Cat’s Eyes’ Rachel Zeffira on why Faris Badwan is misunderstood and how she cunningly masterminded a breach of security to play at Buckingham Palace
From writing names at the top of Canadian Mountains to breaching Buckingham Palace security in London, there’s not much Cat’s Eyes vocalist Rachel Zeffira won’t do. She’s definitely spirited; and she’s ready to take on the world through music: the talented multi-instrumentalist is also a soprano and composer of Italian-Canadian decent. Rachel, alongside writing partner Faris Badwan of The Horrors, has just completed the second Cat’s Eyes album, Treasure House.
TGA caught up with Zeffira to talk about the new album, and all things melodic and otherwise — beginning with her own beginnings in music.
“I have been musical for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Pop came much later on when I met Faris. I certainly didn’t dream I’d be in a band; it wasn’t one of my fantasies. I grew up in a very small, remote town and my parents wanted to keep me busy. Both of them were from Europe — my dad was born in Italy and my mum is Irish. They wanted to provide me and my brothers with some kind of culture and [the opportunity to acquire] skills because we were so cut off – they made sure we learned piano and kept busy.”
She’s actually classically trained — but not just at the piano. Her parents ensured the ‘keep busy’ ethic she speaks about stuck, as well as a hunger to learn. Consequently, she can play a shedload of different instruments.
“I went through this phase a while ago of collecting instruments and learning them,” she says. “The list is very long. Because I play keys I can play organ, harpsichord, piano… and I’ve learned everything in the string family. I also play a lot of woodwind but there are some I play better than others. Some I’ve been playing all my life and I can call myself a proper pianist and oboist but I wouldn’t compare myself on guitar with someone else who’s been playing their whole life.”
Given her wide-ranging talents, what’s her writing process like, and does it differ from the way other musicians work?
“I like writing music by hand rather than using the computer because it comes out differently and I enjoy it more,” she says. “Writing different orchestral parts and hearing them in my head rather than on a computer I find more rewarding. It’s different from the norm. I like doing what people did hundreds of years ago. The stuff they wrote was better than how people are writing today. Beethoven was deaf and doing it — that’s just crazy! He was writing for orchestras, choirs: huge pieces for massive amounts of people and he didn’t even have [his] hearing. The more crutches we get, like computers, the less we are actually hearing, using our imagination and visualising. I think you have more limitations [the easier things are]. For me, it’s more fun to write with pen and paper. Use your brain and grow.”
New album Treasure House was written in this way. “I always write scraps down in a little Moleskine book,” she says. “I also like to record and then layer other instruments over the recording. If I don’t have musicians at my disposal, that helps because I can record an oboe part and then go back and record the next instrument over it. It’s different every time with every song and depends where I am and what the song is like. It’s a different approach every time.”
Rachel met Faris through a neighbour and they hit it off, becoming good friends almost immediately. Faris’s obsession with girl groups of the Sixties soon began to rub off on Rachel.
“There was pop music growing up that I listened to — David Bowie, The Beatles, The Shangri-Las and The Ronettes,” she says. “But Faris was on another level. He collects obscure, rare seven-inch vinyl – so there were things that I hadn’t heard before. When we first met, we would listen to that stuff and it became a joke that I would send him a song making fun of a girl group and do my own version. He was on tour with The Horrors and we would communicate back and forth via email with songs we were doing. It was a weird pen-pal type thing.
“He was so obsessed with girl groups and some of the music was ridiculous. He once played me a song where a girl gets murdered half way through. I loved it and loved the drama of it and that’s how the song writing started. It was just something fun we were doing. Eventually we had an album’s worth of songs and someone at a label said we should record them properly.”
And so, Cat’s Eyes was born: “It happened by accident – and then next thing we had a manager, and then we had a record deal. Everything happened in parallel.”
While Faris’s tastes influenced Rachel, she in turn dramatically influenced his singing style. You can hear it in The Horrors albums since 2011, which is when Cat’s Eyes formed.
Rachel says, “When we first met, we were doing a lot of singing — and this was before [The Horrors’ second album] Primary Colours. He was just starting to sing properly! I didn’t know The Horrors because I was listening to mainstream radio and iconic stuff like Pink Floyd. The first song I heard from The Horrors was Sheena Is A Parasite, and he was screaming. So I started writing songs for him that he could sing and he started learning to sing. It’s pretty amazing that he taught himself to sing properly! I would never bet money on him not being able to do something.”
Rachel says that people underestimate him. And that includes his appearance on Soccer AM, when nobody thought he was going to score, and he went and got the goal. “People often get the wrong idea about Faris and don’t know what he’s capable of,” says Zeffira.
