Circuit des Yeux's Vertical New World

Photos by Evan Jenkins.

The making of -io didn't quite go as planned for Haley Fohr, the composer, producer, and artist known as Circuit des Yeux.

She had composed and arranged for a large orchestra, hoping to record live. Instead, in Electrical Audio's 30-foot-tall Studio B in November 2020, pandemic restrictions limited the recording to just six players at a time. With the string section, she created the effect of more players by setting up a full ensemble's worth of chairs and overdubbing the same few players as they sat in new positions.

-io album cover
Circuit des Yeux - -io

In other moments, with horn players partitioned off into different rooms, she says, "It really felt like being at an aquarium and watching fish swim around underwater or something." The mixing process changed from a planned in-person trip to London to a Transatlantic remote exchange. And all around, in many ways, Fohr found that she had to do more by herself than she first imagined.

When discussing one particular track in our interview below, she tells us her thinking was: "I'm going to find the best guitar player—they're going to just shred. Just like I was going to find the best arranger to help me arrange the strings, and the best producer to help me make it sound heavy. And there were no people, it just ended up being me to do it all."

It's safe to say that it all worked out. The result is a record whose sonic scope is huge, complex, and volatile, one that sounds like the sum of its parts and more, all while very clearly conforming to an artist's exacting vision.

In our conversation, we talked about Fohr's process each step of the way, from composition through mixing.

Circuit des Yeux's -io is out now via Matador Records. Click here to learn more and purchase the record.

Circuit des Yeux - "Dogma"

I've read one article about the making of the record, where it said instead of starting with a guitar, you wrote a lot of these songs on a piano or an organ instead. Is that true? How different was your approach to the songwriting process?

It's true and it's false. I did use an organ a lot more than I have in the past and piano as well, but there are still songs that I wrote on my 12-string guitar, and I attribute much of my arrangement process to using a 12-string guitar. I think playing in various tunings helps me understand harmonic overtones in a way that led to this sort of symphonic imagination that I had for the record.

And writing the record, there's sort of two categories. One category, there are songs that I wrote piece by piece, almost iota by iota. That was really hard, where sometimes you don't even recognize you're writing something over the course of a couple of years. Then these other songs I wrote in about five or 10 minutes, and it was sort of entire string arrangements falling into my brain. Then learning how to use Sibelius, which is the notation software that I used to write the string arrangements, and just working at it until I could rest and get this idea out of my head.

What are some of the tunings that you've come to know and like on the 12-string?

Well, my first alternate tuning was drop D, which I think is the simplest for most guitar players and [-io track] "Neutron Star" is a full step down. For "Vanishing," I wrote that song on guitar—and that was probably one of my wildest made-up tunings. It's like a B-flat, an F, and then the remaining four registers are just a half-step down from basic tuning.

I was never really taught guitar, so learning E and G [shapes] came secondary to me. Just kind of throwing my fingers down—I attribute that to a lot of my dissonance and maybe the sadder chords that I lean toward.

When I've seen you play, it can be difficult to follow along. I think it's some combination of how you voice the chords and then whatever tuning that guitar is in those particular tracks. But I look at the fretboard and I'm not sure what you're playing or why it sounds the way it does.

A lot of them are just inversions of normal chords, but my hands are small and, you know, you tune things a certain way until it resonates in a way that feels the best.

So talking about Sibelius and the actual composition and notation process of the album. What was the impetus to say, 'I want to start notating music,' and then how did you get to the point where you were confident and comfortable in orchestrating for so many different parts?

Going back to when I was a kid, I did take vocal lessons and I sang from sheet music, so sheet music wasn't foreign to me, but writing it was. Then in college I did go to school for recording arts and ethnomusicology and learned very simple ideas about sheet music. But it wasn't until I was offered a soundtrack through Opera North in 2018 that I decided to try Sibelius. Originally, I started with a MIDI keyboard and through the last three years, I omitted that. I wanted to turn to that because I think my musical ideas are maturing in a way that my vocabulary is not.

As a musician I think I turned toward sound because I'm not able to articulate my existence through words. After doing this for a decade, things like, "I need you to play a note that sounds like it's in the stratosphere and hitting an airplane" or something like that just doesn't do it anymore for me [laughs]. So the exactitude is what really drew me in.

When did you start performing with orchestral players? I know that you've toured with some before. Did that make you want to go deeper into that?

I've always wanted to use orchestral sounds in my music. A lot of it has to do with my socioeconomic status—I grew up kind of poor and that stuff sounds expensive. Back then, working with Whitney Johnson on viola and Rob Frye on flute, they helped me step into that zone.

