There's a moment in Annette Peacock's "I'm the One" where her scat singing merges with the song's synthesizer oscillations. The effect is stunning woman-machine synergy that elevates a classic track to "holy shit!" status. In a more subdued but no less riveting manner, Chicago musician Haley Fohr manifests similar throat-instrument harmony with Circuit Des Yeux. But rather than analog-synth circuitry, Fohr's voice evokes the woody, lugubrious timbre of a cello, or even a bass saxophone. Nobody else in rock or pop today sings like Haley Fohr.
It would be enough if Fohr were simply to improvise a cappella, but she's also a songwriter and guitarist of rare complexity and delicacy, with a fantastic backing band—all renowned for their improvisational prowess: drummer Tyler Damon, upright bassist Andrew Scott Young, and keyboardist/guitarist Cooper Crain.
Fohr really began to blossom with Circuit Des Yeux's fifth album, 2015's In Plain Speech, as she enlarged her instrumental palette and expanded her sound to a Midwestern approximation of the chamber- orchestral severity and stark beauty found in Nico's The Marble Index and the eldritch folk of Comus's First Utterance.
In Plain Speech was revelatory, and Circuit Des Yeux's show at Lo-Fi supporting it confirmed that they were staking out singular territory. It was as if Scott Walker's stormy balladry and Tim Buckley's vocal acrobatics had converged in the body of a twentysomething woman. "Fantasize the Scene" represents In Plain Speech's apotheosis, bearing a melody of shattering poignancy in a song that moves with the grandeur of a saint's funeral procession.
In a 2016 interview, Fohr mentioned that CDY taps into her spiritual side. During our recent phone conversation, Fohr reveals that this project is a vehicle for transcendence—and that it saved her life. When she was 17 and studying nuclear engineering at Purdue University, she flunked out and was dealing with "some really awful personal things." Forced to move back in with her parents, Fohr "played [her] way out of a manic depression, and held on to that iota of light, and it became all-encompassing, the only thing I could really lean on."
Returning to Fohr's unique voice, it's remarkable how it's lowered in pitch over the years. When asked if there's a conscious decision to break the mold of how women vocalists are perceived or if it's simply an evolutionary process, she says the change has been "completely outside of me—it's scary."
However, Fohr takes umbrage at the idea of trying to redefine how women sing. "I'm not thinking about being a woman at all when I'm singing; I'm just thinking about having a body and being allowed to express myself. Sometimes people become scared by the sounds that come out of me, but I find the singing to be empowering—and once I get into it, I certainly let go of consciousness. That's where the transcendence comes in."
Singing and playing these deeply personal CDY songs onstage under bright lights and with all eyes on her makes Fohr uncomfortable (hence keeping her face obscured by hair while performing), but she feels a responsibility to her audience. "If there was a way for me to become this orb of light and still reach people onstage, that would be ideal."