Published Apr 30, 2015Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld haven't had a whole lot of free time together over the years. The circular-breathing sax man and sublime violinist met back in January of 2006, when Bell Orchestre happened to play a Billions/APAP showcase at the Avalon in Manhattan on a bill with Antibalas, for whom Stetson was playing. Since then, they have played together in Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, scored a sniper film, and supported each other at select performances, all while releasing critically lauded solo albums, but they never attempted to create an album together until Never were the way she was, out now via Constellation Records.
"Our lives are super crazy," Neufeld tells Exclaim! "Sometimes we only intersect for a week at a time. Half of this body of work came under duress, during a week-long period last early summer/late spring, and the second half came in the same amount of time six months later. I was on tour all the time with Arcade Fire, and Colin does a ton of stuff. We were really excited about the idea of writing together, but we don't have the luxury of, like, 'Okay, so we'll rehearse a couple times a week for the next six months.' We can't do it that way. We literally lock ourselves in a room for a week, and out comes a record."
That room happened to be in a farmhouse attic in Vermont, at a studio appropriately called the End of the World. This is no bed and breakfast retreat. It is true country living, surrounded by nature and not a whole lot else, which means working in both the creative and physical sense. Even their well-respected engineer, Hans Bernhard, was out there getting his hands dirty, collecting wood for the stove. This manual labour, which Neufeld believes "is so good for the soul, speaking from years of tree planting," and isolation helped inform the mindset of their work for Never Were the Way She Was.
"No distraction is high on my list," Stetson offers, "and the opposite of tour is also very good, because so much of the past decade, for both of us, has been life on the road. It is nice to have a bit of something you can truly call sanctuary, to get a completely different perspective on things, and refuel. I don't think if it as just peaceful, because the way we interact with the out of doors and that whole thing is very rough and tumble. There's a lot more of a physicality to the times when we're remote like that. There's actual shit to do with chainsaws and hauling. There's work. It's something I've found that has been invaluable for my overall sense of reality. It does ground things, and frame the passage of time."
The passage of time is central to the concept of Never Were the Way She Was. The inspiration for the album was based on the idea of a woman who ages as slowly as the mountains, which guided many of their compositional decisions.
"When we first started working on this music, we had been talking about time. All of the music that we were writing tended to stream out different perspectives on the passage of time. That's where that started, this idea of examining time from multiple vantage points," explains Stetson. "Both of us have done in the past, with our solo things, worked with these kind of abstract narratives as a corollary to the musical narrative, to help with composition and thematic development. That's what happened with this. These ideas of time and perspective became embodied in this one character, and then we just needed to imagine the life of this one person as she steps through generations, and has a life with other people and other things and places.
"What the whole thing is really about is the examination of her life, from birth to a self-imposed exile from the world of people. In regard to the overall arc of the record, you can see with the instrumentation that's utilised. Most of it's starting out on tenor, and there's this lightness to a lot of that. Obviously, the tempos harken to something that is excited. There's a youthfulness and a chaotic nature to all of that. Then gradually, onto side B, it settles into a space which I think is starting to be removed from the inclusion of someone who experiences life in this other way into a world of people who are born and die as quickly as flies. You take that person out of that, and step them out into a vaster space, so now the communication and interaction is more with things that time passes slowly with. Using the contrabass clarinet as more of the voice of that long passage of time, using the tenor saxophone and those quick, rooted in minimalism compositional structures as more of the youth and interaction with humanity, to a sense."
However, knowing this backstory is not required for listeners to enjoy the album. It is an entirely instrumental album, even where Stetson and Neufeld's voices are used, melding the pair's technical prowess and extended technique on tenor and bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet, and violin as performed live without the aid of overdubbing, looping, sampling, or any such post-production tool, their ideas flowing from improvisation into through-composed pieces. This leaves the ultimate experience of the album up to the listener.
"I always hope people don't know. I like people to have their own narratives," professes Neufeld. "This story is interesting for us, and it's part of the origin of where it's coming from, but the beautiful thing about instrumental music is it allows such a wide experience to occur, and I like to maintain that. People have all sorts of experiences listening to instrumental music. Our music allows people to go to all sorts of places that their imagination want to open up into, and that's a really nice exercise for people to want to have."