Although Cat’s Eyes have a very different sound from The Horrors, a song of theirs actually became a Cat’s Eyes track. Rachel says that she added some girl-group style vocals to an unreleased demo of The Horrors, which the band recorded along with some other tracks between Strange House and Primary Colours. The song became Sunshine Girls and is on the first Cat’s Eyes EP: “I added lots of funny girl-group backing vocals to annoy Faris but it [actually] worked and we still perform it today as one of our favourites because it’s so high energy.”
Of the new album, Rachel says, “When we make an album we don’t look for inspiration or references, we don’t listen to anything the whole time. But if you’ve listened to something your whole life and it’s something you really love, it goes into your music. For me, classical chord progressions are in there somewhere because this had an effect on me growing up. We try to be original and not copy but influences subconsciously creep in.”
So what of the title, Treasure House– where does that come from? “We leave it open to interpretation,” says Zeffira. “Some people think our band name Cat’s Eyes means the light reflectors on the road and others think it’s a reference to Sixties-style eye make up. Other people think it’s a formation of stars like an aurora or nebula. Same with Treasure House — it could mean Pandora’s Box, or a new world, or a box full of secrets. To me it’s like our own world and I don’t want to define it. We never consciously decide what an album is about, it just falls into place.”
It seems about time to bring the conversation full circle and get the story behind that controversial performance in Buckingham Palace, where they breached security to play a song, We’ll Be Waiting, from the new album. Rachel excitedly recalls: “We lied and rewrote one of our songs to sound like chamber music. Everyone thought it was genuine. We played the Vatican before and Buckingham Palace was the only way we could top it.”
But how did it come about? By chance, someone asked her if she knew anyone who knew about Art History and could speak to the Queen’s art ambassador, who was coming to London to view the art at Buckingham Palace. She did. “I phoned an art historian [I knew]. He was also a person I knew could be in on this with us. The idea was to link the music to the art. All he had to do was give the proper art talk but incorporate music,” she says.
But when she found they don’t allow music in the building, things got a bit more underhand.
“We had to smuggle the instruments in,” she admits. “I thought that the most innocent instrument we were likely to get in would be the recorder. So I rewrote the piece for the recorder and had to make it fit a Renaissance theme so no one got suspicious. I went straight up to security before we went in and told them: ‘We have these really valuable instruments that we’ve brought straight from rehearsal. I don’t feel comfortable leaving them anywhere.’ The guy immediately said: ‘This is the safest place in London, your instruments are going to be fine.’ So he let them in.
“None of the musicians knew the truth about our performance because they would have chickened out. So I told them not to mention anything about playing inside the palace because it was to be a surprise. Someone took out their recorder too early, though, and the head of security said: ‘What are you doing with an instrument?’ and the musician said: ‘We’re going to play.’ I came back in the room and they were all pointing at me. This woman came marching up to me and said: ‘What is this? I was not told about this, you have absolutely no permission and there is no way there is going to be music in here.’ I thought: ‘Oh God, I can’t believe this. We were so close.’ But we’d planned everything, we’d got all the cameras in and we had to do it no matter what. So we played.”
The Vatican, Buckingham Palace… we’re looking forward to seeing what venue Cat’s Eyes have got their peepers fixed on next.
Cat’s Eyes’ Rachel Zeffira picks her Treasure House highlights
Be Careful Where You Park Your Car — “We wrote this about 6 years ago. When I wrote the lyrics, it was about me and it was a warning. I wrote it when I was angry and didn’t take it very seriously. It was Faris who wanted to use it on the album as a proper song.”
Chameleon Queen — “My favourite song on the album.”
Everything Moves Towards The Sun — “Meant the most to me when I was writing because it’s about my past, present and future and it’s my most personal.”
Names On The Mountain — “This is about the town I grew up in. It’s a hole in the middle of nowhere, about a 16-hour drive. You go through the desert, through the mountains and through this entire remote wilderness as you get more and more cut off. You drive down into this town with about 5,000 people and one school. I went to that school and every time someone graduates they climb up this mountain and write their name on it. They leave their mark so no one ever forgets them. Some people can’t wait to get the hell out of the town, like me. They want to leave but don’t want to be forgotten. One guy signed his name on the mountain and fell to his death on the same day. That song is about being immortalised by signing your name on the mountain. There is also a French horn solo, which refers back to the first album. It represents a friend of Faris’s that died — it comes back to life in the second album, like a resurrection.”
Teardrops — “It started as a solo piano piece and the song was put on top. Sometimes when you play piano it’s therapeutic because it clears away your thoughts and makes you feel better and that’s what the song is the sound of — venting and draining the bad stuff out of you. Music, especially singing, releases endorphins and emotions. Music provides so much good for people, I really don’t understand why they don’t fund it in schools properly. They’re cutting funding in every country even though it helps with maths, promotes teamwork, and more. It seems insane to me to cut funding in that area of all areas.”
Treasure House is available now.
Catch Cat’s Eyes live at Citadel Festival, Victoria Park, London on 17 July 2016.