How Troye Sivan, Lorde & The Weeknd Collaborator Grant Singer Became Pop's Go-To Music Video Auteur
Meet Grant Singer. Over the past decade, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker has become the music industry’s go-to video auteur, with credits spanning some of pop’s biggest hits, including Lorde’s striking Melodrama one-two punch of “Green Light” and “Perfect Places,” The Weeknd’s pop rebirth on “The Hills,” “Starboy” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” and Taylor Swift and ZAYN’s monster 50 Shades collaboration “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.”
After attending film school at Bennington College in Vermont, Singer cut his teeth in the industry by collaborating on his friends’ DIY projects while living in New York City beginning in 2010. “I had friends in up-and-coming bands, and there was this natural progression from creating visuals that accompanied their music to directing their music videos,” he tells Billboard. “I fell in love with the process of constructing images to music, and I loved making things with my friends. These early pieces were just me and a camera. And it was so freeing, the most fun I’ve ever had.”
His big break came after directing a video for indie outfit DIIV -- 2012’s “How Long Have You Known?” -- as well as a 2013 narrative short film IRL, in which he cast a young Sky Ferreira in the lead role. The duo became fast friends and then roommates and continued to collaborate on projects, including the visual for her breakthrough single “Everything Is Embarrassing,” 2014 Night Time, My Time album cut “I Blame Myself,” and the stunning title track. “She’s like a sister to me and one of my favorite people on this planet,” Singer says of the star. “Everything about her inspires me.”
Singer's main asset, according to his A-list clients, is his unique passion and zeal and his commitment to get to the root of each artist and project on a personal, intimate level. "ZAYN and I were talking about who could really execute the vision of this song and the message behind it and really do it in a symbolic way, and Grant Singer has always been someone I've always looked up to and just thought he's really next level. He's always innovating and changing and evolving," Swift praised in a BTS video posted on Instagram. "Getting to work with him was amazing. His enthusiasm is incredible and then you kind of get on the same level. When people are really enthusiastic you kind of rise to that and I've seen that happen everywhere he goes on this set."
Lorde also gushed about the special energy Singer brought to her project. "Meeting Grant Singer was maybe one of my favorite creative partnership moments. Grant is such a passionate director. We went out to dinner and before we knew it it was 4 in the morning and we had been talking about our dreams," the Kiwi star adds with a laugh. "We were just kindred spirits."
Singer's most recent credit is for Troye Sivan’s Michael Jackson-inspired 2018 comeback bop “My My My!” Filmed at an industrial space just south of Los Angeles, the clip features the 22-year-old Aussie pop star channeling Michael Jackson (see: wind machine), as he celebrates the song as an anthem for "liberation, freedom, and love," Sivan says. "Throw all inhibition to the wind, be present in your body, love wholeheartedly, move the way you’ve always wanted to, and dance the way you feel."
The duo first met at a party and "immediately hit it off," Singer says. "I think Troye is one of the most important artists we have today. I’m a huge fan of his and very excited to see what he does."
Below, Billboard caught up with the director to discuss his start, favorite music videos of all time, and ever-expanding list of A-list credits.
What first drew you to music videos?
I am deeply passionate about music. When I was younger I wanted to score films and I studied music for a brief period. I think my love for music and my love for film subconsciously may have led me to this medium. It was never a conscious decision or an ambition I had while I was growing up.
Tell us about your first music video -- how did you connect w/ the artist and what about the process and experience intrigued you?
My first video was for a band called Starred for the song “Call From Paris." Liza [Thorn] and Matt [Koshak] were my two best friends at the time, in fact, it felt less like a shoot and more of a documentation of our lives. They were living at The Gaylord in Koreatown and we shot in that neighborhood, all around MacArthur Park, and it felt as natural as taking pictures. It came from a very sincere place. I wasn’t trying to make something cinematic or make anything ambitious, it was more about capturing a moment in our lives, a portrait of these people whom I loved. I operated the camera with my right hand and a light in my left hand, and it was amazing. I was a one-man crew. I really miss those days.
Your next high profile collaboration was a trifecta of videos for The Weeknd. How did you first connect with him?
Abel hit me up to do the music video for "The Hills." We are good collaborators. It’s like anything in life, sometimes things just fit, sometimes they don’t. With Abel, it just works. I understand him, I love his world, the mythology his music creates, and his mood and feeling align with my instincts.
You worked with Lorde on Melodrama clips “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” -- was it a similar connection?
Ella and I had dinner while I was in New York a few months before we made "Green Light." We were able to get to know each other so the process of making the video was very organic. We engaged in a great way and creatively complemented one another. What’s it like to work with her? She’s an absolute dream. I could say every wonderful thing about her and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
What were some of your favorite artists growing up?
Nine Inch Nails, Fugazi, Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Mingus, Skinny Puppy, The Blood Brothers, Korn, Primus, The Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead. I liked music that was visceral and intense.
What are the best music videos of all time in your opinion?
Nine Inch Nails – The Perfect Drug (dir. Mark Romanek): I could go on and on about this video, as well as all of Mark’s work. He’s probably my favorite music video director. The video is so precise and masterfully directed and conveys a feeling that is totally ambiguous and hard to describe. The lighting is outstanding. Visually, it moved me and still leaves me in awe.
Aphex Twin – Windowlicker (dir. Chris Cunningham): The most original and singular video director of all time. Chris is a good friend of mine and I’m so amazed by his talent. He created a world and a tone that was indescribable and completely enthralling. There’s no one else like him and never will be.
Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun (dir. Howard Greenhalgh): I don’t think there’s a video that’s left more of an indelible impression on me. I think I was 8 or 9 when I first saw it on MTV and it absolutely decimated me. It cut straight to my subconscious and opened my mind in beautiful ways.
Outside of music, what films/directors influenced you and what about their work inspired you?
Stanley Kubrick, in my opinion, is the greatest artist of the 20th century. Everything about him. He’s my number one.
David Fincher. My favorite living director. There’s no greater technician in cinema, maybe Ridley Scott, but Fincher’s mastery of the craft and singular tone is like visual sex. I’ve seen Zodiac probably a hundred times. His razor sharp precision and virtuosity of the form is unfathomable. I don’t think people realize how lucky we are to live in a time that has somehow overlapped with Fincher’s time on this planet.