We are inherently drawn to visual stimulus as a species. That’s why musicians put so much stock into their music videos. We meet five Irish directors who put motion to music.
Let’s start with a simple question. On any given day, would you be more likely to click into a video or Soundcloud embed? No prizes for guessing the right answer. We are inherently drawn to visual stimulus as a species. That’s why musicians put so much stock into their music videos. They offer a precious pathway for their music to reach new and often unexpected audiences. Here enters the role of the video director and there are few, if any, art forms as multi-faceted as crafting music videos.
The medium, still relatively in its infancy, is both a solo and collaborative process. It demands an artist with a distinctive vision and selflessness to meld it with the musician’s preconceptions.
Empathy is necessary, maybe above all. Connecting definitive motion to the seemingly endless possible interpretations of a song demands that a director really place themselves into their musical counterpart’s mindset. To draw out the most compelling visual, a director must comprehensively understand the emotional spectrum which underlies a particular song.
The rise of YouTube, from 2005 onwards, offered directors and musicians the ability to upload directly to an audience of millions – free of the precocious grip of studios and TV stations. If video killed the radio star, YouTube made music television utterly redundant.
We as a nation, are blessed with a current and emerging generation of music video directors with an eye for the medium. We’ve selected five from the current crop who excite us but there are many, many, more; Brendan Canty, Albert Hooi, Aoife McArdle and Myles O’Reilly to name just a few whose work deserves attention and praise.
Irish music has had its fair share of iconic high-budget, label sponsored, videos. Bono parading around Stephen’s Green in a horse-drawn carriage *sigh* with the whole damn marching band in tow comes to mind. However, most of the best modern Irish music videos, and their directors, have excelled in an independent, low-budget work environment.
That’s why, in the summer of 2015, whispers of a design student who moonlit as a hip-hop artist were rampant in the city. At the very dawning of what would be Irish hip-hop’s ascent to the cultural zeitgeist it is today, people from all sects talked about the young MC who’d nearly drowned himself in the pursuit of the perfect underwater rendition of his new single. People talked about Midnight Flower because it captured the imagination of everyone who saw it. It was and still remains, a powerful image. One of an artist literally willing to die for his craft.
What did it cost Kojaque? Nothing but the time he spent practicing holding his breath in the weeks leading up to the shoot, and the potential to burst a valuable lung. For his efforts, Midnight Flower has nearly 500,000 plays on YouTube.
This aims to get a sense of the creative drive involved in directing superb music videos. We met and profiled five creatives who have all, in their own way, veered off the prescribed path for filmmakers, in the process creating some of the finest art the nation has produced since the turn of the century.
“I find it slightly easier to stomach certain topics when they’re just that little bit separate from the laws of reality, which I suppose is Surrealism. But I haven’t read the Wikipedia page”
One of the nation’s premiere creative forces in the visual arts. Bob Gallagher, also known via his website handle Bob Films Things, has worked with a plethora of Irish recordings artists on numerous projects – from Villagers to Girl Band and most of what’s in between too.
Gallagher’s career begins in the darkroom. Spending a year studying photography “shooting black and white film and processing” before transferring into four years of film school. He found the college experience “unfulfilling overall” and began working on side projects to keep himself entertained.
He jumped into making music videos after graduating, describing that process as “when people get deprogrammed from a cult,” abandoning the rigid formality of college film.
His first video was for Elaine Mai’s Live. From that point on, his distinctive, often subversive, film style has made him one of the most in demand directors in the country. Gallagher doesn’t enjoy working with storyboards, describing that sort of approach as “mechanical.” He muses over the word carefully for a moment before continuing.
“You have to make room within that process for a bit of chaos, that will offset the stuff you’ve planned. You’ll never, no matter how hard you try, achieve exactly the thing that you’ve planned. There’re lots of reasons why… So, I think it’s good to make space for accidents within what you plan.”