Back then they were writing their own parts. That was a big part of my music: collaboration. And I think maybe over the course of five years, getting to know them in a more intimate way, gave me confidence to utilize them as the first people where I'm like, "I wrote this sheet music for you. What do you think?"

Because it's scary to take that step, for sure. But I also think certain titles in the music industry garner more respect, and if you feel like a producer or a composer or an arranger, you should just take that hat and wear it. Everything kind of starts with the lie first. [Laughs.]

I was reading about your album Jacqueline and the process of the sound development there. You had this quote about "chronological sound development." You were talking about working with Cooper [Crain] and how you're able to say, "I want this to sound like 1973," and he knows what you're getting after. Did you have a chronological target for -io?

I did not have a chronological target, but I will admit that, knowing that Cooper was going to record this album, we did have some long talks about vertical sound. Specifically, the work of Jon Hassell is really inspiring. Even in his later work, he had an album come out that he felt presented itself vertically instead of horizontally. That's when we decided to record the majority of it in Studio B at Electrical [Audio], because it's literally like a tower.

Can you explain more about what you mean about vertical sound?

It feels like music is in a bit of a binary since the stereo system came to be, even in headphones. A lot of my teaching was: in mixing, it has to do with the stereo field, and there's a lot to go from left to right, but in terms of up and down, we're quite limited. So through not only capturing the songs, but also the arrangement—really trying to make something that towered, with the use of octaves and unison, and we used a lot of room mics. Almost all of the drums are done with overheads. And using ribbon mics as well, that sort of react to air and give things like a softer, more organic picture was really intentional for making this record.

I'm sure there was quite a bit of ambiance having so many room mics in such a large room. Can you talk more about those types of choices of mic placement on the different parts of the ensemble players, and what you learned during that process?

The logistics of recording the symphonic ensemble—specifically the strings—was challenging in pandemic. We recorded it in November of 2020, and we could only have six people at a time in the studio.

So we brought a very small string section and laid out chairs as if there were 20 people in the ensemble. We had them sort of do musical chairs, in which the mics were pretty far distant from them. We did multiple passes with them in each seat, which kind of gave him the image of a full orchestra. But what you've got there is quite a large noise floor happening. Like you said, all this ambiance was adding up in a way you wouldn't necessarily want for a recording. So that was really Cooper being very specific with his mic placement, specifically the height of the room mics in the distance, just to try to figure that out for us.

We also recorded to tape, which has its own magical quality to it. I'm a big fan of tape. I know people go back and forth between digital and analog. I did open myself up to plugins on this record. Previously I've worked almost entirely with outboard gear, but there's a lot of cool stuff out there, specifically the [Eventide] Harmonizer 3000. I fell in love with that for the Jacqueline album. We shifted almost everything in it, and moving to the plugin for -io was awesome.

Circuit des Yeux - "Sculpting the Exodus"

Did you use that on some of the instruments?

Yeah, specifically in "Sculpting the Exodus," I pitch-shifted the entire orchestra down two octaves. There's sort of this bridge in the middle where everything melts away and there's this rumbling and the strings come back in—that's like a full orchestra shifted down two octaves, which I loved.

How much of the orchestra that we hear on the record is what was played in the studio and how much of it is manipulated?

Other than the pitch-shifting, it's pretty one-to-one. Since we did do everyone in these small passes, we couldn't use Melodyne or anything like that with multiple parts going at once. It's just great musicianship, to be honest.

Caitlin Edwards was on violin one, who was new to me, and she's a star. Mallory Linehan was on violin two. Whitney Johnson, who's one of my longest collaborators, was on viola. We had two cello players: Nora Barton and Oli J.P. Harris. Then Andrew Scott Young was on upright bass. Andrew and Whitney helped me tie the final knot on the sheet music before we presented it to everybody, because they do have a longer background in working in that medium than I do.

The orchestration varies quite a bit song-to-song. Like on "Vanishing," they're very much part of the rhythmic foundation. On other songs, there is a lot of intertwining between your vocals and the ensemble parts. How did you go about making those decisions of how you were going to use these instruments to support a particular song or to support your voice in a particular moment?

I think one big indicator for me was the lyrics, and that's something I've never considered before. For instance, on "Neutron Star," I sing about eyelashes fluttering, and I knew I needed this flute and violin fluttering in the background. And with "Argument," there's a lot of melodic matching with the ensemble and my voice, and that's to emphasize the strength of my message at that time.

"Vanishing" was written on a guitar, and I think that might be palpable, because it is such a rhythmic instrument in its own right. So to transfer those to strings, that's probably represented in the chorus. But it was intentional for me to start certain songs through the symphony and through the orchestration and not put them on as a dressing. They're the meat of the songs, which is exciting.

