Haley Fohr brings her haunting project to The Frequency on September 29.
From the crude hiss and ominous mood of 2008’s Symphone to the fleshed-out arrangements and ornate production of 2015’s In Plain Speech, Chicago-based songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Haley Fohr has spent nearly the last decade refining and expanding her beautifully unsettling project Circuit Des Yeux. Blending the gloomier corners of psychedelia and folk with a deep experimental bent, most of Fohr’s material is marked by thoughtfully moody 12-string guitar and her low, urgent, time-stopping voice, which sways dynamically between restrained croons and an earth-shaking vibrato.
For the past few years, Fohr has opened up Circuit Des Yeux’s doors for collaboration, working with the likes of Bitchin’ Bajas’ woodwind specialist Rob Frye, violin explorer and Matchess mastermind Whitney Johnson, and Slint bassist Matt Jencik, to name a few. However, after a few years of relentless touring, a couple collaborations with Mind Over Mirrors and discordant guitar wizard Bill Orcutt, and unveiling a synth-infused, self-titled concept record under her new Jackie Lynn alias, Fohr is flying solo again with her upcoming tour and stripping her live set-up down to only guitar and vocals. Ahead of her September 29 show at The Frequency—a bill she'll share with fellow Chicagoan Ryley Walker—Fohr spoke with me about the challenges of pulling off Jackie Lynn live, working on a new album, and weaning herself off of effects pedals to emphasize the songwriting.
Tone Madison: While a lot of the Circuit Des Yeux material seems pretty personal and introspective, the Jackie Lynn album is obviously more conceptual. Were you seeking a bit of escapism after touring so hard on Circuit Des Yeux for the last few years?
Haley Fohr: No, not escapism, just fun. I have no emotional ties to Jackie Lynn, which makes it very free in my mind. It was just an exercise—I wanted to try out and to pull inspiration from something outside of myself.
Tone Madison: I like that it has this sort of Suicide-gone-outlaw-country feel to it. The whole vibe is really cohesive throughout. How did this project begin materializing?
Haley Fohr: It was really swift and easy. Sonically, I wanted a fried-out country star backed by Suicide. We recorded it in three days, and mixed it in three days. All of the basic tracks were done live.
Tone Madison: I'm guessing the fact that it was recorded it live made it easier to approach for as a live entity. Did you tour with a full band behind you for the Jackie Lynn shows?
Haley Fohr: We are a trio live and a four-piece in the studio. We did a U.S. tour last month and the set up was the most ambitious I've had yet. It was really challenging—setting up six synthesizers and running visuals and sound completely on our own. Our soundcheck and set-up time is around an hour and a half, which is long for me. We play to a drum machine, so technically it takes up a lot of brain space for me. With Circuit des Yeux I can really be free and let go in a live setting, but I have to be really on point and with it for Jackie Lynn.
Tone Madison: How does the emotional distance affect your approach to the live performance?
Haley Fohr: I really thought about Jackie Lynn as an entertainer. I want it to be fun for the audience–visually and sonically. Circuit Des Yeux is very much artist, but less entertainer at this moment.
Tone Madison: Wow, that sounds pretty wild, logistically. Most of the time when I go out to see artists play with synths and drum machines, there are no vocals and the artist seems mostly worried about playing behind the kick drum. With detailed pop songs with vocals, it's got to be a whole other animal.
Haley Fohr: Yeah, the fingerpicking gets really labor-intensive for me, too
Tone Madison: Conversely, you're about to embark on a solo tour. I've seen you play alone before and I've always loved that you have this sort of enveloping looseness that feels very immediate. In older interviews, it seemed that you started playing with an ensemble because of the frustrations associated with being a solo opening artist on tour. What do you feel you've gleaned from the many collaborations you've been working on over the last few years, and how do you feel it will change your approach to playing solo?
Haley Fohr: I wanted to do something bigger for In Plain Speech and I think with the help of a few special people we were able to do that. But once it became locked in, I was ready to change. In Plain Speech is over a year and a half old. I'm currently in the middle of demo-ing for a far future CdY record. Right now, I'm focusing on really stripping back and going into new songs with an open mind for new configurations and sounds. For this trip, I'm mainly playing new songs and a few from In Plain Speech—just me and an acoustic guitar. I generally use a lot of pedals to create atmosphere, but I am trying to steer away from that at this time.
Tone Madison: I like the idea of testing the dynamics of raw instrumentation versus crutching on electronics. Back when Kathleen Baird of Spires That In The Sunset Rise was here in Madison, she was throwing really interesting shows at this spot called Shockrasonica. I feel like she featured a lot of these sort of avant-jazz experimentalists who could just rip out all of these insane tones and noises with just a saxophone or a snare drum. I always found that to be pretty inspiring.
Haley Fohr: I guess I'm just not committed to anything sonically for the next Circuit Des Yeux venture yet. I'm focusing on really honing in the songs through trying them out live.
Tone Madison: Do you have any new collaborative work on the way?
Haley Fohr: I did guest vocals on three LPs that will be out next year—just a song on each. I'll let them spill the beans. It's all pretty laid-back, though. I'm taking a big hiatus after this tour.