That admission seems somewhat in conflict with the work the director has released to date. There’s nothing in the very symbolic, cerebral quality of the videos for Girl Band’s Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage or Pillow Queens Favourite that seems accidental – but so it is.
Gallagher is warm, insightful and bright – a far cry from the morbid quality some of his most renowned work is known for.
“I find when people respond to work I’ve done, or I meet people for the first time, very often they say things like ‘oh, so strange and dark.’ I don’t really see it that way. I think the world is strange and dark – that’s just how I see it.”
I toss the label of Surrealism at him, but he deflects from it. “I find it slightly easier to stomach certain topics when they’re just that little bit separate from the laws of reality, which I suppose is Surrealism. But I haven’t read the Wikipedia page.”
There is something surely surreal between the tango mortician and cadaver share in the video for Girl Band’s Why They Hide They Bodies Under My Garage? The video is superb, but only one in a long line of projects director and artist have worked on together.
“I definitely remember having a bit of a moment when I first heard Lawman, which was the first single I heard. Thinking about how incredible it was, that this music was coming from the place I lived.”
“I think the reason why I connected to it was because on the one hand it seemed to sort of acknowledge that the world is quite strange and quite dark, but the way to transcend that is through humour.”
It’s an enlightening statement, so I press him on the subject. “There are moments where the music winks at you a little bit. To reassure you that the music itself is in on the joke. I think that is something that really appeals to me. The sense that if existence is some sort of cosmic joke it’s better to be in on it and acknowledge it with a wink.”
Damn good sense.
Credits: Fontaines D.C.
“The idea for the video and how it turned out was formulated based on it being a portrait of Dublin and youth and hope. We found the kid who’s in the video (Finn). He was the best actor we ever could have hoped for it.”
Molly Keane describes her introduction to directing music videos as “the first jump into the sea at Seapoint of the year.”
Although Keane has just one music video to her name at the time of writing, she is one of the most recognised names in photography, music or otherwise, in the nation.
Keane’s work has ranged from a veritable trove of live music photography, to more politically centred works like The Humans Of Repeal project, to appearing on the second season of Sky’s Master Of Photography series during her sixth year in secondary school. So, it really was no small jump in logic to assume she’d be the right kind of driving force behind a music video shoot.
Keane’s first outing in a director’s position resulted in the superb video for Fontaines D.C.’s Big.
Her familiarity with the camera started young. Keane’s parents are directors and photographers. “I grew up in an extremely creative household. Where there were photography books lying around, everywhere, all the time. We have loads of lovely art all over the house and we watched films at home all the time as a family.”
She describes her parents’ influence as foundational, though never particularly pushy. “I first picked up a camera myself when I was about nine or ten…They [her parents] were like, ‘just go out and take some photos outside in nature and see what you come back with.’ We grew up on top of a mountain in Donegal. It was a beautifully inspiring place to grow up in, visually… Looking back that kind of led to me wanting to capture the world as I see it and share it with other people.”
Landscapes are not what most would associate with Keane’s work. If anything, her work seems consumed with the individual. Her intimate, sometimes heartbreaking, portraits on the ‘Humans Of Repeal’ project illustrates the point. If landscape or location has played a role in her work, it is only so much in how the person in the lens interacts with their surrounds.
This sense of the portrait emulated into the shoot for Big. Keane notes, “the idea for the video and how it turned out was formulated based on it being a portrait of Dublin and youth and hope. We found the kid who’s in the video (Finn). He was the best actor we ever could have hoped for it.”
“The guys came up with this concept where they really wanted a one-shot video of this kid, kind of if he was a young version of Grian (Fontaines D.C.’s lead singer) singing the song as he was walking down Moore Street.”
The minute detail of a photographer’s eye is everywhere in the finished product in Big, from a last-minute change in location from Talbot Street to Moore Street, to the opening shot of the lead wearing Grian’s old Doc Martins sporting an impression of the singer’s movement on stage.
