Going Underground with Amy X Neuburg


Listen to catch tracks from her new album (as well as some of our old favorites from her catalog) and conversation with the composer herself.

While many urbanites don headphones to block out the chaos, noise, and intrusions of city life—perhaps most especially when it comes to the cramped quarters of public transport—composer and vocalist Amy X Neuburg found herself heading down into the subway with open ears in search of external musical inspiration. Acknowledging her long-running infatuation with the New York subway system, she explains that it has always struck her as a particularly evocative space.

“I found myself thinking about my life and the world in general,” she says of her commuting experiences. “Who are all these people I’m on the subway with and what are they thinking about and what’s their secret language? There’s a kind of meditative thing that happens to you when you’re on the subway; you get into sort of a zone which for me was just a font of creativity.”

Neuburg tapped and molded those impressions into a new song cycle, presented on her most recent album, The Secret Language of Subways (released on the MinMax Music label this past August). Combining her own powerful voice with her arsenal of electronic gear and the talents of The Cello ChiXtet, she put together 13 songs that, each in their own unique way, speak to “the inane and perpetually unfinished business of love and war—and New York.”

Lyrically, Neuburg tackles these topics in a very personal, first person way, but she says she’s actually shy about casting her work as some kind of autobiography. “I hate the idea that to express myself in way that people think, ‘Okay, this is real,’ I have to say ‘I’. It has to be about me, that there’s something personal in there. But then it’s all about me, and then I feel kind of sheepish about me writing music about me. And when I’m looping, there’s like 16-channels of me coming out of the speakers.”



In live performance, however, there’s certainly nothing sheepish about Neuburg, even though more often not there are indeed multiple channels of Amy X in the air—Amy vocally traversing octaves, Amy whispering secrets, or Amy just chatting with her audience in conspiratorial soliloquy. Often by the end of a track, in fact, she has layered that all into a single sonic sandwich. And whether she’s fronting a band or playing solo and sharing the stage with only her racks of sampling gear, Neuburg seems at home in dramatic performance.



In tracing her artistic development, it’s a characteristic she can follow all the way back to her studies at Oberlin College, where she moved away from her classical training and got into more avant-garde music. She began working with the student composers and became known for her ability to stretch her limits. After seeing her single-handedly crack an egg on stage while singing, the word went out. “Someone else had me yodeling in Korean while swinging on a rope across the stage,” Neuburg recalls, “and I became known as the soprano who will sing anything.”



After that, singing her own work was an easy step, no matter how experimental she wished to be. “The fact that it’s my music that goes the way I want it to go and nobody’s comparing it to the last person who sang this aria, I’m doing it my way, means that I can’t really make a mistake. It’s brand new music.”



Her approach to the electronics has a bold outward physicality as well—samples are triggered through drum pads and loops are set off with a well-timed whack of a mallet. The drama of the performance makes a visceral connection with her audiences that’s important to Neuburg and that’s sometimes lacking in today’s electronic music landscape.



But if anywhere, this is also where she feels most vulnerable. “You can’t screw up,” she cautions. “Because I’m working with loops, you go from this loop to that loop, and you have to change right on the millisecond.”



And where other performers might break a string or trip on some scenery, Neuburg is negotiating a particular brand of high wire act in dealing with such technology in live performance. “If you hit the wrong pad, you might erase the whole song.”