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Escape Velocity

Alien Love: An Interview With Jackie Lynn
Luke Cartledge , July 12th, 2016 08:33

For her new album, Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux spins the story of Jackie Lynn, on the run from the law after leaving behind her Chicago drug empire. She tells Luke Cartledge about her "fried cocaine-country record"

Photograph courtesy of Julia Dratel

To listen to Haley Fohr discuss her creative practice is to be offered an insight into an artist of real purpose. As Circuit des Yeux, Fohr exercises her striking baritone to dazzling, frequently unsettling effect, draping her keening melodies atop restless soundscapes which defy easy genre categorisation. There's a sense of focus to her taut compositions that one might expect to be swayed somewhat by the vulnerability and introspection of many of her lyrics, yet the opposite is true. Fohr's subject matter and songwriting process, to these ears at least, always manage to cohere, each element bolstered rather than hindered by its counterpart.

Fohr's latest project takes that sense of purpose and pushes it further. For her new record, Jackie Lynn, she has assumed the character of the album's eponymous heroine. That would be "a 25-year-old Gemini now residing somewhere unknown", who, along with her similarly mysterious associate, Tom Strong, "ran a multi-million dollar business distributing the illegal substance of cocaine around Chicago and the Chicago tri-state area for over four years".

Despite the exacting backstory Fohr has written for Jackie, the album that bears her name is a concise affair in which country songwriting is married to jittery drum machines and breathy synths to create a set of thrilling, compact pop songs. The record's economy is striking: a little over 20 minutes in length, the listener is still treated to a wealth of textures, atmospheres and narrative ideas, bound together by Fohr's vocals and an insistent, Lynchian sense of the uncanny. The record may be focused and poppy, but there's a permeating darkness that becomes more and more evident over multiple listens.

So how is Jackie Lynn at the moment?

Haley Fohr: Good. I'm kind of juggling a bit right now, but it's going swimmingly.

Could you take us through the initial development of the project? Did you start with the character or the songs?

HF: I started with the character. It came to me on an early morning in LA in January of last year, and once I returned home I started working on the songs. They came rather quickly, in about two weeks, which is quite unusual for me.

In which ways do your approaches to Jackie Lynn and Circuit des Yeux differ?

HF: Everything was different for me. On a personal level, Circuit des Yeux is a really heavy thing. It kind of has this gravitas, which takes a long time for me to create and hold on to. After touring on In Plain Speech for about a year it became really heavy, so I wanted to do something that was more… not escapist as such, but definitely fabricated. It was recorded in three days and I didn't really fiddle with much. It was nice for me to work in a new medium, to be in a different worldview and a different character, to be like, "What is she doing? What is she wearing? What's her favourite movie and what books does Jackie like to read?" It gets really intoxicating.

So how exactly did the character and the music influence each other? Did specific details of the character inform specific elements of the songwriting?

HF: There were a couple of things that I wanted to try outside Circuit des Yeux. Lyrics, beats. My voice is really low so saying a lot of words and experimenting with the rhythmic pattern of lyrics isn't something I've really done. I used Jackie as an outlet for those things. Also, I'm really transparent about lifting from cultural icons. I watched all the Kill Bill movies, I read the Gram Parsons biography. Dolly Parton, Uma Thurman – badass ladies, you know?

That leads onto my next question. Are there any other projects in which someone has taken on an alter ego in this way that have particularly influenced the Jackie Lynn project?

HF: Not initially. It was just something I wanted to do. When the music was done, I had a talk to my label about how to present it; I didn't really have that foresight when I was creating the character, so I did some research. Obviously there's Bowie and I got a lot of comparisons to Chris Gaines, who I'd never even heard of, but I looked into that and I thought their different approaches were interesting. Chris Gaines had "never heard of" Garth Brooks [Gaines was a fictitious person adopted by the country singer for the 1999 album Garth Brooks in... The Life of Chris Gaines], but Bowie is really open about creating these roles. The latter is kind of the approach I took.

So can you envisage any kind of crossover between Jackie Lynn and the other projects in which you're involved?

HF: No. I mean, due to physics and the way that I sing, there's obviously a thread, but to me it's a completely self-contained art project. I think it's important to keep these things separate.

The character of Tom on the record is very significant. Can you tell us a little more about him?

HF: Tom is a dark figure in Jackie's life. He represents the entrapment of lust, and how many people in the world mistake it for love. He's from Mexico City, and moves to Chicago around the same time as Jackie. He has a lot of ties. Jackie doesn't know anyone in this city – she was just kind of like, "Fuck it, I'm moving. It's cheaper than New York and closer to home" – but he's got tons of friends, and Jackie is confused as to why. It's later revealed that he's been doing "business" for quite some time and been taking these trips for a while. In fact, Tom was only in Chicago briefly, never as a permanent resident, although he pretended to be with Jackie. I don't know where he is right now.

Have you had any personal experiences that have informed the whole backstory of this album or is it completely fictional?

HF: It's not autobiographical, but in hindsight, I did find some similarities between Jackie and myself that I thought were kind of eerie. The story of Jackie is entirely fictional, but threads about moving to a new city, learning to be your own boss, the risky business of falling in love, these are all experiences that I have had. I guess situationally they can be watered down/built up into a universal experience. The way Jackie and I handle our situations is much different. I guess that is where the character really lies.

The record is located in a very distinct sound-world. Did you consciously choose the style in which to write the album? If so, how was that informed by its narrative content?

HF: The sonic quality and the character arrived at the same time. I knew who Jackie was and what the vibe was going to be. I wanted it to be a fried cocaine-country record that sounded like Suicide were the backing band. That was pretty obvious to me from the start. And I knew to keep it simple. I brought the songs in, we busted it out in three days, mixed it and that was it. There wasn't much prodding or saying: "Well, maybe we'll add a fucking, like, trombone solo here."

It's a fascinating album. The track that stands out to me is the last song, 'Jackie'. Can you describe the significance of it sounding so different to the rest of the album and it being written in the present tense and the third person?

HF: Well, there're no drum machines. It's the same acoustic guitar recorded twice in a row, panned hard right and hard left. Fleetwood Mac did a lot of that on Tusk. But I think it was important to have that song as the last track on the album to show more dynamic presence in Jackie and another facet – self-doubt. She's this brooding, cool-as-a-cucumber badass, very powerful, and has all of this nonchalant kind of self-confidence that I find really empowering. But ultimately, when you're making moves and living life and really doing it, here are moments when you're just lost. That song is her looking back on the years in Chicago and how she got to where she is. It's a heavy trip.

Finally, is Jackie planning to resurface at any point, or is it too early to say?

HF: It's too early to say. All that I know is that she's into massive amounts of money. She's not messing around. We'll see.

Jackie Lynn is out now on Thrill Jockey, with a tour beginning on August 11 at Silent Funny in Chicago; for full details and tickets, head here