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Black Hole On My Shoulder: An Interview With Circuit Des Yeux
Patrick Clarke , October 12th, 2021 08:18

Haley Fohr, aka Circuit Des Yeux, tells Patrick Clarke how on her new album -io she drew on deep wells of personal grief and trauma, and emerged with a record of staggering universal scope

Photos by Evan Jenkins

Planning the video for her song ‘Sculpting The Exodus’, Haley Fohr decided she wanted to jump off a building. Her new label, Matador, suggested they use green screen. “But I said no, I really needed the experience of freefalling,” she says. She joined sessions with stunt coordinator Talin Chat, plus three children aged six to 12 who were training for a scene in the NBC drama Chicago Fire. “I was like this geriatric chick. I was wearing boots in the gymnasium.” The idea, she explains over Zoom, was to confront – and to an extent try to replicate – the lurch that comes with a PTSD-related dissociation. “It’s a feeling that I’ve felt so many times in my life. I felt like if I could relive it, a part of me was wondering if I’d cure myself of it. But even if I wasn’t cured, I was curious what it would lead to, an understanding of this feeling I have all the time.”

Though the finished video is eerie in its stillness, Fohr’s flowing orange clothes backlit by a beaming sun, the footage was the product of at least fifty brutal takes. In the end, the most illuminating thing “was that each fall became harder than the last," Fohr says. "I’d thought I’d become more comfortable, but my body was remembering the impact of hitting this pad over and over, bracing for it. In hindsight, that was akin to growing with depression and PTSD; it’s harder the older you get.”

The entirety of Circuit Des Yeux’s new album -io was shaped by grief and trauma. A close friend had died by suicide in 2019. “It was a really heart-breaking moment for my community. That person was also one my confidantes when it came to mental health, so not having them around when I’m experiencing something I think they can relate to has been very challenging.” When Fohr started writing the album in May 2019, “I had a huge mental health crisis. I live with major depression, and it was really a reckoning for me.” Towards the end of that year, she took part in a residency at the home of the painter Robert Rauschenberg, on the picturesque Captiva Island in Florida. “It was luxury, basically a five-mile square with a jungle, two seasides and a sea salt pool. I wanted to utilise it, enjoy myself and make something important, but instead I realised that I was still grieving the loss of my friend. There was a lot of pressure on me to enjoy myself because it was so gorgeous, but I really just had a terrible time.”

Usually, Fohr is disciplined when it comes to her art. Her extraordinary singing voice, one that can boom low with terrifying power or sweep majestically high, is one that requires regular maintenance. “I’d usually sing multiple times a week, but with the sickness of it all I was really not taking care of myself in the way I usually would.” Long before the pandemic, whether in Florida or at home in Chicago, she was working almost entirely in seclusion. “I just felt so isolated from the experience of losing my friend, that I didn’t feel very communal,” she says. “Then the pandemic hit so it was even more isolating.” Having collaborated on so much of her songwriting before, for her new album she wrote more or less every single note.

It was halfway through making the album that Fohr started to realise that she was writing about a semi-physical space, the -io of the album’s title. “I do see it as a place that I can travel to,” she says. It emerged as she watched the sunset every evening while on the Rauschenberg residency. “This incredible prismatic, spectral, huge sky, the slowest sunset I’d ever seen. I felt like for a moment each day I was reminded to step outside of myself.” In her mind’s eye she toyed with the image, arriving on “A landscape that is not naturalistic except for the sky, which is a sunburnt orange. The sun is in perpetual sunset, and there’s all of these shards of skyscrapers in disarray that are confining whoever the main character is inside of this world. It became something to traverse.” She adopted its orange colour scheme in the project’s visuals; as we speak over Zoom, she’s dressed all in orange, in front of her the flickering flame of an orange candle, behind her a flowing sheet of orange fabric. Having worn only red for a time beforehand, she describes the change in colour as a “shift in frequency. It feels more resonant, introspective and questioning.”

It might at first feel incongruous that the music that eventually emerged on -io, the product of this profoundly insular period, is also her biggest and most ambitious. Despite eschewing collaborators in the writing process, the recording employs a huge cast of classical musicians, who went to great lengths in order to record section by section in a socially-distanced manner during the pandemic. “My intention was to make a symphonic record with a 24-piece ensemble before I even wrote a note,” she says. It starts with an ominous percussive rumble, then mutates into a piercing crescendo of strings, rising and rising in pitch until, just at the point your teeth start to hurt, they plunge back down into the driving symphonic groove of ‘Vanishing’. On ‘Argument’, she scores an entire three-act symphony of strings, brass, woodwind and percussion.

