We’ve been fans of Grant Singer’s since his early days making Sky Ferreira videos, kicking it off with 'Everything is Embarrassing' back in 2012. His work was refreshing among a wave of banal glossy, airbrushed pop-tracks. Emotionally striking and aesthetically edgy, he combined grit, angst, and surrealism in a way that personally spoke to us and inspired us, elevating the music from what we heard sonically into something we felt viscerally.
He got his start directing videos for his friends in NYC (including Sky, DIIV, and Starred among others) but has since moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles. Simultaneously working his way into another echelon of directors, he’s gone on to direct legendary mainstream videos that you’ve no doubt seen. From The Weeknd’s ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘The Hills’ to videos for Ariana Grande, Future, and Vic Mensa, to the graphic surrealist, and frankly insane videos for Skrillex and beyond, he’s cemented himself as one of today’s hottest hit directors.
By-way of his exceptional reel, Grant has worked himself into an impressive industry niche. At this point he doesn’t write treatments against a bunch of other directors, and is able to be more selective about the artists he works with. Generally, they approach him to collaborate, and if he writes a treatment it’s usually because he’s already spoken to the artist, and is able to control the clarity of his vision. It’s easy for an idea to get muddled during the treatment process - going through approval after approval after approval - but by going straight to the source and streamlining the process, his ideas are able to remain singular and focused.
“I’m not a totally normal director, I’m not going to collaborate on everything - I like to be autonomous in some degree, and I like to work with artists who trust me. There’s no great painting that was ever made where the buyer stood over the painter’s shoulder giving them notes. It’s the same idea, I don’t want someone over my shoulder. Give me that little bit of freedom where I can breathe and I promise you I will make you something so fucking great. You’ll be happy. But I need that freedom.”
His love for music and art began at an early age. Via exposure from his two older sisters, Grant’s perspective was shaped by the work of the greats - from Paul Thomas Anderson to Kubrick to Penderecki - he combined a variety of music and classic film to create his own cohesive visual education. However, regardless of his great interest in film, he’s selective about the influences to which he exposes himself. It’s like he has turned on an Internet filter for his life; only letting specific information through. His unmatched originality comes from this filter, allowing him to be unobstructed by trends, and it has become one of his greatest strengths. His ideas are his own, and he doesn’t expose himself to work that might compromise his vision.
“You are what you consume, you are what you see, you are what you surround yourself with. So if you’re watching shit - not even shit, but mediocre things? You’re going to make mediocre things. It gets embedded in your subconscious. I don’t watch stuff unless I know it’s going to be great.”
His unified vision is evident in what he creates. His visuals are intense in the best way - they are elegant and sophisticated with a grotesque undertone, simultaneously remaining simplistic without diluting the overarching concept. Notably, his Skrillex videos for Red Lips and Burial (with Yogi) stand out because of their exquisitely executed concepts. So easily are fantasy-based ideas are botched in this industry, often coming out cheesy or derivative. However throughout those two videos he was able to express his elegantly eerie visions in a simple way that never encroaches on cheesiness.
“The older I get the more minimalist I get. Only because I feel like it’s a lot harder. It's a lot harder to make a really great pop song versus making something really weird and atmospheric. To write a really great, simple pop song is so much harder. So I take that similar mindset and apply it to the visual form. It's a lot harder to make something simple, great and compelling.”
To us he is #legendary, and one of our favorite artists, so to get to sit down with him for a few hours was our pleasure. His perspective on the video world and his place within it makes for an inspiring, educational read, and demonstrates his potential for the future in the video world and beyond.
“You always want to challenge yourself. I don’t want to recreate something that’s already been done. I have to challenge myself - each new thing needs to make everything else I’ve ever done look like shit. Period.”
How did you start directing?
I went to film school at Bennington in Vermont, but after college I was sort of turned-off by the film industry. I’d worked on a movie, and I worked for a producer and a director and I saw how difficult it was for them to make movies how they wanted to make them. I came from more of an art-film background and was like, ‘this is bullshit.’ I was in New York and I just wanted to do my own thing.
