Interview: Visionist

The facets of being and feeling safe.

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Producer, former MC and DJ Visionist, aka Louis Carnell, broke on to the scene in 2013, when his EP I’m Fine (Part I) became a canonical piece of the so-called “experimental grime” genre. Given grime’s intrinsically avant-garde nature, we’ll avoid tautology by tentatively calling Visionist’s sound “grime 2.0”. With his first full-length work, Safe, due out this October, we spoke to the South London visionary about life, music and the facets of being and feeling “safe”.

What’s with the name?

I guess it has to do with having a perception of what’s going to happen. I make music that might not be current right now but it will be in a year or two. Visionist is about seeing what’s going to happen. It’s important to me to not become an imitator of somebody else’s sound; instead, I try to create something that’s very new. And in terms of my personality as well, I’m very analytical and when I predict what I think will happen, it’s often true.

Where, for you, does homage or influence end and imitation begin?

Imitating is just being, like, “This is working at the moment so if I do something along these lines it might work for me.” That’s not how I write music; I write music for myself. Creating something new is as easy as hearing something and wanting to take it another way. Because at the end of the day, I think I have to make music that speaks for me and not someone else. So with the album I wanted to push my sound on again. I wrote a record that is first of all really challenging for me, and also quite challenging to listen to. But that’s fine, I’m cool with that.

Speaking of the album, it occasionally feels deliberately fragmented, yet it’s somehow always harmonious. Is there a story behind the sound?

I knew straight from the start that I wanted the concept of the album to be about anxiety and safety. It’s kind of a back and forth between safety and resistance. Because, yeah, obviously there are parts of me that wish I didn’t have anxiety because that would make life happier. But at the same time, it gives me a subject to work with and I can create something beautiful out of it. So it’s that back and forth. But yeah, I think compared to my previous work this record is going to be a lot to take in. The EPs are quite clean, they’re an easier listen and there’s less movement within the tracks, so it’s easier to just lock in. But with the album there’s so much movement and each track has many different elements. I’m aware that maybe not everyone will like it, but that’s okay because I’m happy with it.

How does all that translate to the album artwork? It’s quite disconcerting.

It was made by Daniel Sannwald, and it’s pretty layered. Firstly, I made my skin-tone white. That has to do with the perception of what is seen as a “safe” person. Because I was touring a lot last year I experienced being stopped and searched at airports really often. Taking that experience, I wanted to show that this white heritage where a safe person is thought to be white is still very present.

But then there’s also blue and purple…

The bruising is because one of the main topics of the album is anxiety. But anxiety is something that you don’t see; it’s not like a cut. You can’t see the blood, it’s all mental. If I’m about to get really anxious and I feel like an anxiety attack is about to happen, it will be hard for someone who hasn’t experienced that to understand what’s happening. The bruising is a visual representation of the anxiety; it enables you to see that anxiety does damage you. And then I have this plastic wrap around me. That’s again about keeping something safe. If you keep something safe you wrap it up, and in the image I’m only half wrapped, so it’s like—am I damaged goods? Am I brand new? Also, the image is very futuristic. So it’s playing with that kind of thing: am I being kept safe from myself?

Unusually for a producer, you use your own face on the album cover. Why was that?

It’s mainly singers who put images of themselves on the cover. But I’m an artist just like a singer is an artist so I figured, why shouldn’t I be on the front? It was important to me to be really personal and open with his record, and this cover tied in very well with that idea.

What can we expect after the album drops? Will we be hearing more of you?

Hopefully I can do a tour. At the moment I’m building a live show, it’s kind of like a compilation of the album. I draw certain parts together, and it becomes something like a collage or a mesh. So I’m using my music but also creating whole new tracks at the same time.

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By Emma van Meyeren

Photography: Daniel Sannwald

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