Haley Fohr talks about a non-religious spiritual awakening that changed her music and life
There’s a strange hum floating through the air in Berlin. Walking into the courtyard of the Kulturbrauerei old brewery the sound grows louder and more intense. The hum soon turns into a growling drone that appears to weave up and down; moving, shaking and quivering in tone, as you get ever closer to the whirr. The source of these strange sounds comes through two speakers stood next to a solitary giant black box. Inside the box, an anechoic chamber (a space without any echo), is Circuit des Yeux (Haley Fohr) who is performing in it three times a night as part of the city’s Pop-Kultur festival. Her shoes and phone sit neatly outside the box on the grass and inside she works in darkness and isolated silence, experimenting with her voice. The sounds brewed up reveal themselves in prolonged explorations, intertwining between controlled shrieks and quiet murmurs. Over the course of the 15-minute performance, layers are often added through effects pedals creating a trippy, indistinguishable sound that, once removed from the visual context of the performer, you begin to lose yourself in, forgetting who or where this all comes from.
“The idea came to me and two other girlfriends when we were tripping on LSD,” Fohr tells me the next day as we’re sat in the open courtyard of her hotel complex on a sunny August day. “I’m a little tired, so I’m going to wear these,” she says, as she puts on a pair of aviator sunglasses, leaving just enough of her eyes poking through to occasionally get a glimpse of her eye-liner, which is applied in short little dashes under her eyes, resembling a ‘cut here’ instruction from a food packet. “I read this interview with [American avant garde composer] Diamanda Galas about going to school and she mentioned the anechoic chambers they had there and how she would take LSD and go into these chambers and practise for hours and find her inner voice.”
Fohr, 28, has been writing, performing and searching for her own inner voice as Circuit des Yeux for a decade now. Originally from Indiana and now based in Chicago, she’s recently signed with Drag City after previously releasing records through Thrill Jockey and De Stijl. When not busy tripping on LSD and thinking up conceptual anechoic chamber projects to be built for festivals in Berlin, she also makes utterly singular music.
The music is driven by her distinctive voice – one that sits some-where between peak Patti Smith and experimental-period Scott Walker – and she creates music that blends esoteric folk, avant garde compositions, post-rock, ambient pop and contemp-orary minimalism. Her 2015 album, ‘In Plain Speech’, was a staggering achievement and in 2016 she gave herself a rest from the incredibly intense and personal project that Circuit des Yeux is and created the fictional character, Jackie Lynn, to live in for a brief while. She released a record under the name, creating a fictitious backdrop story about a cocaine-dealing cowgirl on the run.
The album was fun, almost breezy and light compared to the stark intensity of Circuit des Yeux, and it played with a tone that resembled Suicide making an experimental and contemporary country record. It was done in a brief amount of time, just days, and was always intended to fade into obscurity. The success of the album was not anticipated. Rave reviews were written and Fohr found herself on the front cover of Wire magazine even though she never even planned to do a single interview for the project. It should have never been anything more than a bit of fun, a diversion tactic to give her space to write songs for her upcoming album, ‘Reaching for Indigo’. “I’ve been developing these new songs over a couple of years and I wanted to take extra time with this record. I did Jackie Lynn to buy me more time but that broke off into a new world,” she says, looking back over the project, again dipping her sunglasses enough for her eyes to creep through and meet mine. “With Jackie Lynn I was just trying something out – I didn’t want to be the focal point of what I was doing. The traction was more than I expected – I wanted it to be one of these weird one-offs you’d find when digging through the back catalogue of an artist.”