Last December, in the barely lit chapel at Bohemian National Cemetery, Haley Fohr hunched over a spread of effects pedals and howled into a microphone as a looped phrase from her acoustic guitar rang and mingled with feedback. The howl turned into a cackle as she rocked back and forth on her knees. Her face was in shadow, her hair draped over her eyes, and a full moon glowed in the cold night outside.
Fohr, 26, has been performing as Circuit des Yeux since she was a teenager in Lafayette, Indiana. She moved to Chicago in 2012, and since then she’s played in a confounding variety of venues with an equally wide range of artists. She’s shared a bill at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel with experimental pop group Pillars & Tongues and drone-folk singer the Humminbird, for instance, and she’s opened for heady singer-songwriter Bill Callahan at Alhambra Palace, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the West Loop that looks like something out of Las Vegas. She warmed up for experimental electronic musicians Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never at Lincoln Hall during the 2014 edition of Tomorrow Never Knows, and at that Bohemian National Cemetery show, she was followed by pastoral guitarist Ryley Walker and chamber-doom orchestra Wrekmeister Harmonies.
The disorderliness of that list speaks to the difficulty of categorizing Fohr’s music. She sings and plays 12-string guitar, making it easy to mistake her for a folkie at first glance, and a distant twang of Americana reverberates through her droning songs. But she also uses pedals to turn her voice and guitar into gothic phantasmagoria, and she washes her music in distorted noise to chilling, atmospheric effect. Live sound engineers often don’t know what to do with her. “I do think there’s something about being a woman with an acoustic guitar when I sound check,” she says. “The sound guy is always like, ‘Oh, this is going to be easy. Just put a mike in front.’ And I’m like, well, I have these four overdrive pedals I have to go through. I need the monitor to be in a certain place so I can do feedback manipulation.”
Fohr sits across from me on the back patio of a coffee shop in Ukrainian Village. Though I’ve seen her perform twice, I haven’t gotten a good look at her face before. Onstage, her presence is fearless and opaque, as though she’s being projected into the venue from somewhere impossibly distant. She seems different in the sunlight, and as we talk, I feel like we’re both occupying the same space for the first time.
This week, Fohr releases In Plain Speech, the first Circuit des Yeux album on venerable experimental label Thrill Jockey. She’s been putting out tapes since she was 17—her 2013 full-length Overdue earned overdue praise from Pitchfork, which called it “intoxicating, and even life-affirming”—and the new record is her most fully realized yet. She assembled a roster of collaborators, all good friends from other Chicago groups, to augment her own layers of voice, guitar, synth, bass, electronics, and piano. Cooper Crain contributes keyboard and drums to a few tracks, and Rob Frye, his bandmate in Cave and Bitchin Bajas, plays flute and bass clarinet on a couple more. Whitney Johnson of Verma adds viola and a bit of extra piano, Adam Luksetich of Foul Tip plays bass and drums, and Kathleen Baird of Spires That in the Sunset Rise chips in with flute, mbira, and backup vocals.
This diverse cast lends texture and depth to the winding, clouded album, thanks in part to the presence of instruments new to the Circuit des Yeux palette, among them the viola and flute. Rob Sevier of the Numero Group is even credited with “bicycle” on one song.
“Collaborating was tricky. Everyone that I play music with is a dear friend of mine. It’s not some hired person—it’s an evolving relationship,” says Fohr. “You let go and you let someone else take it from there. Sometimes something really amazing happens that is beyond what either of you could produce individually. When you’re just one person, you can overdub and overdub, and that’s fine, but there’s an energy about playing music with other people that I’m very into right now. It’s a really intimate thing to do.”
As she’s done with every prior Circuit des Yeux release, Fohr produced In Plain Speech with no budget to speak of, recording mostly on the road or in a home studio. Several songs germinated during a three-day artist’s residency at last September’s Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City, during which she recorded their skeletons at Flat Black Studios with Luksetich and Baird. Fohr says she tracked “about a third” of the album at her home studio and the rest at Chicago’s Minbal studio, in both cases joined by Crain.
“All the vocals I retracked in my bedroom. It certainly wasn’t ideal,” she says. “My whole ethos and my whole vibe has this DIY nature. I think that’s just because I’ve never had much money to put into it. But out of that comes innovation.”
Fohr moved to Chicago in 2012 from Bloomington, where she’d gone to college. By 2013, she and Crain had built the first incarnation of her studio, using salvaged materials such as cardboard avocado-packing forms, old clothes, and thrift-store blankets to soundproof it. The two of them split the cost of a used Otari eight-track tape machine and “borrowed” a tube preamp from Guitar Center—they bought it, recorded with it, and then brought it back before the end of the store’s 60-day return window, a scheme Fohr described as “a great victory” in a 2013 interview with Dinosaur Mahaffey for Terminal Boredom. “[I] built a priceless creative space out of other people’s trash,” she wrote on her blog in December of that year.
The whimsically named USA Studios didn’t last long in that location, but before starting work on In Plain Speech Fohr set up USA Studios 2.0 in what Thrill Jockey calls a “collective living space.” The album was recorded in fits and starts between tours over the last half of 2014, but compared to the claustrophobic Overdue it flows organically—in part because Fohr was rarely the only person in the room for the sessions.
Fohr’s voice, which provides the heart of the new arrangements, remains the most striking feature of Circuit des Yeux. She sings in an unusually low range, rounding the trailing edges of her syllables with a lush vibrato—she took lessons for years as a kid in Lafayette, first at Tecumseh Junior High School and then at Jefferson High. In school choirs, she was often given men’s tenor parts. “My range has always been lower than most women,” she says. “There’s always been a bit of a challenge to find pieces for me to sing. I can sing Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, a lot of low-registered women. But they reverted to me singing guy parts, basically. Which is all right.”
