Following a period of extreme grief and isolation, Haley Fohr is back, having saved herself with music
Please note: this article contains references to traumatic events that some readers may find upsetting
There are few performers who would shake off death threats in response to their voice and fearlessly continue touring their music, but one of them is Haley Fohr (aka Circuit des Yeux), who has, for almost a decade and a half, deployed her unique baritone vocals to shattering effect. Even if Fohr’s lower register – which has set her apart since her school choir days – is lost on certain listeners, she has always found music to be her saviour during her lowest periods.
Speaking to her ahead of the release of her most orchestrated album to date, I learn that music-making is her foundation, which she has built vast and cosmic enough to subsume the manifold loss, isolation and grief that have marred her recent years.
Following the musical journey of the Indiana-born, Chicago-based songwriter takes us on innumerable twists and turns, unraveling more mysteries the further we get into her world of dark, experimental folk. Following her 2017 album, Reaching for Indigo, Fohr released more psychedelic music under her outlaw cowboy alter ego Jackie Lynn, before returning to her Circuit des Yeux persona. And then she retreated. Following the death of a close friend, Fohr disappeared from view, and stopped writing music at all. She fought depression and loneliness, but somehow, through the turbulence of her mourning and the global pandemic, she found a way back to creating, shaping ideas that would eventually lead to her musical return.
Circuit des Yeux’s first album in four years, -io, out October 22 via her new deal with Matador, emerges as a simultaneously triumphant and devastating release of emotions. Fohr pairs her four-octave voice with a 24-piece orchestra, stitched through with a cavernous organ. She wrote, arranged and produced the record on her own. “Faith, it stings like the sun,” she whispers against a nightmarish guitar in ‘The Chase’, sounding like the distant threat of someone scratching at your door, while studies in gravity (and black holes) played their part in -io too, which goes some way to explaining -io’s incredible cover art – a photograph of Fohr in freefall, which is no green screen trick.
Rather than resign herself to the pit of isolation and self-doubt she was sinking into, Fohr began giving form to exactly those feelings, writing in a way that isn’t simply confessional, but allows listeners to feel that their own darkness was being expressed. On our call, she sits basked in candlelight, before a sunset terracotta backdrop, as though depicting the glimmers of hope which have not yet receded into the night.
Georgina Quach: Can you take me to the origins of -io?
Haley Fohr: There’s a lot going on in this record. It is more about a phase of my life. It was, for lack of a better term, harrowing. The pandemic and the couple of years beforehand were very hard for me, so I utilised music in a way that I always have, which is just to give my emotions and my experiences validity. That’s getting harder and harder to do. But this record harnesses those really challenging moments of reckoning that deals with death and grief, but also love and loss. Mental health, certainly.
GQ: How do you feel about it?
HF: This is the biggest project I’ve ever taken on. It felt necessary. I’ve never felt so goddamn sad and desolate, and hopeless in my life. It was a situation where I had a lot of loss, and then, as I was hoping to recover, there was more loss and more death. I just felt like the only way out of it was to do this very huge, but solitary record. And I didn’t want to stop until the music matched my emotions.
GQ: When did the project start to take shape and do you remember your initial hopes for it?
HF: It started unknowingly in May 2019. I was in London at that time for a solo show, and I was also scoring a film soundtrack. I was staying in this Best Western hotel for four days. It was very budget; the bed and end table were all bolted to the ground, and there was this weird astroturf carpeting. I had an onslaught of major depression, the kind of which I haven’t had since I was 17 or 18 years old. I live with depression. It’s usually something I can keep tethered to and keep an eye on, but this was something else. And I was really, really sick for those four days and was by myself. I reached out to a few people, who are my friends and confidantes when I’m having mental health issues. I wrote this song called ‘Sickness’, which I performed later that night at [London venue] Kings Place. I have not performed it since, and that song did not make it on the record. But that was the beginning.
GQ: Did you find that performance cathartic?
HF: I told the audience I was not feeling well, and that I was going to play the song. They were so wonderful and sweet, but looking back, I really wish I did not go past this fourth wall. I wasn’t able to really give myself. I didn’t really find any relief after that show. It was just more of like… taking some necessary precautions to deal with the situation at that moment. And I think I did the best I could, you know?
GQ: This uncomfortable level of intimacy must take extreme courage. Have there been live shows in the past where the interaction between you and the audience is almost freeing?
