When violinist Sarah Neufeld agreed to work with composer Nils Frahm in Berlin this past winter, she knew they would record music together in extreme places; she just didn’t know how extreme. “I didn’t realize it would turn into these guerrilla missions,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Montreal. They forayed to a parking garage (“Wait for a car to drive by, start playing–‘Oh, there’s a car door'”), a train station (“There were footsteps, little echo-y footsteps of people”), and Teufelsberg, an abandoned hilltop geodesic dome made of WWII rubble.
“That was the most extreme,” she says, laughing. “There was a really loud wind tunnel that shifted around, and this 15 to 20-second natural reverb, and the sound of water dripping–it’s the craziest-sounding room I’ve ever been in.”
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The wild, rangy sound inside the dome became the “noise floor” throughout Hero Brother, Neufeld’s solo debut album, out tomorrow. Until recently, Neufeld was largely known for playing with other Canadian bands like orchestral experimentalists Bell Orchestre, the more pop-oriented Luyas, and last but certainly not least: the Arcade Fire. Each calls upon different skill sets Neufeld has developed as a lifelong violinist–she took up the instrument at age three, when she tried to snatch her older brother’s violin out of his hands, and has since been adapting it to one genre or another with a bent toward jazz instrumentalists she knew at university–informing but at the same time nothing like Hero Brother.
Performing and recording solo was such a new experience that it even affected Neufeld on a physical level: “I think my pulse was elevated the entire time I was in Germany,” she says. “Then I would come back to Montreal and be with my musical family and work on [the Arcade Fire’s upcoming full-length] where not all the pressure’s on me, and my pulse totally went back down.”
Neufeld’s visceral awareness comes from being a yoga instructor and practitioner (she co-owns and teaches at Moksha Yoga NYC, a hot yoga studio in the West Village) as much as a musician. In fact, it was the human form that led her to develop her own material, which grew out of compositions for filmmaker and friend Jason Last. In one of their videos, Scalpel/Stradivarius, body parts flit across the screen–hands reaching out, pearls cascading down a model’s back, an old man’s face hidden by a hat brim–as Neufeld scrapes at her instrument the back- and sometimes foreground, the high-pitched strings panting like a thirsty beast. That piece of lilting drone became “Breathing Black Ground,” a track at the heart of Hero Brother.
“I’m inspired by physical movement and the human body and the grittiness of life,” she says. “And Jason’s work has that visceral, gritty quality.” Those descriptors clearly resonate with Neufeld, who had always “wanted to experiment with making my instrument get intimate with the gritty, hairy, squeaky sounds when you get up close to a violin.” Her enabler was Frahm, whom she heard about from mutual friends like Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds. When Neufeld finally looked him up, she fell in love with his 2011 LP Felt, a collection of sparse piano pieces that crackled and popped like a dusty record. Six months after opening for Frahm at Manhattan’s West Park Church, she was “flying by the seat of her pants” to Berlin for their recording session.
A violin makes music because of friction, essentially, and the same held true for Neufeld’s relationship with her very first producer (none of her other bands have worked directly with a producer). As she remembers it, they negotiated “a bunch” of creative differences. “When someone suggests something”–in one case, a chord change–“your immediate reaction is probably ego-based, like ‘No, fuck you, that’s not how I wrote it.’ I was very opinionated with Nils.” She pauses. “I think he liked it? He said, ‘I love it when you’re so bossy.'” The two new classical musicians pushed and pulled at each other until they found a middle ground in the form of “Forcelessness,” one of the few tracks that features Frahm on piano. He strikes the keys only a handful of times, letting them fall like drops of water on the heated back-and-forth of Neufeld’s bow.
Neufeld also struggled with her instrument itself, finally buying a new violin for Hero Brother after the one she had used for over two decades just couldn’t take it anymore. “There were too many restrictions with the instrument,” she says. “I had to work too hard for it.” While shopping for a new violin (which I imagine to be like shopping for wands at Ollivanders) she noticed something: “When you hear a violin for the first time, and it’s right up close to your ear, each violin sounds like something you’ve never heard before.”
Still clearly awestruck after all these years, she continues, “Violins are, for me, super mystical. The more you change them, the more they open up.” Neufeld thinks for a second, and then grounds herself with something a little more tangible. “I always find myself comparing them to wine.”