Photo: Evan Jenkins

Interview: Circuit Des Yeux runs towards luminescense – “Everything is an art project in my life”

Sometimes Zoom conversations with artists have a way of unintentionally demystifying their art. The rigid, clumsy means of trying to communicate through a computer screen miles apart, with faint glimpses of the subject’s homely surroundings, can have a sobering effect. This, however, is certainly not the case with Chicago-based artist Haley Fohr, who records under the monikers Circuit Des Yeux and Jackie Lynn

Almost as a physical extension to the striking cinematic scenery of Circuit Des Yeux’s recent single “Dogma”, as we speak, Fohr is surrounded by bright orange canvases and hazy candlelight, which are reminiscent to the eerie orange skylines she encountered during a residency at the late artist Robert Rauschenberg’s house.

Fohr: “This is what my creative room looks like now. I built it while I was writing -io for the last couple of years. It started out with some light bulbs, then they changed all the lights in our apartment to orange, and now that the album is complete it’s just in my room.”

That penchant for manifesting her art into tangible spaces signifies tentatively seeking out the elusive joys in life. Midway through our conversation, which is largely about Circuit Des Yeux’s aforementioned new album -io, Fohr recalls a self-portrait she painted called “The Monster In Me”. Looking at it incites a sentiment familiar to those who have seen Fohr perform live in the past. A vague apparition is surrounded by a dark, shadowy cloud, overpowering the entire space like a veil of smoke. ‘Overpowering’ is generally a word used to describe the singular entity that is Fohr’s voice: a four-octave blight of pure unprocessed emotion that can literally floor people into a state of suspended disbelief. 

For -io, Fohr took stronger reins on the recording process, writing, arranging, and annotating the bulk of the parts herself. “I utilized this project to give myself power. Every single note has intention. It all passes through me: I decided to notate it all through sheet music, with the exception of a couple of songs. I wanted to honor all the people that have toured with me.” But furthermore, the darkness that has been surrounding Fohr seems to have been replenished by a warmer celestial light.

“Destruction has been a huge part of my art. But I also have my trials and tribulations in my personal life. As I’ve gotten older, especially with -io, implosion and explosion have been equally destructive. Art and music give me a way to traverse it in a less destructive way. And I really hope -io can do that for other people.”

You have a way of courting situations that seem discomfiting or at least counter-intuitive. The Jackie Lynn project, I remember reading about someone who advised you to not do it, which compelled you to explore the notion of alter egos. Was this the case with -io as well?

I don’t know if it was counter-intuitive, but certainly another step in my evolution. I had to say out loud that I was going to be composing a record for a 24-piece symphonic ensemble. When I first said it, it sounded like a lie. But after you say it half a dozen times and suddenly you’re in a studio, you’re doing it – that kind of thing certainly wasn’t comfortable for me. I think this album is more intuitive and personal to me than my last couple of releases. I understood that the trials and tribulations I was facing were so isolating, the only thing that would emotionally match my experience was to do it all myself. 

The word that comes up several times in Sasha Geffen’s beautiful companion story for the album is grief. And grief always pops up in places you don’t expect. It sort of hits like an asteroid. You can’t really brace for it. How did you react to it initially?

Devastating. I had never met death in such an intimate way before. I’ve had loss, but from a distance. And being someone who has had major depression, I was already very aware of how I’m feeling every moment of the day. I’m always keeping track of myself. I was having a hard time doing that. I was entering the pandemic, with a huge grief laying on top of me. It’s really hard for me to understand death and the loss. 

It changed my entire insides and my whole compass of faith. It made me realize that not everything happens for a reason, but things happen as they are meant to be. Trying to find any kind of solution is a fool’s errand. Anytime someone disappears into this ether or leaves this world, it’s a huge gaping hole. It’s a different world and every time someone leaves it feels different. I like what you said about grief hitting like an asteroid. It’s such a specific place. And when you have compounding griefs, it doesn’t hit the same way. An acupuncture of suffering.

It’s the absence, isn’t it? The lack of access to something you’ve had before. I like how we’re talking in scientific language about grief. Sometimes that’s necessary to pursue it and try to understand it. I noticed that about -io: you mention a lot of mathematical terms, astronomy-related terms. I can hear the lyrics to “Neutron Star” almost in Carl Sagan’s voice. Tell me a little bit about the language you chose for this, and why it seems to err towards the pragmatic, maybe dispassionate scientific route. 

Well, I think it depends from song to song. But with “Neutron Star” specifically, a friend of mine gave me a piece of advice I followed for that song: if you want to write a song about something, you must research it and read any book you can about it; until you know every aspect about that subject you can write a song about it. With the death of this aforementioned friend of mine: suicide is such a complicit way to go. It’s complicated. It leaves a storm in your wake. But I find admiration in it. I think people go as far as they can, and then they help themselves. 

