The Fall Issue of the Subbacultcha quarterly magazine is out now
Violinist and composer Sarah Neufeld manages a busy schedule. She became well known as a member of Arcade Fire, started her own band, Bell Orchestre, she’s worked together as a duo with her husband, the avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, and, in the last 2 years, has begun to stage her solo career. She’s running between errands when I first try and call her, and on my second attempt I catch her ‘sitting in a room about to do a TRX session’. When I ask what that is… ‘it’s a really wonderful system of straps suspended from an anchor in the ceiling,’ her soft Canadian accent laughing through the phone, ‘it’s a lot of body weight stuff, kind of like yoga as there’s a lot of balance involved. I get really into that kind of stuff. I get really into exploring little techniques, like I’ll be jump roping a lot, or using a kettlebell – I find it really invigorating.’
Even as a 4 year old, I really wanted to improvise
She just returned from Vancouver Island, DC, a rare visit to where she grew up and most her family still lives, a place ‘a little bit like England. It’s sunny and beautiful, and rains quite a bit, but we actually had a week of tremendous heat, which was kind of surprising and delightful’. Although she now lives primarily in Montreal, she splits most of her time between New York – ‘where one of my yoga studios is’ – and a place in Vermont where she does most of her recording and writing – ‘There’s a different quality in Vermont than anywhere else in the States,’ she tells me. ‘One of those reasons is simply; they’re not allowed to have any billboards on the highways. So when you’re driving in Vermont – and it’s already very beautiful and hilly – but you have nothing obstructing your view, nothing commercial, no messages visually. So you get to just be in the nature, even though you’re driving. Which I think is very special.’
It’s all too easy to compare this sense of freedom to Neufeld’s approach to music. She recognises her musical upbringing as fairly interesting due to encouragement not only to read and practice music by the book, but also to delve into her own explorations – ‘even as a 4 year old, I really wanted to improvise,’ she tells me. Her first 10 years of training was by the Suzuki Method – a system that develops your ear, she then went on to study jazz and electroacoustics – expanding her harmonic horizon and giving her more vocabulary to base her improvisations. ‘A lot of times you can get stuck,’ she sighed, ‘I find sometimes when listening to people improvising it sounds like people talking over each other, you know, not really connecting or communicating, and there’s not a lot of space.’ Her band, Bell Orchestre, hold sessions where they improvise in duets; ‘so there’s 6 of us in the band,’ she starts, ‘and we’ll be sitting in a circle, one person will start and then one person will join in. Then those two will go on a improvising conversational journey, and then, the next person in line will join in, so for a moment there’s three. The dynamics changes a bit, and so the first person artfully shifts away, and allows those two to go on as a duo, and on and on.’ It gives them the space for interesting and beautiful things to happen, without it, she tells me, people tend to get into the fight or flight nervous system response: ‘People just want to put it out like; BLAH – this is what I sound like…’
I will stumble across something that becomes a bit of a wormhole that I have to go down
‘I was such a little show off,’ she laughs, before describing a game she would play in her early childhood where people would shout out a feeling, and in response she would improvise them a piece and ‘provide them with something that would hopefully take them on a little bit of a journey – I remember really loving doing that.’ It’s not how she composes herself though, her ideas arrive in musical form, ‘really,’ she tells me, ‘and then it’s almost up to me, when I’m giving them shape, to translate that which I hear, into something which I am thinking or feeling. I mean, a more conceptual idea can blossom out of that, but I do get these fully formed, almost produced ideas in my head, and I’m like, OK, how do I make that sound?’ Running, hiking, being outside in general is good for these ideas coming to her, but she could also just be playing, and ‘I will stumble across something that becomes a bit of a wormhole that I have to go down and, you know, if I’m drawn into it and attracted to it then I think it’s a valid thing to follow, so I spend more time with it. Sometimes I think, oh no! This is crap! And so I throw it out.’
Neufeld’s compositions and performances are very physical and it’s something she’s incredibly mindful of as she tells me how important – and wonderful – it is to have an ongoing education. An education which includes rudimentary exercises both on violin and voice but also a ‘pretty dedicated home practice’ when it comes to yoga. ‘When I’m in a city – when I’m in New York City especially because I own two yoga studios there – I’m constantly in that community of taking people’s classes, giving feedback, teaching – sort of like a yoga school almost. Teaching, taking, mentoring. When I’m in other cities where I know people who run great studios, or when I have the chance to take classes, I will do a lot of them, but when I’m on the road, like Vermont, working on music, I tend to just mix my own hodgepodge of physical routines which, for me, might be yoga every other day, and something more extreme every other other day.’
I can hear a lot of my electronic tendencies… Although… it’s the sound of wood, so it’s very different!
‘When we say yoga we think of poses, but actually yoga really comes from a lot more,’ spending the last decade practicing yoga breathing and meditation has allowed Neufeld’s focus to sharpen, her concentration to get more honed. ‘I’ve found that by dedicating myself to yoga, I can dedicate myself a lot more to other things that demand more time and patience.’ Working on her solo records has been one of those achievements. The process of writing The Ridge, her second solo album, began on tour with Arcade Fire – ‘so it was a lot of stopping and starting – doing little pieces and then coming back and revisiting.’ It was only once the tour was done that she was able to fully dive into the album and finish it off – ‘I was immersed in a natural environment, without distractions, I was alone, I was just able to take all these ideas that I had been tinkering with part-time and able to go into it and some miracle ideas were able to come through with that because I allowed myself some space and time and solitude.’
If Hero Brother, her debut solo album, was the infancy of her solo work, then she’s confident in The Ridge being the adolescent; ‘I was pulling in a lot more of my influences, and I was more confident in that I had written an album before – well maybe not more confident – but more relaxed, and much more open to bringing in other elements.’ She describes how we’re all sponges to influences, so although she might not draw directly on anything, listening back to ‘The Glow’, for example; ‘I can hear a lot of my electronic tendencies, and that’s been – from a very young age – a lot of Aphex Twin, Autechre, and I can hear that in that piece. Although… it’s the sound of wood, so it’s very different!’
Sarah Neufeld will perform at s105 (De School), Amsterdam on Thursday, 3 November. The Ridge is out on Paper Bag Records.