Haley Fohr :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Haley Fohr is feeling the collapse. “I have this character I’ve created that has yet to get out of the internet,” she observes glumly from her quarantined apartment in Chicago. “She’s stuck inside of the internet.” She’s referring to Jackie Lynn, her country-glam outlaw alter ego. Keeping a hyper-femme, truck driving drug kingpin like Jackie Lynn locked behind a screen is like storing an exotic animal in a dank basement: its unbounded soul decays with each passing day void of any primeval thrill. “But we’re going forward with the campaign,” she continues. “We’re excited to release this [album].”

Fohr revels in process-oriented art. Since the creation of her indie-folk project Circuit des Yeux in the mid-aughts, Fohr has harbored her spirit and soul in darkness, developing rich sonic landscapes within Chicago’s exploratory music scene. Her early music—specifically 2008’s Symphone and 2009’s Sirenum—took form in tape hisses and ambient found-sounds. 2011’s Portrait was an early introduction to her signature brooding, vocal-driven folk, a trademark that would continue through the sprawl of 2013’s Overdue and 2015’s In Plain Speech. 2017’s Reaching for Indigo is a project that swells with anguish and release, dwelling within natural mysticism led under torchlight by Fohr’s harrowing contralto.

Contrary to the emotive work of Circuit des Yeux, the concept and formation of Jackie Lynn was born from a desire to make kinetic art. Coursing through the wild backstory of the title character—the multi-million dollar drug business, the cross-country trucking, the fierce loathe of patriarchal machismo—are pulsing, strobe-lit rhythms, or at least that’s what it’s evolved into. On Jackie Lynn’s 2016 self-titled debut, the spirit lies more in subtle drum machine grooves and the gun-slinging, chicken-fried narrative.

Fohr’s character arc from Jackie Lynn to the glossier “Jacqueline” marks a shift in both stature and grandeur. Jacqueline, the forthcoming dance floor saga set to arrive on April 10 via Drag City, finds Jacqueline more cosmically aligned with eyes wide open. This isn’t to say she’s retired entirely from the devilry—the album’s bouncing, hypnotic opener “Casino Queen” cements her penchant for the taboo—but songs like “Shugar Water” and “Traveler’s Code of Conduct” reveal moments of empathy and softness found in maturation. As Fohr plays the titular role, she iterates that Jackie Lynn extends beyond her own creative endeavor—Cooper Crain, Rob Frye and Dan Quinlivan of experimental-electronic group Bitchin Bajas are all equal contributors in the project.

Ahead of Jackie Lynn’s forthcoming release, we caught up with Fohr amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to discuss how she’s occupying her time in quarantine, how isolation is changing music consumption, leaning into a hyper-femme aesthetic shift, the Americana influence of Chicagoan suburbia, and the tribulations of Jackie Lynn’s outlaw adventures. words / c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: What have you been doing to occupy your time in quarantine?

Haley Fohr: Before this all started, I was nominated to attend this residency called the Rauschenberg Foundation. I was living in Robert Rauschenberg’s estate down in Captiva, Florida. I stayed there all of January and February. It was so wild. I entered a really intense writing period while I was there, and I was painting quite a bit. I was using Bob’s studio and his gear. His energy is so intense. I had a wonderful time at the residency, but yeah, it was really intense. I came home when this pandemic thing happened. It’s surreal for so many reasons. I feel this huge spectrum of environmental change. Long story short I’ve just been writing music manically. I was there for five and a half weeks, then came here and there’s nowhere to go. I’m working really feverishly. Mostly on Jackie Lynn oriented stuff. That’s been amazing leading up to the release, diving into that sort of vibe. Then also I have this other outlet, Circuit Des Yeux—I have like two and a half hours of music.

AD: Well, at least you have a lot of stuff to do.

Haley Fohr: It’s so interesting going through a PR campaign while all of this is going down. I’ve done a public PR campaign, but never while the music industry is on fire and humanity is on the brink. A lot of tension happening, and a lot of it makes me uncomfortable which makes me feel kind of old.

AD: What about it makes you feel uncomfortable?

Haley Fohr: For instance, with this livestream thing that everyone is doing. I can understand the positive benefits of connecting to a person so intimately. There’s a lack of control that as an artist makes me queasy. The Circuit Des Yeux album—Cooper and Rob and Dan and I did two and a half years worth of checking in and working on stuff. There’s so much energy and aesthetic that goes into building something. You’re the architect. Then to be like, “We want you to perform live from your living room,” just feels like a disservice to the energy of making art.

AD: What are some trials that musicians will face moving forward in this pandemic?

