Visionist paints his own tormented headspace
I’m sat with Visionist, real name Louis Carnell, on a table of a Brixton branch of an old Wetherspoons pub.
It’s a brash, cluttered setting, and it could seem like a bizarre location to discuss his new album Safe – a deeply reflective and personal record that tells the story of a distressing phase in the producer’s life. But although he’s perceived to be a complex character – one often misunderstood through the eyes of social media – Carnell is markedly relaxed and open about his troubles.
As we pick at the threads that tie it together, one of my biggest questions surrounds the album title. For anyone with a vested interest in Carnell’s music, ‘safe’ is hardly the word to describe the dark, melancholic and fragmented sound that has come to characterise his producer guise. Listening to the LP too, it seems that Carnell has drifted further from his affiliation with instrumental grime towards more abstract territory. This is by no means a ‘safe’ record.
“When I first conceptually wanted to write the album, I was dealing with anxiety,” he says of the album’s title. “The whole thing about anxiety is that it’s from the mind, you catch yourself questioning things – my way of dealing with it was taking myself out of said environment. That made me feel safe again. Say I was in a club and I suddenly feel a bit unwell or not right, I’d take myself off and the minute I’d be in that cab on the way home or back to the hotel, I’d immediately feel safer and I’d have calmed myself down.”
These incidences weren’t isolated either. “I actually did CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] and that’s where they teach you to get out of your comfort zone. All these environments I’ve had issues with, I’d been in lots before – it’s not about the place. It’s easy to not go out a lot because by stepping outside, you’re not in control of your routine. They want to teach you to have control of your mind, but not your environment, if that makes sense.”
How these feelings impacted on his music can first be seen throughout the two-part EP series I’m Fine, which preceded the album. Released by J-Cush’s stateside imprint Lit City Trax, both EPs felt like records that were born out of suffering. But, as the title testifies, they were more a riposte to, rather than a coming to terms with, Carnell’s personal anxieties. On Safe however, he lays everything bare, perhaps as a reminder to himself that troubles are always better shared.
“I always work from home, my bedroom studio”, he tells me, leaning forward to take in the space around him. “The album was written over the best part of about six months and I didn’t use any samples I’d used before. I knew I wanted it to be jittery. I wanted you to be on edge, to reflect my anxiety.”
For all its weightless textures, Safe is firmly anchored in the culture of London. Despite the intricacies of both his own music and contemporaries who push boundaries in similar ways – M.E.S.H, Arca, Evian Christ etc. – his clubbing outlook is relatively humble. That’s not to say he isn’t a familiar face at the city’s more challenging, forward-thinking music nights, but he is keen to acknowledge how his friends and more generally, London itself, keeps him ticking over.
“My music is very London-centric,” he explains. “All the influences are from the music I’ve grown up with, even the trappy influences. I’ve been to parties in London where they play that sort of music and enjoyed it; it makes it a London experience. More broadly, I write genres the way I want them to be heard. As much as it draws from grime, it draws from house, garage and everything else. There’s hints to so many elements to it but it’s just my world. Deal with it.”
And deal with it we should. Listening to Safe from edge to edge, you come out of it feeling dazed and perplexed, almost as if you’ve woken up trembling after a vivid, nightmarish dream. The official press release stated that Carnell wanted to ‘trace the arc of a panic attack’ with the album, and its jittery, off-beat twists and turns never give you a minute to rest.
As far as highlights go, the broken, contorted trap bounce of Let Me In is a candidate, as is the brilliantly-titled Tired Tears, Awake Fears – a dwindling, near-hypnotic three minutes dedicated to a prolonged period of insomnia. As with everything Visionist however, the music only tells part of the story. The tracklist itself feels shrouded in his own brand of mystery, with titles like 1 Guarda, Sin-Cere and Vffected garnering attention.
“‘1 harder’ is a Jamaican saying and my dad is Jamaican, so it’s my take on bashment and dancehall,” Carnell explains. “Guarda sounds like guardian and I had one parent, it’s always been me and my mum, so one guardian. My dad wasn’t there, I have met him but that was not for long – I didn’t want him as part of my life, and so the track is about that relationship between me and my mum.”
As for Sleep Luxury, it has a similar personal significance. “The amount of nights I didn’t sleep last year, it was ridiculous. Sleep became a luxury; I got to points where I’d celebrate falling asleep. When I was younger, I’d fall asleep anywhere. It reminds me of when I used to go to Greece on holiday and lay back and float in the sea. That was peace for me and so the track has that fluid, watery vibe.”
"I wanted this album to make you on edge, to reflect my anxiety”
It’s becoming clear that Carnell’s work on Safe was not only meticulous but thoroughly well-designed and considered, as to paint an accurate picture of Visionist the artist, rather than Visionist the beat-maker. This level of detail also feeds into the album artwork (an all-white, animated portrait), a subject Carnell is eager to discuss as he starts to sip his second glass of lemonade.
“The other part of Safe is what I’ve done with the artwork,” he says proudly. “I’m white-faced out. It draws on public perception, society and what it considers a ‘safe’ face. It plays on the race thing too, like actually being at airports and being stopped constantly because I have a beard. When I didn’t have a beard I was never stopped at airports. Last year I was going to the same places constantly, with the same equipment and they’d stop me. Heathrow was the worst. I grew up with my mum in an all-white family so I know that environment – being white is as much a part of my culture as being black.”
Taking it a step further, Carnell was also keen for the art to reinforce the core theme of the album: anxiety. “I’m bruised and because anxiety is a mental thing, you can’t see it, so the bruising you can see represents what it does. I’ve also got the wrap around me, which is to do with protection, damaged goods. Is it damaged? Is it new? Is it worn? That kind of thing.”
Wherever Visionist’s career goes after Safe, from speaking to him for just over two hours, I got the impression that this was a piece of work he’ll always treasure. From the conceptualisation, to the tracklist, to his own inner turmoil and to the artwork, it’s an album that communicates more than just feelings. This is his answer to his own, deepest darkest fears, played out and immortalised for us all to digest. “The happiest people are the ones that don’t think too much,” he explains. “I’ve never been that person.”