Just spanning time: A conversation with Circuit Des Yeux
Haley Fohr, better known as Circuit Des Yeux, just released her fifth album under the moniker, Reaching For Indigo. It’s her most ambitious and accomplished record to date, taking the listener through tumultuous times, tracking a period in Fohr’s life when she seemed somehow more connected to the vividness of life, and all the joys and terrors that brought to her.
We chatted to Haley all about this momentous event that inspired the album, as well as the writing and recording of the songs.
I want to start with the obvious question, can you tell me about the title of the album; Reaching For Indigo?
It's pretty multi-layered. Indigo is a colour that is scientifically undefined, it's a colour that has been celebrated by humanity as a third eye, the sixth chakra of intuition. And this album is about a time in my life where I felt great change and I felt very powerful and profound and hard to pin down, kind of like I came into myself in this really beautiful way, like I blossomed or something. It was a really intense 8 months in my life, and during that time my sense of colour was also heightened and I felt like I could see the patterns in everything and it was really beautiful, the world was saying "yes" to me and we were communicating in this really free way.
Around the same time this author Oliver Sacks had passed away, and a few weeks before he died he shared this story about when he was 19 years old and in it he takes a psychedelic cocktail - he's a scientist and a writer, he writes about the connection between music and the brain, how to find love, these really beautiful subject matters - so anyhow, in this story that he wrote before he was passing away, he was 19 years old and he takes this psychedelic cocktail of drugs and drinks and stuff, and he stares at this wall and this spider appears to him and shows him indigo, and it was for 20 seconds it went away, and he said it was the most beautiful, amazing, visceral colour he'd ever seen in his life and he's never seen it again in his entire life, and he's telling this story now as a 70 year old. And something about that really struck me, and I thought it was so beautiful, and I couldn’t help but reflect on this moment that I had, and I have no idea of I'll ever have a moment like that again. It's also so undefined for me that Reaching For Indigo is like travelling towards the horizon, which is a place you'll never reach. I just thought it really summed up what I was feeling and what this meant, this moment.
You've dedicated this moment to the album; how would you describe it?
It was pretty all-encompassing. I've had physical breakthroughs, I've had mental breakthroughs, but this was something different, it was kind of like a knowingness, it was like this wave came over me and I knew what I had to do. It wasn't pragmatic at all and there was all this feeling inside of me, and I followed that intuition and it was very hard. I mean I moved out of my house and I was very confused for a couple of months, just kind of staring at a wall. And then very quickly I felt a great reward where things just coalesced in my life like never before. I'm just used to the world being a challenge sometimes, where things happen and you're kind of trudging through, and you realise that the world is on a wave and you're just riding it. But this time it was so positive, it was like I was riding this wave and there was so much affirmation, and I wasn't in control, but it wasn't a struggle at all, it was effortless, it was like finally I was doing the right things at the right time and being myself. I felt totally accepted. I can't say I feel that way every day in my life, but it's a really bright moment that I hold on to when I'm struggling, and that helps me remember my purpose.
Is the first song on the album, 'Brainshift', directly about that moment?
Yeah, 'Brainshift' is about the early-on aftermath from that moment, because it was really tough, and a friend of mine was dealing with a death in their family and he explained to me, "yeah it's ok if you're confused, we're just spanning time; just span time," and I took a lot of wisdom from that. Just when you're going through a shift or a change or a transition in your life, I feel pressured to take action a lot of times, but sometimes just sitting there and not taking action and being with your thoughts and with yourself is the most powerful and important thing, and that's what 'Brainshift' is about.
It's a very sombre and slow song, did you always know it would be the first song on the album?
No I didn't know it would be the first song. I was coming up with the album, writing every song individually. I love sequencing albums, because I feel like there's a lot of ways to do it, but when you find the right sequence it kind of locks in and reveals a secret entryway or something, and that definitely happened when 'Brainshift' became the first track.
Tell me about the lyric "while I'm trying to resemble a life I once knew."
In that time in my life I had just kind of obliterated anything that was familiar to me, and when you're going through transition and you have nothing familiar around you... we physically grab on to things that we know, and when there's nothing around like that it can initiate a lot of fear, so I guess that's just grappling with our instincts for familiarity.
What does the ‘Black Fly’ symbolise in that song?
I think all my songs are pretty multi-faceted. That song was inspired by doing some research and just feeling like life is so short, like... life's so short. So I did some research and the lifespan of insects - a fly especially is 24 or 72 hours, it's insane, you wanna get it all in, you wanna accomplish it all. So that's where the inspiration of the song came from, but it definitely turned into a very multi-layered message after the end.
The end of 'Black Fly' is quite cathartic instrumentally; how did that come about?
That song I think is a really great example of how I compose and work. I worked on that song perhaps for a whole year; it might be the oldest song on the record. A lot of the parts were entirely composed, I knew they needed to happen, like the mandolin, the string parts, but it was also inviting people in, like the synthesizer parts are Rob Frye and Cooper Crain, and I just kind of gave them the feel and let them do their thing, and I took some care in inviting specific people, Josh Abrams and Tyler Damon, to be on that, and I sort of just gave them the freedom at the end; I just wanted it to feel like a free-jam kind of. So it's a lot of improvisation within composition.
On 'Philo' are you singing to yourself in all the second person; is it an out of body experience?
Yeah 'Philo' is one of the most personal songs on the record, and it's my attempt to define that specific moment that felt like a catalyst for the rest of my life. I grappled with the song, I think it's kind of a failure in a lot of ways, but lyrically and sonically it's the one that's closest to my heart.
