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April 9, 2018Feature

Ahead of his performance in Chocolate Factory, Dublin with Grayscale on April 14 we connect with Visionist for an interview by Ian Maleney and a shoot by Ellius Grace.

“I don’t really write albums that create answers. I’m creating questions in my music.”

 

Louis Carnell has a cold. He’s at home in London, and he sounds a little stuffed up on the other end of our Friday morning Facetime call. He’s talking about his teenage years, and his adolescent attempts at becoming a grime MC.

“My style of MCing was very much about being the best,” he says, and a quiet, somewhat mischievous laugh terminates the sentence. There’s a note of nostalgia in the humour too, as that was half a life ago now.

Still, Carnell has not completely lost the confidence he once projected into the youth clubs and studios of Nottingham and London. He was born in the capital, but went to school in the East Midlands. He was not quite sure where he belonged.

“If you turn up at a youth club, and there’s twenty MCs, producers, whatever, you kind of need to hold your own, or that was the way you felt. Even in London, when I’d come down London, my mates, we’d be on Allstars tracks where there’s like 15 guys on a track. Living in Nottingham, not really being from there, going into studios there – people don’t really know who I am. Then coming back to London and obviously a couple friends know me but I’m not about the scene like that, so I’m always in this middle-ground. You very much had to feel like you could hold your own – you put out this confidence.”

Confidence is something that flows through Carnell’s music now, in its subject matter and its execution. The two albums he has made as Visionist – 2015’s ‘Safe’, and last year’s ‘Value’ – have been epic productions of an unusual sort. They’re unpredictable, powerful; unstable and substantial at once, still tinged with some of the grime he grew up with but characterised by something altogether less historical, something still forming, something violent and beautiful, occasionally sublime. At the heart of it all is a preference for contradiction over resolution, for inquiry over satisfaction.

“I don’t really write albums that create answers. I’m creating questions in my music. It’s almost like, why is this sound considered genius, and why is this sound not? What is that, and why do we have these hierarchies of sound? My music is definitely more about the questions. And if people want the answers then, I don’t know, we’ve been creating music for so long, there’s not these answers. Just be open to the new ideas and the way it works.”

“I’m interested in the way people are interpreting my music as much as the way I want it to be interpreted. I want conversation.”

Carnell says his 2013 EP, ‘I’m Fine’, was an inflection point in his approach to production. That record – which featured guest production from Fatima Al Qadiri – is strikingly different from the more club-focused 12”s which preceded it.

Carnell removed the propulsive drums of his earlier releases and found himself left with something much more eerie, more captivating. The trademark manipulated vocals remain, but here they float in a much more ambiguous space.

“It was very much dealing with minimalism and that realisation that sounds can sit alone and not have much around them and still be really powerful,” Carnell says of ‘I’m Fine’. “I think that was the good starting point, then for me to bring in extra sounds and place them correctly so that every sound has a purpose, rather than starting with too much and trying to strip back.”

It’s a constructive technique which has carried through all of his releases since, even if they can seem at first blush to be exercises in brutal, chaotic maximalism.

“In my last album, there are a lot of sounds and there are a lot of elements, but there’s a reason for every element,” Carnell says. “People might not always understand that, but I understand why I put every element there and it’s not a soundscape reason in the sense of being like, ‘I need to put in all these sounds so it sounds really impressive’, like I’ve done a lot. It’s like, ‘nah, I need to do this because there’s a meaning to this’ – it’s how it contradicts the other sound. It’s just playing with sound and just seeing how they can all fit together. That’s the way I approach things.”

Carnell’s music is – more than most of his peers’ – infused with a conceptual integrity. ‘Safe’ came with an origin story rooted in anxiety and vulnerability, while ‘Value’ is notionally centred on ideas of self-worth, confidence and ambition. It’s easy enough to say these things, to list them out like this, but much more difficult to discuss them in terms of how they’re represented in the music. For the most part, Carnell avoids explicit gestures and straightforward references. There are vocals all over ‘Value’ – Carnell’s own, mostly – but few words. The song titles are about all we have to ground the emotions in language. Carnell suggests it’s better to leave these things open to the imagination.

“Sometimes things are just too literal. Sometimes if it’s all words, it’s just so literal. I like looking at words, graphically, I really like that, but sometimes when I hear words or certain things, it’s almost telling me how to think rather than allowing me to experience it in the way I want. If you can create something that makes you feel the way it’s meant to without words, I feel like that’s almost more powerful.

“It’s not like I’m not saying anything because I’m scared to. It’s like I take you on your first steps down a path. I’m interested in the way people are interpreting my music as much as the way I want it to be interpreted. I want conversation.”

