As a general rule, we tend to take backing musicians and session players for granted. We have the tendency to focus on lead singers and charismatic stage performers, but those particular musicians tasked with creating and sustaining the body of the music are often relegated to backstage seating or the rare periphery acknowledgement. Every so often though, there comes an artist who steps out of the musical shadow of the bands to which they have added so much character and rhythmic insight and releases music on par with anything by the artists with whom they’ve previously been associated. It’s an unusual feat and one that never fails to amaze and impress.
Montreal’s Sarah Neufeld – member of, and composer for, bands such as Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, and Little Scream, among many others – was drawn into music at an early age and developed a particular affinity for the violin, which soon became her weapon of choice. Drawing inspiration from the great classical composers but also skewing toward the more avant spectrum of stringed arrangement, Neufeld counts Bela Bartok, Steve Reich, Iva Bittova, and Arthur Russell among her most dearly held influences. And as Montreal has always been a birthing ground for remarkable musicians and bands, it didn’t take very long for her to find like-minded artists who were more than happy to join her in indulging in her musical sweet tooth.
The ideas that would form and coalesce into the sounds and textures of her upcoming debut record, Hero Brother (August 20th via Constellation Records), were initially shaped during her residency with Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre around 2011 – though the argument could be made that it began when she picked up her first violin. Beginning with compositions intended for solo violin and slowly unfurling them to include brief appearances from other instruments and rhythms, she toned down the grandiose indie rock aspects of Arcade Fire and melded them with the mostly formal orchestrations found in the work of Bell Orchestre. And though her time in these bands do shape the way in which her new, solo songs develop, there is always something unique and surprising about the music that drifts capriciously throughout her debut.
Recently, Neufeld sat down with Beats Per Minute to discuss the recording of Hero Brother, how the musical community of Montreal has helped to provide a creatively conducive atmosphere for artists, and how she intends to replicate the sound of the songs on her debut in a live setting. She’s quite forthcoming about her influences and even talks about recording the songs for Bell Orchestre’s debut in the loft of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. Check out our brief conversation with the extraordinary violinist below.
Beats Per Minute (Joshua Pickard): You’ve worked, and shared the stage, with many well-known Canadian artists such as Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, and you’ll soon be sharing a stage with fellow Constellation Records label-mate Colin Stetson. Is there a particularly close knit feeling among the bands there in Montreal? Rebecca Foon (of Saltland, also on Constellation Records) made mention of an almost familial feeling to the music scene there.
Sarah Neufeld: There is a really lovely sense of community amongst musicians in Montreal. Richard Parry and I formed Bell Orchestre while studying music at Concordia. We rehearsed in Win and Regines loft; I began playing with Arcade Fire shortly thereafter. Rebecca Foon and I have been collaborating in one way or another for even longer. The past 15 years of my being a musician in Montreal has unfolded alongside many peers; different collaborations evolving at different times. It’s been inspiring and heart warming to be part of the growing community. I think its part of what makes us all survive The Winters.
BPM: Arthur Russell, Steve Reich, and Bela Bartok have all been mentioned when talking about the influences that you brought together for the recording of your debut record Hero Brother. When and how were you first exposed to these artists?
SN: I grew up playing a lot of Bartok, mainly duets with my mother. Bartok was a very formative composer for me- the harmonic and melodic landscape made total sense to me as a child and informed the way I improvised and later composed music. I’d connected with Reich’s music at a young age as well, also to that of Philip Glass. As I grew up, minimalist music began to feel like home; minimal techno became a huge staple for me as well. I remember feeling so touched, surprised and excited upon first hearing Arthur Russel in my twenties. It made me cheer for cello and dance music and improvisation and it made me want to make music like that!
BPM: Seeing as how you’ve spent years adding your own unique sound to other people’s songs, what finally made you decide that it was time for you to stand apart and release your own debut record?
SN: There’s been the idea to write solo violin music in the back of my head for some time. I love collaborating with people so much. And I hadn’t spent much in solitary composition mode since my early twenties, making electroacoustic-ified minimal techno for my arts degree. I knew I wanted to push myself alone, with my heart instrument in a way that I hadn’t yet fully. A couple of film makers asked me to write whatever form of composition I felt compelled to for their short films at around the same time. I took that as a cue from the universe to start working really hard on solo violin music. Then, after The Suburbs tour, I found myself alone in a room with a million tiny ideas.
BPM: Having heard the lead single (and title track) from Hero Brother, and hearing how dynamic the track sounds without feeling overly complicated—and with a seemingly bare minimum of moving parts—was there a conscious decision to keep the compositions on the record simple while still retaining an almost tangible sense of space and distance within the instrumentation? Or is this track possibly less indicative musically in regards to the rest of the album?
SN: No that’s it- I find it exciting to push a bare idea into all these different emotional worlds. Re-reading that sentence I realize that its often the bare idea that’s pushing me. But that retaining an amount of simplicity and then finding these vast colors of character and emotion is often a starting place for these compositions.
BPM: Were there any particular pointers or recording techniques that you picked up in your tenure recording with Arcade Fire or Bell Orchestre or any other bands which came into play during the recording of Hero Brother?
SN: The style of writing and playing I explored making Hero Brother is more linked to the work that Bell Orchestre was doing. That group created a forum for all of its voices to really explore their individual quirks and potential. It was a free for all in a lot of ways, but then we would painstakingly craft the chaos into thoroughly-composed band pieces. Its a similar process that I go through alone, but the line between my own musical chaos and the direction I choose to sculpt toward is a lot shorter and more clear cut.
BPM: You’re playing quite a few shows in the lead up to the album’s release. Are there any plans for trying to alter the songs for a live audience or are you going to stay fairly faithful to the studio versions?
SN: The recordings for the most part are quite live, with the exception of Nils Frahm treating one of them (“Forcelessness”) to his piano, and another (“Breathing Black Ground”) to a wonderful bass harmonium drone. We experimented a ton with a portable recording set-up (a tape machine from the 60’s called the Nagra 4) in spaces with extreme natural acoustics: a geodesic dome, a train station, and a parking garage. The ambient noise occupying much of the record, weaving in and out of the pieces, is the actual wind blowing through a hole in a concrete wall very high up in the air overlooking Berlin. It ends up sounding like the ocean. This effect I wish I could take with me, though some sort of portal would be needed.
Sarah Neufeld’s debut record, Hero Brother, is due out August 20th via Constellation Records.