Since fall 2017, Haley Fohr has been on the road playing songs from Reaching for Indigo (Drag City), the sixth full-length by her primary musical project, Circuit des Yeux. The singer-guitarist is finishing the tour and the year with a three-night weekly residency at the Hideout entitled Intentions of Sociable Creativity Through Light & Sound, which will retire the album’s material, celebrate Fohr’s relationship to Chicago’s experimental- and improvised-music communities, and point toward the music she’ll make in 2019.
When Fohr moved to Chicago in 2012, she rebooted the music she made and the way she made it. A native of West Lafayette, Indiana, she’d already spent around five years touring and recording, mainly solo as Circuit des Yeux. Even at that early stage, her well-trained and extraordinarily deep voice set her apart from her counterparts on the underground noise and punk circuits, imparting an air of authority to even her most rudimentary home recordings. Once Fohr settled here, her studio output evolved from grainy DIY snapshots to colorful panoramas that matched the dramatic potential of her singing, thanks in part to input from local musicians such as Matchess, Bitchin Bajas, Ryley Walker, and Moon Bros., with whom she developed working relationships.
Fohr’s collaborative engagement with other Chicago artists also led to collaborations outside Circuit des Yeux. Fohr recorded and toured with Mind Over Mirrors, worked with members of Bitchin Bajas to develop the alter ego Jackie Lynn (which she used to explore a hybrid of country and electro), and played low-profile improvised gigs at venues such as Cafe Mustache and the Hideout with cellist Lia Kohl, vocalist Carol Genetti, and drummer Ben Baker Billington. During these encounters she set aside song structures and even words in order to explore what her voice could do in unfettered settings.
The three unique programs that Fohr has planned for her Hideout residency will celebrate the adventuresome, spontaneous spirit of those low-profile shows. She has associated each one with a different color, and they’ll all feature light environments provided by Brownshoesonly, aka Chicagoan Nick Ciontea. The first evening consists of a first-time improvisational encounter with percussionist Hamid Drake and a piece for voice and horns played with Will Miller and Liz Deitemyer. For the second, Fohr will tell stories with Joan of Arc singer Tim Kinsella, then submit her voice to electronic settings and treatments created in collaboration with composer Olivia Block. And on the final night, an eight-piece version of Circuit des Yeux will play the songs from Reaching for Indigo using string arrangements that Fohr wrote with her closest collaborator, producer and multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain (of Bitchin Bajas and Cave).
Calling from Prague on a travel day during her recent European tour with Circuit des Yeux, Fohr spoke about the residency and what’s next on her agenda.
Bill Meyer: Each night of the residency is going to have a color theme?
Haley Fohr: Each one is inspired by a frequency, which corresponds to a color and also a signature. The first night is orange, which is creative openness and sociability. The second night is green, which is the heart chakra, which lends itself to openness and self-love. The third night is indigo, which is in the spirit of Reaching for Indigo, the record I did on Drag City. Cooper Crain helped me arrange sheet music to be played with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra this last weekend (at Le Guess Who? festival, Utrecht, Netherlands), and it’s pretty much the same songs that are on Reaching for Indigo but expanded to an eight-piece ensemble that features a string quartet, timpani, and vibraphone. We’ll be performing that music, but I’ll be utilizing my people in the Chicago music scene instead of some work-for-hire chamber ensemble. I’m really looking forward to it.
Attendants and participants are encouraged to wear the celebrated color of each night! I hope that people are excited and have a good time with the idea behind it, which is Intentions of Sociable Creativity Through Light & Sound. The idea is that Chicago is kind of weird in the winter, and I just hope that it encourages people to come out, enjoy the company, and have a good time.
Besides your concerts as Circuit des Yeux, you’ve played shows at the Hideout, Cafe Mustache, and elsewhere with Ben Billington, Carol Genetti, and others. Were those shows conceived as experiments?
Most of those collaborations came within a very specific period of time between 2015 and the beginning of 2018. I had a very intentional goal of collaborating as much as I could, and the idea was to enjoy the resources of being in an urban environment in which many great musicians reside. In the process I did learn a lot—I think I kind of spread myself a little thin at times, but mostly just learning to see how people work and trying to pick up on their language. Truthfully I don’t think I’m really that great of an improviser when it comes to working with other people—I find it still to be a challenge. But because it’s a challenge, it’s what I want to do.
One thing I took from those shows was that it seemed like you were finding new things that you could do with your voice. Can you say more about that?
It’s like a meditative thing for me. In some ways it’s like I’m trying to find new places in my voice. I’ve found a comfort with this idea of newness and letting moments fall as they happen. Just because I live in Chicago, people invite me to do things. I honestly enjoy doing solo vocal sets in a more nontraditional or sort of casual environment, because it’s not a performance, you know. It’s just about, like, me going into a state and celebrating my own body. It could be really universal if you’re open to that idea of just getting rid of context of any one situation and just, like, being real for a moment and saying we’re all here, we have a body, and we’ve chosen to congregate in this moment and here we are.
You’re performed under several guises. What’s the difference between Haley Fohr and Circuit des Yeux?
Circuit des Yeux is for my mental health—it’s really more emotional. It’s more whatever I’m feeling at that moment. And I think with Haley Fohr, I’m more of a composer.
What do you have ahead in 2019?
Reaching for Indigo: Gaia Infinitus is saying good-bye to this record. It’s sort of like putting to rest the Circuit des Yeux cycle that I’ve been in for the last year and a half. In 2019 I’m doing solo vocal shows under my name, Haley Fohr, in several cities. I’m doing Pitchfork Midwinter in February, and then I’m going to do San Francisco. It’s called Wordless Music, and it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing in Chicago for the last year and a half at these small venues. The idea is just to tap in with what it means to have a body and just to be able to physically exert myself, yeah, to open up this other world.
Haley Fohr Hideout residency
Intentions of Sociable Creativity Through Light & Sound
Light environments by Brownshoesonly
All shows 9 PM, $7, 21+
Wed 12/5: Orange
Set one: Hamid Drake & Haley Fohr
Set two: Piece for Voice and Horn in the Key of G, featuring Will Miller and Liz Deitemyer
Wed 12/12: Green
Set one: “Storytime with Tim Kinsella & Haley Fohr”
Set two: Piece for Voice and Electronics, featuring Olivia Block
Wed 12/19: Indigo
Circuit des Yeux Presents Reaching for Indigo: Gaia Infinitus, plus DJ Cheryl Bittner