Features - Interviews

Isolation and Release: An Interview with Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld


Both in her solo output and work as a member of Arcade Fire, Sarah Neufeld has long established herself as one of the world’s most forward-thinking, consistently singular violinists. Ahead of the only Irish date of her current European tour at Belfast’s The MAC on Monday (November 7), the Canadian chats to Brian Coney about collaboration, virtuosity, writing on the road and what to expect from Arcade Fire’s forthcoming fifth studio album.

Hi Sarah. Your second album, The Ridge, is a wonderful release. Congratulations. What was the writing process like for this release, especially compared to Hero Brother?

Thanks! I wrote The Ridge in a more concentrated time period, whereas the material for Hero Brother percolated over longer. I immersed myself with more isolation during the writing and recording of The Ridge – I was working in a very specific frame of mind.

You recorded the album in Vermont last winter with Hans Bernhard. How did you find the experience and why did you opt for Hans?

We had just built a studio with much help from Hans, with whom we (myself and my husband Colin Stetson) have worked extensively with – on the duo record and on tour with many different projects. Hans is very creative and gets amazing results while being totally lovely all the time.

Is there an overriding or overarching theme that you’ve threaded throughout the release, or is it more a series of standalone pieces?

There are some themes for sure – isolation and the release one can get from the natural world. Cyclical patterns of human behaviour in relationships with people and the planet. Things getting stuck.

Touching on Never Were The Way She Was, your collaborative album with Colin. In what ways – if any – do you think that release binds Hero Brother and The Ridge? Did it lend to the latter in any way?

NWTWSW and The Ridge were written in the same time period. That project is really the culmination of Colin and I’s two voices and shared compositional approach. I feel like it’s a record that’s very indicative of where we’re both at artistically on our paths, and of course there’s a through line from Hero Brother to that record, to The Ridge, and the same probably goes for Colin.

You started writing pieces for The Ridge on the Reflektor tour. Do you find it easy to write whilst on the move? And do you feel the blur, rush and forward motion of touring fuel inspiration?

It’s very challenging writing on the road – I never finish anything. It’s a very generative head space though – so I find it useful to constantly record all of my half ideas and just keep that energy moving through all of the touring.

It’s quite an expansive, transporting release with an almost visual narrative running through it. How did your surroundings or the physical world, and your journey through it, imprint itself on the record?

I spent a lot of time in the cold woods while making The Ridge, and yet when I closed my eyes I saw heat and color and everything over saturated, which is why I needed to find those cliffs in Portugal to shoot the imagery in. It was a bit of a duality for sure – the external reality of that music and the imagination of it.

Did you hope to break new ground on The Ridge or was it more a release to approach writing in a certain way rather than producing work on a necessarily progressive nature?

I think we’re always trying to break ground for ourselves in one way or another. I always think of making the best work I can make, and the given place that I’m at, and pushing myself out of familiarity a bit every time.

You’re rightly renown for your virtuoso playing. Whether you’re inclined to agree with that consensus or not, how is it both maintaining and constantly building upon that level of ability and musicianship?

It’s a funny word, that. I do maintain a very physical style of playing and it does take a bit of maintenance for sure. I’m constantly trying to become more fluid with my playing – to be able to translate the chaos in my head with the least physical resistance possible.

You evidently like to keep busy. What informs that burning compulsion and do you enjoy the assumingly at times quite hectic schedule?

Honestly, at this point the busyness has gotten a bit out of balance. I’ve always had a lot of energy and excitement, and to be able to be out in the world making this kind of music is a dream come true. But there does come a time when contemplating that very compulsion becomes necessary.

You’ve said that music is the purest form of communication; “without the bias of words”. That struck me. Do you hope for people to create their own inner narratives when listening to your music, particularly bearing in mind the general wordlessness of your singing?

Yes, for sure! Though there’s a few songs with words on this record. Words are so very powerful of course as well. I think it’s so special when someone can take themselves somewhere very deep in their own imagination by listening to music. To be transported is an amazing thing.

You’ve mentioned there’s a “weird darkness” to some of the material on the release. Can you expound on that or is a more intangible idea?

Haha one should never really say “weird”, should they?! I don’t know, I feel pretty free to go to the darkest corners of my mind when making music. I think that’s why making music can be so healing.

Kid Koala, Loscil and others have released some sublime re-workings of your material. How do you view remixes, generally, and do you consider them as collaborative experiences?

I didn’t collaborate in those two remix experiences, rather was just excited to see what Eric and Scott would do; I’m a fan of both of their work. In the best case scenario, a remix should feel a little bit like Christmas morning!

You are, of course, also a member of Arcade Fire. Were you involved much in the recording of the new album and, if so, how was the experience/how is it sounding?

I’ve recorded on every record, and yes this one too. I’m excited to see how it all turns out – but I won’t spoil it for you by saying any more!

You’re set to play Belfast as part of a forthcoming European tour in November and December. I might be wrong but is this your first time playing Belfast in any guise?

It is my first time coming to Belfast – I can’t believe it! I’m really excited about it.

Finally, you will be joined on the night by Stefan Schneider. Without giving too much away, what can newcomers and fans alike expect from the performance in terms of set-up and material?

Stef and I are long time collaborators in our band Bell Orchestre. It’s a really dynamic and physical show, while remaining very intimate with just violin, drums, voice and a bit of synth. Stef is amazing and very fun to watch.

Buy tickets for Sarah Neufeld at Belfast’s the MAC here

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.