Carrie Quartly talks to musical non-conformist Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux about her latest album In Plain Speech and the importance of opening up and being yourself.
Louder Than War: The presentation of In Plain Speech is much different than your previous records. What has been the response to the newer material compared to your earlier work?
Haley Fohr: It has been both positive and negative. More positive than negative I think…which was a bit surprising to me, as I think it is a bit of a challenge for those addicted to iTunes and singles. I’ve met a lot of new people through this new album, which I like. A few older heads seem a bit confused, but I must follow my muse.
The sophistication of your arrangements and production has increased, but it still has moments of adventurous avant noise, like rock music deconstructed and elevated to a more provocative and ambitious form. Can you talk about some of the more bizarre instruments used in the making of In Plain Speech? I’m particularly curious about where the bicycle comes in!
The main instrumentation is guitar, bass, drums, viola, flute, and bass clarinet. A few stranger sounds include a work out bicycle during a run in “Ride Blind”, white noise in “Dream of TV”, double distorted bass in a few tracks, an electric guitar prepared with 2 butter knives, and a broken synthesizer at the end of “Do the Dishes”. I like a wide pallet of sounds and exploring things that might be considered broken, or noise, and giving them life in a more musical context. The juxtaposition excites me.
You’ve spoken before about fighting to be heard, using your music as weapons against unfriendly audiences, and maybe you don’t think of the audience as your enemy so much as a challenge to be won, but nonetheless confrontation is usually a part of any art with enduring cultural impact. How would you describe your relationship with your listeners as a performer?
I’m trying much harder to relate these days. The audience is very important to me. They are half the cycle. I want to reach out and connect with people, it is my main goal. But I also have a detachment from them that allows me to be free and do whatever I’d like without being self-conscious. I act the same on stage whether the audience is me, the mirror, or a thousand people, and I think that discipline of authenticity is the most important part of me being an artist.
You’ve said you make music 100 percent for yourself, so what has it been like collaborating with other musicians for In Plain Speech and in a live setting? How does each person help and add to the Circuit des Yeux palette?
It’s been such a wonderful experience. I am able to articulate what I want and need in my art from other people, and it has pushed my music beyond anything I could do on my own. I’m working with amazing musicians who are sensitive to what the song needs, what I need, and at the same time I am learning so much from each and every one of them. I’ve become a much better guitar player, listener, and leader from going full band.
I agree with not doing things simply to please others, and if you have enough talent, sincerity and self-belief I feel like eventually people will catch on. Do you still find yourself under pressure to cater to a certain crowd or aesthetic despite the strange eclectic nature of your music? Does it make people uncomfortable when they can’t easily define your sound or put you in a category? Do you like to play with people’s perceptions of you and your music?
I am finding it difficult to keep other people’s perceptions out of my own at this time. Recording and releasing records is one thing, but touring is a whole different beast. I can just not read reviews, or forget the internet for a while. But when I play out, people come up and tell you to your face what they think. It can get very exhausting. A lot of people keep telling me how “weird” and “avant” my music is to them. To be frank, I never thought what I was doing was strange until hundreds of people have told me so. It is a little sad, to start thinking of yourself through the eyes of others. I guess I’d prefer to remain undefined, but mostly, I’d just like to be unabashedly me.
Despite being vulnerable with your art, you’ve never come across as ‘soft’ to me and you always stand out. There’s an almost violent catharsis to the Circuit des Yeux experience. How do you find strength in laying yourself open the way that you do?
I think I’m my true self on stage. I’ve been toying with a softer side as of late. To me, In Plain Speech was a door into that world, but I suppose the first try isn’t always the best try. I’d like to be a reminder to the full spectrum of the world around us. I want to find the loudest of louds and quietest of quiets and present them to people who do not have the energy, time, or opportunity.
Your videos are certainly memorable, and with the “Lithonia” and “Do the Dishes” clips there’s an uneasy voyeuristic aspect for the viewer watching you perform routine chores in your home. Although “Do the Dishes” can be seen as a sort of a call to arms against a prosaic lifestyle, you find something powerful in the mundane because it’s relatable to us all. I like how “Lithonia” was named after a fluorescent light in your kitchen, for example. In what other ways do you draw inspiration from the ordinary?