Androgyny sometimes kept Fohr from fitting in as a teen, but now it’s a fertile space for her, both personally and musically. “I never felt stereotypically female in a way that I enjoy going shopping or wearing pink—all these silly, cartoony women things,” she says. Though she doesn’t present herself as masculine—she wears her hair long, and at our meeting she’s wearing red lipstick—her singing voice often confuses audience members who can’t clearly see her. “I’ve had people come up to me and look at me and be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know if you were a woman or a man up there.'” She smiles. “I get excited when that happens. I’ve embraced it,” she says. “The homogenization of men and women is something that should happen, and anything I can do to make it happen faster, I’m willing to do. It’s a conversation that I’m meant to add to, and that’s great.”
Fohr tours extensively—last year she was on the road for about seven months, two of them in Europe—and not every new audience is receptive to the way she sings. Last September, she mentioned on her blog that strangers sometimes mimic her voice while she performs. “The first few times it happens, it sucks,” she says now. “You drove nine hours and you’re opening a gig and no one gives a shit about what you’re doing, and on top of it all someone’s singing over you singing. It’s like a flashback to high school—it’s a bully situation.”
Frustrated by the fight to capture an audience’s attention and worn out from traveling alone, Fohr sometimes fought back in ways that hurt her music, raising her voice to a yell or cranking up the distortion on her guitar. “I must leave behind trying to dominate a room with just my voice and guitar,” she wrote in September. “A sea of people will always overpower one woman, and I can’t afford to be slaughtered night after night. I no longer want my guitar to be used as a weapon.” These days, she feels better equipped to handle unsolicited sing-alongs. “I never acknowledge it onstage,” she says. “Now I feel like I’ve got a little more confidence. If that’s happening, then I think it’s a sign that I’m doing something interesting. I’m pushing people’s ideas; I’m making them think about something. As long as there’s a strong, emotive reaction, then I’m doing my job.”
When she was growing up, Fohr imagined that music would help her see the world. “At a young age, like, 19, it was really important for me to get out of Lafayette, Indiana, and see other cultures. It was a complete shock at first,” she says. Since then she’s not only moved to Chicago but toured overseas, and the world outside the midwest seems smaller than it used to. “It doesn’t matter where I am. People might eat different food and have nap times during the day, which is awesome, but it’s pretty much the same,” she says. “I don’t want to sound like a total stuck-up asshole, but Paris is just like Chicago. If I have friends in Paris, I’ll hang out with them, and that’s a great time, but if I don’t know anyone in Paris, it’s kind of dismal and dirty. It’s a big city.”
Fohr still loves traveling, especially when touring Circuit des Yeux with a band—it’s helped her feel less alienated than she used to. When she was 18, she dropped out of college, moved back into her parents’ house, and retreated inside herself. She says her family still call it her “lost year.” At the time she was already making music as Circuit des Yeux, and for years her songs came from a place of profound solitude. “My last few records have been completely my own world—me trying to create a world,” she says. “I was living in my own illusions, which can be great, but is also terrifying and isolating.”
In Plain Speech, by contrast, includes some of Fohr’s most accessible music to date—the single “Fantasize the Scene” even follows a loose verse/chorus structure, a rarity in the Circuit des Yeux catalog. It’s also one of the first songs she’s written directly about another person—several of them, actually. The lyrics are about people she’s met briefly on the road and felt an instant connection with, only to immediately leave them behind, maybe forever. “Maybe I’ll meet you there / In a world where we’ll go all the way,” she sings.
“This is me, in my personal life and within my music, opening up, trying to be a part of society,” Fohr says. “It’s very deliberate. All the lyrics are directed at you, the listener. It’s not about me. I mean, it is about me as well, of course. In Plain Speech. It’s about dialogue.”
Dialogue about what?
“I don’t want to be this protest artist, but I do think there are a lot of issues in the world,” she replies. “But you can attack them with a positive mind-set. It’s not all about me against the world, which I was feeling for a really long time. I think it’s just part of growing up. My worldview is wide open now.”
Fohr’s long struggle to open herself up to dialogue—to all sorts of social interaction, really—kicked into high gear when she moved to Chicago. She’d left a place where she could walk everywhere and recognize everybody for a huge city where neither was remotely possible. Her shyness mutated into full-blown social anxiety. “It was kind of sink or swim,” she says of the transition. “I’m trying to swim. It feels really uncomfortable sometimes. I feel like I’m in overdrive—I feel like I’m meeting people at a rate that I don’t normally. Conversations with people have always been a challenge for me. But I’m learning that as long as you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably making progress.”
Fohr feels more at home in Chicago now than she ever has. “You can be a musician and sustain yourself here, but it’s not closed off and cliquey in the way New York might be,” she says. “It’s not very competitive in that way. People are really inviting.” She’s proud to come home from tour, and feels that she and her music belong here.
That said, she’s also excited to travel with the musicians who helped her record In Plain Speech and share the new songs with new people. On Tuesday, May 19, Fohr plays a release concert at the U. of C.’s Rockefeller Chapel with Johnson, Luksetich, Matt Jencik of Implodes on bass and synth, and Whitney Allen of Toupee on flute and percussion; in early June, Circuit des Yeux will go on tour again. “When I’m at home, I’m very hermetic. But when you’re touring with people, it’s awesome. Rolling through a new town with your crew, you’ve got people onstage to back you up, and you’re all on this trip together,” she says.
“I think it’s definitely a turn. It feels like a whole new me. A new stage of life, completely untied to my past,” Fohr continues. “I mean, it’s not. It took me all those albums to get here. But it’s like a weight has been lifted. There’s no dark undercurrent. It seems really positive. I think this is the first album of the rest of my career.” v
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the correct lineup for Tuesday’s Circuit des Yeux concert.