Haley Fohr: The competitive edge is so palpable for me, and it wasn’t maybe five years ago. I feel like I was supposed to feel more competitive five years ago than I do now, but everything just feels competitive in a way that isn’t conducive to making great art, for me anyway. The business side of things is always the last thing on my mind when it comes to making art, but now I think space is limited. Even with this Twitch shit, there’s only so much space. There’s only so much bandwidth. It is what it is. I think the right folks will pick up that medium, but for me, my main concern is resources. I’m so nervous for when everything “turns back on” again. Some of my most beloved environments, I’m not sure if they’ll be able to be there again. That’s devastating to me.

AD: Were any of your shows affected by the cancellations?

Haley Fohr: I was supposed to play SXSW, and that was gonna be a huge money maker for me personally. With Jackie Lynn, it’s pretty tragic. All of our April, May, and June dates are being postponed at this time. I took the opportunity to “reinvent” a band that was already an alias. It’s proven to be difficult anyways, just the way that I work. I like to start at the ground up, and it takes a lot of momentum to get off the ground every time. Now, it’s this character I created that has yet to get out of the internet. She’s like stuck inside of the internet.

AD: How was stepping into the role of Jackie Lynn different from the previous record?

Haley Fohr: The way I see her is like she’s loyal to me. it’s very theater based, like I’m her shadow. So the last Jackie I wrote in 2015. I moved to the city, and there were so many new ways to identify myself, being in the city and trying to get my feet on the ground. There was a lot of grief and frustration involved in that music. With this new album, I had come off a long, long time – almost a decade – of touring by myself, and I was honestly inspired to revisit the character after speaking with Marisa Anderson, she’s a friend of mine and plays guitar and travels solo a lot. There’s this thing that happens when you have 10 years of riding the train, or driving by yourself, an alternate world and this conversation you have with yourself that no one knows about. Words manifest in kind of a dark way. So I wrote this story about a long haul truck driver. She’s in a semi and all the weight of the world is her cargo, and she can’t open the hatch. I found this equation that gave me the denomination of the weight of a single thought. I created this utopia in my mind in which no lies were able to be said and every lie that came out of a mouth sort of crystallized and formed on the ground and because of that there’s all these sort of salt matters, and everyone is sort of disconnected. And maybe Jackie Lynn is this archetype I can’t find in my life of this strong female character who’s just the winner. It doesn’t matter what her environment is, but she’s willing to carry everyone’s bullshit. She just wants to be there as this powerful, positive notion, rather than going to the darkness, which I have done my whole life.

AD: How does Chicago shape this concept?

Haley Fohr: I think a lot about where I’m from and regional aspects of my art. What I’ve drawn from being around artists from the Midwest and loving art from the Midwest is that they’re really process oriented. I do care about what something sounds like and the end result, but what I’m most concerned with is how we get there. The terrain of the Midwest is kind of an eyesore, like patchwork. There’s a beach in Gary, Indiana called Miller Beach, and it’s about a 45 minute drive from where I live. Drag City has a house out there, so sometimes I go out there and it’s awesome. You sit on the beach and there’s these blue-collar workers getting off work with their tiny coolers and six beers, or a bunch of women having a girl’s night with their hair done up and you can smell their hairspray feet away. There’s all these dilapidated factories. There’s something really scuzzy but luminescent about it. People finding their own oasis. There’s something I love about that. It doesn’t feel so far-fetched. I wanted to honor that backdrop of the highway, the sort of overlooked luminescence for lack of a better word. I find it extremely Americana in sort of a different way. When I did the first Jackie Lynn album, it was very cowboy archetype which was so fun because there’s so much freedom involved in that aesthetic and putting on a garb, allowing myself to open up. Then I actually met a real cowboy in Texas that made me realize I was kind of appropriating something that’s so removed from my life. He’s like living off of snake meat in the middle of the desert. I’m co-opting his livelihood in a way. When it comes to the truck driver, I worked at a car dealership and a service engine place for two or three years, so it seemed more appropriate.

AD: Where does Jackie Lynn’s new aesthetic come from?

Haley Fohr: I wanted her to be hyper-femme, and I’ve felt this outer pressure to be very femme in my time on Earth. I’m a “different type of woman,” is how I feel. Something I deal with a lot is when we were remaking Jackie Lynn into Jacqueline, I kind of wanted her to be sexy, fun, and bubbly, but cool. It was important to me, but I also wanted it to be more of a costume than a figure. I like that one-dimensional, like how her wig looks like a wig. It doesn’t look like real hair. I want people to recognize that that’s someone dressed up. All you need is dirty wigs to find a new you.

