Circuit Des Yeux on Improvising to Find Her Voice and How ‘Why?’ Is an Answer

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Chicago’s Haley Fohr has returned to her irreverent rock project Circuit Des Yeux after a brief stint recording and touring as her country-music-inspired alter-ego Jackie Lynn. Circuit Des Yeux’s fifth album, Reaching for Indigo, is a stunning exploration of the wild outer reaches of the composer’s low, elastic voice. Fohr’s description of her process in writing the music for the record is, I think, an apt qualification of the broader work of artists who both write and perform their own compositions: to “take the time to improvise on my own, and actively push to find new worlds inside of my voice while most people are working nine-to-five.”

These new worlds created on Reaching for Indigo are uncanny and beautiful like Roy Orbison’s ghost got lost in the future. Circuit Des Yeux’s new album, Reaching for Indigo, is out now via Drag City.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Deanna Radford

Can you talk about what indigo is to you? To your creative process?

Indigo is many things — but for me, it serves as the sixth chakra, the third eye, and intuition. I’ve spent a couple decades dialing in my skills as a proficient musician and sound engineer, but I think my intuition is the key to unlocking my most potent creative powers.

Do you have a relationship with the blues (or blues music)?

I do. Delta Blues Music from the 1930s was the first sect of music that I felt very drawn to on a personal level. It was around the end of high school that I first heard recordings of this quality, and I soon began collecting records and recordings.

Can you talk about the creation and production process for Reaching for Indigo? Were there elements of the process overall that took you out of your comfort zone creatively? As a bandleader or a collaborator?

Yes to all of these questions. There was a lot of strategic thought. It was hard to make such a big-sounding record with little resources. It took a lot of foresight to compose and rearrange these songs into a larger context. I initially wrote each song on guitar and voice. I recorded and arranged the songs with Cooper Crain at his house in chunks of multiple days at a time. We were both slow and thoughtful about each sound on the record. I can only speak for myself, but I am proud of the imaginative world we were able to create together. It was an intimate process, and it’s hard for me to hear the record now and not fixate on things I wish I could change, but that’s just how I am as a creator. I do remember turning it in and feeling absolutely fried — like I had pushed my body and mind to the limit. The fact that I still have that vivid memory verifies that I did the best I could!

The music on Reaching for Indigo has a well-orchestrated and nuanced feel. Other things I hear on the album are Indian raga sounds, sequenced repetition, and on “Paper Bag,” your voice seems to take on extended techniques. Can you talk about some of these sounds or approaches that might have informed the vision for the album? Were they things you consciously wanted to incorporate?

All of the sounds are very intentional but were birthed in many ways. I like to think of my music like a psychedelic trip, where I hope the listener is willing to take a journey. In RFI, I feel strongly that each song is connected to the other, and they sound best when played side by side.

You know, I tried to compose an album, not a collection of songs. Most explorations on RFI come from my vocal discipline. I’ve been very dedicated to my vocal practice the last two years and arrangements like “Paper Bag,” “Philo,” and “Call Sign E8” couldn’t have happened if I didn’t take the time to improvise on my own, and actively push to find new worlds inside of my voice while most people are working nine-to-five.

My voice is my work and I take it seriously. But a song comes from an entirely different part of me. The song is always born from my heart and must come from a place that feels necessary. I think this album is a nice way of bridging those two facets of my art. Most musicians I listen to and admire are ardent players with Olympic-like discipline. I try to keep my explorations and experimentations free and open but still musical.

“I realize that I have musical seasons.”

Do you have a single approach to writing lyrics for a given album? Are there ideas, sounds, or moments in particular that inspire you to get words on the page?

The existential view is the one I suffer from most. The question, “Why?” is always haunting me and has been across the breadth of my discography. However, with RFI, I think I approached the existential view from the other side — a positive bend. It’s an answer!

Do you tend to write songs and albums as they come to you? 

