Every musician has experienced it in some form or other: The audience that just won't hush up. It can be a real struggle for those whose performances tend toward the quieter side. Some let patience win the audience to their side, like singer/songwriter Angel Olsen, who managed the rare feat of getting a sold-out Soda Bar audience to shut their collective yaps with a performance of her song “White Fire” in March last year. Others, such as Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek, who called a chatty audience at Hopscotch Festival last year “fucking hillbillies,” prefer hostility.
Chicago-based singer/songwriter Haley Fohr, who records and performs as Circuit des Yeux, took a more contemplative approach after playing before a similarly talkative crowd at Hopscotch, the same festival that yielded Kozelek's outburst (just one of many in the last 12 months). Fohr wrote about the experience on her blog, and reflected on how the relationship between artist and audience can sometimes be adversarial, even though it shouldn't be:
“I feel like I am a woman and her guitar against the world. That is a terrible way to feel. I'm pushing my voice in ways that are unhealthy, I'm getting sick on the road, and it's all to drown you out. How terrible is that? That is not why either of us are here.”
Simply put, the experience changed her. Speaking to CityBeat from her home in Chicago, Fohr says that she'll forever view live performance through a different lens.
“Before, when I was playing it was pretty easy to zone in on something and I wouldn't recognize where I was, and it would seem like I was battling the audience,” she says. “But we're all there for the same reason. My initial response would be to go really loud and drown them out. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, that doesn't really solve anything. When you're trying to talk to someone, you don't just scream over them.”
Circuit des Yeux's new album In Plain Speech, released in May via Thrill Jockey, is also indirectly a result of Fohr's own soul searching about the role of an artist and her relationship to the audience. For one, it's her most collaborative record to date, featuring musicians such as Cooper Crain and Rob Frye of Bitchin' Bajas, and flautist Kathleen Baird. On a more personal level, however, In Plain Speech is the least inward-looking of Fohr's releases to date. She wrote the album with the intent for it to be heard, and ideally, for the audience to process and interact with.
Circuit des Yeux play August 15 at Seven Grand.
“For me, this record is a message, and it's the first record I ever even considered that other people would be listening to,” she says. “I've made a lot of records in my life, but they've all been in my bedroom, and I never considered the audience as an integral part of the art form of music. And they're half of the cycle. It's different from other forms, like painting...there's a sort of dialogue. People receive it and throw back something. It's the opening of a conversation. I hear the audience, I hear the people around me, and I want to be involved and talk about the world and what's going on.
“I think the spectrum of emotions on this record, compared to previous records, feel stronger to me,” she adds. “There's a bit more of an uplifiting message than previously.”
In Plain Speech is not, however, a pop album. There's a brightness and accessibility to it that sets it apart from past Circuit des Yeux recordings, but it's still a complex and often strange work that finds Fohr building melodies out of ominous drones (“Dream of TV”), wrapping her songs in peculiar loops of distortion (“Guitar Knife”), and taking influence from minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich on the pulsing sequence of “Do the Dishes.”
Fohr has a deep and resonant voice, the closest analogue of which is probably Scott Walker. And like Walker, Fohr is more than willing to push her songwriting into directions that few other songwriters would dare. But while her music asks some patience of the listener, it also rewards it, in gently beautiful melodies like “Fantasize the Scene.” And Fohr concedes that she tried to steer away from some of her more abrasive musical tendencies on this album.
“I tried to brighten it up,” she says. “There's certainly a heaviness to the production, but there's a pretty full spectrum. It's pretty bright—there's some bright sounds in there that I haven't really explored before. But my ears, for whatever reason, enjoy low drones and dark material.”
It's unlikely that Fohr will abandon those low drones and dark material as a performer, but In Plain Speech marks a turning point for Circuit des Yeux, and for Fohr as a person. And should she encounter a repeat of the overly garrulous audience like that of her Hopscotch performance, she won't sweat it.
“There's always going to be a gig where people are talking over you,” she says. “You have to think about what they're up to. If someone is working 40 hours a week at a shitty job, they're going to want to have a cocktail and laugh with their friends. You just have to share that space.”