Rachel Zeffira is breaking out on her own to sing a few seemingly intensely personal songs, but thankfully, the tracks off of The Deserters, her solo debut, are just emotionally cutting enough to be universally touching without revealing too much about the Canadian songbird.
Zeffira, a classically trained singer and composer, put her symphonic tendencies to good work with Cat’s Eyes, the alternapop duo she writes and performs with alongside Faris Badwan that’s best known for a surreal and serene performance in the Vatican. With The Deserters, her classical chops provide depth and breadth to the first songs she’s released on her own in the form of ornate, intricately woven arrangements that showcase the timeless quality of a voice that’s been groomed with the best possible training. It’s the kind of record a singer looking to make a name for herself dreams of, as it’s rife with contradictory flavors and genre clashes–electronic beats and violins on “Break the Spell;” piano trills and lush pop balladry on “Letters from Tokyo (Sayonara)–that prove she can pull her weight under the spotlight at a cabaret or on a club stage alike.
But back to the mystery behind her music: Zeffira insists–though incredibly relatable with its dreamy, love-lorn refrains–her songs are rather private, and she’s worked diligently to mask her own personal connection to the work for the sake of the listener’s experience. “I don’t like to spell things out too much,” she says, calling in from her hotel room in Glasgow, where her UK tour is swinging through. “So far, not one person has guessed what one single song is about. I’m able to express myself completely while I’m writing, but I don’t have to worry about what people think. Some think the songs are about ex-loves and stuff. And there’s not one song on [The Deserters] about an ex-love. I don’t like dictating to the people who are listening what the song should be about or what they should be feeling, because, you know what, it’s not really my song once it’s out. I don’t want to dictate what they’re about. I try to keep the words slightly subtle, and have people kind of guess, maybe, what they might be about.”
Zeffira will be touring through the United States for the first time on her own this week with at stop at The Slipper Room tonight, and brought us up to speed on the creative progress, process and struggles she encountered with The Deserters.
As lovely as your work has been with Cat’s Eyes, it’s wonderful to see you breaking out on your own and doing your own thing. Are their attributes of yourself as a performer that you see magnified in the songs of The Deserters? Are we seeing a new side to Rachel Zeffira?
This is definitely a more intimate record than what you see with Cat’s Eyes. That’s the biggest difference between this album and my solo album. I guess it just happened organically while I was writing it. I really wanted it to be 100% me. I didn’t want to do a Cat’s Eyes album on my own; I wanted to save all the experimenting and stuff for Cat’s Eyes, and for my solo album, I just thought, I have a chance to do this, and I want to do it all–producing and writing the orchestra parts and the lyrics. It has to be totally, honestly me.
Returning to the universal nature of your music–do you think the interpretational quality of your songs translates to your live show? That must create an interesting dynamic, watching them take in you’re the words and interpret them personally.
I like the idea or feeling of people coming into a different world at the concert, but they can choose the world that they’re in. like going into another world when I listen to someone else’s music and I don’t like being told what that world is; I like discovering it for myself. When I do my live shows, that’s what I would hope people feel. They’re going into that other world and they’re discovering it on their own and it’s not me telling them.
I love the blend of classical and electronic elements you put out there. Did you feel pressure to represent your classical roots in a modern way with this record? How was experimenting with new sounds within the framework of this The Deserters?
When I write, and basically when I do anything, I don’t really have plans–everything just happens as I go along. It’s really the song guiding the sounds. It’s just what suits the song when it happens. Songs like the electronic stuff, like “Break the Spell,” I didn’t want it to sound like musical theater or something like that. Other sounds had to get in there to stop it. I didn’t think it suited it completely acoustic and traditional sounds. It’s really just the song deciding what goes in it. It’s not like I have a strategy when I’m making the album; it’s really, truly about the songs as they go along.
What proved to be the biggest challenge for you with the record?
I guess the song that I thought about not putting on the album was “Break the Spell.” I’m not sure why. Some of the songs I felt, when I was writing them, they came really naturally and they kind of float. “Break the Spell” took a long time. It was just that. I would just say that the others felt very natural, and “Break the Spell,” I struggled with that one more than the others. That was the one I had more doubts on before I put the album together. I kept changing it. There were so many different versions of it. I just went for it in the end.
What did The Deserters teach you about your strengths as a performer and your creative process?
I’ve learned to let a lot of things go. I don’t strive for perfection and stuff like that. I used to prepare tons when I was in classical–I’d steam my voice, get a good night’s sleep, do warm-ups to make sure I can hit all the high notes. I gladly learned that you just let things go. Especially at live shows. People want to have a good time; they want to listen to songs. Shows should be fun! If the audience knows it’s not perfect, it’s not the end of the world and stuff. Through [The Deserters], I’ve definitely learned that. That’s probably been the main thing.