One to watch: Cat's Eyes

After playing their debut gig at St Peter's in Rome, the only way is up for the Horrors singer and his soprano sidekick

As the venue for a band's first ever gig, the Vatican takes some beating. Most artists play their debut in a dingy pub, and their ultimate ambition usually involves nothing more imaginative than taking the stage at a soulless Wembley Stadium. That new duo Cat's Eyes are more creative than their peers is demonstrated by the site of their first public appearance: St Peter's Basilica in Rome, consecrated in 1626, with architecture by Michelangelo himself.

Not that the duo sold tickets and borrowed the Swiss guards to keep the mosh pit under control. Instead, in November last year, Faris Badwan, better known as the singer in Mercury prize-nominated Londoners the Horrors, together with his classically trained new colleague Rachel Zeffira, somehow wangled the chance to perform during mass. In the congregation were several cardinals, with perhaps even a future pontiff or two among them.

Today, in the more shabby surroundings of a pub in east London, around the corner from their window-less rehearsal studio, the 29-year-old, Canada-born Zeffira confesses that the gig was her idea. As a soprano who studied at a conservatory in Verona and has sung all over Italy – including at an audience with Pope John Paul II when she was a teenager – at least she knew who to speak to at the Vatican. They presented themselves as a choir, not a pop act, but Zeffira felt that the duo's 60s girl group-inspired "I Knew It Was Over" would suit the basilica's acoustics. Astonishing footage on the band's official website reveals her instincts to be correct, with the track, enhanced by a choir of friends, sounding as blissfully devotional as any hymn. The cardinals enjoyed themselves too.

"After the second reading this very large man called me over and handed me something," says Zeffira, who was worried they might be thrown out. "But it was actually a present, a medallion, which was a relief."

Badwan, 24, insists none of this was a stunt, more a way of testing themselves and the intensely emotional songs on their self-titled debut album, released on 11 April. "We like challenges," says the singer, previously purveyor of 90-second blasts of noise such as "Sheena is a Parasite". "And we don't want to be stuck playing Hackney every Friday. We exist outside of all that."

Forming Cat's Eyes is clearly liberating for both of them. Badwan is free from being the confrontational, black-clad beanpole known for hurling himself into crowds during Horrors shows, while Zeffira has escaped from the world of opera, where you can be equally subject to typecasting. "I was always playing Juliet," she says.

They also seem a snug fit personally, with Badwan exhibiting a brotherly protectiveness as he helps Zeffira with the trapped zip on her big winter coat. When they first met, through mutual friends, a couple of years ago, he was worried that she thought he seemed "bored all the time", but they soon bonded in the manner of all music fans: they made compilation CDs for each other. The combined tracklisting generated the DNA of what would eventually become the Cat's Eyes sound.

His displayed a deep love of the obscure end of the 60s girl group phenomenon, via tracks such as Dani Sheridan's cover of the Beach Boys' "Guess I'm Dumb". Hers revealed knowledge of classical music both old, such as Bach's oboe and violin concerto, and relatively new, like Ligeti's Volumina. Light relief was provided by sad pop tunes such as the Carpenters' "Superstar". "It was an exchange of ideas," says Badwan. "But we quickly realised we had similar ones."

They soon "bankrupted" themselves by recording much of their debut – including strings at Abbey Road – without the aid of a record deal. A short tour this spring should demonstrate similar ambition, and continues the religious theme, with stops including a 19th century Welsh Presbyterian chapel in London. "It's not about coming up with a gimmick," says Badwan, who's also recording another Horrors album this year. Zeffira interjects: "And if the songs work in the Vatican..."


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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