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- Posted on Feb 13th 2013 2:30PM by Jen Zoratti
Luckily for us, life so rarely goes according to plan. When Zeffira was 17, she was accidentally deported from the U.K. on the eve of a concert at Cambridge University that was supposed to launch her opera career.
"Basically, I had to impress these people who were going to sponsor my schooling," she tells Spinner. "I prepared for ages -- I knew about it for a year -- and it was in all the local papers."
But when she landed in Heathrow, everything promptly fell apart.
"I guess they thought I was someone else, and I was interrogated for 10 hours. I was a teenager wearing a little floral dress -- and it was my birthday," she recalls with a laugh. "They put me on a plane to San Francisco."
Zeffira, now 29, lost the gig, her sponsors and her place at school.
"At the time, it seemed like a disaster but it thoroughly changed the course of my life," she says.
Still, she was determined to make a go of it and, after the mess was sorted, returned to the U.K.
"I had nothing," she says. "I had to find somewhere to live and get a job to pay for singing lessons. I had no qualifications."
So, she did what any desperate person would do: she lied about her age and made up a CV.
"I said I was a really experienced French teacher," she deadpans. The rest, they say, is history.
Zeffira credits her introduction into the world of pop music to Faris Badwan of the Horrors, who turned her onto 1960s girl groups. The pair formed Cat's Eyes and made avant-pop that perfectly married reverb-drenched, doe-eyed girl-group sensibility with Zeffira's classical training. Cat's Eyes' 2011 self-titled debut made waves in the U.K. -- but even still, Zeffira didn't fancy herself an indie darling.
"Before I met Faris and even after, (playing in a band) wasn't in my thoughts at all," she says. "I used to have all these delusional thoughts about how I'd be successful -- you know, like winning an Olympic medal -- but never making 'pop' music."
That began to change with her first solo recording, a gorgeous cover of My Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When" that made fans and critics take notice of the lesser-known Cat's Eyes member.
"Then I kept writing because it was fun," she says. "I'd been doing a lot of orchestral work as well, and so I'd do everything all at once -- writing, arranging and then recording. I realized I was close to finishing an album."
Though she didn't begin writing and recording with a full-length album in mind, a clear vision emerged through the process.
"I knew I wanted it to be different from Cat's Eyes," she says. "I wanted to save all the experimentation and noise for Cat's Eyes, and I wanted my solo album to be its own world. I wanted to be true to myself, which means acoustic and orchestral."
The Deserters, out in North America on March 12 via Paper Bag Records, is a strikingly beautiful, ethereal album. Zeffira has a clear, resonant voice, the kind that makes your breath catch like a cold, crisp, moonlit winter's night. Her haunting soundscapes have an intensely evocative, cinematic quality. So much so, in fact, that this writer was forced to admit that she didn't even hear the lyrics on first listen.
"The film stuff is big for me," Zeffira says. "Scores create such big pictures without words. I love that you listen to the orchestra first before the lyrics, because so many people don't do that. I do it, too. There are songs I love and I never know what they're about."
In addition to being a soaring career high, The Deserters is something of a personal victory for Zeffira. While it's clear she doesn't plan to abandon her classical training anytime soon, she has successfully cast off the more unpleasant aspects of it.
"I've learned to let more things go," she says. "With classical music, you become a perfectionist at a neurotic level. The biggest difference I've seen is in performing. I used to think about technique a lot. I'd worry about what I ate and whether I was talking too much before the show and just be really self-centred.
"When I first started playing with Cat's Eyes, I'd prepare for a show the same way I'd prepare for 'Marriage of Figaro' -- and then the engineer would forget to plug in my mic," she says with a laugh. "Half the time, I couldn't hear myself in the monitors anyway. I just realized, 'This is supposed to be fun.'"