Carnell does go to some effort to get a specific message across – in the music itself, through the accompanying visuals and in conversation. At the same time, he says focusing too tightly on the concepts in his work – at the expense of the sounds – is an unfortunate and limiting mistake.

“If people don’t get the topic, they almost stop listening to it in a musical sense and they’re really searching for the topic,” he says. “But the topics are just guidelines. People can get really caught up in that and they don’t even really try to consume it in any other way. Even if you take away all the topics that my music has, there’s still a lot of feeling from my music – that’s the overall thing that I’m going for. The story is about why each track was made, but these feelings can be taken into other peoples’ worlds. What this sound means for me and the reason I created this sound, someone else can hear that sound and feel a different way because of where their life is at, you know what I mean? I feel like people still need to be open to that experience.”

Perhaps the most important shift in Carnell’s recent output has been the transition from making EPs and singles to making albums. In his early days, Carnell released quite a lot of music in a short space of time. You could sense the excitement and the exploratory instinct in each, but they were short, pointed blasts. The scope of each project now is so much larger, so much more capacious, that both the ideas and the commitment have to be stronger to sustain the work through to its conclusion.

“When you’re young and just coming into it, it is that whole process of, ‘I’ve made something, let’s put it out’. You think you’re amazing from get-go, you and your five friends. This is now a career and it’s so much more real, so much bigger, and I think you should acknowledge that and give it that respect, where you are with it all. You just hope that people give it the same, but that’s up to them. It’s a comment on them, not a comment on me. I know where I am with it, I know what I want it to say, I feel like I have achieved that. I don’t feel like the next person can really tell me, unless they can do what I can.”

He pauses, and then there’s that same quiet laughter again.

“Which most of the time they can’t.”

Album cycles also mean being out of the public eye for longer periods of time. Without the constant stream of updates and releases, it can be difficult to retain people’s attention. There is so much to consume all of the time that now, perhaps more than ever, out of sight really can mean out of mind. Carnell says that change was tough at first, but two albums in, he’s starting to appreciate it.

“It was difficult because, when you’re releasing music constantly, it constantly keeps you in people’s minds. But this is the thing, this is where I’m at with it. When you release music a lot, yes, it keeps your name being spoken about. But when you don’t release music a lot, you find out the people who really care. Because those who just see your name all the time are like, ‘yeah, I see this person’s name all the time, I’m a fan’. But when you suddenly disappear, it’s the ones who go, ‘where’ve they gone?’. They’re the people who actually care about your music, because they care when it’s gone.”

‘Value’ is ultimately an album about feeling comfortable and confident as an artist, or at least the difficulty of feeling that way. Now aged 28, Carnell can reflect on almost a decade of growth within an industry that often prizes immediacy and early-bloom ingenuity over the gradual development of voice and technique.

He is feeling confident enough now to take time off when he needs to, to let life happen knowing that he has an outlet for the experiences and emotions he passes through. He knows the really worthwhile ideas need time and space to germinate.

“I think especially in the creative industries, everything is set up so that you should constantly have an idea – constantly, constantly, constantly have an idea. It almost creates that kind of panic, or you’re working for someone else’s timeline. I’ve just got to the point where I ain’t going to panic if I haven’t got the next idea. If I haven’t got the next idea, I take a break. Or I just keep my practice up. I might write tracks that will never be released, just to keep my practice up and keep my technique. I don’t feel the need. If I release a bit less, it’s that thing of like, make it worth the wait. If I’m going to take time out, I need to make sure I’m serious about the next thing I do.”

Confidence, as sports commentators tend to say, is a funny thing – when someone has it, it’s impossible to miss. Carnell sounds confident in himself and in his music, even as that music splinters into a whirlwind of fractured sounds, by turns hostile and enchanting.

His vision has expanded to include videos, art-direction, and a full audio-visual show with Portuguese filmmaker, Pedro Maia. The limits of his imagination are expanding, and he’s confident that this is only the beginning.

“When I’m old, these are the things I’m going to look back on in life and feel accomplished with. Especially with this project, it took a lot of thinking and I knew I wanted to take it further in terms of the videos and the whole visual aspect of it, then going even further with the packaging aspect of it. There was so much creation going on, if I was to just jump in, would I even have the time or the thinking space to do all these things? Research is important and research takes time. This is my whole life now and I’ve not got anywhere near the endgame of where I want all this to go. I need to be patient with that. Patience. Learning patience is kind of the key to it all.”

Visionist plays The Chocolate Factory with Grayscale on April 14.

Words: Ian Maleney / Photography Ellius Grace 
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