Yet the juxtaposition between the record’s introspective creation and the scale of its sound is not a contradiction, Fohr says. “It’s extremely difficult, but my emotions, my feelings of isolation, were so huge that I could understand why people take their own lives. Life is suffering, and this music is my commitment to staying here. It needed to be as big as the void I feel inside, at times. Her songs, she points out, have always in part been an exercise in presenting human emotion at its truest, in all its tumult and melodrama. “I have a very vivid inner world, and my emotions are huge.” The music she made at the end of such a dark and traumatic period was therefore going to be bigger and more ambitious than ever. “I felt like I couldn’t stop making this album until the sounds reflected the bigness of my emotions. To make any significant piece of art there should be a challenging and dark period of creation,” she argues. “But this time was just fucking harrowing. So what could I do?”

Fohr gives her emotions that magnificent and terrifying magnitude through her lyrics, as well as her instrumentation, with grand images of apocalypse or the unfathomably large dimensions of outer space intertwining with the relatabilty of a human mind. “Your body is a magnet for all of life’s extremes,” she sings on the waltzing ‘Neutron Star’. “A star is born by the force that attracts a body down toward the centre of the earth / you became atrophied astronomy / a neutron star is born.” When her focus turns directly to the personal, like on ‘The Chase’, which she says draws on a “a very literal PTSD memory that is so vivid, one that I’ve carried around with me for almost 14 years,” the weight of the rest of the album is such that it’s magnified a hundred times too; a PTSD dissociation can sometimes feel like being spaghettified by a black hole, and Fohr makes it sound like exactly that. “Slow motion in a field of ice, the walls are caving in like the valley in your mind,” she whispers, her voice so close to the mic that your neck gets tense, as a nauseous guitar melody churns relentlessly around and around.

“The past can be harrowing," she says. "I do believe in exorcizing this energy, but the plasticity in your brain takes a very, very long time to change.” It is not the first time in our conversation that Fohr has used the word ‘harrowing’. “I think the harrowing part is just the subject of death,” she says, when asked to expand. Through the lens of her own losses, writing -io forced her to confront the subject like never before, not only the death of her friend but also her grandmother, a woman who “took the time to understand my artistry in a way that no one else in my family has,” and for whom Fohr had cared during the late stages of Parkinson’s. “I watched her life get harder and harder,” she remembers. “The way that disease works is that it moves around your body, it got to the point she couldn’t even speak some days and I would just hang on the phone with her. Watching her transition into the death left me really bitter and really upset. I just really can’t wrap my head around death, I know there’s supposed to be this gorgeous infinity sign of death and birth, but I don’t see anything that I lost coming back again, and when I look at the ground I think of all the people I love that are in it.”

The album was "60 or 70 per cent finished" by the time the coronavirus pandemic hit, a point where death began to surround us all like never before. If -io is the sound of internal emotions given outward expression on a huge scale, it was only natural that Fohr’s personal distress would tap into something universal. “I am in an interior world always, but at some point, I did have to make that assumption,” she says, when I ask whether it makes sense to bind the two together. “During the pandemic, I found this poet, Fernando Pessoa, I’d never heard of him before but he’s very famous, and it’s probably the saddest [thing] I’ve ever read. The way he discusses grief, living and suffering on, the way people react to him, I saw myself in him so much. Reading his words is what opened me up to the idea of feeling OK about expanding my understanding of grief into this universal mindset. I mean, we are going through a plague, post-capitalism in America is basically killing people, and I feel totally powerless. At the end of the day you want to be like, ‘I’m doing this do this for other people too’, but as an artist you really don’t know until it’s out there if people are going to resonate with it.”

Ultimately, for all its melodrama and dark, sprawling splendour, the most important thing about the world of -io, is in fact the little hyphen at the start of its name. “It’s there intentionally, because it’s an appendage, able to be added on to a word or figure and able to be taken off.” It is a reminder, she says, “That this part of us isn’t all of us. When I first felt depression in my life I was 17, and music was a tool that I used to get me out of it. I would just go there to this place, and live in this darkness, and it would give me the ability to walk away from it. My hope with this music is that people can step into it and have a very personal experience with their emotions and walk away from it as a lighter person.”

-io is in so many ways an enormous album, in scale, instrumentation and theme, and though it first grew in Fohr's most personal period self-examination, its dramatic cascades of emotion express universal truths. "What is life without experiential, emotional existence?" she asks. "I think emotions deserve the world, because what else is there?"

-io is released via Matador on October 22