Each album has been different for me. For this record, I let the songs grow for a long time before arranging and recording. I definitely only write one album at a time and focus; usually it’s a two-to-three year phase of my life.

You have described your voice in terms of being of the flesh or fleshy. Your voice is certainly well-embodied within the music and is entirely distinct. Is the work of articulating your voice and voice-presence as an artist something you commune with in the day-to-day? 

The distinct nature of my voice has been a great challenge in most of my life. It was, at first, disregarded for a very long time. It was a challenge loving to sing and growing up as a child with a low-register voice. There is not much room for affirmation to a 12-year-old who can sing like an older man. That is something that I still struggle with; acceptance.

The rollout of RFI and praise is something that is so otherworldly and amazing to me, but my brain automatically deflects it and is always going back to those days when people gawk and laugh at my sound. It doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but it’s hard to let my guard down and just enjoy a compliment sometimes.

The main obstacle with my voice in today’s world as an adult is finding open creative spaces where I can sing as loud as I want and feel free. My voice is big, and it’s challenging to find a place to sing or even do warmups if I am on tour.

“My voice is my work and I take it seriously. But a song comes from an entirely different part of me. The song is always born from my heart and must come from a place that feels necessary.”

Do you have a favorite kind of acoustic space to perform in solo? With your band?

YES! I am very particular. If I am solo, I will sing in a church, or cathedral, or some cavernous room designed for large voices. If I am with a band, I like to play in listening rooms no larger than 100-500 people. I like intimate venues with nice sound systems and doors that swing open to a separate bar. I like silence and focus. When you play a show to a focused audience, it can become a powerful shared moment — one that I think is worth designing your whole life around.

Do you like to keep very busy between albums? Do you focus on your creative practice?

Yes! I like to be busy. I have a lot of ideas and I try to honor as many as I can in this short lifespan. When I am at home, I try to play music every day and not waste time. But when I am writing, it is important for me to slow down and be alone without much action. I guess after responding to this question, I realize that I have musical seasons.

What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

I think following my heart is the most incorrect thing I have ever done.

I love your vision for the Jackie Lynn album, and it indicates to me some overarching conversation with the big picture and the span of your music over time. Are you interested in concepts of musical “canon”? Of expanding (or kicking down) notions of musical canon?

I am only aware of canon as a musical process in which a melody is repeated. I’m glad you like Jackie Lynn, and I like your hypothesis. Circuit Des Yeux albums are very heavy and obtuse for me. At first, the idea of a new persona came to me in a self-serving way: Can I write shorter, poppier songs? How many words can I fit into a verse? What happens when my voice chills out? What’s my favorite strong female icon and why is she iconic to me? Can I do that?

Then once the idea came to me so quickly — the story of Jackie and the songs, I was very afraid to go forward. But I feel that fear every time I explore a new boundary, and now I see it as a positive feeling.

Do you have a piece of advice for young artists?

Things coalesce at different times for different people. If a big wave of affirmation (in whatever form) comes your way, ride it and enjoy it. But most importantly, remember it. If the wave hasn’t come yet, know that it’s coming and that in the meantime, these smaller waves ripple infinitely and will reach people and things that are beyond all the achievements and goals you’ve ever dreamed.

“I feel that fear every time I explore a new boundary and now I see it as a positive feeling.”

Looking to advance your skills and open up more opportunities in music? Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage courses that feature personal support and mentorship from experienced professionals in the field, such as Faders Up: Modern Mixing Techniques, Beat Making in Ableton Live, Orchestration for Strings, and Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords.

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Photo by Dallas Curow

Deanna Radford is a writer and poet. She has a long history of working in music-related undertakings, some of which include: collective member of G7 Welcoming Committee Records; executive director of GroundSwell new music series; collaborating organizer, programmer and director of send + receive: a festival of sound; and co-founder of shibui_oto: [subtlety in sound] a sound art presentation collective. She has written for MUTEKmag, Musicworks magazine, and many others. She lives in Montréal. 

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