Tuesday, March 1, 2011


The urge to create wonder with sound is rarely indulged in today's utilitarian pop landscape. In an age when a piece of music can be erased with the click of a mouse, there are few artists pouring their heart and soul into what Brian Wilson called "teenage symphonies" - lovingly sculpted three-minute slices of aural heaven, which grip the listener's ears and emotions in equal measure. In that mundane world, Cat's Eyes really are a godsend.

They are a duo, formed by Rachel Zeffira, a renowned Canadian opera soprano and classical multi-instrumentalist based in London, and Faris Badwan, the statuesque singer from noisy British psychedelic-rockers The Horrors. In the collision of their two very separate worlds, something magical has come into being, which brings together all kinds of dualities - pop/classical, traditional/avant-garde, acoustic/electronic, virtuoso/novice, male/female, happy/sad and, why not, good/evil - into a unique and mindblowing whole.

Their debut album, called simply ‘Cat's Eyes', is a romantic pop masterpiece fit to dine at the same table as mid-'60s productions by Phil Spector, Joe Meek or Shadow Morton, but with a fiercely modern, experimental premise, which constantly leaves you wondering just what you're listening to, and how on earth it was created.

For Faris, it is a major departure from the whirlwind noise of The Horrors. For Rachel, too, it has been a big change from the gruelling work of rehearsing and performing operas and classical pieces in some of the world's biggest concert halls.

The two met through friends in 2009, and got on like a house on fire. "I was telling her about my love for 1960s girl groups," Faris recalls, "and how I'd always basically wanted to do a recreation of a girl group." I made her a compilation CD of my favourite songs, then I went away on tour. When we were talking about the stuff Rachel had been involved with, I hadn't really thought about it translating. But while I was away in Sweden, she sent me this demo she'd done, which ended up being the song, ‘The Lull'. In its original form, it had more of a Shangri Las feel."

"I really got into his mix CD," adds Rachel, "and that's when I sent him the track I made, just for fun. Then it just took on a life of its own. We started sending things back and forth, then whenever Faris was back from tour, we'd write a song together."
So, they kept writing, but soon came to the conclusion, according to Faris, that these "had to take on a different life, and end up sounding really unique. There's no real point in recreating something that's happened already. We were interested in exploring new sounds and recording techniques, while keeping within the confines of accessible songs." Adds Rachel: "We wanted the musical arrangements to evolve quite a bit, but to keep the lyrics simple and unaffected."

For Rachel, songwriting for Cat's Eyes became an obsession. After studying music in Vancouver and Verona, she got into composition in London. She's a virtuoso in a number of instruments, including piano, violin, English horn, oboe and cathedral organ, as well as an award-winning soprano.

"For ‘Not A Friend'," Faris recalls, "Rachel had an idea for a song while she was crossing the road somewhere. She sang the beginning line and the first verse into her phone while she was walking along, and on her recording you can hear birds in the background, and then the beep of a car as it swerves to avoid hitting her."

For Faris, too, Cat's Eyes is a very different experience from The Horrors. He's always been the singer and the lyricist, surrounded by a wildly creative band, bristling with musical ideas. Not trained in any instrument, he hasn't been able to feel his way into the non-vocal side of music, until now.

"I was always interested in having a project that makes heavy use of electronics, but still sounds warm and human," he says. To that end, he's been hording synthesizers, echo units, tape manipulation devices, effects pedals and all manner of sound equipment with a view to generating his own electronic sound. So, while Rachel plays "everything from harmonium to Indian tambura", Faris brings his own weird atmospheres, often twisting the vocals and instruments beyond all recognition.

Says Rachel, "I'd play English horn, and he'd put it through pedals, and make it sound completely different. Every acoustic element he was able to distort and manipulate. So an oboe part would become less corny. You'd never know it was an oboe, it's more like an interesting synth sound, maybe. Even some of the opera stuff I was singing for backing vocals, you wouldn't know it, because he would run it through his chorus echo, or some pedal or other into an amp, and play around with the sound until it wasn't recognisable."

After home-demoing their songs, Faris and Rachel recorded them at RealWorld, Peter Gabriel's studio near Bath, with producer Steve Osborne (Doves, Happy Mondays, New Order). Rachel: "We both agreed, he's very talented, and he has no ego - that combination is pretty special". However, pretty much everything was played by one or other of them, including a lot of the string arrangements, which Rachel multi-tracked herself. Some parts were recorded with an orchestra at Abbey Road, but they managed to save on one overhead, as Rachel was able to conduct them herself.

Thanks to their top-to-bottom involvement in everything on it, both Rachel and Faris feel deeply possessive and proud of ‘Cat's Eyes'.

While their music had digressed substantially from the original germ idea of a girl group, they decided that the lyrics should stay simple, and romantic. "It was definitely a different kind of lyric writing for me," says Faris. "The themes are stuff that people have always gone through in relationships, but while they're direct, and most people can connect with them, I don't think they're throwaway."

Having put so much of their extra-curricular time into making ‘Cat's Eyes', and having come up with something unique which evokes their 1960s heroes without copying them, the duo decided that they wanted to promote the project with a series of unusual events. The first took place in December, amid some secrecy, at St Peter's in the Vatican, which they arranged through Rachel's connections there, from her Verona days. They performed a reworked version of ‘I Knew It Was Over' during an afternoon mass, which was attended by seven high-ranking cardinals.

A video from there will be released on the internet in late January. The following month, the debut ‘Broken Glass EP' will be released, with the album ‘Cat's Eyes' scheduled for April. The artwork will feature images created by Chris Cunningham, the celebrated video director, responsible for the scarifying promo for The Horrors' ‘Sheena Is A Parasite'.

Faris summarizes: "We think that people can connect with the songs regardless of the kind of musical background they have. The themes are timeless and ones that most people have experienced. We wanted to present a world for people to make their own connections. We're ambitious for the project. We think we've made something that's really accessible, but not as a result of being cheapened. We want as many people to hear it as possible."

More extraordinary events are planned for March, and beyond. Stay tuned.

‘Broken Glass EP' released 28th February on Polydor, the debut album ‘Cat's Eyes' follows in April.

Thanks to Ticketline.