It’s in these small details that the nuance of humanity is captured. Keane works as a freelancer and courts job offers day-to-day, but going forward it’s certain that whatever projects she chooses to work on will strive to capture those nuances.
“We know exactly what we want, we storyboard it to within an inch of its life… I think the average take count on ‘Date Night’ was 100 takes per ten-second clip.”
Sam McGrath seems more than a little bemused with the mesh of porcelain and silver that comprises the set-up for his posh cup of tea. I think he expected a regular cuppa, bag and mug. He tinkers with some of the moving parts before setting it down on the table and relaxing into the conversation.
McGrath studied BESS in Trinity. Finding the lifestyle associated with the degree unbearable, he decided to tinker with film, enrolling in a two-week film course in the London School Of Film. He had a natural knack for it too, coincidentally falling in with an emerging Irish MC and visual artist by the name of Kojaque.
Moving parts seems like a succinct introduction to McGrath’s work as a director. Anyone who’s watched his work, perhaps most notably with Softboy Records and Kojaque (Bubby’s Cream, Date Night, Airbnb to name a few) has scratched their chins wondering how a low-budget shoot could be visually stacked.
The obvious answer is hard work, time and graft. Speaking on the process behind shooting with Soft Boy Records, McGrath says “We’re so rigid with our approach… The style of those [the videos] is that there are no accidents. We will be looking for a ten-second clip, we know exactly what we want, we storyboard it to within an inch of its life… I think the average take count on ‘Date Night’ was 100 takes per ten-second clip. It’s not very reactive, it’s very proactive.”
This raw footage approach also requires a fair deal of artistic sensibility in the preparation for the shoot, a detailed understanding of the source material. McGrath approaches each shoot with zero ideas, wanting the video to be “a natural companion.”
That understanding is open-ended. I was interested to find out how much McGrath relies on the lyrics in his source material and his response seemed torn. “As a music video director, you want to kind of interpret the song. Input it, process it in your own head and that leads to whatever output you come up with. If the lyrics have had this profound effect on you and if you can think of an image that maybe complements or contradicts that, then go for it. But I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all if you have lyrics about one thing and a video about something completely different.”
McGrath seems to have fallen in with a like-minded creative crowd in Soft Boy Records. He seems like a genuinely collaborative soul. “To me it’s all collaboration, it’s the most important thing I think there’s this myth of the director as this pointing, shouting, single authoritarian. F**k that. Things become better when you involve more people.”
That being said, he is open to working with artists outside the label. He informs me toward the end of our chat that he’s gradually getting better at saying no to pitches.
McGrath spends most of his time doing a film masters in London. I get the sense that directing music videos is a cathartic process for him. A release from the formal adherence which good drama demands. “Music videos are a lot more fun on the surface, cause it’s just a lot of, “Oh sh*t that’s class… Unreal. Go, go, go. More more more.”
I notice once we’ve finished our chat that his tea remains undisturbed on the table beside us, tepid and in a state of stew – not everything has to be complicated.
“It’s only now, once I feel comfortable enough to make a production look how I want it to look, that I’m diving into the tools, the writing tools and the creative tools to actually tell a story.”
Nathan Barlow’s videography is perhaps the most cinematic of any director featured on this list. The Irish/Zimbabwean directors’ work with hip-hop label Diffusion Lab, particularly with Jafaris, retains a high-res sheen that flatters some of the shoestring budgets associated with the shoots.
“In different chapters, I’ve learned each aspect of it,” explains Barlow. Though none of those chapters involved a formal education in film. Qualifying for a film course, Barlow took the advice of a college staff member and opted to head out into the field solo to make his own way.
“Groups like Odd Future and Pro Era started popping up, and they’re all my age. I was 17/18 in school watching all these guys. So, obviously it sparked a bit of inspiration with the DIY attitude, which is always the way I’ve done things.”
