A comfortable arrangement

Photo: Liz Seabrook

The Portuguese word saudade is a profound form of longing for something absent. Rachel Zeffira, one half of the duo Cat’s Eyes (the other being Faris Badwan of The Horrors), describes it as a two-directional pull that keeps her home country Canada vibrantly alive in her mind. Saudade transforms British clouds into snowcapped mountains and strangers on the street into long lost friends. “It’s like being haunted,” she says, raising her voice to drown out the noise from the greasy spoon kitchen behind us. “It’s a reminder... a ghost in my mind.”

Cat’s Eyes formed in London in 2011 after Rachel and Faris bonded over the Phil Spector-produced pop of the 60s. But their debut’s rattling percussive sounds and self-aware girl group lyrics have only survived in heartfelt sentiment on the new record, Treasure House. In contradiction to its title, the classically influenced melodies – drawing on Rachel’s background as a soprano – are majestically expansive and full of tingling light. You would have thought the songs were written in her native British Columbia, with the sun dancing on the mountain rivers, rather than in a chaotic corner of north London.

The whole point of saudade, though, is that the appeal of a place grows stronger by distance. As a restless teenager with an unlikely talent for both trouble and classical music, Rachel couldn’t wait to get out of her isolated hometown. “I wasn’t very nice,” she reflects. “The place pushed me to my limits. I have a warped sense of humour. Something might have started as a prank, but I’d take it way too far.”

At 17, she was offered a sponsored place at a prestigious music college in London. But upon landing in the UK, she was deported by mistake. By the time that Customs corrected the error, the conductor at Cambridge University – where the sponsor was supposed to see her perform – had hired another soprano. The sponsor pulled out and Rachel was stranded in London. Her savings spent and intent on not returning to Canada, she ended up working as a French teacher in Dagenham for a while, teaching kids older than her a language she barely knew.

The majority of people would have probably succumbed to the hands of fate or foul play of the gods at this point and gone home. But Rachel – with her direct gaze and daring sense of humour – doesn’t seem like the type that succumbs to anything, other than perhaps her own vice of breakfast ice cream. Instead she took her oboe to Verona, sauntered into the Conservatory of Music and asked to audition. The education helped her get back on track and eventually saw her returning to London, crossing the path of a certain black-clad frontman of an experimental garage band.

That same restless ambition that had brought her to the other side of the Atlantic now pushed her into the unknown musical landscape introduced to her by Faris. Rachel had no knowledge of digital production and had never heard of bands like The Velvet Underground, whereas Faris was unacquainted with classical composing. With their crooked noses and gothic sense of style, they seem almost like reunited twins, fascinated with each other’s differences.

“I’d write something for the orchestra to play on our record and he would completely fuck it up. But they played so well! It was completely twisted and that’s why it worked.” In comparison to the pop-oriented debut, Rachel’s classical roots are far more palpable on the new album. Chameleon Queen opens with an aria, and We’ll Be Waiting recently passed as a 500-year-old composition when Cat’s Eyes gatecrashed a private art talk at Buckingham Palace, pretending to be a Renaissance ensemble.

“When we first started Cat’s Eyes I thought I was done with opera. It was a relief, because opera had become about perfection and technique. But now I want to go back... maybe for my next solo album,” Rachel muses. “Nothing moves me as much as an amazing piece of classical music. It’s connected to the soul. How can someone like Bach still bring me to tears? The music is from so long ago.”

Her most treasured song on the record, however, is the lullaby-like Everything Moves Towards The Sun, in which she takes Faris on an imaginary road trip to her hometown. “It’s the journey I used to do as a child, flying to Vancouver after visiting family in London and then making this long car trip. You drive further and further away from the city and after 12 hours you end up in this tiny little mountain area with 5,000 people.”

The song seems to unite Rachel’s contrasting worlds – the past and present, London and the Canadian wild, strict classical discipline and the freedom of alternative music – by planting Faris within her childhood memories. Singing softly over a melancholic, yet hopeful viola, she paints a parallel life in which the scattered threads of her life intertwine in a forward loop, where “Everything moves towards the sun / everything’s turning”.

Last summer, the song came true as Faris and Rachel journeyed to the town. “He was finally there and saw all the little places mentioned in the song,” she smiles. “And things he thought I had made up, like discovering a grizzly bear in my front yard.”

“Sometimes I forget that I didn’t grow up with Faris,” she reflects, clasping her hands in her lap. “The song is imagining the past, but with Faris there and taking him into the future.”

This interview was originally published in issue 31 of Oh Comely.