Circuit des Yeux
Woman on the Verge
by Kevin J. Elliott

Forget what you may already know about Circuit des Yeux. Once you take the time required to listen—perhaps two or three listens—to Haley Fohr’s latest record, the recently released Portrait, all preconceptions you may have for the 22-year-old Indiana native’s polarizing and often sonically confrontational songs should be erased. Though her first two efforts, Symphone and Sirenium, were fractured, fragile bouts with fidelity, it was always apparent within those recordings that Fohr had a very distinct and often harrowing voice that needed to be unleashed. On Portrait, not only has Fohr quite literally grown up, but so has her voice, which is the centerpiece of the album. It’s been brought to the foreground, which had previously been filled with tape hiss and layers of reverb. “Twenty and Dry” and “3311” lay somewhere between grotesque outsider folk and bedroom punk rebellion, with Fohr’s trademark croon leading the procession, while “101 Ways to Kill a Man” verges on becoming Fohr’s first legitimate pop song. With pieces like the equally eerie and kinetic “Crying Chair” and the drone-downer of lead track “Falling Out” fitting in the middle of those more focused statements, Portrait delights in Fohr’s newly adopted embrace of hi-fi, while remaining just as haunting as her past work. Where Circuit des Yeux was once stitched and bandaged, Portrait is healed, clear-headed and defiant, though still steeped in the dramatic textures that have made the project so personal and tragic. These signs of maturity can be attributed to Fohr’s rigorous studies at Indiana University’s school for recording arts, as well as her experiences on the road as a first-wave shitgazing troubadour. Portrait sounds like an artist boldly coming into her own.

I recently caught up with Fohr on the eve of her first ever European tour. In that conversation we talked about, among other things, her resemblance to Danzig, the dissolution of her band Cro-Magnon, and her aspirations to play in something akin to the E Street Band. But I was so enamored with Fohr’s words about the creation of Portrait that little of that made it to print.

I’ve always been a big fan, but have never really got a lot of info on how you started. Which came first: making music and recording on your own or aspiring to study recording arts and music at Indiana University?

Haley Fohr: When I first started school, I was studying nuclear engineering, but I was getting really bad grades because I kept playing music. I wasn’t recording yet, but I eventually ended up making Symphone. I hated nuclear engineering and decided I wanted to take recording arts at IU. You needed an audio portfolio to get into the program and the only thing I had to send in was Symphone. That was a shitstorm of noise, but somehow I was accepted. Ever since then I’ve been recording constantly. Since that time, everything has just fallen into place.

Did your studies have an impact on the sound of Portrait? This record is a big leap for you sonically.

HF: It was definitely my schooling. I have all of this equipment that I’ve never had before. Lo-fi wasn’t something that I initially wanted to keep doing—it was just the way things happened. I knew making this record was going to be different, but I wanted it to still sound like a Circuit des Yeux record.

After going back and listening to Symphone and Sirenium, Portrait, in a lot of ways, feels like the final piece in a trilogy. Is there any truth to that? Is this the end of a cycle or arc in your songwriting?

HF: It wasn’t preconceived, but it was definitely a purposeful, angular turn in my music. I’m saying a lot of the same things, but I’m grown-up enough that I don’t need a lot of reverb and I’m not afraid to say exactly what I feel. In a way, it is a finale to those awkward teen years. I just turned 22 and I feel like I’m a woman now.

Is there something profound in giving it the title Portrait? Is this record more autobiographical than what has come before it?

HF: They’ve all been autobiographical, but I would say that the first two records are more cerebral. I was battling mental issues. I was under the influence of a lot of prescription drugs and just felt like I was insane for four years. This one, I had just broken up with my boyfriend at the time and I was really depressed. It was winter. Many things were changing for me, so making this record felt a lot closer to the heart.

Why did you only thank Tina and Kevin DeBroux? Did they have a big impact on making this record? I do see some parallels to the new Pink Reason album.

HF: Musically, I love what Kevin does with Pink Reason. I don’t really aspire to make music in that vein; I just think that it comes naturally. What’s strange is that I met Kevin before I had heard his music. The reason I just said “thank you” to them is because when I first started doing Circuit des Yeux, Kevin and Clint (Simonson) were the two minds behind pushing me forward. Kevin was the guy who set up my first tour. He sent my records around and he introduced me to the Columbus crew and Tom Lax at Siltbreeze. He does so much for so many musicians, which is a lot of work.

Why Springsteen? After listening to the record a few times, I’m wholly convinced that “101 Ways to Kill a Man” is your “Johnny 99,” so it’s somewhat cosmic that you chose to put “I’m On Fire” after that song. What made you decide on a cover, and a live version at that, to end Portrait?

HF: I have always done that song, but never recorded it. I have had that riff for a while, and one day I was sitting around stoned, with that riff and a cassette of Born in the USA and put the lyrics from the cassette with that riff. I thought the lyrics were really perverse and thought it would be pretty strange if a girl covered it. I decided to sing it more in a spiteful manner, from a little girl’s point of view. It’s kind of a “fuck you” to all of the guys who took advantage when I felt like I was in that position, like when I was younger and was sneaking into bars. I thought it was the strong endpoint. I didn’t want the album to end with a sad song. I didn’t want you to listen to the album and feel sorry for me. I want people to listen and think, “Wow, she said what she needed to say.”

Don’t take this as a swipe, but has anyone compared your voice to Danzig’s?

HF: No, I’ve never heard that, but I don’t take offense to that. That’s a compliment. I get a lot of comparisons to old black women.

A lot of your contemporaries have also started to increase the fidelity, but instead are moving towards synthetics and dance remixes. Do you have any intentions to move in that direction, doing an electronic album?

HF: I want to stress that everything I do when I record and write is organic. This album has electric guitar, but I don’t cut and paste anything. “Crying Chair,” on this record, is an electronic song made with samples that I created myself. The next record will be an electronic album just because that’s what I’ve been listening to and I really appreciate the production values. I’ve started working on it by gathering samples—recording conversations with people, guitar parts, and vocal parts—then I’ll go in and use them to make some lengthy atmospheric tracks. Also, another thing that I’m doing, since I have a full live band now, is to re-record Portrait with a band. The European tour I’m doing first will just be solo, but I’m excited to play these songs with a band when I start touring the U.S.