The Art of the Visual Album

Still from Free Spirit Courtesy of Khalid
Still from Free Spirit Courtesy of Khalid

Why more and more musicians are making films to accompany their releases.


In the age of streaming, Instagram, YouTube, and now even with Canvas, artists are turning to film to expand on and promote their musical projects more than ever. Beyoncé, Thom Yorke, Solange, Drake, and Kanye West are some huge names that come to mind, but artists at all levels are tackling this medium. This year produced feature films like Donald Glover’s Guava Island and Khalid’s narrative Free Spirit movie, where the content is story-driven; short visual EPs like Mereba’s The Jungle Is the Only Way Out, which plays like an interwoven series of music videos; and experimental films such as Richie Hawtin’s audiovisual album CLOSE COMBINED, which provides a window into his live creative process. We spoke with Mereba, Richie Hawtin, and Free Spirit director Emil Nava to find out what inspired them to turn the camera on, and what went into the making of their visual albums.

Forming deeper connections with fans

For Mereba, making a visual album meant an opportunity to more deeply connect with audiences as she was introducing her sound and building a fanbase. In early 2019, the L.A.-based singer, songwriter, and producer shared a stunning visual component to her debut album, The Jungle Is the Only Way Out. The film, co-directed by Dawit N.M., provided Mereba with an outlet where she could expand on the stories told on The Jungle...

“[Films] give you the space and time to really establish a world all your own,” she says, describing a particularly moving scene in the film where she dances with her father. “The depth of storytelling is just different when you are showing the range of your project in that way—I knew I wanted to lead people into the world we had created that also told my story.”

Still from The Jungle Is the Only Way Out Courtesy of Mereba
Still from The Jungle Is the Only Way Out Courtesy of Mereba

Mereba’s visual EP incorporates narrative elements, such as poems, to gracefully weave one scene and song into the next. “I wrote the story [of] what my life had been like the last few years, and tried to make sense of it in a linear way,” she says. The end result is an honest and captivating example of an artist drawing listeners into not just a new sound but an entire world.

Screens are the medium of our time

In September, electronic musician and DJ Richie Hawtin released audiovisual album CLOSE COMBINED as an evolution of his award-winning CLOSE live show. The film gives audiences a three-panel vertical perspective (crowd view, stage setup, and equipment close-ups) of his performances. Hawtin says the film allowed transparency into his creative process and the underlying art of DJing.

Still from CLOSE COMBINED Courtesy of Richie Hawtin
Still from CLOSE COMBINED Courtesy of Richie Hawtin

Hawtin’s inspiration to create the film also sheds light on technology’s impact on how we consume and why it’s important to consider visuals. “Although people still listen to music and enjoy a purely sonic experience, it feels that in today’s world of cellphones and image-driven social media, it’s more important than ever to have a cohesive visual component to any music release,” he says. “Nowadays, with a mini-cinema in everyone’s pocket, it feels like you must explore the potential of what these devices give you in further exploring the creative ideas that were once only presented in an audio context.”

The power of collaboration and building a skillset

For Emil Nava, the director of Khalid’s Free Spirit movie, making a visual album also provides artists an opportunity to strengthen their collaborative process and show the world additional creative chops. The film, which accompanies the singer’s second studio album, was shown in theaters across the country and stars actors, models, and other artists in addition to Khalid himself. It screens like a full-length musical with scripted scenes and a narrative arc that explores the complicated drama of coming of age.

Emil Nava Photo Courtesy of Emil Nava
Emil Nava Photo Courtesy of Emil Nava

“What we wanted to do was create scenes that felt like music could be a big leading part,” Nava explains. “So whether it be a party in the motel room or a road trip or the prom theme, I wanted it to feel very real and authentic, and to have the audience really feel like you were one of those kids in the scene.”

To authentically capture the youthful zeitgeist, Nava says his director role and the strength of on-set collaboration was key. “It's all about who you have around you. It's all about the amazing talent, from the actors to just everyone," he says. "The film would be nothing without all that.” Nava also suggests that adding a visual component to a musical release allows an artist to showcase a more expansive creative dexterity. “I also think it’s a way for the artist to be able to show a much deeper visual of themselves," he says. "They can show their talent as an actor or an actress and their storytelling as a lyricist, and [generally] provide a more colorful picture of the music.”

Still from Free Spirit Courtesy of Khalid
Still from Free Spirit Courtesy of Khalid

Hawtin notes that the decision to create a visual companion to a music release isn't binding for everything you create going forward; it may not make sense for every project. He recommends asking yourself, “What are you transmitting to your audience? Can that be done purely sonically, or is there a new level of detail or understanding that might be achieved by adding a visual component?”—and the answer is not necessarily the same for each release.

Mereba's wisdom: “I’d say just be truthful with yourself and figure out if that’s the way your story is meant to be told.”

—Khalila Douze