‘It was like a secret world that I didn’t know existed‘ – Gary Meyler talked to Haley Fohr aka Circuit des Yeux ahead of her gigs in Dublin & Cork next week
Haley Fohr is fearless. From the uncompromising experimental records she’s been creating as Circuit Des Yeux for the past few years to baring all in the recent video for Do The Dishes which features the Indiana-raised musician running herself ragged – naked – on a treadmill, everything she does is “unabashedly” her, “for better or worse”. Taking time out from packing for the pending European tour of her fifth studio album, In Plain Speech, Haley chats from her “far southside” Chicago home.
Hey Haley. How’s life treating you today? Good. I’m at home in Chicago, packing and getting ready for tour. It’s been pretty dismal weather but today it’s sunny so it’s a good day.
Do you find the preparation for a tour stressful, exciting or is it a combination of both? The more I do it the less nervous I am. I used to get really nervous up to two weeks beforehand but now I just get nervous about the day before. I still have to make sure I’m not forgetting my passport or something really important like that. I’m excited. Nervous…but still excited.
Living in a busy, cramped city like Chicago, what do you do or where do you go to find solace? I actually live on the far south side with a lot of families from Mexico City. The area’s quite sprawling so it’s not quite so busy and I have a backyard with some nice neighbours who are all musicians that pretty much live on the same property so it doesn’t feel like the “city” city. To be honest I’m not much of a city girl and I rarely have to go downtown so it feels like home to me.
Of which parts of the new album are you most proud? All of it! I see it as one piece of work so it’s hard from me to differentiate what’s what.
What does it mean to you as a creator to know that so many people – Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas), Whitney Johnson (Verma) and Kathleen Baird (Spires That In The Sunset Rise) to name but a few – are not only willing but excited to work with you? It means everything to me and also is still a bit of a mystery. There’s not so much money involved in my music at this point in my career. To have so many people give so much time and effort and be a part of what I’m doing is a better feeling than anything I’ve done solo. I think the music itself benefits from their contribution so I feel so grateful and humbled and a little confused as to why all these great people agreed to work with me. It’s been really fun and playing live with a band is something I’m really looking forward to in the future.
That said, it must be frustrating to have to head to Europe as a one-piece? [Laughs]. Yeah, I mean I’ve learned to embrace it as I’ve toured solo pretty much my whole life. I’m not going to try and duplicate In Plain Speech as one person. I’m not going to bring a sampler and try and be a one-man machine in that way. I’ve written a set that’s based off of a few songs on the new record. I restructured a few for one woman playing guitar and singing. I wish I had $10,000 lying around so I could fly a full band over to Europe but it’s not on the cards. Maybe next time.
Speaking of money, this is your first release for Thrill Jockey who seem to be great at letting their musicians just go wherever their ideas take them. How important is that for you? Extremely. I write records and then I bring them to labels. I didn’t know what to think as I haven’t worked with a larger label like this before but they’ve been so great. They’re of a true indie mindset, completely pro-artist and whatever I want comes first and then maybe making a buck or two comes second which is hard to find in the music industry.
What kind of images do you see when transitioning through the various sections of ‘Dream of TV’? I don’t necessarily consider myself a visual artist but when I am writing music there is certainly a visualisation going on within me when I’m writing. That song was based on a recurring dream. It’s a bit intense I guess: me running through downtown Chicago with all these buildings falling down around me, the sky is orange while four red moons rise and fall. For me it was this journey that I had had over and over in my mind to a point where I couldn’t tell if my day-to-day emotions were based on reality or on this dream that I was having.
Aside from that, each song has a colour or a hue or even a texture that can be visualised so it’s all very 3-D in my mind but the world just hears the music I guess.
Sounds like a sincere case of Synesthesia? Sure! I never really thought of that. Perhaps a version of it.
