Hayley Kiyoko Talks Self-Directing Music Videos & First-Ever VMA Nominations: 'I'm Finally Invited to the Popular Table'

Amanda Charchian
Hayley Kiyoko

This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week's worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we talk to one of the most exciting young music video directors, who also happens to star in her own productions: rising pop talent Hayley Kiyoko. 

Hayley Kiyoko grew up watching MTV’s Video Music Awards --  “Who didn’t?” she asks, matter-of-factly. Now she’s nominated in two categories: best new artist and MTV Push artist of the year. And while she faces stiff competition like chart juggernaut Cardi B and Beyonce protégés Chloe x Halle, none of her nominated peers can clock her resume as both star and director: Kiyoko self-directed all four music videos thus released from her debut studio album Expectations.

“When I wasn’t directing my own videos -- I had written the music and had a vision for the videos, so it was hard for me to see someone else’s vision,” Kiyoko explains to Billboard. “It was so close to me.”

As Billboard’s week-long celebration of the music video format continues, Kiyoko talks about her experiences as a director, what influences her aesthetic and her plans for "going the classy route" at this year's VMAs.

Growing up, what were some of your favorite music videos?

The first one I can remember is “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. I remember watching it and seeing those two guys making out on the bench and thinking, “Oh my gosh. This is so controversial. This is everything.” I remember it really broke the mold and showed truth and honesty. It was something that stuck with me making my own videos.

I think every queer kid felt excited and validated when they first saw that clip. Are there any music videos that influence you as a director?

I don’t think so. I think I’m more influenced by film. [The 2012 crime drama] The Place Beyond the Pines is one of my favorite movies. I like films that feel long and comforting and dark. When you watch a really good film that feels satisfying -- I try to implement that feeling in my music videos.

What would you say is the most freeing thing about directing your own music videos?

I think the most freeing thing is getting to share a part of my journey and what I’ve been through with other people. It’s a very therapeutic thing for me. Sometimes when I am feeling low, I’ll even watch my own videos and be like, “I remember that time when this happened and this happened.” It really captures these moments in my life.

Were there any frustrations while being directed by others that you don’t have to deal with now?

When I’m an actor and I jump into the acting role, I have no problem because it’s not mine -- it’s not my vision. Someone else wrote it. I fully give in and enjoy that process as well. But when it comes to something you’ve experienced yourself, when you’ve written and recorded, it’s different.

What is the most stressful part of directing your own music videos?

I think casting is difficult because you are really relying on someone to bring it to life. I think that’s something that can make or break a video. Once it’s cast, I can breathe and I can do the rest.

Every video had its own struggles. “What I Need” was very stressful because we were shooting in Ojai. One of my hard drives died and we lost six hours of footage and had to do a reshoot. That was horrifying. With “Curious,” we only had one day to do that entire video, so that was stressful. “Feelings” was extremely stressful because we were doing one shot and it was so hot outside. There’s always these little things that people don’t realize but, for me, they make or break the video.

I remember showing up to “Sleepover” and the wallpaper wasn’t right, and we had to redo the wallpaper the day of. It’s things like that when you’re fighting to the last second. And sometimes after you shoot it, you get into the editing room and say, “Oh, that doesn’t look great. What do I do?” And you have to figure it out. It’s not always gonna be perfect. You have to make it work.

What I really enjoy about the process is, when I watch the video, I don’t go, “That’s wrong. I should’ve done this. I should’ve done that.” Every video, I’ve learned so much and I’m proud of. It’s something that we could through and did. Even though I could’ve gone so many other ways. I look at it and know this is how it’s supposed to be. I remember I didn’t get the right gas station I wanted for “Feelings,” and now I look back and know that was the only way it was going to be. I learned to accept change and adapt. As long as you do your best, it’s something you should be proud of. I love every single one of my videos.

Congrats on your VMAs nominations. Do you have any plans for the night? Are you going to wear something controversial?

I just want to look elegant and pretty. I think I’m gonna go the classy route. I’ll probably be overdressed. I’m really excited to be there and I’m excited to be nominated. It makes me feel like I’m finally invited to the popular table. I’m ready to sit down and hang out.

MTV Video Music Awards