A conversation with Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld
The violin is a beautiful instrument – not that I would know, as one who spent most of my youth being forced by my parents to play the thing for over a decade and mostly just managing to play the theme from "Psycho," only never in tune.
Someone who would know a lot about the beauty and capabilities of the violin, however, would be Sarah Neufeld, the Canadian-born violinist who's made a major name for herself as a member of Arcade Fire. In between albums and tours with the lauded indie music collective, Neufeld's dipped into some solo work as well, debuting with "Hero Brother" in 2013 and adding her sophomore effort "The Ridge" just this year.
She'll be bringing her moving, evocative solo work to Milwaukee Tuesday night to the Back Room at the Colectivo on Prospect. Before then, OnMilwaukee got a chance to chat with the performer about her early fiddling days, going solo and comparing America's political coverage to Canada's – somewhat favorably even!
OnMilwaukee: Starting from the beginning, when did you start playing violin?
Sarah Neufeld: I was a little kid. The Suzuki method begins teaching kids quite young, so I was three. But I wanted to do it. My parents didn't make me. It always sounds like, "Oh, so you were forced," but no, not at all. (laughs)
Do you remember what it was about the violin or music in general that made you want to play?
I was privy to being in my brother's lessons once a week when I was two. So that year, I remember the feeling of being really drawn to it. I got to hear some of the older students; my teacher's daughter was a well-known classical quartet violinist and soloist, and she really inspired me. The small town I grew up in had a bit of a community of professional string players and teachers, and I found it really inspiring.
There was also something about being in my brother's lessons. Me and my brother were really close, so whatever was happening to him was happening to me. I remember feeling like I already played the violin, and I was like why won't they let me have my own lessons? (laughs)
Was there ever a moment where you stepped away from playing the violin?
I quit the violin and the whole classical lessons and orchestra thing when I was 13. I was playing the guitar and singing and shaving my head and all that cool, fun stuff you do when you're 13 or 14. (laughs) I took a few years off and realized that I could be alternative with my primary instrument as well.
I didn't take lessons again until I was in college, but I had a pretty interesting, creative band through high school that I was playing violin and guitar and singing. I was like, "This feels right; I like doing my own this with this instrument," and I had put so much time into it that it seemed silly to ditch it out of a "the classical world is bumming me out" kind of a reason. It seemed like a cop-out to me, so I kind of recognized that and went at it again.
(In college) I had a jazz violin teacher from the German part of Switzerland. He was a liaison – he wasn't faculty – but I was just lucky to have him there at that time when I studied. He kicked my ass. He was a jazz and classical guy who was very, very serious, and he taught me how to practice technique. That was my blast as I got reinspired to take it really seriously again.
That's where my solo stuff came out of, because I couldn't be doing what I'm doing on the instrument, technically or just performatively, without that, that intensity. I think I was actually practicing for about five hours a day for a couple of years … but that was really the only time in my life that I actually ever practiced. (laughs) I found when I was a kid that I hated it; I just wanted to jam. And now I do the bare minimum; I do my scales. I feel like I should probably go back to that teacher. I need my ass kicked.
Coming off that first solo experience to "The Ridge," what were some things that you wanted to build upon or improve upon from that first album?
I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to explore on "The Ridge" that were really singular. There's a piece called "The Glow," and I had the idea that there would be this really gated, otherworldly-sounding pizzicato figure replicating itself and losing rhythmic pulses and gaining them. I had a really crystalline idea for it, and I really stuck to that idea.
And with "The Ridge," I wanted to create a piece that was, in essence, a rock song, arpeggiating on a violin with a very specific type of reverb. Like, I just had this really clear idea of what I wanted. I just kind of birthed these more streamlined ideas, and by adding drums, it's not as minimalist as "Hero Brother," but I think compositionally, it's more minimal. Really, really focused within the compositions.
And then there's pieces that do sprawl and have different thought threads in them and where I more follow the direction they were taking me. Like "A Long Awaited Scar," I knew something had to happen and it was going to be really long, but I wrote it one minute at a time.
I think you get better at composing or you want to explore new ideas, so I took the same starting place that I had with "Hero Brother." It was the next step. I don't know if it's improving upon; I don't tend to think of artistic development that linearly. You're always in the moment that you're in, so you're always drawing on that moment and trying to use all of the potential for it.
It seems like there's more vocals on "The Ridge" than "Hero Brother." Why that addition?
Well, I think I always think vocally. With "Hero Brother," my idea would be that it would be so minimal and really violin-forward, so I only brought a little bit of vocals in there. But I sing a lot in other areas in life, and I wanted to bring that into the fold of what I was doing with my solo stuff.
It's also a really useful harmonic element. It's important for me still in this project that I don't employ any looping. So everything I do has to be live in my own body. I want to make all the sounds in the moment. It all takes facility. I've gotten better at singing and playing, so it's almost like my body allowed me to do that. Like, "OK, go now; go for singing. Green light." (laughs)
A lot of the reviews for "The Ridge" and your work, the word a lot of people bring up is "cinematic."
People have always called my work cinematic. It's because it's largely instrumental; that's why people have movies in their heads when they listen to it. That's not the impetus to create instrumental music, but I think it's a nice side effect, where people get to live out these weird stories in their own brains that are their own inward projections. They might have nothing to do with the music, but I love being that device that can turn on a light in somebody's head that they haven't necessarily shown or looked at before.
You're originally from Canada, so what are your thoughts on this current American election as someone from the outside?
To be honest, I've been spending so much time in the States that I'm more inundated by American press than I am with any other kind. I was actually getting my green card, so I was just in the States all winter. I spend half of my time here anyway; I run businesses in New York, and our recording studio is in Vermont. So I'm in a Bernie state, which is really awesome. We were already proud of Bernie Sanders before this, but now it's like really …
The thing I notice as a Canadian in the States – and then when I go back to Canada – it's just such a huge focus in America. In Canada, you don't notice an election in that same way; it doesn't take over the media in the same way. I almost want to be inundated more when I come to Canada. You turn on the news, and it's some cute, anecdotal story on CBC. (laughs) There's news here. It's just so much less of a dominating central point of awareness.
You've performed in Milwaukee before.
I have sure been to Milwaukee, sir! (laughs) Several times. I was in Milwaukee when the mayor declared it Bon Iver Day, and Colin (Stetson, fellow Arcade Fire collaborator) was in Bon Iver on that record. I surprised him in Milwaukee with my arrival, and it was the mayor announcing Bon Iver Day at the concert. It was the best Midwest rock vibe concert ever.
I feel like I made a point of having some Milwaukee frozen custard on that trip too, because it was summer. So we drove somewhere north, one of the famous spots. I did that. (laughs) I'd ever had it before. It's from here, so I had to, and it was really good.
I have to ask: Is Arcade Fire working on the next album?
It's early days Arcade Fire jam time at the studio. There's definitely a new record in the works. Early days. I won't even bother going into it.
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