There are almost tribal elements to parts of the record such as the drums at the start of ‘Ride Blind’. Then – out of nowhere – in comes a string section. How comfortable are you with trusting your instincts to mix sounds and beats that maybe are not heard that often together traditionally? This album was all about honing my confidence. Most of the album is experimental and certainly well thought out but it took a leap of faith for me to follow my instincts so I feel like I’m wrapped up in my own self. Sometimes I write a song and I think it’s pure pop and I play it to a friend and they go ‘This is so weird! What is this?’. I think at this point in my career I have lost perspective of what I think is a “strange” composition and what is just me. I’ve always been unabashedly me for better or worse. I’ve never really had much of a filter for much in my life [laughs].
To go back to Ride Blind, I’m a fan of heavy music and when I was growing up I was listening to a lot of post-punk. When I was a kid it was the first non-pop music I was drawn to and I think it was the heavy toms. Actually, it was definitely the heavy toms.
It’s always been pretty much you doing everything for the first four records. What effect has the collaborative process had on both your music and your confidence? In one way it is a dichotomy to be confident and follow through solo on an idea but also to be open and sensitive to allow other people to take it somewhere else. To do that though, you need to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself and I never had that confidence artistically. I had always thought – for whatever reason – that I was a second degree musician. Working with these people who play music for a living and having worked tirelessly throughout their lives on other projects fuelled me to rise to the occasion. I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to music so there were times when I had to shut ideas down when I thought it wasn’t what I wanted and that was the hardest part. These guys are my friends, not hired musicians, these are people I see almost every day so I don’t want to hurt their feelings so there is definitely a way to go about creating something that’s really intimate for both me and them and everyone accepting criticism and rolling with the punches; It’s a mature act that I was just learning how to do. I think it was a success and I learned so much about myself from working with other people and it brought out strengths that I didn’t even know that I had.
Such as what? I mean just being an arranger in general. I don’t know how to play the violin or how to play drums. I’ve always considered myself a poor communicator but that can’t be true if I’ve just made this record, you know? There’s a lot of communication involved and if you want your ideas to be clearly executed then you have to express them verbally and I’ve always thought that I’m a person who lacked the words to do that and that’s why I was drawn to being a musician. I think I’m a pretty sensitive person and open to other people. I never realised that before either.
There’s no better practice for a musician than playing regularly with a live band. During this time, did you notice a considerable improvement in your technical skills? Certainly! I’ve only been playing guitar for about four years and I think it’s something that I’ve just delved into, a whole world that I’m unravelling slowly. Even living next to musicians who practise five or six hours per day I’m going to do that too as I see what it does for them. I want to rise to the occasion and don’t want to be the weakest link within a group. It’s something you don’t really notice, you just play every day and hope for the best. I feel like I’ve such a long way to go, especially with the people that I’m playing with, and there are people that I would love to play and collaborate with but I don’t think I’m near their level yet, people who’ve been playing 20/30 years but it’s a goal I’m hoping to achieve.
Where did the idea come from for the video for Do The Dishes? Thrill Jockey gave me a budget for some videos. With any sort of piece of press or artistic extension of my albums I see it as a really big opportunity to create forward momentum with the art that I’ve made and make a secondary form of art so I take it st juas seriously writing a record. I thought about what the message behind Do The Dishes was exactly and how could I express that in video form. I’m not much of an athlete but I had become addicted to running so the idea was to expose myself running until I collapsed. As soon as I thought of it I was really afraid to follow through on that idea for societal reasons and then I realised that if I didn’t follow through I wouldn’t be following my own advice which is kind of ironic! It was surreal as suddenly my life had turned into this piece of art where I’m writing this song about someone believing in themselves and taking a risk on an idea and following it through to the end so it was kind of imperative for me to do that with the video or I would end up feeling like a farce!
I love the way it turned out and I’m really excited by even the fact that people are even talking about it. I think all great art is controversial in some way and that people either love it or hate it. The point wasn’t for people to necessarily embrace it but just to talk about it. The fact that it is still perpetuating conversation is really exciting to me.