Why do you say it's a failure in a lot of ways?
It was just such a big feeling, and that's the thing with me and music is I have these ideas compositionally and I love collaboration, but if it doesn't honour the feeling that I had and it doesn't translate that feeling then it doesn't work. And 'Philo' we tried a lot of things, I hired a string quartet and an arranger, and it didn't feel big enough, so we got rid of that, and then at one point I was playing guitar and that didn't feel big enough, and it was just like a broken record that couldn't get finished. And then finally Tom in New York sent over this piano track that was so simple and heavy and beautiful and it totally worked. But I still think, when I hear that song, it's not what I wanted it to be, which is OK, I have to accept it now as its own creation.
The end of that song is quite scary, almost chilling, is that what you were going for?
Yeah definitely. I wish the ending had been bigger, more chilling! I'm really interested in trying to evoke things with the right arrangement, and I think this is the right arrangement, but it took so long to get there and in my mind things can always be bigger and better.
You go from that into the relatively light-sounding 'Paper Bag', which sounds like it starts with a cuckoo clock - is that what it is?
[Laughs] No it's not a cuckoo clock, it's just synthesizers and voice. That song is about the absurdness of... I just think things are crumbling in a really huge way sometimes, in my life personally. When I see it happening on a larger scale, that community you're in, or the country, or the society, I just think authority have these really silly remedies, and sticking your head into a paper bag is something that I was told as a kid. When I was in first grade in grade school and I remember there was a guy named Alex and he was a genius, he really was, and the teacher made him read a poem in front of the class, and he broke down into this anxiety-ridden hyperventilation, and she made him breathe into a paper bag and continue. That paper bag over his head didn't make him feel better! Nobody wants to do that! So it's kind of a meditation on that absurdness.
Then we go into 'A Story Of This World Part 2', how does it relate to the first part from the last album?
I toured a lot on the last album, and 'A Story Of This World' kind of became this caveat into improvisation, especially when I was playing solo, it just grew a lot, it became like a 22-minute track, and the lyrics would change every night based on what I was feeling. In general it was always a meditation on freedom. But when I was doing this record it was Cooper's idea to say like "what about the other part of 'Story Of This World'? It's like 10 minutes long." I loved that idea and I thought about how to do it, and I guess with that song, that presents as "a story of this world," it's always changing; every day could be a different story, everybody has a different perspective, the lens is always shifting. So I kind of just invited some of my close friends and on Christmas day we all got pretty drunk and celebrated and played this song a bunch of times, and that's what you hear; it's like a live rendition, and I kind of love that. I hope I have 'A Story Of This World Part 61' one day. This particular version, to me, is a little heavy.
It definitely sounds heavy, it doesn't sound like a celebration like you've described the recording.
It's celebrating the moment, but in that moment on that Christmas, I think we all were feeling pretty anxiety-ridden from... I mean there's been a lot of political change in America, and it's been very hard as an artist not to let that seep into my psyche, like a lot of people are living in fear and a lot of people aren't safe and a lot of people are not being heard, and this was recorded a couple of months after the new President was elected and all this stuff was happening and people are dying, and I think that was channelled in this recording, whether I wanted it or not. I think it's interesting, a piece of recording representing the time and moment, and nothing else and nothing more.
Are there any words or is it just vocalisations?
It's just free vocalisations. It's not my story, it's not a personal story in that way, it's more just like a representation of an environment that we were all in and creating art in in that time.
'Falling Blonde' tells the story of a woman being hit by a car; is that a real moment or a fictional one?
That is a real moment. I did see a falling blonde in 2009 and yeah it was pretty intense, but it's a reinterpretation 8 years later. It's not as literal - it can be taken as literal, I wanted to honour this person was so beautiful but fell down in the middle of the street, because they were innocent and young and peaceful, and any time a young person dies at a tragic event it's just sad and heavy, and it changed what I thought about death and grappling with that as a human.
But at this point in my life I'm detached from these feelings, and it's more about loss of potential and also falling in love, or also the way society treats the currency of youth, and maybe losing that and standing out on your own and taking responsibility for your actions and saying "this is me."
It's an interesting way to finish the album; did you have any second thoughts about putting it as the last track?
I had an alternate mix where 'Story Of This World Part 2' was the last song, which I thought would leave the listener in a totally different way, but the puzzle came together in a way that I felt confident that 'Falling Blonde' was the end of the journey.
Do you recommend listeners listen to the album in order and in full?
Yes, absolutely. I'll be playing it live in full. That was my intention with it. It's like a movie, should be listened front to back. That's what I'd prefer.
Were there any things you were reading at the time that influenced the album, or things that people could read around the album to get more of an insight?
Yeah, there are. I read a lot of Joan Didion, and she has this essay on self-respect that was published in Vogue I think in 1961, and it's pretty wonderful. I think it's called 'An Essay On Self-Respect'. I love all of her stories too, I think they take paint this very vivid feeling. I was reading some Susanne Sontag, I also read the Grace Jones memoir. I read a lot of biographies; Maya Angelou, she's pretty heavy and amazing. These women that grapple with existential questions. And just figuring out how to love everything in the world; that was definitely a key thing during this time.
You mentioned that you're gonna play the album in full; are you playing with a band?
I am! Very excited about it. Tyler Damon, Andrew Scott Young and Cooper Crain at times, will be performing with me these next few legs. We have a light show that my friend is helping me design. Yeah, we've been practicing and it just feels so good, I'm really excited.
Circuit Des Yeux’s Reaching For Indigo is out now on Drag City.