Then when I was 24 or 25 a lot of my friends were making really cutting-edge music, so I started directing music videos for them on my own. I was director / DP / Prod designer / Producer / Stylist, everything, just me and a camera. It was the best way to start because you learn everything. From there I did a short film called IRL, and again, everyone involved was just friends coming together, everyone worked for free that’s all it was. And it was fun.
And then things changed, I came back to LA, I started to become more ambitious in music video directing, and then it just spirals [upwards]… You get a job, which gets you another job, and pretty soon it was like holy shit, I’m making a living at this, this is now my career.
Do you ever see yourself transitioning back to movies?
I have a few other projects in development right now, but I’d like to direct music videos for a very long time, if I can direct the music videos that I want to direct. Have an artist hit me up to collaborate on a video, and if I’m into the song, if I’m inspired, then I want to make something great. You can make a movie and it takes 9 months or years, to get any of it done. Whereas, I heard a song yesterday and I’m going to make a video for it hopefully this month. I like the immediacy of videos.
We see a reoccurring character in a lot of your videos, from Ariel Pink to The Weeknd. Who is he?
Rick. One of the first videos I ever directed was a video for Starred. We were was shooting in the elevator of the building where the band lived, and the doors open and Rick enters. I was immediately struck by him, like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ After he left, my friends told me he’s like this old punk rock guy that lives in the building, so I Googled him and found out he was was this seminal punk rock figure of the 70’s. I immediately knew I wanted to do something with him, but when I went to track him down he had already moved out. But I always had this idea of doing something with him, this story of an aging rock star that never gave up that desire to rock, despite the fact that he leads a very bleak life. It took me years to track him down.
That’s interesting because that idea is so fitting with the lyrics and message of the Ariel Pink song it was used for. In general, how much of your ideas come from the music? Or do you carry around ideas that you then apply to songs?
I originally pitched that idea for a different band who weren’t into it. Ariel’s been a good friend of mine for years, and I pitched him that idea and he loved it. All the Ariel Pink videos are about being an outsider, and the sort of search for happiness, and it ended up working out so much better for him. So yea sometimes I hang onto ideas - like that idea I carried for years - and then can apply it. But then sometimes I hear a song and get so inspired and an idea comes to me. It all depends.
How would you describe your personal aesthetic if you had to describe it?
I don’t even know - I guess intense? Strong. I’m into directors that I feel like are strong. Whether or not I like what they do, but they have a strong aesthetic or approach. Even if it’s minimalist or restrained. One of my favorite directors is David Fincher. I think he’s the master of construction of movies right now. When I watch his movies I just see absolute power, strength yet restraint, and everything you see is just perfect, perfection. I respond to that.
What’s important to you when it comes to picking your team?
There’s so many talented people that I really try to work with people who are right for each specific project. First rule of thumb is if you work with people you like you never have to raise your voice. I’m so specific about people I work with because we just have to vibe. Like we’re getting paid to make music videos - it’s not changing the world - if it’s not fun, then why are you doing it? You should feel like a child when you’re doing this. So they have to be really fucking talented and they also have to have that child-like curiosity and wonder, which is really hard to find.
What do you think is missing from music videos today?
If everyone is doing handheld, loose, floaty, I want to see people do fixed and restrained. I like seeing the opposite - almost anti-trends. To be very honest I don’t watch that many music videos. I’m not super tuned in. I purposefully don’t want to be influenced by other things.
What are some of your favorite videos?
My favorite video ever is window licker by Chris Cunningham for Aphex Twin - it’s a very simple concept but just executed perfectly. Or Rubber Johnny, or Closer, or Perfect Drug [by Nine Inch Nails] - those are some of my favorite videos, just super stylized and powerful and singular. Everything about them is executed perfectly. I love that.
Do you have any dream collaborators?
Burial, and Nine Inch Nails. That would be so fucking cool. And Gucci Mane. But the child in me would die if I did a Trent Reznor video.