Sarah Neufeld: „I am very inspired by dance and movement“

Sarah Neufeld is very busy, in the best sense. In March she released an album with one of her bands, Bell Orchestre. As we talk via Zoom she is just about to release her latest solo album „Detritus“, which emerged out of a collaboration with the Peggy Baker Dance Projects. She originally created the live soundtrack for one of their performances. Later, she developed these melodies into what eventually became the songs on „Detritus“. The project started out in 2018, shortly after she came out of a massive tour with her other band, Arcade Fire. Then COVID hit and with it came an enforced break on the performing arts, but Sarah Neufeld still continued to be busy. She had to figure out what COVID meant for all the aspects of her life, including being a business owner in New York and eventually becoming a mother. 

When we talk, she is struggling with the sleep deprivation being a mother to a new born comes with, but she is also radiating with energy, full of excitement about finally putting out an album, that had to wait longer than expected to see the light of the world. And of course we talk about her instrument, the violin, which she plays in Belle Orchestre and Arcade Fire and which is the core element of her beautiful, very unique solo work. 

What’s the situation like in New York? I heard it’s starting to be a lot better.

It’s good, honestly. There’s a lot of vaccinations going on. 50 percent of eligible people are vaccinated. It’s very relaxed, the numbers are super low. I hate saying that out loud to people who aren’t here, but we’re extremely fortunate right now. Because not only of the US having access to the vaccine, but also because of the culture embracing it here and the administration making it so easy to get it. And the messaging is very clear from the top down, there’s no confused political angle. I personally feel very safe and people are very respectful. At the same time it’s starting to be fun again. You can see friends and go for dinner. I haven’t done indoor stuff yet, but you don’t need to. It’s so beautiful outside in New York. 

And I heard you had a baby. Congratulations!

Thank you! It’s great. Just not a lot of sleep (laughs). But it’s getting more fun now. He’s starting to turn into a person. He’s still so little, but it’s starting to get less crazy. The first six weeks were a little bit like: what’s going on? (laughs). You’re just trying to figure them out and how to make things work, for them and for yourself. 

I mean, I don’t mean to say it’s ideal to have a baby in the middle of a pandemic, but you probably have at least more time to figure these things out, right?

Yeah. Although he was born right when things started to pick back up. He was born in the week that one of my bands released an album. So we had a whole lot of press before that, and right after he was born I started doing press for this, and then my business opened up last week in New York and I haven’t even been there (laughs). I own two yoga studios and I’m feeling so behind. Things are moving and I am not able to move quite as much. Let alone people asking me if I have a tour planned… how would I have a tour planned?! (laughs) I can’t even go to yoga. 

But still, you got a lot of things done! You just released another solo album. Please tell me how it all came to happen. I know that it originally started with a dance project you were doing the music to.

The Peggy Baker Dance Projects piece that I commissioned to do the live soundtrack for toured all through 2019. We began the collaboration in 2018. These pieces of music on „Detritus“ are the sort of core melodic themes from the soundtrack, but the live soundtrack had a lot more other elements of sound and noice, a lot more drum work by Jeremy Gara, ambient stuff and improvised music as well. When I started writing them in 2018, I felt like these pieces were so where I wanted to go as an artist with my next body of work. It felt like a little microcosm developing within this larger work. When the tour ended end of 2019, I started recording the „Detritus“ versions. I’ve been planning on it and waiting for the right time, because it’s been a busy couple of years. With the dance company we did one more performance in February 2020, right before COVID hit. The timing was so incredibly lucky for me, honestly. Besides having the album be on pause for a year, which I kind of didn’t mind. I was done, I didn’t have anything left to do on it, I had literally tied the bow at the end of February. I was able to go on pause completely. By the time I figured out the release plan it was fall, and at that point we were used to just waiting and seeing. I felt so lucky to have had the last couple of years that I did. I came off a massive Arcade Fire tour that ended in the fall of 2018, and we launched this crazy multimedia dance-music-video-light-piece just a few months after. The dance collaboration was a really beautiful project for me. I am very inspired by dance and movement and that kind of performance. It’s not a rock show, I love rock shows of course, but it’s a completely different type of experience. Having had this music exist in a different context was very satisfying. It had such a rich and fulfilling life already. 

