Profile: Rachel Zeffira

With Rachel Zeffira‘s debut solo album The Deserters, the Canadian-born, London-based musician wants to make her presence known in the world of baroque pop. And it shouldn’t be that hard. Zeffira is an immensely talented multi-instrumentalist, with conservatory training in everything from violin to cathedral organ. The Deserters is a whirlwind of a debut album, and quite the departure from her previous work with Cat’s Eyes, a duo project with UK distortion wizard Faris Badwan. The Deserters, which Zeffira self-produced and recorded at London’s iconic Abbey Road studios, is brimming with beautiful orchestrations and poetic lyrics. It even features collaboration pieces with German synth pop band TOY and British art rock ensemble S.C.U.M.. It is a powerful introduction to a singer looking to leave her mark on the chamber pop world, proving that Zeffira has both the talent and vision to bridge the gap between diverse musical genres.

Violent Success: Can you start off by talking about your background? How did you become attracted to classical music and baroque pop?

Rachel Zeffira: I was forced into classical music to be honest. My parents put me in piano and violin lessons when I was really little. I really hated it at the time, but now I don’t even know what I’d be doing if they hadn’t done that for me. As I got older, I loved being able to play the instruments. I was just always bad at practicing and following rules and any kind of regime, so I kind of resisted it growing up.

VS: What instruments do you play primarily?

RZ: Piano, violin, and viola, which goes together with violin; oboe and cor anglais, which are similar; and then I was an organ scholar for a year, so I took cathedral organ, and vibraphone, which I did a bit in Italy. Those are the main instruments. And then tons of other people in the music industry just kind of pick other things up as they go along and play them for fun – maybe not the same level as the main ones.

VS: Are all those instruments featured on The Deserters?

RZ: Yeah, they are. All of the solo instruments on The Deserters are played by me. So if there’s solo viola or oboe or piano or cathedral organ, that’s me. For the more orchestral stuff, I did actually hire an orchestra, rather than multi-track all the violin parts, which doesn’t sound as good.

VS: The Deserters is your debut album as a solo artist, but it’s not the first time we’re hearing from you. We were exposed to your work a little bit through Cat’s Eyes. Can you talk about how your work on this new album differs from your work with Cat’s Eyes?

RZ: Yeah, it’s pretty different from Cat’s Eyes – and I really wanted it to be different. Cat’s Eyes was a world created by me and Faris, and it has a lot of him in it, and a lot of his part was sound experimentation and putting instruments through amps, stuff like that. You know, a lot of discovering new sounds. So in Cat’s Eyes, if I played the oboe, then Faris would manipulate the sound of the oboe and distort it until it sounded more like a synth. On my solo album I felt very strongly that because it was me and my album, that I was going to do an acoustic sound. I was going to do pure instruments, and not experiment with sounds. I was going to leave the Cat’s Eyes world alone and have my own world for the solo album. So that might be why it sounds more classical – because it’s just more pure. I kept it true to who I am.

VS: Cool. And as far as lyrics go – and there are some beautiful lyrics on this album – did you have a theme that tied all the songs together?

RZ: About halfway through the album I noticed a thread coming through. I think for most people the lyrics are the hardest part songs for an album. Some songs I wrote over and over again, weeding out words and stuff. But I think about halfway through the album I did see the theme of desertion coming through. Different themes of desertion. Some of it is nostalgia based – so things like leaving home, missing home, but not wanting to go back. Those were the feelings of nostalgia and nostalgia based desertion. But some of the songs had a more positive sense of desertion, like giving up bad ways or bad personality traits. Most of the songs have some element of desertion, but mostly subtle.

VS: With a theme as heavy as desertion, was writing these songs a difficult process? How long did it take?

RZ: It didn’t feel difficult when I was doing it because I was doing it for fun. I didn’t set out knowing I was going to do an album and release it at the end of the year. No one told me to do it and I didn’t really have a plan. It was kind of a long process because it was one and off during the better part of a year. That was because I paid for it and produced it myself. I’d write the songs and then when I’d finish orchestrating them, I’d save up the money and go to Abbey Road. I’d hire an orchestra spend the day doing a couple of songs, and then I’d go back to writing. I’d do the same kind of thing over and over: Save money and go back into the studio until the album was finished. It was a little drawn out for practical reasons. I’d say it took about seven months.

VS: Can you describe your writing process? I know you did some songs with TOY and S.C.U.M. Was it a collaborative effort?

RZ: Yeah, so that song with TOY was a little different. For most songs, for example ‘The Deserters’, I sat down at the piano and the song would kind of grow around a piano hook. I would record that on my laptop and then I would play violin on top of it and then oboes. I would make a rough demo at home, playing the instruments myself, and then I would write out the parts for when I actually had an orchestra. Then I would go in and record it properly. With TOY – they’re my friends – I just wanted to have fun. Panda(?), who’s in TOY was also in Cat’s Eyes, as the bass player, and we got along really well. We played together for fun and I just wanted to write a song for TOY and spend a fun day in the studio with them. They’re my friends and they’re part of this pop world that I belong to, so it was really important to me that they were part of it.