The words “There is something deep inside of you/Something that’s worth reaching into”. Have you felt that this is something that you or most people aren’t encouraged to do? I can only speak from my own personal experience but there was a time when I was budding with ambition and ideas and I lacked the support or message that, not only could I do it, but do it myself and that I was worth something. I think self-love is something that we forget all too easily, at least in America where everything is so quick and so goal oriented and everybody is trying to get a pay cheque. You forget to take care of yourself and what you really want. It’s important to love yourself and put yourself before other things.
Education in the west has forever been aimed solely towards preparing a workforce with anyone whose mind works differently slipping through the cracks of the system. Would you be interested in changing this completely, educating people based on their strengths and individual traits? Absolutely. I think all forms of education should be free and in America it’s so tough. Tuition is rising and everyone that I know that went to school are either upper middle class or higher or lower middle class and stunted by $50,000 of debt right when they get out of school. I know that I made a decision not understanding the consequences of my actions when I took out loans when I was 17 years old to go to school, just following the flow of the water, doing what I thought was going to give me the most options in life when in fact I now feel shackled to some stranger and every month I have to pay a large fee that I can’t afford. The way the system is set up it is what it is and we’re all making it work but it’s an entire generation of people that are completely blindsided by debt and then supposed to rise up and be leaders one day when we can’t even pay rent. It’s disheartening.
I think a way a lot of our world works right now should be simply restarted. I don’t know exactly the right way to do it is, but it’s not working and hasn’t worked for quite some time. A reset button needs to be pressed. Like you said, a lot of people are being cut out and not being given a fair chance just because they are not homogenised into this singular entity that “they” expect a human being to be.
What do you do to prepare yourself – be it mentally and/or physically – for a long period away from home on tour? I sleep a lot because I know I’m not going to sleep much on tour so today I slept in until 11am which was great! It’s kind of like a nesting period where I am frantically running around buying last minute things and finding symbols from home that I can bring with me on the road which is really important to me.
Like what? I don’t know. Like patches of clothing, finding gifts from friends and turning them into jewellery or something that I can wear which keeps me grounded on the road. The hardest thing is actually packing. I can only bring what I can carry so – after my instruments and records – that’s not much so toiletries and clothing are last on the priority list, so what I’m actually going to wear and how many clothes I’m going to bring is really difficult for me to decide because there isn’t much room and it has to be something that is easily washed or something that I feel really comfortable in and can wear on stage. I know it’s superficial and silly but it really is probably the hardest thing for me to figure out when I’m about to pack when I’m about to go on tour.
You’ve spoken previously about finding it difficult to connect socially. From our conversation I take it that has changed? Yeah! I didn’t really connect with anyone in school or in college but once I started going on the road I started meeting people that were doing what I was doing. I come from a pretty small town in Indiana and once I decided I wanted to be a musician I really didn’t have anyone that was doing what I wanted to do, no one to look up to. There were pop stars on T.V. but there was no one physically that I could watch go on tour, make records and be a musician so I didn’t really know if that even existed.
Once I started going on tour I started meeting people that were doing what I was doing and it was pretty amazing. It was like a secret world that I didn’t know existed and I no longer felt like a strange outsider like I did in my hometown. People were thinking like I was thinking and wanting to do what I wanted to do. Ever since then I’ve surrounded myself with those people and suddenly being a musician isn’t so crazy anymore, and all of my friends do what I do and we’re all rolling down the same path. Over the last five years I’ve found like-minded people. What’s interesting is after I came home from my first tour when I was 19 years old. My mom doesn’t really know what I do except that I’m happy and doesn’t know anything about music. When I came back from my first tour she was so taken aback by how happy I was. She said that ever since I was a little girl I didn’t smile much, people were always asking me what was wrong and I never got along with people. She didn’t know what it was or what I was now doing but she now saw a happiness within me that she had never seen before. If your mom says that it’s got to be true right?!
I hope everybody has that feeling or that point in life whether you want to be a musician or an athlete or an accountant. It’s like an acceptance and within society too. I do want to be accepted by society as for so long I felt so ostracized and not accepted.
See Circuit Des Yeux live at: Tuesday, 16th June – Whelan’s Upstairs, Dublin Thursday, 18th June – Gulpd Café, Cork