So was the COVID break also even helpful in a way? I noticed that artists are taking it very differently. Some in retrospect say, this kind of enforced break was good for them. 

I mean, I got pregnant in June, and I felt like I really had to tend to it. As well as dealing with the businesses being closed, that was a massive undertaking as well. I was holding a lot of weight and responsibility. It wasn’t a break for me, it was like a really intense time. I was sad that the shows were cancelled, but I was also relieved. Not because it gave me all this creative space to feel free, but because I was able to deal with what I was dealing with. I had a bit of a different experience. A lot of my artist friends went into a kind of creative hibernation mode. That sounds really lovely, I’m a little bit jealous, I never got to do that (laughs). I did actually write some music in the early part. But then I got pretty wrapped up in everything else and had a really long creative dry spell. Now I have a new born, so I’m not working a lot creatively, but I feel creative again and I can totally hear the next album. I can’t wait to start that. But yeah, I didn’t have that refreshing pause that you’re talking of.

But definitely a pause that made sense!

Yeah! As a musician mother now, I am also pretty grateful that I’m not staring down a tour that’s starting in two months – knowing now how intense infants are (laughs). I feel so drained right now.

But you look amazing!

I applied the blush (laughs). I never felt so harrowed in my life. Don’t get me wrong, the vibes are great, it’s just the lack of sleep and I cannot imagine having to get on stage right now. I’d crumble (laughs). Maybe not with the band stuff, but with my solo stuff I need to practice three hours a day. I need to be very healthy, very rested. It’s so virtuosic, I can’t just relax and figure it will go fine. 

So I guess you have to keep in a practicing routine, even when you’re not performing?

Yeah, normally I do. But this strange thing happened to me through my pregnancy, I lost feeling in my hands. I got really bad pregnancy carpal tunnel syndrome and I am still dealing with it. I am able to play now, but I don’t practice right now. I did record the other day, which was fun, it felt really great that I was able to do that. But I need to actually rehab my hands. I never had anything that severe in my life, so I have a whole other appreciation for musicians that go through that – when you loose the very thing that you rely on. It’s almost like giving up your ego and your identity. 

Wow. That is tough! I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I saw your video for „The Top“, you look so beautiful with your baby belly, playing the violin. 

Thank you. I was doing that with paralyzed, numb hands. Well, I was synching, I wasn’t going to use the live audio for the video. But I had to be playing as vigorously as I would. It just didn’t have to sound beautiful so that was lucky. I had an ice bucket, you know. But I wanted to do that. I have all these ideas and fears around body image and pregnancy. Like, would I ever go on stage pregnant? So late in my pregnancy I decided to do this video and be like: yes, I can! And here it is. Just putting it out there. For myself, but for women also. Maybe somebody will see that and feel differently about putting themselves out into the world in that moment. I don’t know, I just needed to do that. 

Going back to what you said before, that you tied the bow on the album back in last February. What does it feel like to have such a long time between finishing an album and finally releasing it? 

Well I didn’t know what was going to happen when I tied the bow on it. It was already two months late back then, in my concept. I wanted to get it out last spring. Then COVID hit and honestly, it’s the first time that I ever felt maybe better even about music, having had a bit of a break from it and not needing to push it out right away. I probably didn’t listen to it until September. COVID was such a shock and trauma and weird time. By the time I started listening to it, my brain had been cleared out by this whole other event. Coming back I enjoyed it so much! I was worried, like: am I going to hate this? And I pressed play and kind of was like: ohhhh… I like this! It makes me feel good, this is beautiful! So it gave me quite a nice distance from it. And also because it had this big life on this dance stage, it took me a while to get to know it as something else. Now a year later I’m putting it out. It’s perfect timing (laughs).