"I just like the way it feels, the resonance," said Haley Fohr, 26, in the perfectly unremarkable voice of a generic millennial. "You can feel your body vibrate when you're singing through your headphones."
Having cultivated a range from soprano 2 through baritone, Fohr, (best known as the sound-voyaging gloom-core Circuit des Yeux), is explaining how her music came to be known mainly for her unique instrument, a remarkably deep voice honed through years of vocal training. It emerges from her body fully formed as an almost otherworldly soul, shaping sound as color, equal parts wonder and bewilderment, all but humming the floor like some spiritual woofer.
People are often surprised to find she is not a man, a confusion in which she delights. She is all about causing people to question assumptions, especially those obscured in culture and tradition. "I like being provocative and seeing how people react because that's just as much a part of the dialog as what I'm doing onstage."
In fact her May 2015 release, In Plain Speech, is intended, she says, to raise questions in her audience about some of the things we take most for granted in these times—celebrity, isolation, passivity—and the relationships between them. For all of that, there's not a whiff of judgment.
In the catalog of Circuit des Yeux, the new work is relatively bursting with optimism. Fohr has referred to is as something like a coming-of-age record. A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, she is also something of an at-risk intellect, newly intent on becoming as socialized as possible. She laughs easily and comfortably in talking about her career.
Since age 15, she's made four full albums. The first two she recorded on a four-track in her jerry-rigged bedroom studio in Lafayette, Indiana. She intended them for trade, only, but they found their way to boutique DeStijl Records.
Fohr demoed songs for her third release, Overdue, on tour and in Indiana, but recorded it in her new hometown, Chicago. With collaborator Cooper Crain, a percussionist and engineer she met through De Stijl, she upgraded her home-studio production values with odd-lot baffling and borrowed gear. They dubbed the space, fancifully, U.S.A. Studios. Additional recording took place at proudly analog-only Magnetic South Recordings.
An intensely solipsistic work, focused entirely inside Fohr's busy mind and emotions, Overdue attracted critical favor for its expert musicianship and Fohr's unique vocal quality. Extensive U.S. and international solo touring taught her almost more than she wanted to know about solitude and an artist's peculiar relationship with audience members.
The experience yielded, among other songs and insights, "Fantasize the Scene," track six of her new release In Plain Speech, which imagines what it might be like to form actual friendships with people she connects with briefly on the road. She says that unlike earlier work, In Plain Speech talks directly to the audience throughout.
Released May 19, In Plain Speech is Fohr's debut with Thrill Jockey, the respected label home of Howe Gelb and a host of other serious musicians bent on exploring new frontiers of sound and technology. In the 18-month project to create and produce that record, she busted out of her isolation, determined to work and live in community and to grab what she can of joy from the world outside herself.
Fohr's music career had humble beginnings. Her parents heard her sing for the first time at a sixth-grade chili supper. She sang a solo: "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. "Everyone was sitting in the gymnasium and it was pretty awkward," she said. "My mom said she had no idea what I was doing walking to the microphone. And after that they enrolled me in voice lessons."
Fohr got into music in the nick of time. "Everyone's teenage years are, like, obviously a struggle," Fohr said. "There weren't venues for rock shows other than one gay club in Lafayette, and there wasn't really anyone doing what I was doing. I had a piano in my house, and I had an acoustic guitar and my voice, but I would create my compositions to have, like, 20 layers," Fohr said.
"I was a teenager and I wanted to kind of work through some things. I'm not a very verbal person, so music for me was the perfect confidante."
Upon graduating from high school, Fohr embarked on a college degree program in nuclear engineering. After two years, she dropped out, frustrated and went back home to insular Lafayette. She sunk into self-absorption, then depression.
By age 20, she had regrouped enough to move to Bloomington and re-enroll at Indiana University, this time with concentrations in ethnomusicology and sound. She began meeting other musicians and inviting them to add touches of texture to her music.
Crucially around that time she also met Crain through DeStijl records. He became a trusted adviser. "He's kind of my co-captain I guess," Fohr said. "He's just there when it's four in the morning and I'm confused about how something sounds or what decision to make. I can ask him. He's got a set of ears, and we're aligned sonically. He's taught me quite a bit. He's also one of the first people that I started to hang out with when I moved to Chicago."
Fohr's 2013 move to Chicago was a hopeful crisis. "I had been touring a couple of years by myself and I felt I was falling into the parameters of creativity and what I could do as one person. I wanted to collaborate with other people just to open up these avenues of growth and dialog."
"It was really a tough transition for me both socially and money-wise. It was my first time out of college and kind of a rude awakening with student loans and rent and all of that, but I think I navigated it the tropes successfully."
Through her growing involvement with Chicago's experimental and avant-garde music community, she eventually landed on her feet with a co-housing music collective and a fresh insight. "I guess I just follow my intuition. I do what I want to do and over time, you're surrounded by people that want the same things you do. It's not something you really choose. It just happens. Like I think I have an idea, so I just want to spend all my time making music, so suddenly I'm surrounded by interesting people that want to make music."
Inviting friends into her creative process involved a measure of risk, but her new worldview recognized only opportunity. "For this record, I intentionally wanted a brighter sound and just more perspective sonically." Her bandmates/housemates went to different music schools and, she says, "They're just equipped in a way that I'm not with certain instruments (viola, flute, mbira, xylophone, bicycle) and harmonies."
"There are certainly challenges when you collaborate, but if you just talk about what's best for the song and maybe not what's best for the ego, then something really beautiful can be made."
"I just feel a little bit more open to chance, I guess."