Rachel Zeffira: An Opera 'Deserter' Embraces Dreamy Pop

Apr 16, 2013
Originally published on April 25, 2013 5:46 am

Listening to her ethereal sound, you might not guess that Rachel Zeffira was classically trained as an opera singer. But on her solo debut, The Deserters, she's not just singing: She also plays piano, synthesizers, vibraphone, cathedral organ, violin, viola, oboe and English horn.

Zeffira makes her home in London now, but she grew up in a small town in rural British Columbia and began playing music at a young age.

"I think in some ways it's pretty idyllic to have a childhood where there's amazing nature and four distinct seasons," Zeffira says. "If there is a downside to that, it was tricky to find music teachers, so I had to travel to the States quite frequently to do violin lessons, and there wasn't an oboe teacher in the town, funny enough."

Zeffira strays far from her opera training on The Deserters, which includes a bold cover of My Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When." Here, she speaks with NPR's Melissa Block about getting into a head space to make pop music.


Interview Highlights

On pop and opera's fundamental differences

"I guess they are completely opposite ways of singing. With opera it was all about projection and singing without a microphone. And with this album it's very intimate singing right into the microphone. I kind of had to forget everything I had learned about my opera training."

On the song "Silver City Days"

"A lot of people probably have [the feeling] when you can't wait to get out of your town, or where you grew up, or even your street or something — but then, once you're gone you do miss it sometimes. That's what that song is about. I've spent my entire adult life in London and Italy. But every once in a while I have sort of strong longings for my hometown, and I think of the river going through and missing the mountains and the snow."

On missing opera

"I guess it is kind of satisfying to scream and yell. ... I'm also aware that I'm really out of shape now because I haven't been practicing, and to be good at opera you can't get away with not practicing and doing technique every day and warming up properly. And so I feel that I've kind of sacrificed that now. There's so many talented sopranos out there. So if I did flex my muscles again, it would definitely be in the privacy of my own home."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And now, some music to let you float away - dreamy songs from Rachel Zeffira.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DESERTERS")

RACHEL ZEFFIRA: (Singing) One day we'll meet again. One day we'll speak like we did back then. Old friend...

BLOCK: Listening to her sound, you probably wouldn't guess that Rachel Zeffira is classically trained as an opera singer. And on her new album, "The Deserters," she's not just singing, she's pretty much a one-woman orchestra. She's playing piano, synthesizers, vibraphone, cathedral organ, violin, viola, oboe and English horn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DESERTERS")

BLOCK: Rachel Zeffira makes her home now in London, but she's Canadian from rural British Columbia.

ZEFFIRA: I grew up in an area called the Kootenays, in a small town. It's - I think, in some ways, it's pretty idyllic to have a childhood where there's amazing nature and four distinct seasons. And then if there is a downside to that, it was tricky to find music teachers, so I had to travel to the States quite frequently to do violin lessons. And, you know, there wasn't an oboe teacher...

(LAUGHTER)

ZEFFIRA: ...in the town, funny enough but...

BLOCK: Yeah. It sounds like you were playing all kinds of things from a really early age.

ZEFFIRA: Well, it started just piano and violin. My older brother played piano and violin, and I just wanted to copy him. I didn't realize how much work it would be.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEFFIRA: It looked fun when he was doing it. So I started with piano and violin, and then sort of just added instruments as I grew up.

BLOCK: There is a song on the album, "Silver City Days," which is one of my favorites, and you're sort of taking, I think, a memory trip back home...

ZEFFIRA: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...is what it sounds like to me. It sounds very evocative, maybe, of where you're from.

ZEFFIRA: A lot of people probably have it when you can't wait to get out of your town or where you grew up or even your street or something, but then once you're gone, you do miss it sometimes. That's what that song is about - that I've spent my entire adult life in London now or - and Italy. But every once in a while, I have sort of strong longings for my hometown and think of the river going through and, you know, missing the mountains and the snow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILVER CITY DAYS")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) I cross the old bridge. I pass Bingay Bay, down Eliza's road. I follow my river home.

BLOCK: You know, thinking about your classical training, your opera training as a singer and how different that is from the sound of your voice on these songs, which is so ethereal and magical, really.

ZEFFIRA: I guess they are completely opposite ways of singing. With opera, it was all about projection and singing without a microphone. And with this album, it's very intimate singing, right into the microphone. I kind of had to forget everything I'd learned about my opera training and do things differently in a completely new way.

BLOCK: It must be a really strange feeling, if you're used to singing opera, to sing the way you do now. Or maybe it'll be strange for you now to go back and sing opera. I don't know which.

ZEFFIRA: Yeah. I think so. Yeah. It was strange when I started this. The first recordings that I did was really tricky. I was sort of oversinging into the microphone. I had to keep backing off. But I guess now I'm used to it. I - in some ways, I prefer it. I guess I like both. They're so different. It's hard to even compare the two. It's like two different instruments, kind of like the violin and the oboe. Like, it feels almost that different to me.

BLOCK: Let's listen to the song "Front Door."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRONT DOOR")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) He's the one I've longed to see. The autumn days went by so slowly. Now he's outside and I'm already standing by the front door 'cause he's the one I've waited for.

BLOCK: Now, Rachel, I'm trying to think what this reminds me of. It has a really, sort of, vintage sound. I'm thinking back to the '50s or something of that kind of confessional woman singer.

ZEFFIRA: I guess it is a bit confessional, yeah. I have a hard time talking about my own songs. Well, I'm kind of glad you played that one just because I think that was the one I found easiest to write. I think I was, in a way, the happiest about that one when I was writing it. I was happy with the chords and the orchestration. And I think, mostly, I was happy because I think it just - it's probably the most honest song on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRONT DOOR")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) And now he's finally here with me.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Rachel Zeffira. Her album is called "The Deserters." I've read that you wrote a bunch of these songs in churches. Is that right?

ZEFFIRA: Yeah. That's actually not true.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: It's not true.

ZEFFIRA: I keep getting asked that.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: It's a lie.

ZEFFIRA: It's been altered a little bit. I mean, I - the one that I kind of - I had to write in a church was the last song in the album, is called "Goodbye Divine." And that uses a cathedral organ. So that - I know there's this...

(LAUGHTER)

ZEFFIRA: ...you know, the image of me in dark churches with a notebook writing songs or something but...

BLOCK: It's very tempting, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEFFIRA: Yeah. I wasn't really - yeah, by candlelight. But it was just "Goodbye Divine." Everything else, I kind of did it at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE DIVINE")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) Goodbye Divine. You asked me to leave. And I came here when I was seventeen.

BLOCK: You know, we were talking earlier about your opera training. Are you - do you ever just get tempted to flex that big voice again, to be a belter, to really sing out?

ZEFFIRA: Sometimes I do miss that. It's pretty - I guess it is kind of satisfying to scream and yell.

(LAUGHTER)

ZEFFIRA: I guess I do. But I'm also aware that I'm really out of shape now because I haven't been practicing. And to be good at opera, you can't get away with not practicing and doing technique every day and warming up properly. And so I feel that I've kind of sacrificed that now. There's so many talented sopranos out there. So if I did flex my muscles again, it would definitely be in the privacy of my own home.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE ON IN")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) I finally found out how long it takes to come down. All the good that came before has run out.

BLOCK: Rachel, thank you so much.

ZEFFIRA: Thank you. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Rachel Zeffira. Her new album is "The Deserters."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE ON IN")

ZEFFIRA: (Singing) And I don't know who you are. I keep finding...

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.