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The Strings That Bind Her: Violinist Sarah Neufeld On Her New Record And Her Longstanding Relationship With Arcade Fire 

Wednesday, Mar 16 2016
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Sarah Neufeld has just undergone a drastic hair color change. Though I can't see her (we're talking via phone), she says her husband is staring in disbelief at her formerly all-brown, now pink-flecked locks.

"He's screaming," she laughs. "But it's going to be OK. We're all going to be OK."

Neufeld has every reason to preach reassurance. Thanks to her longtime position as a member of Arcade Fire, she's arguably one of indie rock music's most notable violin players. She has played on all of the Canadian band's four records and on the corresponding tours. Before joining the band in the early 2000s, she was a member of Belle Orchestre, a post-rock outfit that also featured Arcade Fire members Richard Reed Perry and Pietro Amato. On her own, she's released three solo albums: 2013's Hero Brother, 2015's Never Were the Way She Was, and this year's The Ridge.

But over the years, it's been challenging to find the time to work on projects of her own.

"I spend 99 percent of my time in cities, on the road, and in airplanes," Neufeld says. "When I take myself into a place where it's quiet and I can breathe, that's a huge source of inspiration to me, no matter where it is or what it looks like."

Constant traveling is to be expected, given the immense popularity of Arcade Fire and the ever-growing number of tours undertaken since the first one in fall 2004.

Neufeld's career has always been a balancing act, with her navigating the immense demands of playing in an acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning rock band while also pursuing smaller her own projects whenever she finds a free moment. This arrangement stretches all the way back to when Arcade Fire was readying their first record, Funeral. Neufeld was playing violin in Belle Orchestre when Arcade Fire's lead singer Win Butler asked if she could pause the completion of Belle Orchestre's debut album to participate in Arcade Fire's recording sessions and later join them on tour. It's all symptomatic of what Neufeld calls the "vast and small [music] community" of Montreal, of which the Canadian-born musician is proud to count herself a member.

Early on, destiny decided Neufeld's calling. At the age of 2 — as a child who never had much interest in dolls or the new toys her peers were coveting — she watched her 5-year-old brother learn the violin and felt a burning desire to have one of her own. She says it wasn't sibling rivalry, but rather an urge to play with something she found undeniably enticing.

"I remember the day I got my own violin," says Neufeld. "I was 3, and I had been waiting a lifetime. I was totally righteous with this little tiny violin, like 'Hah! Got it!' It was like my parents had been keeping me from my dream for a whole year."

Neufeld's music can often feel like a soundtrack for something that has yet to exist, the pieces almost crying out for the listener to manifest a visual accompaniment to the aural experience. Her songs are mainly instrumental with some vocal accompaniment, an element that has grown in presence with her latest record, The Ridge. Released in February, The Ridge is a series of eight instrumental tracks that conjure an ethereal, haunting energy. Adding to this atmosphere are Neufeld's largely wordless melodies, sung over the commanding voice of her violin.

When writing music, Neufeld says she often uses her voice to find counter-melodies and harmonies within the piece. At a certain point with The Ridge, she simply decided to take the next step and incorporate that element into the compositions themselves.

While The Ridge isn't indebted to any specific influence as an album, the individual songs draw on a wide range of experiences. "What comes out of me instrumentally, it's really honest and raw in the only way that it can be," she says. The title track is a nod to Neufeld's love for shoegaze music, inspired in part by Slowdive and Cocteau Twins, two of her favorite bands. She says "The Glow" was spawned from her affinity for the Autechre record Chiastic Slide. Still, she cautions that nothing on The Ridge is straight emulation, but rather a calling to a specific context.

"There are strands of different influences lurking everywhere," says Neufeld, "but it truly varies from piece to piece. I think, if anything, that I'm the through line."

For The Ridge, Neufeld invited Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara to provide drums for the compositions, giving him free reign to add percussion to her voice and strings. She says their time together in Arcade Fire instilled a mutual understanding that made such a trust possible.

"It's like being roommates with somebody for 12 years," she says. "You are really good at cleaning the counters, but you leave your underwear in the bathroom."

In addition to her own solo tour, which is kicking off this month, and the work that she is putting in on Belle Orchestre's new album, Neufeld is also in the early days of working on new material for the follow-up to Arcade Fire's 2013 Reflektor. The band will be hitting the road this summer for a few shows, as well, which is something the group has never done in the middle of a non-touring period.

"It's really cool because you grab on to that live energy without this context of being on this big epic thing where you're away all the time and everybody's drained in different ways," she says. "This is us reuniting in a live setting, which is the best setting out of the context of a tour."

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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Bio:
Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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