HF: That’s taken a really long time for me to find, but I’m really grateful that most Circuit des Yeux shows are exactly like you say – this very gorgeous, quiet meeting of souls, where you can hear a pin drop. I feel really empowered by that. But I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years, and for the first ten years I would get death threats all the time. People have such a visceral reaction to my voice when I’ve opened for bands and put myself out there. I have definitely had a mix of feedback.
GQ: For -io, you devised beautiful, orchestral arrangements with multiple musicians. How did you manage collaboration during the time of Covid?
HF: It was extremely challenging. Everything about making this record was challenging, but that’s not to say it wasn’t worth it. I wrote most of these arrangements as sheet music, which is something that’s new to me. I single-handedly produced it and arranged it, which I haven’t done in ten years.
I live in Chicago, and I generally have a very bustling and collaborative existence. But in the last 18 months my whole music community has vanished. I was really isolated, not only just by the pandemic but also by compound loss and grief. So, once the record was completed, and demoed, folding people into that process was lengthy and detail-oriented – with a lot of consent. There was a core band of four people: Tyler, Andrew, Whitney and myself. We met up first to flesh out certain things and make sure certain things worked. There was no vaccine then, so we were masking up and doing our best. We were really afraid. There were hardly any rehearsals for the ensemble. And that was the scariest part. I was working with a lot of new people. I’d never arranged for that size of an ensemble. So the fact it all worked out really feels like a miracle.
GQ: Looking back, do you wish you had access to other creative input?
HF: Part of me wishes I had had some help. I single-handedly picked every musician, wrote every note, and then mixed it remotely, which was very tough for me. At one point, I felt I was poisoning myself with this music. That’s when I knew I had to finish it.
GQ: You’ve been quoted as saying -io is a place where everything is ending all the time.
HF: I hope people can utilise the record as a place to go somewhere and feel something, and leave it behind… It is a place where the sky is perpetual sunset, in this burnt orange glow, where you can’t hold onto anything. So it does feel like a freefall all the time. It feels urban, and not naturalistic. It feels like there’s blades and reflections and skyscrapers.
GQ: I can really feel it being urban and human-centred, but at the same time, there are references to nature scattered throughout: the snow, the wind, the ground as it shakes. What do you see as the record’s beating heart?
HF: Salvation. I dissociate a lot of my life, and I think these naturalistic elements grabbed me and tethered me to this reality. I think I saved myself with this music. And I think people can save themselves. It’s just a matter of knowing that you have the capacity. I also think life is suffering, but it doesn’t have to be a dark sentiment. Like, once you understand life is suffering, every moment that you’re not suffering is a bonus, you know?
GQ: I was really drawn to the kind of ascension moment in the middle of ‘Neutron Star’ where you sing of an atrophied astronomy, followed by the birth of the neutron star. You couple this process of decaying or atrophy with the jubilant birth of the star. How does this dynamic of birth and death and other natural cycles factor into your thinking?
HF: It’s hard for me to see it as a cycle. It feels like a one-way street. When dealing with grief and loss, you never get used to it because each loss is unique. I’ve recognised how gravity is kind of God in our reality. I lost a lot of people to gravity the last few years in different ways.
GQ: Is that how you began researching physics… and black holes?
HF: Yeah. I was researching gravity, and then I found my way into black holes – the ultimate gravitational pull. I guess I saw myself in it. I saw some people that I lost in it. The neutron star is this extremely dense ball of gas. It is the precipice of becoming a black hole. So it is actually an implosion that happens, but right before there’s this implosion, there is this gigantic, heavy mass. Something about that really spoke to how I feel as someone who struggles with mental health and has lost people I love to suicide, which is seen as the ultimate darkness in Western society. By reinterpreting that through laws of physics – not only in my heart and in poetry, but also in quantum reality – these heavy moments of implosion have potential to become something better. They can release you from the weight. It takes a lot of bravery.
GQ: Is there a part of you that wishes you weren’t tethered to this reality, owing to gravity or otherwise?
HF: All the time. Since my waking life, I have fantasised about being somewhere else. I have this internal desire to keep running, and through this pandemic I had nowhere to go. For some reason, reaching out to other elements had felt like progress in my life. But through the last couple of years, I’ve realised there is nowhere to go. I’ve done a lot of internal work through therapy and other resources. Music has always taken me to the place I want to go. But now I am trying to augment my reactiveness and sit with myself and celebrate myself, as well as consider the world around me. And take care of it.