"Stranger" jumps out to me as one that's particularly interwoven between your vocal parts and the strings and horns and everything else going on. What was the process of writing and in creating that track?

"Stranger" is really special to me. It's a song that I actually wrote eight years ago and I really wanted to capture—I mean, if I'm being honest, I wish I could have captured all of this live. Something I have yet to do is just do this gorgeous album where it's people's spirits and energy moving around and we just capture what happens, but I wanted to do that with "Stranger." And so it was recorded live: my voice, piano, and then Andrew was playing upright bass and he was just reacting to my voice. I wanted to capture my voice in its essence too. There's no overdubs, there's no crazy effects. I think the result is really emotional. I'm proud of that one.

In writing these parts for a 23-, 24-piece orchestra but then recording and overdubbing only six players at a time, in that process, did you hear parts of the arrangement differently than you first intended? Did that inspire you to change or tweak the arrangements in the studio?

There were some moments with the strings where we would push things up an octave down, but specifically with the horns, those are instruments that I'm really unfamiliar with. I realized that I had written parts that were almost unplayable, specifically the cornet. That was such an interesting day, because we recorded the horns in the same take, but they were all separated and in these glass rooms, and they were so far away from each other. It really felt like being at an aquarium and watching fish swim around underwater or something [laughs]. They just felt so far away.

Ben LaMar Gay played cornet, and he's such an incredible musician in his own right. At one point I think I wanted him to play some really high C note for 24 bars or something, like, completely impossible. Everyone was really respectful and would try to get the take at least a dozen times. In very few spots, really, did we actually have to change much, but it was sort of a portal into recognizing how far I have to go in terms of [being] an arranger and composer—you really need to get to know your instruments that you're writing for some way or another, through YouTube or friends or, you know. It's helpful.

Circuit des Yeux - "Vanishing"

Can I ask about one particular moment in "Neutron Star," where there's a fuzzy, maybe EBow-ish guitar melodic part going on? I think it's doubled by some of the strings, maybe other instruments. What's all going on there? What all contributed to that sound?

Pretty much exactly what you said [laughs]. It's an EBow-guitar through an overdrive pedal. I think we played it through this really small, eight-inch Tweed amplifier, cranked it. That, in unison with the strings, sounded like a star exploding to me.

Did you have that in mind from the get-go? Did you always know that it was going to be guitar and strings in that part? Was it something, after hearing the strings, you wanted to add the guitar?

I knew it would be there, but like many things on this album, I was like, I'm going to get someone that can really do some crazy guitar solo over this. I'm going to find the best guitar player—they're going to just shred. Just like I was going to find the best arranger to help me arrange the strings, and the best producer to help me make it sound heavy. And there were no people, it just ended up being me to do it all.

I've never played EBow on a guitar before. So it was kind of challenging. I was figuring it out on the spot in the studio, but it's also—I love those moments, when the clock is ticking and everything that's important is done and you've got a little bit of time to maybe try something out, and it actually works.

Can we talk about the mixing process a little bit? I know you mixed it with Marta Salogni, who of course is incredibly accomplished in her own right. Did you mix with her or was that a remote relationship?

Initially I was going to fly to London and stay at this awesome apartment Matador has, and it was going to be a dream, but I ended up mixing it remotely, just because of the COVID situation. I physically was unable to fly to London at that time. That was maybe the scariest part of making the record, because I've always been involved at the mixing board previously, with all my records.

Is that when you were introducing the things like the Eventide Harmonizer, or what were some of the tools that you and Marta were using during the mixing?

Well, because of the time difference, remote mixing was pretty challenging, just in terms of getting files and listening and having feedback. And some songs, there's like 12 versions. The majority of the production was done here in Chicago, between the recording and mixing session. So I had recorded in November and I had December and January, and that's when I employed things like plugins and effects and pitch-shifting and got things to pretty much 90% of the way there.

So it was kind of pre-mixed in a way, like a lot of those types of decisions you had already made.

Absolutely. Including—I recorded all my own vocals, but I also like to automate them. In lieu of using a compressor, I'll go through and very meticulously even out my vocal passages before I send them to a mixer, usually, as well.

I would like just to say about Marta and working with her, it was a positive experience that I learned a lot. She's a very busy, in-demand person and her workflow is flawless and her work ethic was inspiring. Especially when you're mixing a record of that size, I can be really meticulous about certain things and she never inserted herself unless I requested her to. And I hope I never have to remotely mix something again. But if I do, I know it can work out [laughs].

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