“Two years ago I played to 15 people at Café OTO. I’ve been touring for 10 years, and it's been a long road."
Circuit Des Yeux, aka Haley Fohr, offers up this fact as an explanation for her previous remark that she doesn't quite feel accepted. Given the widespread acclaim for her latest record Reaching For Indigo, alongside previous plaudits for her earlier work, it’s a standpoint that feels a little curious. Over a near decade-long discography, her remarkable five-octave baritone has evolved - much like a pupil dilating and flooding the senses - and she has continued to develop a fecund musical landscape, crafting collages with both digital technology and acoustic instrumentation. She even dipped a toe into an alter ego, Jackie Lynn, a project that landed her on the front cover of The Wire. Not to mention that according to one Bandcamp user, 'Paper Bag' is "an absolute banger!" Nevertheless, as she sagely points out: “This is my first headline tour.”
I meet Fohr just before her sold-out show at the Lexington, and in addition to a strong grasp of the position her music inhabits, she possesses a healthy cautiousness regarding the record’s response. “Well, you know, it’s easy to say it doesn’t matter to me, but if we’re speaking pragmatically, I never approached this portion of my life in a way that was about making a living.
“I always just wanted to just make music, that was my dream. But there are things that need to happen to do that, and I’m really grateful that I’m able to do that right now. And anytime anyone has anything to say about my music, good or bad, I’m interested to hear it, but it doesn’t move the core inside of me.”
It's possible that Fohr could have made all sorts of different decisions that in all likelihood would have seen her in a very different socioeconomic situation. Her Jackie Lynn side-project, for instance, was largely viewed as a more conventional, and subsequently perhaps more commercial, work. But it’s a course she has chosen not to pursue beyond that one record. “I’d hate to wake up ten years later as Jackie Lynn and think I’d wasted my life.”
Equally, she could have headed into a studio with a bunch of session musicians to make a less idiosyncratic, more mainstream, sounding record, but she chose to retreat to Cooper Crain’s (Bitchin Bajas, Cave) home to record in DIY fashion.
“Nobody said it was easy / But it was so easy” she sings on ‘Black Fly,’ which perhaps reveals that steadfast core as less a choice and more a non-negotiable facet of Fohr’s character and her subsequent work. And interestingly, she talks of her economic circumstances as evidently less restrictive than they are freeing. “I couldn’t handle the pressure of a studio where it’s $5000 an hour and the clock is ticking.”
Instead, she has immersed herself in the fertile music scene of Chicago, and the artistic freedom that has engendered: “I intentionally moved to Chicago to play music six years ago, just because I think it’s a reservoir that’s unparalleled in America. It’s affordable and there are so many great musicians that are willing to play for the sake of playing. It’s not about money or fame or something.”
As singular a work as Reaching For Indigo clearly is, finding those great musicians was an integral part of bringing her vision to life. The record’s songs are dense with detail, heroic in scope, and structured with little truck for the verse/chorus/verse tradition. It’s difficult to imagine how you even begin to write or record such labyrinthine material.
Fohr says of the process: “I feel like there’s a lot of elements. For a good song, initially, it has to have a purpose, and that purpose was very obvious to me, so that was easy. Basically all of the songs for this record I wrote on guitar and voice by myself. A lot of the arrangements were in my brain, and usually, I try to get those down with my voice even if it’s a mandolin part or a string part. Then I carefully chose collaborators where I say ‘this is the part, however, if you feel inspired please go with it.’
“And it can go both ways, but I think I’ve gotten to the point... I mean, it’s such a great city with so many like-minded individuals and just great players, that things like the end of ‘Black Fly’ can grow into something organic. And it’s just better on the whole as a collaborative experience rather than me saying ‘that was great, but you didn’t do exactly what I said.’”
The resulting work is so richly detailed that multiple listens always yield new bewitching nuances, often with no explanation of why they revealed themselves with that particular play, or how indeed they were created. I’m particularly intrigued by the agitating buzzing that circulates at the end of ‘Black Fly.’ Fohr explains: “There aren’t any field recordings on it, but the idea behind it is metamorphosis and changing into something else, or maybe identifying what you really are in the context of something. So, there’s a string part, and that’s one fly, there are synthesiser parts that Rob Frye and Cooper Crain played, that’s their fly, and I do a short vocal stint. It’s just my voice through a ring modulator.”
These multiple layers and acute details feel like the work of a perfectionist reaching for an intangible objective with resolute devotion. Indeed, it’s a compulsion on Fohr’s part that she concedes one collaborator was instrumental in tempering. “Cooper Crain was great at saying stop, it’s done.”