That song is really trying to understand that situation in a pragmatic way. I was really interested in black holes, they are such an obvious metaphor for death. But when I learned about the neutron star, I saw it as this gorgeous representation of those that linger and those who wander, and those who are tired. Who consider helping themselves by taking their own life. And a lot of times, I feel this heavy weight of how a neutron star uses this mass density that it carries around itself. It implodes instead of explodes, it sucks everything in. Something about that feels like a solution. It’s not an understanding, but it’s an attempt.

That dispassionate mindset can work for you as an artist – not just as Circuit Des Yeux, but as Jackie Lynn as well. You write songs into the skin of this other character, to circumnavigate certain issues that are thrown at you. This character becomes almost like a lightning rod for discourse, or maybe emblematic for a certain subject. It seems like a natural survival instinct: to have these intense feelings and find objects or books or characters to imbue them in, to conduct them in a useful way. 

Absolutely. And it isn’t so abstract. It’s just a person crawling the earth searching for clues. A neutron star or an asteroid probably has the most amount of clues. Trauma and suffering are without description. There is only an x amount of words in the English language – any language – and it doesn’t work for me. And even though I can’t say it loud, I feel like there has been all this other excavation in human history. And I think it’s all tethered to the same thing. Which is death and suffering. It’s even trigonometry-proof! (laughs)

“And the sound is trigonometry proof”, you close on “Argument”. Really love that song, the arrangement is very John Barry-esque. 

Thank you. That’s a big song. As someone who has PTSD, I realized during the pandemic that I never really learned to debate or argue. Any time I get into a debate with someone that gets to a certain place, my emotions tend to take over. It’s me and someone very close to me committing to an argument: we’re going to go to that scary place together. I’m going to be here: someone sort of guiding me through the emotions, the vulnerability of being in an argument.

The “trigonometry-proof” line is significant: proof is a very non-direct way of creating laws and signalling certain properties. Trigonometry was always something that was beyond me. I went to school for nuclear engineering before I decided to follow my path as an artist, so mathematics is almost like music to me. It feels like a universal language, this puzzle that I always enjoyed. That, in the turn of an argument, it seemed apropos that these are all unspoken rules with communication and boundaries. And if you’re not taught those early in life, it’s such a mindfuck.

My favorite line on the whole record is on that song: an angel with an amygdala is just an alien waiting to be seen.” I have no idea what it means, but the line is incredible, and it threw me off in this cool way.

I don’t want to explicitly explain that line, I want you to hold onto that magic. But the unseen is so significant to me. And as I’ve grown into my identity it has been acknowledged by some of my closest friends and comrades that I’m a shadow figure. I don’t know what it is about me. I used to ingest that in a very negative way, now it’s kind of fun: even as people have met me during the pandemic, they don’t see me or recognize me or even remember me. In stories of my life, some of my best friends and people that experience things with me don’t remember me being there. 

When I was a child trying out for choir I had teachers tell me I lacked star power and presence. So I have always identified with these mysterious, opaque things – things that hold significance but are rarely seen or even acknowledged. The jargon of an alien is one that’s always been close to my heart. In this hyper-political world, I live amongst people who are considered aliens in America, and they are fucking gorgeous. They all created this world underneath a world next to a world that’s almost invisible to the naked eye. If you stand still, here are some pretty incredible alien civilizations after you right now. 

You’ve just been grief-stricken, and then you go to this place called Captiva Island, which sounds like some set-piece in a Hunger Games film. It doesn’t even seem like a real place. It was for a residency, and you started painting there a lot. What drew you to go and paint instead of making music? 

I did both, I was hoping to play more music. It had been about four months since a friend of mine passed away, and it was the whole grief thing, man. I thought I was over it. I thought I was ready. And… I wasn’t. Something about that place: the isolation, but also being in very close quarters with other artists, who were amazing. I had conversations that really opened me up: being on an island made me realize I had to do this by myself. Captiva, Florida… I think it was named that because it was one of the main slave ports bringing people over from Central America and Africa. 

It has that really ghostly, haunted vibe. It felt extremely prejudiced against people of color or of a certain financial or social-economical class. Mike Pence has a house down there.

In the artist grounds there are six miles of forest and multiple buildings Robert Rauschenberg bought in the 70s. He lived there until he passed away. All of his original art is there. I stayed in his beach house, his bedroom, on the ocean. Everything about it was… kind of oppressive to be quite frank. But gorgeous: you had these gates that would open only for the artists. You’re on this jungle road, everything’s on bikes and golf carts. All I could do was action painting, flinging my body onto a canvas, trying to exercise all the grief out of me. I’m not ready to share those paintings yet. But they are a big part of the album. 

So should I take “flinging your body against a canvas” literally?

Yeah. I was naked and covered in paint and made four paintings this way. 

Each new song on -io feels like entering a new room. The transition between a song like “The Chase” to “Sculpting the Exodus” is quite bold. The build-up, and then production values between these songs seem so different. 

