Sarah Neufeld | Indoctrination for the Unindoctrinated Listener

sarah 500I could have taken all sorts of unsavory paths if I hadn’t been guided to stick with something and work hard at it.



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Before the internet provided easy access to volumes of information, with varying levels of accuracy, about any given subject, fans relied on publications and credits. It was customary to consult the liner notes of an album you loved to find out who was making the music, what the lyrics were, and whom the artists thanked. The payoff was often a lead to another artist, or a list of collaborators who might be making more music you would enjoy. From this, entire music collections were built, with the tastes of the artists and producers involved in your favorite albums curating your pursuits. In the 21st century, there are more large ensembles and collectives that operate as bands and they have taken that concept and given it a physical manifestation, one-upping the internet. How so? By putting providing a devoted fan with a group of musicians in the band itself that produce enough output in varying incarnations to fill out a modest collection.

When a stage is filled with musicians all contributing a vital element to a particular song, you take notice. By these musicians maintaining a permanent role in the ensemble, the listener develops a sense of familiarity with them and the contributions, and thus a willingness to explore what said performer might do apart from the collective. One such ensemble is Arcade Fire, who drew some initial comparisons to another, more diffused collective—Broken Social Scene—in part based on geography, when they made waves upon the release of Funeral. Each successive release has seen their profile grow. It’s at this moment we are starting to see the individual musicians of Arcade Fire garner more attention for their talents in and beyond the band, though in some cases the talents in question are their basketball skills.

One of the more intriguing of these musicians is Sarah Neufeld, the violinist in Arcade Fire. Her award-winning work outside of Arcade Fire actually predates the creation of the band, and it just so happens her evolution as an artist has been perpetual, rewarding those inclined to explore music as art in the more traditional sense. As is the case in nature, evolution can take surprising turns, and the same applies to the creation of music. Currently on tour, Neufeld joins another artist who has evolved over the course of her career: St. Vincent. Neufeld was kind enough to indulge me with an interview and share more about herself and her perspective.

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Prior to your more widely known professional career, what was your musical background? How long have you played?

I studied jazz, electroacoustics, and composition at Concordia University. Before that, I played in the bands in high school like every good kid with blue hair. Before that, I was a kid who started Suzuki violin at age three, and studied classical violin until quitting at age 14. I quickly picked it up again, but figured out that I enjoyed playing in bands more than orchestras.

Do you feel any advantage from having had musical training from an early age, being raised in a musically inclined family environment, and having being free to experiment and learn music outside confines of classical training and convention? What about isadvantages?

I’m 100% thankful to have been supported by my family in learning an instrument from a young age. I could have taken all sorts of unsavory paths if I hadn’t been guided to stick with something and work hard at it. The fact that my family was into music from all over the world, as well as classical and modern classical, gave me a very wide palette of influences at a young age. I was also encouraged by my mother to improvise early on. These are probably the reasons I stayed a musician. I couldn’t find joy in the traditional path available to me as a classical musician, and at no point was I ever told by my parents that trying to be somewhat of an experimental musician was a bad idea. Everybody has a different learning style. It took me a long time to really find my own approach to my instrument in a dedicated fashion, and through that I developed my solo compositional style. Had I had different teachers I would have had a different time. It’s impossible to say one way of learning is better than another. It’s really important to have the unconditional support of your family.

Did your education and the frame of reference it gave you toward music have any impact on the dynamic you’ve had with artists you’ve collaborated with? Do you tend to gravitate toward like-minded artists?

The musicians that I collaborate with all have their own unique histories and approaches to playing and writing. I’m drawn to people that like to explore and that aren’t concerned with living in a fixed musical genre. I remember meeting Richard Parry during the first week of our degree and getting excited that we both listened to Stereolab and Rachels and Aphex Twin; we started playing together pretty quickly, with a great sense of fun and experimentation. That collaboration led to the formation Bell Orchestre, as well as my involvement with Arcade Fire, and meeting Colin Stetson.

Since many will lean on your being part of Arcade Fire as their frame of reference, how would you describe your role in the band, how it reflects you as an artist, and your position in the ensemble?

I play a small part in the Arcade Fire. I think it’s incredible to be a violinist in a band like that, for the whole arc of its career. It’s really fun and really special. I play differently in the band than I do in more experimental projects. The violin serves a more traditional role in the Arcade Fire, though at times I go off the rails into noisier territory. I think it’s a lovely placement, though it’s not entirely representative of what I do compositionally in my own and other projects.

How would contrast that with Bell Orcheste? In either case, was there an archetypical group dynamic you looked to for inspiration or as a point of reference?

Bell Orchestre [note that the word Bell here refers to the thing that goes “ding dong” and doesn’t mean beautiful in French] is an entirely different animal. We’re a collaborative creative mess, writing though improvisation—a painstaking process that ends in fantastically surprising results. Bands are all crazy and beautiful monsters of dynamics. Those dynamics are secondary to the music that gets made, but do play into everyday reality. I think it’s really healthy to have different styles of collaborations, as well as solo endeavors, to let your whole self breathe.