AD: You can feel that in the “Shugar Water” video. There’s a couple of people playing Jackie Lynn—you’re saying there’s a Jackie Lynn in everybody.

Haley Fohr: Absolutely. That was so exciting to me. The “Shugar Water” video, Jacob did a great job. They’re so youthful and young and come from such a different world from me. That opened up this whole possibility, as you said, of giving her identity away entirely, which I don’t really see happening in the music industry that much. It’s a lot of rooting the foundation of an identity and then exploiting it for money.

AD: There’s more of an emphasis on brand these days, but Jackie Lynn seems like something that you can have, or become.

Haley Fohr: I would love that. Honestly, in another world, we would be playing shows right now, and the room is packed and we’re all wearing the same outfit. Maybe even different people are coming on stage and singing. I could go really far with that. It’d be wonderful.

AD: When you were developing Jackie Lynn, were there any show business personas that you were taking hints from? One person I thought of was Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton.

Haley Fohr: I wasn’t directly influenced by that, but I dig the spirit. I do think that there’s some truth in that. I do have to bring life into her. I don’t do interviews as Jackie Lynn because I’m not a fucking actress. I do perform as her, and when I’m writing material, I consider her perspective. She walks differently than me, and she holds herself differently. I’ll harken back to: It’s what society and people asked of me, and the older I get and the longer I’m on Earth, I realize I can’t fulfill that. I tried to extort those feelings into this woman. She’s confident. She’s sexy. She’s hyper-femme. From there, some people I didn’t directly take from, but just women in my life that I feel like fulfilled those same characteristics are people like Dolly Parton or Grace Jones. These women that are so profoundly strong, and they give themselves permission to the point where they are their art. To the point where they walk into the room and it’s like, Grace Jones just did a piece by entering the room.

AD: When did Jacqueline start coming into fruition?

Haley Fohr: The first song I wrote for Jacqueline was “Shugar Water,” and I wrote it in May of 2017 when I was on the road with Animal Collective. It was a wonderful trip. It was just a really fantastic time. I wrote “Shugar Water” on the bus of that tour which was cool because I’ve never written a song with wheels underneath me. I must have felt comfortable. I think it’s a good song. I didn’t write the character or the short story I talk about until maybe eight months later. From then on, it was two and a half years of taking my time, and I’d take my time and write a song until I felt like it was formed. I would call up Bitchin’ Bajas and we’d go over to Dan and Rob’s. They would help me tear the song apart and put it back together with synthesizers. I went in knowing that I wanted people to dance. That’s something I’ve never had in my life that I really want. I want to play music, and I want people to dance. That was a big intention with this. It’s not heavy, but there’s a cathartic rhythm.

AD: What were you aiming for as far as sound production?

Haley Fohr: It depended on the song. To be frank, everyone was so helpful in that regard, especially Cooper. He’s this amazing encyclopedia of sound. I pride myself on chronological sound development. To be able to say, “I want this to sound like 1973,” and those guys know what instruments and what that means. We really pulled chronologically a lot of the sounds here. We were listening to a lot of Sparks and early Bee Gees. We intentionally didn’t isolate. It was like no pressure. This is supposed to be fun. It’s the opposite of the way I make music any other time in my life. I blame them for that, in a good way. The Bitchin’ Bajas work with a lot of machines, but they’re so fluid and everything is so easy. Working with them is a dream.

AD: What were some of the trials Jackie Lynn endured throughout Jacqueline?

Haley Fohr: There’s a lot of isolation. She’s on the road, and she’s trying to stay up. A lot of this record is about honoring your internal thoughts because no one really knows them but you. Feeling empowered by your own thoughts. Also, just enjoying life. It takes effort. I’ve been thinking of the phrase “Hard play” a lot recently. Just the notion that to live out your joy and find those moments, it takes a lot of effort. I think on this record, that comes through as well.

AD: There’s a window in my living room that looks out to an elevated train. When I listen to “Traveler’s Code of Conduct” during this quarantine and watch the train go by, it temporarily relieves some dread.

Haley Fohr: That is so sweet to hear. That’s wonderful. I think that there are small meditative moments among the chaos. Even when we’re not all quarantined. The allegory of traffic is so tantalizing to me. There’s something so beautiful about being so automated and feeling isolated. We’re all in our cars driving, but really you’re partaking in this huge endeavor of society and doing it peacefully. I think this time is a reminder that even though we all feel really isolated, I feel this collective like we’re all in transit and we’re peacefully gliding through something in a similar fashion. It’s so palpable, this collective moment.

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