I start on the piano and I sort of came up with the piano hook and then the songs sort of grew out of that. [For]“Goodbye Divine” I went into a church with that one and wrote it on cathedral organ.
I’ve never spoken to anyone that’s been deported. You were trying to attend music school in London when this happened?
One petty bureaucrat, one person just had really changed the entire course of my life. You know, and as it turns out maybe for the better, but I just couldn’t believe this person could make a mistake and have such an impact on a person’s life. I got interrogated for about 10 hours when I arrived… and then I just did what I was told, and now I know I would go to the Canadian embassy or something. But they just kept asking me the same questions over and over again and kind of not believing anything I said, no matter what I said… and they escorted me on to a plane, and it was a plane to San Francisco. [Laughs.] Like they didn’t send me back to Canada, they sent me to the wrong country. By the time I got back to London, I missed the concert I was supposed to be soloist in, which meant that I lost my sponsorship for school, which meant that I lost my place in school.
You were 17?
Yeah, it was my birthday, it was so annoying. I mean, I couldn’t have looked more innocent if I tried.
Wait, it was your birthday, too?
Yeah, it was. I mean the person was a complete dick… She would say things like, “Well, you don’t seem upset or worried about this at all,” and then so after about 10 hours I was upset, I was jetlagged, and had tears in my eyes and then I’d start crying, and she’d be like “Oh, oh, you know how to turn on the crocodile tears.” It was so bizarre, it was like a no-win situation. She was a real bully, considering I hadn’t done anything wrong. I mean, years later I would think, “If only that women knew” — she actually turned me into, you know, she turned me into a liar [laughing] because I came back to London, was pretending to be a school teacher and stuff, and that wouldn’t have happened if she just let me in in the first place!
How’d you end up teaching?
I just basically met these Australians in a pub and they said that they were really desperate for supply teachers in London. And they said, “I bet you if you go into the teaching agency they’ll just give you a job because they’re just so needy of teachers right now, and especially French teachers.” So I went home and made fake degrees and basically just invented — lied about my age and said I had all sorts of degrees and stuff. They gave me a job the next day. And then they put me in this really like quite luxe high school as a French teacher.
I’ve always wanted to randomly move to another country like you have, but have never had the balls to do that.
It is kind of like having no fear of consequences. You probably have the gift of having a sense of consequence for your actions … I’m a bad person, like I have no concept of – like I did insane things, like when I moved to Italy, I just, I literally went one day without even knowing the city I was going to or where I was going to stay that night. And I just went to live.
Sometimes there’s a heavy price to pay, though. And it just meant I never had plans and I would get myself in all sorts of trouble and it would just be a very, very difficult route. A lot of my friends, they have a house and stuff now, and I’m just like really behind everyone.
You went to Italy without even having a plan, but it seems that attitude is also how you’re able to talk your way into playing St. Peter’s Basilica as Cat’s Eyes.
I kept my contacts from years earlier because I sang there when I was doing classical stuff and I just I emailed the person I needed to email and you know I pretended that I was a visiting choir from St. Mary of the Angels, and basically I just organized it so that [we’d be] singing at a mass at the Vatican on the main altar. Our backing singers, the Cat’s Eyes’ backing singers, were the choir. And we learned all of the parts of the mass so that we could actually do that. So it was like the intro hymn and the communion – we did all the Latin songs necessary for the mass. And then in the middle of that we did a Cat’s Eyes song [“I Knew It Was Over”] that I rewrote to sound like a sacred piece of repertoire that would blend in.
What’s your next risky escapade?
The thing is, the risky things happen because I never ever plan them. They just happen. And I didn’t plan doing this album and I didn’t plan doing Cat’s Eyes or moving anywhere. So, I have no idea, I have no idea… I think it makes life I guess fun, but hard work for me, because I don’t know what is next. Hopefully it won’t be me ending up in prison or something awful like that!
Try to avoid that.
Yeah, I mean hope the risk would be, that the next twist in my life is a good one.
Rachel Zeffira’s The Deserters is out today via Paper Bag Records. Stream the whole album at The Fader. She has two upcoming North American tour dates:
May 2 – Toronto, Ontario @ The Drake Hotel
May 6 – New York, NY @ The Slipper Room