I do feel -io is set apart from the previous because it is cinematic and each song stands on its own. “The Chase” is very significant to me: it’s a memory of something traumatic that happened to me. It lives inside of me in a visceral and clear way. I’ve written about this period in my life for the last five albums and I really hope that it’s the last song that addresses this personal phase. Who’s to say it won’t? But yeah, I was being chased by someone. I was running for my life. I was in fear of my life. It’s one of those moments when trauma happens. I could feel it slowing down. I disassociate. But also, upon writing the song I realized I never looked over my shoulder as I was running. 

One of your earlier videos, “Do The Dishes”, found you running naked on a treadmill. Maybe that’s just another point of that same ripple effect that that traumatic event has caused. 

The physiology of running, your heart overloads when you’re dealing with a sympathetic nervous system. PTSD is married to a similar feeling. But yeah, all the clues are in there.

Running through a valley, running up a hill. A gravel road. I love the imagery of a woman struggling. I love seeing women commit entirely to something, physiologically as well as mentally. I don’t think there’s much of that in our world. I’m talking like The World’s Strongest Men but leaving them crying and sobbing at the same time. That’s what I want. I can’t find it so I’m happy to incorporate that as much into my art as much as possible.

For videos where I’m using my physical body, I’m trying to mirror my devotion through a physical act as well. 

There are so many things on -io that feel new for a Circuit Des Yeux record. “Walking Toward Winter” feels like your take on a love song. 

I would consider it my first love song. A former version of me might have found it cheesy, but it’s just so honest and real and gorgeous. I wrote that song in 15 minutes. It was an attempt to view the outer world with a lighter breath.

The ‘love song’ in question is still really heavy. The winter is a really hard time for me and over the past years, I have not been well. My partner has always been there for me and I feel like I was able to make this album and heal on a personal level, because I feel safe and I have this unconditional love. I didn’t expect that in my life. My music is sort of the truest form of what I wanted to represent that part of my life and say thank you.

I always admired that about your work: you confront things head-on whether you’re ready for them or not. That last track, “Oracle Song”, seems to be no exception, especially in the way you sing it, like your younger self when you first started bringing out music, before you started to utilize the full potential of your voice. There are clues about the number of records you made, “the six times you had to replenish your soul”. It feels like you’re singing that to your 17-year-old self. 

It’s definitely a message. Seventeen is such an iconic age in pop music. I think you can only see in hindsight how fragile a person is. I think with all this time within the pandemic, it’s certainly been a reckoning of past selves. Finding softness there, but also being a woman. I’ve been more motherly than ever. I don’t mean that I want to bear children. But more like ‘everything is my child’.

There’s a 10-year-old living across the street who is mixed up in the wrong world. He’s got face tattoos, he’s in and out of jail, packs heat. I feel like that song is for him a little bit too. I felt a responsibility to be a little more explicit in that song and let the younger generation know – or maybe that’s more for me too. That’s such a 30s thing – when you’re in your 30s you’re telling stories you know. Are they really for anyone besides yourself? It’s hard to say. 

Looking at the current narratives surrounding Britney Spears or Aaliyah, it’s positive to see artists having more agency over their careers nowadays. You realize how much of the landscape has shifted. I was thinking about that too when I heard “Oracle Song”. Maybe you also wanted to reach out to someone with comparable experiences? Did you think about that bigger picture too?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s so real. It’s just… real. And I wish it wasn’t just bound to ageism. I had some of the best ideas of my life at age 17, and no one was listening to me. People were stealing from me. Some awful personal things happened to me at that age.

I agree there is more agency at a younger age these days to hold onto. I’m so grateful for the younger generation. There’s an activity, this wave that is coming. But I do feel responsibility, like a village elder, to at least put out a signal. If it’s received it would mean the world to me, and if it isn’t… I tried. I feel like it was my due diligence. 

In the past you’ve also talked about the act of singing out loud, seeing it as a shamanic exercise or ritual. To make sure that the explosion or implosion doesn’t happen in destructive ways. I mean, look how amazing your place looks, all these decorations. I wonder if that’s a manifestation of therapy as well, to make sure these energies have somewhere tangible to go. 

Oh yes. These days, everything in my life is a ritual. The physicality of your health and your mental health are certainly connected. Singing is a physical exertion for me. It keeps me grounded, and I hope everyone can find something like that in their life. Whether it’s riding a bike. I’ve had so many nice bike rides in the pandemic. It’s so gorgeous and cinematic, the speed of things passing by. 

But… yes. Everything is an art project in my life. Everything is tethered to one another. I’ve been wearing orange for nine months. I wore red for two years before that. It’s all just a work in progress. 

By changing one thing in your daily reality you can maybe see the wonder in the things that are constant. I mean, Joanna Newsom didn’t speak for what, two months? 

Yeah, definitely, I’m also down with adhering to the long game. Any kind of self-work or recovery. They speak for years. They adhere to a kind of devotion. I like orange because I just gravitate towards it. The thought of one color into another. It resonates. It glows. And that’s where I’m at right now. I’m not really trying to project so much. Just curious and, you know… at the beginning of this project, I was trying the hard work of finding joy. And it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. 

Circuit Des Yeux’s new album -io comes out this Friday, October 22, through Matador (pre-order/save). You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.