Do you think a certain amount of solitude, at least in when it comes to the inception of the creative process, is necessary when operating without stylistic or aesthetic limitations? Does freedom of that sort work better with one person, with no limits, versus a group of individuals each with their own unique talents and ideas?

Solitude certainly comes into play when composing alone. In fact, I’ve never spent so much time alone as I have over the past four years. I think when you’re composing with no stylistic or aesthetic limitations, yes, it’s at least more efficient when there’s only one or two people involved. When there’s more people it works better when people involve their own opinions and personal styles a bit less, to find the right intersection for the group. But I suppose that’s the way with everything in life.

Your solo compositions demonstrate the fluidity of genre in the modern age. Though violin is thought of as a classical instrument first and foremost, your work spans the gamut of artfully minded music, and above all has a cinematic/impressionistic quality. Does having the power to prompt emotional affect so potently inspire you to stir particular emotions to drive home points that may be more direct?

I’m not calculated enough to drive home particular emotions. I’m not writing with that sort of thing in mind; in fact, I often shy away from utilizing the violin’s full melodramatic scope. I have a slight “cringe” reflex when it comes to the overly violinistic.

Over the years, there have been a number of musicians who have transitioned from careers in the rock/alternative world to work in theater and film music, doing scores to great success. Trent Reznor comes to mind foremost, as being nominated for an Oscar never hurts one’s profile. There’s also Nathan Larson of Shudder to Think, whose film work has become ubiquitous. Have you been approached to do any work of that sort?

Yes. Colin Stetson and I have worked on a couple of film scores together, and will continue to do more—though it’s one thing to write “cinematic” music and quite another to actually compose for someone’s film.

Your compositions for violin, by nature of your talents and the sonic qualities of the instrument, are incredibly evocative and dense. Do you ever find yourself entranced by your own playing? What do you find most attractive or engrossing about playing and listening to violin?

I find that, at my best moments when I can lose myself in playing and not overthinking the playing, I can be immersed in the minutia of sound, and I find that very engrossing.

What instruments do you find as compelling as violin, if not more so? What instruments do you find least compelling?

I don’t necessarily find the violin more compelling than others. I was drawn to it when I was three years old and set my mind to it ever since. I’ve sometimes wished it was the cello or piano, but the grass is always greener. I can’t say there are more or less compelling instruments. It’s all about the music and how it’s being played, and less about the medium.

Did you have any previous connection with St. Vincent prior to this tour? Your musical backgrounds seem to have many parallels. Will you be collaborating in any fashion?

Annie and I met on the Neon Bible tour in 2007, when she was opening shows for us. We’ve crossed paths a bunch, and have not yet collaborated in any way. I’m really looking forward to this tour!

St. Vincent’s fan base, much like Arcade Fire’s, draws from an ever-expanding and diversifying swath as her popularity increases and her musical output evolves. Do you feel any pressure to illuminate the more art-oriented element of modern independent music to the members of the audience who maybe unaccustomed to hearing instrumental music or solo instrumental performances?

I think St. Vincent’s fan base has open, adventurous ears, and I’m happy for that. I feel no pressure to illuminate anything but the best of what I’m offering. I’ll actually be performing a new body of music that is neither solo nor completely instrumental. I made a new solo record over the winter, and it’s in the mastering phase. Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara collaborated on the new material, so it’s quite different than Hero Brother. I’m singing a lot more, and there’s drums, as well as some bass contributions from Colin Stetson, Hans Bernhard, and my own hands. The music is still hard to pinpoint musically, by virtue of it being violin-centric and coming from me, but I’m really excited to bring it to these audiences and see how they react.

Has technology and interactivity made it any easier, or conversely more difficult, to stage a performance that captures the attention of an audience who has been conditioned to multi-sensory experiences with their entertainment? Has that influenced how you stage your shows?

The projects that I’m centrally involved in are decidedly old school and don’t make use of any cutting-edge technology besides microphones and good reverb. I find it inspiring when I see something beautiful and moving that does employ technology in a central way (Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys comes to mind), but that’s not my personal bag. One thing I will say is that people’s cellphone addictions are detracting from their ability to be present and take things in. The obsession around capturing the thing that’s happening in order to later become part of one’s online persona really empties out the point of being at a show.

We often hear about the different receptions artists get abroad versus in the United States. Does that apply to U.S. versus Canadian audiences? Which brings out the best performance in you?

I don’t see a big difference between U.S. and Canadian audiences necessarily. I find the cultures move east to west a little more than north to south, with some exceptions. San Francisco audiences have more in common with Vancouver audiences than they do with New York or Montreal or Toronto. It’s pretty wild to see cultural behaviors coming out in an audience. For me, the wilder, more effusive crowds are more exciting to play for.

For anyone coming to this tour, what would you hope for them to anticipate? Based on your experiences in Arcade Fire, and touring solo, what can an audience do to make you, or any artist opening on a tour of this size and scope, the most successful and happiest while performing for them?

I think this show is going to be really interesting, and I love that there is some serious woman power taking the stage. I expect that audiences coming to these shows are already going to be open eared, engaged and present—that’s the best an artist can hope for. | Willie Edward Smith

Sarah Neufeld opens for St. Vincent May 27 at The Pageant
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