Louis Carnell’s music as Visionist has blazed a new trail, locating a raw vulnerability within experimental sounds that draw tangentially from British genres like grime. A haunted sound to match Arca’s earlier releases, Visionist’s slow jams pierce and taunt in equal measure. His 2015 debut Safe traced his own experience with anxiety and panic attacks. Last month, the 27-year-old released the follow-up, Value, which uses sparse piano arrangements, warped vocals, and brittle electronics to explore the tension between artist and industry. Though his songs don’t have lyrics per se, track titles like “No Idols” and “Your Approval” illustrate his perspective on how artistic identity both reflects and resists the demands of the market.
The cover of his latest record was designed by the Belgian artist Peter De Potter, best known for his longtime collaborations with Raf Simons and for designing the cover of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo last year. It’s an intensely personal image—Carnell, nude, holding his head—so we thought De Potter would be the ideal interviewer to find out more about what makes the enigmatic London producer tick.
POTTER: When you make your music do you have one listener in the back of your head, or is it a crowd of people?
VISIONIST: You start thinking about like, how would this sound at a festival with loads of people? And will it take the attention of all these people, but also like how will it sound for me, you know? You get caught up in that and it’s a euphoric feeling. I’m definitely not led by my audience, but you know that one day you’re going to take this to hundreds of people, so you kind of have to imagine how that’ll be.
POTTER: When you do your music live, is it similar to the album versions or do they morph?
VISIONIST: So for the show I’m doing now, I work with the individual stems so then it’s not so much morphed, but I get to play with some of the sounds and melodies in longer periods than I have in the album. So it emphasizes the different parts and you get to know the track as a skeleton. A lot of sound is in it, so unless you listen closely it can be missed. I think the live show allows some of those elements to stand out again, and it’s very much based around the album and some extra tracks and stems I add.
POTTER: So if you feel like, when you’re on stage you can extend the track by 15 to 20 minutes?
VISIONIST: Yeah, if I feel like it, sure.
POTTER: Have you ever done that?
VISIONIST: No! [laughs] I think that’ll be the scariest thing to do!
VISIONIST: I feel as a society we have such a short attention span. I think maybe I focus on that a little too much, because when I write music it’s hard for me to keep it going repetitively. I’m always like, what can I bring in now? It’s more about discovery and showing that process of discovery. A lot of my music is more about the possibilities of acknowledging something, rather than giving you an answer. My first album deals with my anxiety. It wasn’t like, to heal my anxiety and by writing an album I’m now healed. It was, here’s a sound representation of what it feels like to be in an anxiety attack and that’s it. I think we can say the same with image, people look at an image and see a billion different things.
POTTER: That’s actually one of the similarities between music and images, for instance—the fact that they always have titles, which I think is super important. A title adds to the mystery and that’s a good thing! I agree that you should leave things up to the imagination of the listener, but to a certain extent because it is your work, so you should give the write keys to the entrance, you know what I mean?
VISIONIST: Yeah, and that’s what I feel I do—I give that entrance. In terms of picking album titles or picking track titles, I think very carefully on all of that because that is the entrance point. For a track like “Homme,” which is about being a man, I wanted to take you through the various emotions of being a man, but also being a human and showing that whole side.
POTTER: Why is it in French?
VISIONIST: “Homme” looks like home, so it was like, being at home with myself. That’s why it’s in French, instead of like, “Man.” It’s a play on words. Like “Exit” and “Exist,” and that’s the battle you have as an artist. There are people who feel a desperation to exist and I think for me I would never have that, I’d rather exit. It’s just not something I’m trying to force upon people and I’m not trying to force a career out of this, you have to just do this for the love of it and if you work on what you’re doing. I feel like overtime things will fall into place again.
POTTER: What do you mean exactly by falling into place?
VISIONIST: I’m kind of a purist where I think, if you create good work, people should be interested. That’s my mentality coming from underground music. I got into underground music because it was about the music and not whether someone’s famous. I think that’s a little bit lost now, because of the internet and how different generations are brought into mass media. I think my generation was one of the last to remember the first days of the internet.
POTTER: I spent half my life without the internet, it was pretty much the same thing just a whole lot slower and a whole lot more intense! And I think the thing you just said, “mass media,” is actually very important, because what is the mass? I don’t even know what that means anymore, doing things for the fame.
VISIONIST: See, for a musician, we had Soundcloud, and we would upload tons of tracks on to Soundcloud. It was a community and it was definitely a place where you felt like there were A&Rs. I got signed via Soundcloud. It’s funny because for me, it’s like I put all my music on this site, and once you’re signed and someone’s releasing a vinyl for you, it’s like I’m not a Soundcloud artist anymore, you know? I’m a proper artist. [laughs] And then you start taking down all your tracks! Also for me, I’m always very conscious because I like to give time between records, even though I feel like I write music that will last it’s time, whatever time that is. I feel like if I gave too much work I could almost burn myself out too quick. I’m one of those people who like a little mystique, controlling the way that people get to see you.
VALUE IS AVAILABLE NOW.