As a director she's worked with Troye Sivan, Halsey, and Hailee Steinfeld, but Malia started off her career as a bassist for the Dum Dum Girls, and those experiences on the road (and beyond) continue to fuel her vision for other artists.
Malia James knows there are no straight roads in life. The music video director has spent her career exploring her expressions as an artist and those investigations have yielded some stunning work for everyone from Adam Green to Troye Sivan to Alessia Cara. One thread has remained constant over the years though: her fascination in how we relate to each other. Before she took the stage as a speaker at out our recent Co.Lab event in LA, we talked to the director about her ever-evolving career and why she considers herself a “diehard romantic.”
Malia James: Directing was always meant to be my end game, but I had also always dreamt of being a musician too and lived that life as a slight detour for a while. Having experience as a musician enables me to relate to the musicians I work with; I know their lifestyle (and how difficult of a life it can be), and I feel I can hear and feel music in a way that enables me to create better videos than those that may not have that experience.
Your work balances between a lot of music videos and brand collaborations. What is your working process with these different types of collaborators? How does your process shift or overlap between these two worlds?
For music videos I am often building the creative from scratch, so there’s a lot more freedom to bring my own visions to life. With branded content, the agency has developed the basics of the idea and I am able to add to their ideas. I find brands often want to work with me on subjects relating to music or musicians as I’m better able to create a sense of realism in these spaces from my experience. The creative process is mostly the same, though with music videos I have to spend a lot of time researching the artist and getting a good feel for them and what it feels like the song should look like. You’ve spent a significant amount of your adult life on the road. How has this informed your aesthetic and directing style?
I jokingly say that my life on tour was the longest location scout in history. Having traveled to so many places and being heavily inspired by locations, people, and fashion around the world, I think all of the places I went helped me to curate my aesthetic. Being adept at traveling has also inspired me to film in cities around the world. I’m also inherently nomadic. I need to move around to feel inspired. That said, I still hate packing my suitcase.
You’ve often described yourself as a “diehard romantic” and often focus on human relationships in your work. What brought you to this theme, and how have you been exploring it recently? How has your relationship to this theme evolved?
Somehow, serendipitously, I have often found myself working on tracks that lyrically reflect something I’m addressing in my personal life or a feeling I can deeply relate to. Beyond that, I suppose I just really love love. It’s probably the most unifying human emotion. We’re all looking for love. Because so much of my work explores this, I find I frequently get asked to make similar content. I look forward to expanding into telling stories about different kinds of love stories—the love between friends, the love between family—the light and dark sides of these relationships. I have degrees in both film and psychology, so I think I’m mostly endlessly fascinated with the human experience and what motivates us.
Who or what has inspired you recently? How do you bring those inspirations into your process?
I’m an avid movie watcher. I shot my first short film recently and began working on writing a pilot. I used to try to watch a movie everyday, but now my workload is too demanding to leave two hours free in a day. I watch films to explore the emotional aspect and the characters, but I’m also studying lighting—a big part of my aesthetic—as well as editing and cinematography. Travel is always inspiring to me. Seeing new people, places, and textures inspire me to want to recreate them.