“On the late afternoon of Friday, 30 June 1559, a long splinter of wood from a jousting lance pierced the eye and brain of King Henry II of France. Thus begins the tale of Haley Fohr.”
And what a tale it is.
There are some musicians that bleed out their entire story with only one listen. Haley Fohr, better known as Circuit Des Yeux, is one of those musicians, and she’ll make you listen whether you like it or not. The 24 year old Indiana native put out her fourth album last year, just recently returned from a life changing European tour, and has been featured on NPR, Pitchfork, and the Chicagoist.
There really aren’t any comparisons for the music of Circuit Des Yeux, but if I had to fumble for one I’d say she’s a more haunted Karen Dalton or the long-lost sister of Chelsea Wolfe. Her newest album, Overdue, leaves no boundary between the track and the truth as it bounces back and forth from light to dark, wrapped in drones and static. Fohr’s deep guttural vocals are capable of building the highest highs and lowest lows, and appropriately so. The creation of the album was no walk in the park. Fohr recorded it twice, scrapping the first version completely and constructing her own makeshift studio in a Chicago apartment with no heat in the dead of winter, all the while pinching pennies and desperately trying to take root in an unfamiliar city.
The album unmistakably shines with “Lithonia”, orchestral strings filtering through a piano backing that can only be compared to those light tracks that move across an empty wall at about 2 pm. The most inspirational moments hit with her voice reaching upwards with the cello: “Doesn’t it feel grand to have a second chance?”
“I Am” is the darkest moment of the album, with stark layered death knell guitar riffs pushing through in a gritty accompaniment to Fohr’s frenetic vocals: “I am a peach fallen from my mother’s tree, too heavy to hold, too ugly to eat.” It’s a terrifying anthem of a woman who’s had enough, and it’ll leave you white knuckled, gripping whatever’s closest to you by the end.
I got a chance to catch up with Haley to talk about Overdue, growing up in the Midwest, and live performances—her next coming up on September 4th at Hangfire, which you won’t want to miss. Check it out below:
SAI: I’m actually from rural Indiana myself, so I wanted to ask you a couple questions about how the Midwest has affected your music. Growing up, I was always really dismayed about the lack of culture I was exposed to, but now looking back, I realized that it forced me to seek out and almost create my own culture, and that made it matter even more to me because I had to work for it. It wasn’t just in my backyard. Is that something you could identify with?
Haley Fohr: I can absolutely identify with the “lack of culture” perspective. I consider myself lucky. I met a few really important people that were very influential to me in my teenage years. They would help sneak me into the local gay bar, (the only venue that was progressive enough to hold punk shows), and fed me Albert Ayler and Moondog records. I think that my lack of stimuli really made me appreciate music and cultural diversity more than maybe someone who grew up in New York. It was a huge obstacle to save up $25, trek to the one record store in town, and convince the 60 year old store clerk to special order some Karen Dalton record, then hope that he calls you back 2 weeks after it was in stock. I suppose that maybe I created my own culture in a sense, but I think I am a bit of an isolationist no matter what my surrounding. I think that everybody creates their own culture in a way.
SAI: When listening to Overdue, I can hear the equivalent of those bare cornfields through grimy winter windows, driving through salted streets. Did the landscape influence you at all while writing this album?
HF: Up until now, I have always written and recorded music in the depths of winter. Every year winter is a huge struggle for me. With Overdue in particular, I was missing a lot of Indiana landscape. The rural flat lands were never something I consciously thought of, until I was drowning in the polluted streets and tall buildings of Chicago. I’ve had the opportunity to tour and see a lot of the world and find that I feel most at ease when I am surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields.
SAI: Your sound throughout the years has transitioned from more lo-fi into something cleaner, but the roughness is still there, just presented in more deliberate layers. Has that affected the way you approach writing music or even your identity as a musician?
HF: I think my identity is the same, and the way I write music is the same. It is a solo project, so there are a lot of overdubs, and I think that comes through in the recordings. I used to record onto a 4-track cassette. I still love analogue equipment, so I generally record on a 1” tape machine. It’s a step up from cassette, but there is grittiness to the quality that I love, and I don’t know if I’ll ever steer too far from that sound.
SAI: The digital paper trail that I read of you being up against all odds while creating your last album is resonating a lot with me right now, and it’s been so inspiring to see how you fought through all of it. How much of your experience transitioning from place to place and between these big phases of your life made it into the tracks of Overdue? That’s not to say this is solely a confessional piece of music, because there’s so much more to it than that, but there’s something to be said for negative experiences making great art. Do you feel the album would have been different if everything had gone according to plan? Do you think there’s even a correlation between suffering and good art, or do we all just romanticize depression too much?
HF: I think that making music is different for different people. My music was born as a tool for therapy. In the summer of 2007, I became very depressed. My parents had me going to a therapist and doctors were experimenting with what drugs to give me, and none of it was working. My family and I refer to it as “my lost year,” and it’s not so grim now that I’m out of it. But my first two albums were not necessarily meant to be heard by anyone. It was simply me, working through a lot of things. Last year I went through a lot of life changes and it was very difficult. All of Overdue was written in a short period of time while I was experiencing those difficulties. I was really sad when I made Overdue, but I was not depressed. Depression and sadness are completely different things. Human emotions come in waves, and because I began this project at the bottom end of that wave, songs do burst out of me when I am in a darker emotional state. But now that I am a grown woman, I don’t want to have to rely on that state anymore. To be blunt, I don’t want to have to have a fucked up life to make good music. And that is what I have been challenging myself to do this past summer. I’m really happy, and I think I’m making good art right in this very moment. I think that if an artist is talented, they are able to bend to the conditions of that particular moment, and can make great art under many circumstances. That art will obviously differ based on its environment, but it still has the potential to be great.
SAI: On your blog you talk a lot about the experiences that you have with live shows. You seem to be very sensitive to the energy you’re getting back from the crowd, and if it’s the wrong kind of energy it seems like it can be pretty daunting. Is that something that just affected you as you were getting used to playing larger shows, or does that still play a factor in your performances today?
HF: Playing live is really important to me. Playing live is a completely different realm of musicianship than recording. I have never toured as much as I have this past year, and it has really opened me up to the other side of music, to the receiving end, the people listening. I never really thought about it too much before, especially recording. But when people are standing in front of you, giving you their time, you have the ability to alter their reality. For 40 minutes I have complete control, and I can do whatever I want, and be whoever I want, and that is really empowering. I have a message, and I have a great opportunity to relay that message and it’s what makes life worth living for me. Before this record, the largest show I had ever played was to maybe 100 people. When I was opening for Bill Callahan I had the opportunity to play for 2,000 people a night. It was such a different experience. People felt so far away, and pretty disconnected. I really want to connect with as many people as I can, and in those sort of shows, it feels impossible. I like to use my blog as a way to find those misconnections, in hope that if I am open about my experience, that maybe the audience will return the favor.
SAI: I could be wrong, but it seems like you haven’t played a lot of shows in the South. Is there a reason for this, or just coincidence?
HF: It’s true! This is my first Southern jaunt. It’s just so far away! I have never had the opportunity to head out this way, but I’m very excited to make my way to Georgia. I hear it’s beautiful.
Circuit Des Yeux (Haley Fohr) will be performing on Thursday, September 4 at 10pm at Hangfire Bar. Tickets are $5. Click here for more info.