Haley Fohr is outside, in the sunshine, standing on the deck of her parents’ house, in front of a field of tall grass. It’s a pastoral and serene scene, a drastic difference from the urban landscape of her home city of Chicago—a place she finds to be a tranquil escape. “They sound so incredible,” she says of the greenery visible behind her via Zoom screen. “They’re like twice my height, so it’s been really relaxing out here.”
Fohr, the songwriter and artist behind Circuit des Yeux, is on a brief break at the moment, both from the hard work of bringing her new album -io to life onstage and immersing herself in its ominous, intense emotional weight. Due out later this month via Matador, -io is a lush and ornate work, the biggest that Circuit des Yeux has ever sounded on record, encapsulating apocalyptic landscapes and amplifying internal conflicts via expansive string section arrangements. It’s a big creative step forward for her, but it’s one that’s required a bit of extra homework—which wasn’t made any easier by the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “A couple years ago, I started writing sheet music and working with ensembles remotely. So I have a little bit of experience, but nothing on this scale, and I’m doing it all myself. I’m writing everything, I’m picking out the ensemble by hand…and just keeping my fingers crossed.”
The challenges that Fohr faced heading into -io, which followed her sophomore release under the alias Jackie Lynn, weren’t strictly those of personnel and logistics. In the years leading up to the album, she suffered the losses of friends and loved ones, as well as taking care of her grandmother during her final months, coupled with her own struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress. What initially began as a project that she had hoped would explore the work of joy had gone a different route entirely, one that has a ray of hope at the end of this particular journey, but which involved a detour through some dark places to eventually find it.
“I was taking care of my grandmother who was terminally ill, and I lost a friend to suicide while recording Jackie Lynn, so it was a certainly tumultuous time and the earth was moving beneath me around then,” she says. “I didn’t make much music after that until maybe later that fall, which is significant to me. I generally play music every day of my life, so that was pretty challenging. A bunch of people I know passed away, and not being able to congregate, in quarantine, and I was diagnosed with PTSD—there was a lot of isolating internal experience, and I kind of turned away from everything. And all I did really was write this album.
“It kind of became my message to the world.”
Treble: -io is such a big, ambitious record, and it comes out of such a complicated period. Was there a specific idea you were pursuing?
Haley Fohr: It was really slow. One of those things where, I had a moment in May 2019, where I was in this Best Western in London. I was there for an original soundtrack score that I would be performing. It was one of those budget hotels where the bed and the table are all bolted to the ground and you have to pay extra money for the remote control. It had kind of a heavy vibe, and my brain went kind of crooked—it hasn’t done that since I was about 17. It’s when I realized I have depression, and it’s me, and nothing else, and that was really significant to me—coming to identify it as part of me. I wrote this song called “Sickness” and performed it for people and I broke that fourth wall where I was like “I’m really not feeling well.” It didn’t make the album, but it was definitely that point where I was turning to music as medicine. Over the course of a year, year and a half, I just kept writing really slowly. I wrote both when my mind was light, but also when I was totally horizontal in bed, just dropping notes into a sheet music program. What was also really weird is that these arrangements all fell on top of me at once. I’ve never really had that happen before. I just felt so fuckin’ heavy, man. All of a sudden my mind would fill up with sound and I couldn’t even really look someone in the eye until I got it down. And now I feel—well I think making the album made me feel lighter, but now I’m about halfway through the interview process, and talking to people about it is such a journey. And the album’s not even out.
I wanted the songs to be about the hard work of joy. And I thought the songs would be really light and inspiring but hold this world of the symphony, and it was just like my whole world caved in on me. I said a lot of things that feel so idiotic in hindsight, but I’ve just had a lot of dark coincidences in my life. That’s all you can attribute it to.
Treble: You can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Haley Fohr: I know, and music has this prophetic element. Sometimes it’s painful when you write something down and it comes to life afterward. I pulled that from the ether or something, but I don’t know, I’m just a bug on earth, I don’t have that power.
Treble: Was making a record with such a large ensemble as much of a logistical challenge during a pandemic as it seems like it would be?
Haley Fohr: Absolutely. I really wanted this album to be a lot of people, everyone in a room vibing and single takes. There were no vaccines when we were recording, and there was a major lockdown the first day we were recording—so it was really nerve-wracking. I totally had to revamp the plan. We could only have six people in the studio at a time and we weren’t able to get together and rehearse beforehand. Like, “the flautist is coming in at this time so we need strings to leave.” It was a huge logistical challenge.
Treble: Your voice is such a distinctive instrument. How do you take care of it?
Haley Fohr: Well, it’s changed over the years. It’s like a naturalistic situation. In my twenties I did nothing and it was great. I can’t explain it. I have a soft speaking voice but I had 10 years of training and so I have these healthy rituals, warmups and things I learned when I was a child, and now it feels like second nature to me now. It’s probably my saving grace. And now that I’m getting older, I’m 32, I’m more cognizant about it. Sometimes I do a spa day for my voice for no reason. I gargle salt water, and do a diffuser, drink certain tea. I’m really serious about it. I don’t eat 90 minutes before a show. I kind of warped my life to support my instrument, and it feels like dedication. I also only have these acrylic nails on one hand to play guitar. There’s something about that devotion, changing your physicality for your art that I love.
Treble: As difficult a period as you’ve come out of, has the process of making the record helped in some way? Do you feel somewhat more hopeful?
Haley Fohr: I’ve come so far. I can’t believe it. It’s such a quiet introspective time, and I think I did the best that I could in the healthiest way that I could. Not only through music but therapy, and there’s this thing that’s been chasing me my whole life and I feel like I’ve met it face to face. This progress that kind of goes slow and unnoticed and then a year later it’s like “holy cow.” Music has really done that for me, as someone who walks around with a lot of sadness and sorrow at times, to be able to transport through music and put it down is really transformative. And making this album was a place for me to do that. I can only hope that other people might be able to use it in a similar way and kind of recalibrate themselves.
Treble: Does the work you’ve made in the past factor into the direction you take next?
Haley Fohr: I don’t ever listen to my catalog. When I release music, if I’m not playing it live, it’s not for me anymore. So there’s very little looking back. But I think I’m a pretty distinctive artist and those details fall in naturally. I do feel lighter, and historically I’ve made all of my albums when I’m in distress and I’ve needed to save myself, and I’d love to make an album when my mind is in light and I’m feeling connected to some other part of myself. I’ve read a lot of Pema Chödrön—she’s a Buddhist author and she talks about the work of joy, and when she does she uses the increment of time of years, and that takes maturity and longevity and yeah, I still think I’m on that path and I’m closer to it. I don’t feel any salvation. I don’t think I’ll make an album that’s extremely optimistic and positive, but I do feel more open and perceptive to this other energy that people find a lot easier than me for whatever reason.
Treble: What’s been the biggest change you’ve experienced since you first started making music?
Haley Fohr: I have support. Financial support, and people that are interested in working with me. I think people need to understand that when artists have this backing, it’s often just one person—all it takes is one person to believe in you and make you feel like, “Okay, I can do this.” I put out my first album at 17…and there was no money to be had. Every four years I empty out my bank account—I wish I didn’t have to. But also, every album, I have more finances to work with. Working with Matador, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the luxury of the sounds I wanted to have otherwise. It was really just a stepping stone of keeping on, keeping it moving forward. But also just being open to meeting new people. There’s a lot of creative, fascinating people out there who want to support the arts, even when it feels like the music industry is on the brink of collapse. There’s something really fucked up happening out there with the industry, but I just feel like I have this web of incredible, morally centered people I’ve met over the years, and now it’s a community.
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