I first spoke to Jon Neufeld the evening he returned from a nine-day trip to Stockholm, Sweden. "I’m still a little jet lagged," he apologized over the phone. Despite his fatigue, it became apparent that Neufeld is extremely enthusiastic about music, as he started to tell me stories about his family and musical influences.
Neufeld’s respect for self-starting musicians reaches back to the days of his grandfather, a blind sax player who made his living playing in the New York City subways. Some of Neufeld’s earliest memories are of listening to his grandfather’s music and singing along. His parents listened to a lot of popular folk musicians like Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Doo-wop was big, too. "There were a lot of the vocally-driven singer-songwriters," he says, influences that have certainly found their way into Neufeld’s own music.
Neufeld, 27, the son of an attorney and a designer, was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Staten Island, and went to high school at the Peddie School in Hightstown. A classically trained vocalist who refused to be boxed in by the conservatory attitude, Neufeld – who performs at Triumph Brewery Company in Princeton on Friday, September 16 – sought out teachers at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who would point him in a more organic direction. He finally ended up in the studio of Charlie Sorrento, a pop-rock vocalist who guided him through the remainder of his studies.
After graduating in 2000, Neufeld began exploring the more avant-garde side of rock with a progressive group called Apolline. It was in this group that he really began to experiment with time signatures, giving him a "keener sense of time and rhythm." The group eventually parted ways, and Neufeld has been his own front man ever since.
He now lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn and plays with a six-member band that has been essentially the same for about six months. Featuring a bass, keys, drum set, two guitars, and his girlfriend, Annika Kaye, on supporting vocals, Neufeld’s band is comprised of professional musicians, and he treats them as such, "even if it means that I don’t get paid for a gig," he says. This arrangement allows him to pursue song writing in a way that works for him. "The song writing process is very personal," he says.
His method of creating music has changed over the years. When he first started writing as a high school student, he used notebooks of poetry and lyrics to create melodies from which he crafted accompaniment, usually on guitar. As he continued on with his musical training, he gained a fuller understanding of music that allowed him to "conceptualize the landscape of a song" in a more sophisticated way.
He uses his skills on piano, bass, mandolin, harmonica, and even cello to round out his creations or to create certain sounds from which he can build a tune. Usually, though, in the tradition of the musical storytellers with whom he grew up – like Tom Petty, James Taylor, and Paul Simon – the melody comes first. When he creates a melody that carries with it a certain mood or emotion, he says "the story unfolds itself."
On stage, Neufeld is a storyteller. He sees music as an opportunity to spread a positive and hopeful message to people, seeking to leave his audience "uplifted." One can easily see the joy Neufeld infuses into his music in the song, "Matthew," an upbeat tune he wrote about a lovely afternoon spent with his younger brother. Neufeld’s love for his brother shines through in lyrics that are simple and honest, without being cloying or sentimental: "Matthew just wants to sing happy birthdayeven though his birthdaywas over a month ago." Young Matthew reminds his older brother what it truly means to live well.
Neufeld’s holistic take on performance is refreshing. He says he seeks to "open channels between audience members and myself and the rest of the band, fostering relationships on and off the stage." He tries to be insightful, relating personal stories to the universal experience.
For example, it’s easy to get caught up in the romance of the song, "Sweetland." Weaving together experiences of friends who have sought their fortunes far away on the West coast, either to succeed or to become "unraveled," Neufeld appeals to the wanderlust in all of us, awaking the inner romantic with his lush vocal harmonies and rhythmic exuberance.
All kinds of people have picked up on the Neufeld experience. He has played to receptive audiences at colleges around the country, at venues like the Knitting Factory and the legendary CBGB’s in New York, and at private functions for big names like Tommy Hilfiger. His most recent show was in Stockholm. "It was a very positive performing experience," says Neufeld of his nine-day sojourn to the Nordic country where Annika has family. "It was a great crowd."
When not traveling around the country or crossing oceans to perform, Neufeld teaches privately, and now has a studio full of voice and guitar students. He’s also started to branch out, getting songs placed in feature films like the Los Angeles Times-acclaimed "Sexual Dependency," a Bolivian drama that made a splash at the American Film Institute this year. One of his compositions also makes an appearance in the romantic comedy, "Building Girl," which is being produced by the team who brought us the thinky-sexy movie "Kinsey."
Contributing to movie soundtracks might be the next big step in his career, as he’d like to get a publishing deal going. He also likes the idea of collaborating with other artists for musical projects. His biggest goal, however, is certainly to further develop his performing career into something long-term. A professional musician through and through, like his grandfather playing in the subways decades ago, Jon Neufeld is a self-starter who is certain to be around for a long time coming.
Jon Neufeld, Friday, September 16, Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855. Also Friday, September 23, the C-Note, 157 Avenue C at 10th Street, New York, 212-677-8142; and Friday, September 30, Triumph Brewery, 400 Union Square, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 215-862-8300. For more information visit www.jonneufeld.com.