Sarah Neufeld never really fit the classical-music mould, even though her first violin lessons came at the age of three. As much as she tried to conform, her independent streak was too strong.
A native of Merville in the Comox Valley, where she was born and raised, Neufeld was exposed to the instrument when she was barely two, often accompanying her older brother to his lessons. But there was an early gut feeling, an inkling, that overcame Neufeld just a few years after she took up the instrument.
“I was really steeped in the world of music study, from before I could do anything else,” Neufeld said over the phone from her home in Montreal. “But I wasn’t the most studious violin student.”
Though she genuinely loved playing the instrument and showed increasing skill in improvising with her mother, by the time she was enrolled in Courtenay’s G.P. Vanier Secondary, Neufeld had dropped the violin in favour of the guitar. She still played the violin, but lessons — the foundation of most high-calibre violinists — were skipped so she could pursue a more rock-oriented direction with friends.
It was a fortuitous turn of events, to say the least. Neufeld, 33, is now the violinist in Montreal’s Arcade Fire, one of the world’s most critically praised and artistically respected rock bands.
She joined the group in 2003, shortly before it began recording its acclaimed 2004 debut, Funeral. She has since played on each of the band’s three full-length recordings, including 2010’s The Suburbs, which won the Grammy Award for album of the year and debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. sales charts the week of its release.
Neufeld was introduced to members of Arcade Fire through the Montreal music community, which she had come into contact with during her studies at Concordia University. It was at the school that Neufeld reintroduced herself to the violin, and began delving deep into electro-acoustics.
“When I decided to study violin again in university, it was on a totally different set of terms,” she said. “I didn’t want to go into the classical stream, because I had left that. I couldn’t see myself trying to play professionally in an orchestra; I couldn’t deal with that at all. And I didn’t do it to become a jazz musician. I did it to broaden my ears.”
Neufeld has created challenging instrumental music as a member of many groups outside of Arcade Fire, including The Luyas and Bell Orchestre (the latter act won a Juno Award, while the former made the long list for the Polaris Music Prize). Bell Orchestre is technically inactive at the moment — or, as Neufeld called it, “a sleeping animal.” Her past year was incredibly busy, nonetheless.
Along with writing and recording her solo debut, Hero Brother — which is in stores this week — and recording her parts for the upcoming Arcade Fire album, she also recently opened Moksha, a yoga studio in New York, with a pair of business partners. A huge yoga advocate, Neufeld also teaches at the studio.
“I’m pretty much, calendar wise, tapped out,” she said. “But to be able to do music, and also be involved in a yoga project of that nature, I feel so incredibly lucky. I know it won’t always be like this, so I’m present in that enough to really appreciate it. Sometimes I have a mini freakout and want a holiday, but I’m really thankful to be busy.”
She toured for a month solid in the spring, including dates with her boyfriend, the experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson. Neufeld said she worked on solo material during the last few months of Arcade Fire’s Suburbs tour of 2011, and got more serious about her own work in 2012. She recorded Hero Brother in January of this year with producer Nils Frahm in Berlin. All songs were written and performed by Neufeld on violin, with help from Frahm, a pianist, on two tracks.
The recording was done mostly in a traditional studio, she said, but a number of unusual places — such as a parking garage and geodesic dome — were used to more accurately capture some of Neufeld’s abstract violin playing.
“The geodesic dome became a really prominent quality on the record,” she said. “There’s wind tunnel sounds that are woven in and out of some of the pieces and that was air that was coming through a hole in the wall. [The dome] was really, really high up in the air, this concrete dome on top of a mountain. The really extreme sounds on the record were natural, which pleases me.”
Unlike the majority of music on Hero Brother, Neufeld said almost all of the string parts in Arcade Fire are collaborative efforts between herself and fellow members Owen Pallett, Richard Reed Parry and Marika Shaw. The band’s as-yet untitled new album is due Oct. 29, according to its website. Neufeld was not at liberty to say much about the recording, which is one of the most anticipated in the music industry.
In fact, she was largely unable to talk about Arcade Fire even in general terms. “It’s such a giant, other can of worms,” she said, explaining her position. “But I can tell you I’m really excited for it all to be coming up, and I can’t wait for people to hear the record. That’s the one thing I will say.”
She does offer one final coda with regards to Arcade Fire, which in a lot of ways doubles as an explanation of her own approach to music.
“We are all pretty normal. We’re a pretty healthy family of friends. It’s wonderful to be in a position of having a really large audience and having such incredible opportunities, but I don’t think that gets in the way of the heart of what it’s about, which is music and playing together. That’s never changed.”