VS: That classical pop world you’re talking about is very cool, and I wish people here knew more about it. Can you speak a little bit about the state of baroque pop today, and classical music in general?

RZ: There are definitely problems in that scene. I’ve noticed on a more positive side that there are tons of really talented classical musicians that are now entering the pop world more than ever, people that have classical backgrounds. There’s a singer called Laura Mvula, who’s just starting to get known in the UK, and she’s going to be huge. She’s going to be the next Nina Simone or something. She has an entirely classical and jazz background – Birmingham Conservatoire trained. A lot of jazz and gospel as well. She’s doing her own kind of thing now, left the classical world kind of like me. I’ve seen other people doing the same thing. They’ve left the classical world and are actually using it in the pop world now. And I think there’s a kind of freedom in that, in being able to write your own songs whenever you want with the skills that you got from the classical world. The two worlds of music (classical and pop) look down on each other, and maybe this is a way to show that classical can belong in pop and vice versa. Without one area thinking it’s superior.

VS: Besides Laura Mvula, are there any other bands you’re listening to now?

RZ: I just discovered Grouper. I really like her. It’s unusual because when you first hear it, it sounds familiar. But the more you listen to it the more you get drawn into her world. There’s something that I can’t even put my finger on. I’ve been listening to her a lot lately. I listen a lot to Girls. They’re not that new, but I like them a lot. Who else? Julia Holter. She definitely has a strong classical background.

VS: And who are your primary classical influences? Is there a particular period you’re drawn to? A specific composer?

RZ: That’s really hard, but I’ve been pretty obsessed with French organ composers lately. A lot of my favorite composers are French, and a lot of them come from the organ repertoire. And I just really find that whole thing interesting. Like, there was an incredible school for blind organists that created tons of amazing French composers. People don’t even know they’re blind. They’re amazing. People like César Franck taught there, and I find him really interesting.

All the organ compositions for me are really interesting because it’s not just a song on an organ. You orchestrate as you play on the organ because you’re using all these stops, which mimic the strings and winds of an orchestra. The way those composers wrote, it’s like they’re composing a symphony on one keyboard instrument.

VS: Are there any influences you have outside of music? Is there anything else that drives you creatively? Are there any films, authors or artists that influence you as a musician?

RZ: Yeah, definitely. Basically the relationship between directors and their composers is kind of inspiring to me. The first one that comes to mind is Nino Rota who did The Godfather soundtrack, and all of the Fellini soundtracks. Fellini and Rota’s relationship is interesting to me, and because I learned a lot about Nino Rota, he really inspires me in almost everything I do. I always go back to certain things he said. Like, one of the things he believed in was always being honest in music all the time, and never writing a piece of music with critics or reviews in mind, or what’s trendy in the moment. And he said that so long ago and was criticized because he was in a curious time with a lot of avante-garde composers and a lot of atonal music, people writing really clever, intelligent things. And Nino Rota, throughout that, continued to write quite sentimental music, quite melodic stuff, quite emotional. He got criticized pretty badly for it and lost quite a bit of respect and jobs. Looking at that time and the colleagues that were with him, he was the only one that lasted.

He just believed that if you stay connected, stay honest, then all that matters is when you write music you’re honest when you do it. It has to be totally connected to you. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if the reviewers like it, if it’s ahead of its time, behind its time. The whole point of music, he says, is that it connects to the soul. That’s what makes it really powerful. And if you don’t do that, then it will disappear. It’s meaningless.

VS: Did you take that message to heart while working on The Deserters?

RZ: Yeah, definitely. When I was working on The Deserters it was very important that it was me, that it was my album. That was why I used pure acoustic instruments when I did it, and why I used all the instruments I grew up playing. I wanted every bit of it to be from me.

VS: Very well put. One last question here. Is there anything you want readers here in the States to know about you? Any upcoming performances or tours?

RZ: It’s funny, because the States still kind of feel like home to me. That’s basically where I learned to play violin and oboe. I did all my music lessons a child in Spokane, Washington. Actually, all of my music teacher’s growing up were American. As far as tours go, I’m hoping – really, really hoping – that I can come to at least New York or the East Coast as soon as possible.

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Rachel Zeffira’s debut album is a testimony to the fact that classical music still means something in this age of digitalization. Her voice, like her musical talent, is startlingly clear, and with it she’s making the definitive statement that there’s room in the pop world for history and tradition. The Deserters, produced by Paper Bag Records, will have its North American release on March 12th.

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