Our conversation is winding down. Sarah Neufeld, known for her work with Bell Orchestre, Arcade Fire, and her collaborations with partner Colin Stetson, is discussing her latest solo release, The Ridge. Neufeld’s speaking from what could be a crowded restaurant. Occasionally, a baby burbles in the background and other voices creep into the silent spaces between our words. Neufeld proves an excellent conversationalist. Affable and funny she isn’t the guarded subject that some musicians can be. The closing question is one of audience. Who does she think buys her records and comes to her shows?
“Everyone who has an open mind and likes to experience music in a physical way,” she says.
Physicality comes up more than once during our conversation. Discussing the writing of the record, which began during the year she and her friends in Arcade Fire spent on the road behind the Reflektor album, she discusses place more than time. Hotel and dressing rooms serving are “not the most fertile” spaces for visits from the muse, she admits but that didn’t stop her from trying. As ideas struck, she’d commit them to digital impulse on her phone. Notation, or attempts at notation, she adds, fail to convey the feel of the music.
“If I’m going to play something, usually it means that I know it in my body,” she says. “My style of composition is so specific to the way that I play that the ideas usually come from a physicality. I’m trying to wrap my body around a new way of playing.” She points to the title tune of her latest recording as an example. “I’m playing all of the strings at the same time and using rapid bow movements,” she adds. “It took me six months to carve out enough physical technique in order to finish writing it. I would have never arrived at the same conclusion if I’d started from a place of notating.”
Once she’d settled upon the general shape of the compositions she retired to the studio that she and Stetson built in Vermont and where they recorded their Never Were the Way She Was release. She points out that she leaves little to chance when it comes to her violin parts. “I really like to have my parts well-oiled by the time I’m recording. You get so much more expressive as you refine the art of playing something,” she says. “I am constantly pushing my own playing limitations. So when I write something I’m not very good at playing it at first.”
Vocals, which some have noted take a great prominence on The Ridge than on past releases, are a different story. The lyrics to “We’ve Got a Lot” were written, in her estimation “about seven minutes before I recorded them. I had the feelings and I had the short phrases I wanted. It was quite natural. I wasn’t as hard on myself as I would be with the violin.”
Although she’s recorded in some unusual spaces before, including in an abandoned geodesic dome and an underground parking garage, she says this time she was after something different. “I wasn’t trying to push that unusual angle at all,” she offers. “I used the same engineer that we had used. It wasn’t experimental at all.” Still, one can detect a few sounds that seem to have come from find the right nuances in the space rather than nuances in the recording gear. “We recorded a lot of the violin in this very old, wooden-sounding room in an old farmhouse. It had this brightness and warmth and character that was unique and strong but I didn’t find it overwhelming. It just fit.”
Those who haven’t dipped their toes into Neufeld’s solo work might be surprised at its eclectic roots and branches. It’s tuneful but adventurous, owes a debt to the avant garde but never rises to the level of esoteric. It seems only appropriate that she would arrive at that amalgamation. She points to her family’s diverse record collection. Bach and Bartok rubbed sleeves with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix who in turn rubbed sleeves with rare recordings from South Africa and West Africa.
“There was a lot of world music that I haven’t necessarily come across in my adult life,” she says. Those unconventional tastes led her to an unconventional approach to performing music. “I wasn’t super interested in practicing repertoire,” she says. “I was super interested in improvising. I didn’t grow up think that a violin was an instrument strictly of Western classical music. So it made sense to me to not delineate so much.”
Neufeld’s explorative tendencies led her to abandon classical training at 13. She was interested in the guitar and rock music and playing with people who shared similar interests. “It didn’t feel right to lead this double life,” she says. “The pressure didn’t feel good to me, so I just quit.” Later, as a university student, she encountered a teacher who “encouraged me to play my instrument in any way that I wanted to.”
Those tendencies can be heard in her new album’s longest cut, the nine-minute “A Long Awaited Scar”.
“That almost didn’t make the cut,” she admits. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to listen to this?’ It’s really long and meandering.” Its circuitous routes are perhaps some of its greatest charms. At the start one is reminded of Ennio Morricone’s film scores, or as Neufeld calls it “almost space cowboy kind of string work.” The intro, she says, falls more in line with her earlier compositions before evolving into a raucous rock-influenced piece in the middle. “That was where it went but I didn’t know it would at the beginning,” she adds. “That song me the longest to figure out on the whole record. I hit so many walls with it. I’ve got hours of iPhone recordings of me playing, then swearing, then playing, then more swearing.”
“The Glow,” another lengthy and wide-reaching piece on The Ridge, is especially haunting, rising and falling in the most unexpected ways before resolving into austerity. “I wanted to do something that could have been on one of my favorite record’s, Autechre’s Chiastic Slide. That’s probably exactly what you were expecting me to say, right?” Once more she points to the preference of feel over thought with the number, accounting for the tune’s unusual turns in meter. “I’m always adding and subtracting pulses, which means I’m a nightmare to play with.”
But always a pleasure to listen to.