GQ: I notice in your listening guide to -io you advise listeners to take a break after track 5 or 6. How did you envision the narrative arc of the album?
HF: It is my longest Circuit des Yeux record by like 15 minutes and my compositions are really dense. In the past, I have felt like my records were a movie – almost like each sonic song was leaning on the one before or after, and they kind of coexisted. But upon reaching the completion of this record I realised that it’s so big and dense. It’s like a 15-layer German chocolate cake or like Ulysses, or some huge book; where you could eat the whole cake, or you could try to finish the book in one setting, but you’ll get sick from it. And that’s when I recognised that each song really stands on its own, and feels like a chapter. The songs are all so dense and all so fully encompassed within themselves, that they could act as their own sort of ‘mini worlds’.
GQ: I read recently about the psychology of rituals in overcoming loss – the way people who are grieving perform rituals in order to restore broken order. They can be public, or private rituals, like playing a song or planting something. Did you find comfort in rituals and their regularity?
HF: That has been the most challenging part about these last few months: not being able to congregate in the wake of loss. The cycle feels incomplete, unresolved. And, you know, I went to the funeral, I went to the Zoom wake, I went to the vigil, the socially-distanced thing. I don’t know if I found any habits that really helped me complete that process. I’m still waiting to see people in real life to do that. In terms of improving my mental health, I read. Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist teacher and how speaks about grief has been very helpful for me.
GQ: I read recently about how making the album was an exercise of relieving yourself of resurfacing darkness.
HF: Music is so magical. For a really long time, I thought it saved my life. Looking back, I realised it was me who saved my life. But it is the largest tool in my life, not only for communicating, but healing. With this record, I was bedridden, writing these scores out on my computer, or sulking and getting myself to this organ, just so I could sit in the sun. These are very, very small acts of energy and creation. All this was really intertwined with my depression in a way which it hasn’t been for a very long time.
GQ: Did you learn anything about yourself during that time?
HF: Absolutely, I am a totally different person now to who I was when I started making the record – quantum growth – to the point that I find presenting myself to people who are familiar with me a little awkward.
GQ: You’ve just unveiled the music video for ‘Sculpting the Exodus’, which plays out the scene from your album artwork as well. Am I right in thinking you actually flung yourself off a building in the process?
HF: I fell from the rooftop of a building. It was about nine feet freefall. The action was really important to me. And it was awesome that Matador were so open-minded about it when I first brought it to the table. They were like: “Why don’t we do a green screen?” I said: “You don’t understand – this is about me experiencing something and capturing it on film.” [Matador] found a stunt person for me to train with and I trained with Talin Chat who is this incredible stuntman, known for The Mandalorian.
GQ: What was that like? Were you scared?
HF: It was such an incredible experience, as someone with PTSD and depression. I wanted to experience the feeling of falling and see if it matched the way I feel often in my existence. It was not what I expected. I fell about 50 times. It did not get easier with each fall; in fact, it became harder. My body memorised the impact that was coming, and it became stiffer. I could feel the fear the more times I jumped. It reminds me of ageing and being conscious of your softness. It’s fucking hard to come back around to major depression and be like, “God dammit, it is my brain. This whole time I thought it was something else and I was doing good.” And then you’re falling again. This recognition of knowing yourself and knowing what you need is painful.
GQ: Do you think you could do it again?
HF: No… I mean, theoretically, yes. I can. But I was so sore, it completely depleted me. I love pushing my body to the limit. I think it’s such a gorgeous act of devotion. I don’t think we see enough female characters doing that in the public eye. I want the World’s Strongest Man competition, but they’re singing opera.
GQ: What do you have planned for the future? A tour?
HF: The album is a beast. She is so big, and there’re so many parts. We’re working toward a show in New York on the album release date, October 22. We’ll be doing one in Chicago on November 21. I’ll be coming to Europe and the UK, hopefully in April. All of the shows will have an orchestral appendage – five to ten string players – with our core group, so it’s gonna be huge and adventurous.
GQ: What do you hope people take from the album?
HF: Frankly, anything. I hope they can find a safe place to experience their feelings and feel validated. I hope they can walk away and feel more open and able to interact with the world. Music helps people travel. Music is a utility; you can go there, and you can leave things there. I’ll never forget the way music helped me through my first mental health crisis, and it helped me again this time.
Photography by Evan Jenkins
Mind (0300 123 3393) operates Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm. It promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.
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