I grew up in a small Midwest town without flashing lights and big towering buildings. I had to find interest in what others might find mundane. I think that pollution, vomit and decaying plants can hold just as much beauty as bubbling champagne and skinny people in suits by the ocean. But I’m also interested in trying to keep my music personal while slowly exploring the universal. So relying on things like the fluorescent light in my kitchen, yeah, it’s me, but it’s you too. Probably much more than songs about partying and drugs.
You’re from Midwest Indiana and moved to Chicago. Obviously going from sleepy Lafayette to the noisy industrial metropolis of Chicago is a major change, how have these very different living environments affected your art?
It has affected my art in every way. There is a scene here with so many amazing musicians and venues…the resources feel infinite. There is diversity in a way that I’ve never experienced. The first year was very painful for me. To see the way some people live and are dismissed in a large city can be very hard to understand when you come from a small 99% white middle class city. I think I am able to thrive in Chicago in a way I never could have in Lafayette.
In big cities like where I am in NY (approx 10 mile radius of 20 million people) I find it can sometimes be even more difficult to connect. There is that sense of detachment and ‘urban loneliness’ despite the strong social network with the music scene here. Do you think your isolated background makes it important for you to seek out genuine connections?
I am by nature a creature of loneliness. I am hermetic in my day to day life when I am not so busy running around doing music things. It’s a hard balance, and one that I still deal. The music scene in Chicago is very intimate and genuine. I go to shows to support my friends. We eat dinners together and hang out on weekends to go swimming, or catch up over tea. It has taken me 3 years to open up in that way, but now that I’m here it feels so welcoming and great. I think it’s really tough to break into a large city. My first years were so lonely. I’ll never forget that time in my life, and I hope to befriend others who need help moving to a larger unknown place.
I’m interested in the dualities within your music; it is at once abrasive and gentle, melancholic and uplifting, light and dark. I like these conflicting ideas finding harmony within the dynamics of your songs. Is this something that occurs naturally or do you try and push the boundaries to experiment with what works and what doesn’t?
I intentionally utilized dark and light, soft and loud. But to me, my music is completely cohesive. I find most music that appeals to the general public a bit boring. It’s important to me to work within a large spectrum and not be afraid of working outside of my own parameters and into uncharted territory. I’d like to hope that everyone grows from those sorts of experiments and exercises.
In Plain Speech has a strong message of self empowerment, mirroring your own growth/rise to prominence as an artist, but I also hear solitude and frustration in it. I find these things can almost be the nectars of life, forcing us to look inwards and figure out who we are. How do you use emotions which on the surface seem fairly negative as a positive force, both creatively and in practical every day situations?
I feel a great responsibility as an artist to fully explore the human spectrum. I really want to know myself. That means reflecting and investigating some very dark aspects of who I am as a person, and what the human race as a whole embodies. You go down roads and confront things that most people would rather ignore. I feel that at the age of 26 I’ve spent enough time exploring and challenging the dark. Everybody has these dark moments in their life, where they become a bit self reflective. I think music can be a very effective conduit into a universal knowledge, and letting others feel less isolated. Without dark there is no light!
You’re a classically trained vocalist, and your very adaptable baritone reminds me of some of my favorite distinctive voices in experimental music (Scott Walker, Diamanda Galas). Who are your main singing influences and what are some of your current favorites?
Up until this year I hadn’t really explored vocalists. As a child I sang a lot of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith tunes due to my low range. During these last two years I became very interested in trying to use my voice to sound like other non-vocal instruments, such as a trumpet, a dog, or electricity. Since releasing In Plain Speech I’ve been compared to many vocalists including Scott Walker, Judy Henske, Diamanda Galas, Patty Waters, Nina Simone, and Nico. I have to say that I love all of them! But I really do not lean on them as influences. Maybe there is something in the water that we have all drank that has lead to the commonalities.
Finally, how do you envision the direction of Circuit des Yeux changing for future releases and are you working on anything right now we can look forward to?
I can’t say what direction I will take other than it will be different. I think my biggest strength and weakness is my inability to conform to any genre or palate of sound. I’ve already finished a new recording and it is so different than anything I have ever done. Some have even said it’s my “worst idea yet”, which really excites me! It’s certainly something I’m looking forward to.
Interview by Carrie Quartly, you can read more of her writing on the site here.