Sarah Neufeld on "the air and the hair and the friction"
The violinist opens for St. Vincent on Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre. (Photo by Susan Moss.)
Sarah Neufeld's solo work, on the 2013 album Hero Brother and last year's Black Ground EP, tease immersive, meditative, yet sharply focused compositions from Neufeld's violin. The heft of these instrumentals usually comes not from loops or overdubs, but from a patient, rigorous playing that draws on reference points spanning from the warm and musty comforts of folk music to the barbed repetition and flitting arpeggios of contemporary classical. Neufeld's most recent release, Never Were The Way She Was, is a collaboration with saxophone player Colin Stetson, who like Neufeld is both a touring member of Arcade Fire and a heady solo artist for the adventurous Montreal label Constellation Records. Consisting entirely of live takes, NWTWSWaims to capture a naturalistic blend of Stetson's reed instruments (whose thunking, clacking keys are at times miced up-close to provide a sort of percussion) and Neufeld's taut violin, and while that leads to plenty of gorgeously bleak songs (especially “The Rest Of Us" and “With The Dark Hug Of Time), the two also come through with moments of graceful uplift, most notably on the spiraling, interlocking melodies of “In The Vespers." Neufeld checked in with us by email ahead of of her performance opening this Tuesday's sold-out St. Vincent show at the Orpheum.
Tone Madison: On Hero Brother, you experimented with recording in a variety of different spaces. How does a sense of space inform your approach to composition? Do the differing acoustics of different venues on tour inform how you approach your set from night to night?
Sarah Neufeld: Recording in spaces with extreme acoustics most definitely colors the feel of the performance on the record. I don't specifically take that approach to composition. I write everywhere, in my room, backstage, a hotel, a hallway. Acoustics certainly play into live concert performance as well, but when you're dealing with amplification, not as much. I'd say the acoustics of a concert venue are felt more precisely from the audience's perspective.
Tone Madison: Speaking of space, the pieces on Never Were The Way She Was feel very dense and at times almost claustrophobic. Was that intentional?
Sarah Neufeld: At times that record does sound very dense—immersive and yes, perhaps claustrophobic. There's an extended mic-ing technique with Colin's instruments, so you're hearing the inner workings of his horns, his breath, his fingers on the keys. We also employ close mic-ing with the violin, so you get the air and the hair and the friction, as well as the more spacious, pastoral and reverberent moments. I think it's a big part of the sound we're creating—not just the sound of two people in a room, but a three-dimensional, inside-out, intimate and unearthly environment.
Tone Madison: I know you and Colin Stetson have played together before, but what is your collaborative relationship like? Is it helpful to work with someone else who also builds records around a solo instrument?
Sarah Neufeld: The idea behind this record was to combine what we do as solo artists. We have similar but also different and complimentary approaches to our instruments, and to the way we hear music and compose. We felt that it would be a natural thing to bring our sounds together, and while it has its challenges, it is a very organic combination.
Tone Madison: How has the duo material evolved in the recent shows you've been playing together?
Sarah Neufeld: The body of work is entirely through-composed, and we perform it as such. Of course as you become more accustomed to the performance of something, it loosens up and gets more nuanced, so that's happening.
Tone Madison: What do you have planned for your live sets on this tour?
Sarah Neufeld: My live sets for this tour with St. Vincent will be a preview of the new solo album I just finished making. I wrote a new body of work around the same time as the duo record, and recorded it right after. Jeremy Gara (from Arcade Fire) plays drums on it, and will be on this tour with me. We're terribly excited to play these new songs for people.
Tone Madison: What's next for you?
Sarah Neufeld: I'll be putting out this new solo record in late fall/early winter of this year, so I'll be playing shows around that as well as continuing to tour with Colin for NWTWSW. It's a crazy and fulfilling year.