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Island Diaries: Sarah Neufeld, violinist for Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre

Island Diaries: Sarah Neufeld, violinist for Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre

Sarah Neufeld reflects on her childhood growing up in the Comox Valley and her path to becoming a career musician and member of the Grammy nominated band Arcade Fire.

As told to writer Mike Berard. Illustration by Kevin McBride.


Growing up on Vancouver Island, I loved hiking and biking and lakes…I soaked up nature, but I always wanted to be in the eye of the storm. There were people out there doing things that I found exciting. Not dangerous, but I remember hearing [Montreal experimental music collective] Godspeed You! Black Emperor when I was 17. I was like…woah. That’s the darkest thing. It’s so beautiful and scary. I found a lot of music when I was 17 that struck me: this could not have come from here. This has been made in a place so different, from a harder place. But I didn’t understand that cognitively. I was just like, I have to go far away now, and make different music. I got turned on to Aphex Twin and Stereolab, and stuff that made it as far as our ears in high school. Like, Portishead! I loved Portishead! And I remember thinking, how does that sound exist? It doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever met. So, there was that sense of being really attracted to music from other places. But I wasn’t going to move to Liverpool as a 17-year-old. The Liverpool for me was Montreal. 

Even as a small kid I wanted to do more than the moment allowed. When I was two, I wanted to already be taking [violin] lessons. I don’t know if I wanted to be serious, but I already wanted to play. Probably because I had a big brother and he was doing it. I would take his instrument and be like, “Give it to me now!” and then I would enjoy it. I gravitated toward this thing. But I also gravitated toward action. I loved the idea of cities as a kid. I don’t know where it came from because I lived—well, you know where I lived…we lived in a mud puddle! [Editor’s note: the writer and Neufeld grew up together in Merville, in the Comox Valley.] It was a beautiful mud puddle, but I was like, “Get me the hell out of here.”


I found a lot of music when I was 17 that struck me: this could not have come from here. This has been made in a place so different, from a harder place.

I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t know if it was possible. But I was going to try, and I had this feeling that moving out east would help what I wanted to do more. At that time, Montreal was the music scene that pulled me. [Noted Canadian artist/puppeteer] Clea Minnaker was my closest friend in high school and she had already moved out there. I had another couple friends in Montreal. One of my closest friends to this day–who I also run Modo Yoga studios with–was a cellist in that music scene and she’d just moved out, so it wasn’t a total no man’s land. I’d visited and it seemed exciting and foreign. And a little bit edgier. Anything was edgier than this [the Comox Valley]. This had no edges at all.

Playing an instrument is a not a good way to make money [laughs]. I didn’t actually think it was possible to make a living. And that’s because… nothing against a place like this [the Comox Valley], but I didn’t know a whole lot of career musicians here, and the only ones I did know of were in an orchestra. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t just study classical music and I didn’t just study jazz either. I wanted to study a lot of different things and composition and electroacoustics because I was trying to find a way to make music that wasn’t any of those particular niches. It just so happened that all of the people I met at university were the people that I started to play music with, and that I still play music with 20 years later. I met [Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist] Richard Parry on the first day of school and we started playing together and started Bell Orchestre. And then I started playing with Arcade Fire through that micro-world. There was no, “I can make a living as a violinist if only I…” It was an accident. Because I am more on the experimental side, and because I’m a composer and I play in this way, it isn’t really standard. I do play in a standard, smooth way with Arcade Fire, but I also have a good ear for rock music, so it makes me flexible. I can play a few instruments.

I think that professional high-level string players have a lot of technique. Obviously they work really, really hard and you have to have an insane level of technique to play repertoire. I don’t have that level of technique, but I don’t not have it either. So, I think I get taken seriously enough [laughs] because I do have technique and I play into it. I get invited to play classical festivals and events where I’ll maybe play with an orchestra. Even Bell Orchestre was just playing with a symphony behind us. I’ve done that as a soloist—our musicianship is at a level high enough to be in a room playing with those people. 

I met [Vancouver Island musician and recording engineer] Corwin Fox through Richard [Parry]. I’d been hearing stories about “Cory Fox,” because Cory Fox and Richie were in a band together a million years ago. And I would hear so many great Cory stories. He’s a funny guy and he’s got a lot of great stories of his own, and then he moved to Cumberland, so he was on my radar in a different way. He’s now playing in one of Richard’s newer projects called Quiet River of Dust. We were all recently on tour together because Quiet River of Dust was playing in the same place right before Bell Orchestre. Our worlds have become a lot closer and it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to record and work on music in the Comox Valley—it’s such a relaxing place. Cory is so talented and really nice to work with. It’s like family. 


Priorities change—as I get older, I get closer to moving back to the Island. The roots out east are so deep at this point, but I keep coming back because I need to balance myself out in places like this.

It’s interesting now because I find myself wanting to come back to the Comox Valley more. I seek moments that remind me of the pace of this place. And it’s also good for creativity. Priorities change—as I get older, I get closer to moving back to the Island. The roots out east are so deep at this point, but I keep coming back because I need to balance myself out in places like this. When I get off the plane, even in Vancouver, my whole body relaxes. It’s that thing about the place where you’re from—it’s so visceral. The air—the moisture in the air—and the smell of the trees. Because of the nature here, it feels so palpable. And it’s extreme—I feel completely different here than I do in New York City. Or even Montreal. I can focus anywhere, but I like waking up in the morning and looking across the yard to the sea or going for a run in the woods. I get a lot of mileage out of that. Plus I see my family more, and that means something different now than it used to. I used to visit a lot, but I’m 40 now. And the concept of being with my family just feels different. 

The thing I notice about getting older is how I look at my solo work. I used to push myself so hard whenever I wasn’t on tour with Arcade Fire, and when I didn’t have other obligations. I was like, “OK, oh my god, get this album done and then tour as much as possible and say yes to everything.” And I really did burn myself out a couple of years ago. I hit a wall where I was touring two or three things at the same time and there was so much overlap and I started to lose my voice all the time. And it didn’t actually make sense physiologically. I was singing, but not enough to lose my voice. And I wasn’t partying enough. I don’t smoke. None of it made sense. I was just really tired. I started dialing it back a bit. I’m making my third album now, but I’m not stressing about it. I don’t feel like there is something that will happen or I will disappear if it doesn’t come out in April versus September. That internal pressure that we put on ourselves, that’s the ambition thing. I’m still ambitious and I will always be, but I also want to enjoy life. 


You get this one chance to present it on the record. And it has to have this top layer of blissful, floating continuity, and then underneath, there has to be this frantic, dark energy chasing, searching, scurrying around it.

My solo pieces are always a challenge to finish. They are not a challenge to write. A lot of times a piece like that will almost fall out of me, honestly. The beginning motifs come to me, but very rarely can I describe to myself where I want a piece to go. I get the feeling that I’m chasing. And it is a feeling—like with a particular piece I’m working on with Cory—of being sustained on this almost blissful, floating thing, with this rapid undercurrent of other stuff beneath. And I know that it doesn’t make any sense at all, and I never try to explain it to myself. But when I’m recording a piece—especially when I’m looking for the essence of it because I want it to come through—you get this one chance to present it on the record. And it has to have this top layer of blissful, floating continuity, and then underneath, there has to be this frantic, dark energy chasing, searching, scurrying around it. It’s a weird one. But then ultimately it becomes this very heartache-y melody that takes you home in the end. 

To find out where Sarah is playing next, head here. Or, you can give her a follow her on Instagram.

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