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Spellbinding Circuit des Yeux

Frontwoman Haley Fohr opens up about her new album, collaborating with others and that hypnotic voice

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Julia Dretel
    Circuit des Yeux captivate Seven Grand on Saturday, Aug. 15.

    There’s a moment on “Fantasize the Scene,” the most plaintively haunting song on Circuit des Yeux’s new album, "In Plain Speech," that seems to cut to the core of where frontwoman Haley Fohr’s mind is at these days. Artfully surrounded by electric guitar and viola, Fohr’s jarring baritone comes out of the ether, cooing, “We could move out to L.A., where the fires rage/Where no one knows our name/The cornerstore will be just too far, so we’ll roam into the unknown.”

    The sentiment relayed on “Fantasize the Scene” becomes clear and relatable enough by the end of the song. Fohr is writing to someone, singing for them, telling them to come to her -- planting a seed of speculative contemplation that, while their moment together has seemingly passed, there might be, could be, a moment in the future where they might connect again. A lover? Perhaps. But for Fohr, she could be singing to you. Or, for that matter, anyone who has taken the time to listen.

    “I’ve been very interested in opening people up to thinking about life or experiencing life in a way they don’t normally experience from day to day,” Fohr tells SoundDiego from her home in Chicago. “When I was younger, I would make this very harsh, challenging music because I thought that was the best way to challenge people. Now my music is a little easier to digest for some people, and I’m a little more open.”

    "In Plain Speech" is Fohr’s third album under the moniker Circuit des Yeux (“It’s an abstract term," she says, "but it roughly translates from French to the nerve that connects the eye to sight”), and it’s certainly her most collaborative venture since she first started out in the Lafayette, Indiana, punk scene more than a decade ago. Whereas previous Circuit albums (2011’s "Portrait" and 2013’s "Overdue") were mostly stark solo affairs, "Speech" finds her collaborating with a variety of musicians from several Chicago-area bands. The fuller orchestration complements Fohr’s voice so fluidly that it’s hard to understand why it took her so long to try it out.

    “It had been a long time since I had collaborated,” says Fohr. “I felt really isolated after touring for 'Overdue.' I toured for a year and a half on my own and, by the end of it, I was so in my own world that it was kind of scary and lonely that I started to think that I really needed to get other people involved. Not just for the sake of the music, but for the intimacy of it… Playing with other people makes you a better musician.”

    And then there’s Fohr’s otherworldly voice. Comparatively, a few names come to mind: German chanteuse Nico, avant-baritone Scott Walker and even Billie Holiday or Nina Simone in their later years. Strikingly low in range, Fohr’s voice is often startling to hear live, especially when combined with the overdrive pedals she uses onstage to create droning soundscapes around her. What’s more, it’s the fact that that voice is coming from her at all. It’s easy to imagine any number of sounds and tones coming from and out of Fohr, but not that one. She says she’s used to people being a little taken aback at first.

    “It gets a little annoying when terms like ‘unassuming’ come into play, because my speaking voice is much higher than my singing voice. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Am I supposed to come in with a black cloak and belt out an aria every time I play? I’ve definitely worked toward getting my voice to where it is today, but it’s so biological. This is how I was born. Being different is way better than being the same.”

    So, yes, "In Plain Speech" is both Circuit de Yeux’s best and most assured album to date. And yes, that one-of-a-kind voice will certainly bowl over audiences and win her new fans. Yet to call "In Plain Speech" her most accessible album to date is still a bit of a misnomer. Like any good record, it takes time and effort. Understanding. Vulnerability. In the age of instant-accessibility and on-demand everything, Fohr seems content in the idea that she is making music for a more patient kind of audience. And with that audience, Fohr wants to have an undeniable and undisputed connection, an invisible wave of dialogue from her voice to their ears. And once that moment has passed, just as in the relationship described in “Fantasize the Scene,” perhaps the audience and she will meet again, one day, and “roam into the unknown.”

    “I still want to take the listener through the softest softs and the loudest louds, the darkest darks and the lightest lights, remind people of the full spectrum of life,” says Fohr. “I’m hoping that through my music, people ponder and question.”

    Circuit de Yeux play Seven Grand on Saturday, Aug. 15, at 9 p.m., free, 21+. Marisa Anderson opens.

    Seth Combs writes about music for local and national publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @combsseth.