Barlow hints at the creative essence behind his vision early in our discussion. “Guerilla. If someone gives me a fifty grand budget, I’ll try my best to make it look like a two-hundred grand budget. All the Jafaris videos were done with pretty much nothing; it was mainly just rubbing sticks together.”
It’s a characteristically humble downplaying of what has been a prolific shared body of work between the director and MC over the past few years. If you’ve seen a Jafaris video, from the Go-Pro shot No Hook to the L.A set Time, you’ve seen Barlow’s work. There is nothing about the slick, high-fidelity finished product of the latter that would lead you to believe it was the product of a three-day, unscripted shoot – but so it was.
“He resonated a lot of the same ideas and mindsets that I was inspired by growing up. The day that we met we shot a music video on my phone.” Thus began a working relationship that has seen two artists evolve and grow, step by step.
Curiosity, alongside passion, has fuelled much of Barlow’s videography. “These past two years of videos have more been on that side of filmmaking, which is still the technical. How can we this? That’s why they were such ridiculous extravagant things. I was just using a small camera and an electric skateboard to track things. So, it’s only now, once I feel comfortable enough to make a production look how I want it to look, that I’m diving into the tools, the writing tools and the creative tools to actually tell a story.”
Barlow cites his creative vision for his own work going forward on the viral explosion of Childish Gambino’s This Is America, an emphasis placed further away from post-effects magic and on to the material in the raw footage. “The next sequence of videos are definitely going to be a lot more stripped back, just packing it with visual storytelling through the actor’s motions and stuff like that.”
“As much as industry is pulling away from music videos and the budgets are getting smaller, seemingly the production value is only getting bigger, which is ridiculous.” A smile lingers over his face with the last three words of the sentence. It’s the thrill of an obstacle yet to be hurdled.
“I don’t have a style and, in a way, I hope that I never do. I always want to change. I always want to do something different”
Tara O’Callaghan may be the newest director on this list, but having garnered so much attention in such a short span of time is testament to her creative vision.
A couple of years free of film school in Dun Laoghaire, the director toyed with the idea of animation but decided on film instead. She explains why within the first fifteen seconds of recording. “Me as a person, I’m very fast moving, fast talking. I’m very quick as a person. So, it seemed a bit too slow for me.”
Every second word, spoken at a blistering rate, is enunciated with a hand clap. A subconscious action that literally reinforces her words as they’re uttered.
Her work, thus far, has seen her direct for Northern Irish hip-hop artist 7th Obi, Dublin electronic-indie act Caz9 and most recently, emerging MC Hovay. An eclectic mix for sure, but one that is tied together with a lofi aesthetic and sometimes faster than life edits.
“I wanted to make what I wanted to see, and I hadn’t been seeing that. I didn’t see that in a lot of Irish music videos. There are so many amazing music video directors out there who are doing something new constantly.”
O’Callaghan is reluctant to put strict labels on her vision. “I don’t have a style and, in a way, I hope that I never do. I always want to change. I always want to do something different. I don’t subscribe myself to a certain way of thinking because I’d be putting a barrier there in a way. I’m only getting started.”
Collaboration is key to the director’s process. She seems uncomfortable with the idea of overstepping her mark, some kind of imagined line. The point at which a video becomes less about complimenting the audio than about satisfying her own vision.
She unpacks that approach. “At the end of the day, I’m directing their piece. I don’t want my work to overshadow what their idea of their song is. I want to work quite closely with them and figure out what their vibe is as an artist and what they want to portray.”
O’Callaghan treats the role of director as fluid, evolving a video into shape around the concepts the musician already has in mind. It seems like a conducive, ego-free, approach to her artform. More importantly, it seems to be the one that births the best finished product.
“You’re always working in a different way with a different person. They always bring something new to the table, something that I hadn’t thought of before. That’s why I really love music videos.”
Collaboration is key in a medium that blends two art forms under the auspices of two artists.
Words: Luke Sharkey
Photos: Killian Broderick
Collage: Sorcha O’Higgins