But that gentle curtailment didn’t impede the purpose of these songs or a sense that the resulting work is her most fully realised and accomplished yet. She has even been quoted as saying Reaching For Indigo is her magnum opus, something she believes is the synthesis of fortuity and a very particular set of circumstances.
“In general when ideas come to me they’re very vivid and very large, and also mostly completely unrealistic and unattainable. I found that out the hard way. With this record, I can honestly say I chiselled away at it and did it in a way that I was maybe equipped with enough patience, as well as knowledge about music and such things. It really coalesced in this really divine way - it’s almost a one-to-one from my mind, which I don’t think I’ve been able to accomplish before.”
The stimulus for these songs rose from an event in Fohr’s life that took place in January 2016. She has spoken openly about this nebulous psychic moment that left her convulsing, vomiting, and crying, and the record’s opening track ‘Brainshift’ charts that experience vividly: “Came like a tidal wave / Closest to the sun you've been / One thousand miles away / There you'll see the clouds / And crawl out the rain”.
While not everyone will have experienced such seismic brain-shifting events, there remains something indefinably relatable in Fohr’s music. It extracts such powerful emotions through the eye-watering peaks of ‘Black Fly,’ to the bewildering mind manipulations of dipping your head into ‘Paper Bag.’ Its impact is decisive, but articulating why is much more elusive. The indescribable nature of her music is a humbling experience for a so-called music writer, and yet a notion that Jasper Willems so eloquently captured in his review last year. That break from what is known in favour of trusting the senses is perhaps the record’s biggest achievement.
Fohr says that above everything “music has to make me feel something,” and that is definitely true of her own records. Asked how she would define her music, given all the other adjectives often prescribed to it, she replies, “I would describe what I do as psychedelic.” And indeed, it conjures a myriad of visions and sensations that have no solid basis in reality but are nevertheless utterly visceral.
Whereas most might recoil from, or try to bury, such a traumatic event, Fohr mined this weighty moment for all its worth. Her reasoning is the sense that it was a particular point in her life unlikely to be repeated, and when such a significant instance arises, “you have to honour that.” She fulfils that purpose exquisitely on the record, bringing to mind Joseph Conrad’s explanation of his function as an artist: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see. That - and no more, and it is everything.… and perhaps also that glimpse of a truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Where he implemented words, Fohr primarily allows you that glimpse sonically. She explains her first forays into music sprung from a perceived inability to communicate. “I didn't think I communicated very well with words, that’s what I try to do with music.” But it does make you wonder if she was ever apprehensive about revealing even a glance of something so personal.
She explains that talking about it in interviews was okay the first few times, but the more distant phone exchanges were trickier. It seems she was keen to give the record a certain amount of context, but was also “conscious of saying too much,” largely to avoid dominating any given reading. When it came to making the record she says, “It was important I worked with people I knew and was comfortable with.”
And then there's the task of playing it all out live. The idea of in some way reliving what she has described as a frighting experience, must have been a concern? “I think I’ve been lucky enough, and had the foresight with my booking agents, to find places that are comfortable to get into this record," she says, "because I’ve certainly been on the other end where I’ve been doing something that’s very spiritual for me, and it’s not the correct context. But with this tour, I definitely live inside of it.
"Really rarely do the meanings of my songs change for me. It still feels really personal, universal, and also an authentic to homage at this point to something.”
In addition to the personal aspect of live performance there’s also the more practical demands of bringing such a complex record to life in a live situation, and while Fohr concedes it wasn’t straightforward, she has found it rewarding. “It's pretty challenging to get it off the ground at first. It’s never going to be one-to-one, and I’m resigned to the fact that, as an artist, I’m one artist live and one artist recorded. It will never totally intersect, but as we’ve been playing things are getting tighter and we have other ideas because, well, we can’t bring a grand piano for ‘Philo’ so what can we do? I think there’s a lot of growth through that process."
She adds: “I really do think that my songs are in their infancy when they’re recorded and they just get better through playing them live.”
Bearing witness to her show at the Lexington confirms as much. She takes the stage and asks for the house lights to be turned off, her hair covers her face, and dramatic, monochrome silhouettes fill the backdrop. But for all this obfuscation the music shifts the air in the room as the expanded kaleidoscopic visions of Reaching For Indigo’s songs are revealed. It’s an astonishing performance that allows you to trust the often unexplainable and have faith in the incomprehensible. After all, visions of the mind are no less valid an experience just because you can’t hold them in your hands and name them, just as a paper bag is no less of a fiction than Haley Fohr’s psychedelic music is real, and that’s a truth she enables you to see.
Reaching For Indigo is out now via Drag City. For more information about Circuit Des Yeux, including forthcoming UK tour dates in May, please visit her official website.
Photo Credit: Michael Vallera