"By the time I got back to London, the whole course of my life had changed, all because of one bureaucratic error." Singer-musician Rachel Zeffira is remembering an incident that sent her much younger self into limbo by way of San Francisco. Years later, it's an anecdote – another story of more than a few that speak to a career marked by luck, accidents and connections that were made, and some that were missed.
Zeffira's debut solo record is The Deserters, an elegant collection of ethereal orchestral pop, marked by gauzy textures and intimate vocals. She is speaking from her home in London, where the B.C.-raised Italian-Canadian has lived for most of her adult life. She's set to make her solo Toronto debut at the Drake Hotel on Thursday. "I still don't know what happened," she says, bewildered to this day over a turn of events that took place more than a decade ago. "Something was really, really wrong at Heathrow Airport that day."
What she says happened was this: Zeffira, then 17, flew from Canada to London, where she meant to train at a music college. She was to appear at a concert, in front of an audience that included a very high-profile Canadian willing to sponsor her London schooling. (She did tell me who, but I can't share.) However, a day-long interrogation by an official at Heathrow did not go well. Even though her mother was a London native and her grandfather was a British commando, Zeffira was deported. (Perhaps England had its quota of singer-oboists from the Kootenays?)
Whatever the reason, she found herself at 3 o'clock in the morning, on her birthday, at San Francisco's airport – "they didn't even send me to the right country" – wondering how to get back to London for the all-important performance. She did manage to make it back there, but by the time she had arrived it was the day of the concert. The featured soprano spot had been filled; the Canadian benefactor had withdrawn his sponsorship. She would not be able to enroll in music college in London.
With little money and training to her name, she invented a resumé filled with whimsical qualifications, including the upping of her age by nine years. It was believable enough to land her a job as a fill-in instructor at a London high school, where she taught French to unruly, uninterested students. "It was anarchy," she says with a laugh.
After a year, she ventured to the continent. "I got on a train and picked a city," she recalls. "I went to Verona with my oboe." In the northern Italian city known to Shakespeare, she enrolled in a music conservatory where she studied for two years before returning to London.
Back in London, she formed the pop duo Cat's Eyes with Faris Badwan, the front man of goth-rock band the Horrors. In 2011, the twosome performed their first gig at, of all places, St. Peter's Basilica. The recital was another caper from Zeffira, who told the Vatican that a choir would be performing sacred hymns. One of them however was an arrangement of the duo's sombre I Knew It Was Over. The performance, which can be seen on YouTube, went off without a hitch.
Winding up our conversation, and given her travels, I ask Zeffira if she considers herself a Canadian artist. "I'm always seen as a Canadian over here because of my accent," she says, "but I think I'm an artist of wherever people accept me." From her mouth to an immigration officer's ear.