Circuit des Yeux interview: Haley Fohr talks experimental expression & her baritone voice
January 3rd 2017
I discovered Haley Fohr as an artist when she supported black metal band (and Thrill Jockey labelmates) Liturgy at a little venue in Paris. Her massive baritone voice and beautiful guitar, performed with her hair over her face in a kind of ritual fashion, absolutely blew me away.
So when I was invited to interview her ahead of her performance as Circuit des Yeux at St Stephen’s church for Sydney Festival, I jumped at the chance.
Fohr is a remarkable artist, having graduated from messy, noisy early experiments to inspired songwriting, full string arrangements, and more controlled audio experimentation – including a strange little concept album that came out this year. The performance in January should be fantastic, and I recommend heading along.
Check out the interview below and listen to the whole Utility Fog show here.
Peter Hollo: For your earlier work, are comfortable with describing it as experimental?
Haley Fohr: Certainly. I think that in my early days it was first and foremost experimental. Like, the primary genre would be experimental, I would say. And I still consider my music as rather experimental, but it’s maybe a little bit more in the backseat.
It was around ‘Portrait’ in 2011 that you started incorporating more straightforward songs into your work. I’m really interested in when musicians who are so interested in sound and experimentation and the musical aspects move into songwriting. Was it confronting and challenging to begin writing songs and lyrics?
Well for me, I think I was always thought I was writing more traditional songs. I’ve always been equally as interested in songwriting as I have been with the production of sound and the things you can do when capturing sound. So all my work before 2011 – in my head, they were pretty straightforward songs. Looking back, I guess – I mean, I haven’t listened to them in years – but I’d imagine that’s probably not so. But just through the course of honing my skills, I think I’m able to reproduce in my mind a little more clearly.
I’ve been a huge fan of private press and folk records since I was a kid, and I got really into the delta blues when I was even younger. So the sort of raw singer-songwriting qualities are always something I’ve been interested in. But I don’t think I really executed it that clearly until a few years into my craft. So the early records to me are like folk music, they’re pretty straightforward songs… but that was just what was in my brain.
Did you have any classical training as a kid, or any vocal training more recently? Where does this amazing baritone voice come from?
I’ve been singing since I was about 10 years old. I took voice lessons and used to do these little competitions where they would give you ribbons and stuff for singing Italian arias and that sort of thing. My voice has always been a bit lower than usual, but it wasn’t until maybe my junior year of high school that I started to write my own songs and tried to start creating on my own.
To be quite honest, in the last three years it’s gotten so much deeper and I don’t really know why. It kind of has a mind of its own. I’m really in tune with it, the way my body resonates and the way it feels. I think over time I’ve sort of honed in on what my strengths are in my voice, and it’s lead me to this really resonate sound.
Does it affect the way you express yourself, the way your voice sounds?
Yeah. For me it’s like true expression. Even the tones, not necessarily the words that I use… I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing on earth and I’m communicating the best way I can through singing. When it comes to the arrangement of songs, the voice is first and foremost, it’s the thing that comes most naturally to me when it comes to making music. Everything else is sort of the traffic.
More recently there have been collaborators working with you, on last year’s album in particular. How does that work? Is that something enjoyable to you, as someone who I think of as primarily a solo artist?
Yeah, I worked solo for such a long time, but moving to Chicago really opened me up to collaboration. Previously I lived in small towns in Indiana and there weren’t very many musicians. I would hang out with maybe 20 people and we’d all be doing the same thing. But in Chicago, there’s such a plethora of talented people and it’s a city that can really facilitate the life of an artist. There’s always a scene and it’s exciting.
For me, I would kind of like to go down in history as one of the most distinct vocalists of our time, and if I’m going to do that I need to be open to learning from other people and their musicianship. So I’m really trying to push myself in this way of working with people that I respect and learning from them, and also opening up my art into what they have to add as well. It’s been challenging but also extremely rewarding. I think I’m a much better musician because of it.
We are seeing you as Circuit des Yeux in Australia. But Jackie Lynn is what came out this year, which in a way seems different. And I think you’ve presented it differently because you’ve used Jackie Lynn as the artist name as well, and I was wondering if you could tell us about the decision there and what you’re saying through this new album.
Yeah, it’s what you’d call a concept record. It was initially supposed to be a proper ‘ghost writer’ record in which there would have been no credit to my name, but that proved to be quite difficult working with a label and booking shows.
Circuit des Yeux gets really heavy for me, in the creation of the message and touring on it. It really comes from my heart in this way that… I don’t know. It can be on edge, I guess, like I’m flirting with something really heavy. So I wanted to make something that was disconnected from my heart in this way, and more connected to just a thought, an idea that I have in my brain. So for me, it’s musical theatre and it’s totally detached. But it’s fun, and it was the easiest record I’ve ever made in my life to be quite honest.
So it’s opening up another way of expressing – it’s sort of storytelling through music I guess.
Yeah – I was really inspired by Dolly Parton and a lot of Lee Hazlewood records have that sort of narrative too, like a concept record.
Your work as Circuit des Yeux seems more personal than fictional, given that Jackie Lynn is a fictional character that you created for this concept album. How does the project of Circuit des Yeux differ from Jackie Lynn?
I wouldn’t say it’s more personal – well it is in some ways, but to me it’s universal too. It’s really emotional for me, and the performance is way more open ended. It’s based on feeling, so when I’m on stage I’m trying to embody something and give something to an audience that’s really therapeutic and primal – in a good way, not in a rudimentary way. Tapping into an emotional universal psyche.
Is that what we will be expecting in this gorgeous church in Sydney?
Yeah, it’s a 90 minute set, so it’s going to be visiting a few songs from my previous album. But also what I’m most excited for is unrecorded Circuit des Yeux tracks that I’m working on right now. It just feel so fresh and new and I really believe in everything that I’m doing with it. And I’m going to be performing with an additional member, so hopefully we can be very expansive in the spectrum of textures and different varieties of soundscapes.
Is it a sort of multi-instrumental affair in contrast to your solo shows?
Yes, it’s always ever changing and I think multi-instrumental is a great way to go.
Obviously something that’s been in all of our heads for the last couple of weeks is the way that the political situation has gone in the US. I can’t really imagine how it feels for American progressives and women to be thinking about the future. You’ve touched a bit on the emotional expression of your art, but it seems to me that art is – and creating great art is – a refuge, and something people can draw strength from. Is that something you’d agree with, in looking forward to the future?
It’s kind of a double edged sword, though I feel kind of silly saying that. It’s a really real situation and I have a lot of people in my life who are preparing and are living in fear right now, and there’s a lot of things that can be done. In a way, I feel privileged to be travelling and doing what I’m doing – but I can only hope that it is medicinal in this environment, and I think it’s what I have to give to society right now. So as long as I’m able to do that, I hope that people can seek solace within that.
WHO: Circuit des Yeux at Sydney Festival
WHERE: St Stephen’s Uniting Church
WHEN: Sunday 15 January, 2017
HOW MUCH: $40 – more info here
Utility Fog is your weekly fix of postfolkrocktronica, dronenoise, power ambient, post-everything improv. On air every Sunday from 9-11pm on FBi Radio.
Peter has presented Utility Fog on FBi since the station’s inception, with a special interest in music that straddles genres and worlds.
He plays cello in Tangents and FourPlay String Quartet, records solo music as raven, and tweets as frogworth.