LBB’s April Summers sits down with NOIR and Crowns & Owls to discuss their approach to working with Canadian artist Nemahsis on two new projects they describe as a ‘counter-argument’ to the music video world
London-based production company NOIR and director trio Crowns & Owls have worked together on projects for London Grammar and Slowthai, establishing a trademark style built on vibrancy, fluidity, and a cinematic feel. This month, we talk to the longtime collaborators about rejoining forces for two new music videos for Palestinian-Canadian artist, Nemahsis.
Cultural innovators Crowns & Owls were entrusted with creatively commandeering music videos for Nemahsis’ evocative ‘dollar signs' and ‘i’m not gonna kill you’, taken from the artist’s wholly personal and introspective new album. The concept for both music videos were inspired by Nemahsis herself, with ‘dollar signs’ mirroring the adversity she’s faced; while ‘i’m not gonna kill you’ confronts the air of distrust Muslim people continue to experience post 9/11.
Here, NOIR and Crowns & Owls take LBB behind the scenes of both shoots, which took place at Nu Boyana Studios in Bulgaria, explaining how these videos symbolise a ‘counter-argument’ to what we’re seeing elsewhere in the music video world.
Through the looking glass
Modern society focuses largely on commodification and surveillance, especially when it comes to our reliance on mobile phones. This train of thought sparked Nemahsis’ idea for the opening scenes of ‘dollar signs’ music video, and ultimately the thread that runs through it. “She felt she should be in a glass box with people filming her on their phones,” Crowns & Owls tell LBB. “As we discussed it more, we brought in the storefront idea as the moment of reveal.”
As the shot widens and we realise Nemahsis is behind a glass screen, it becomes obvious that the majority of individuals seen walking past either ignore or photograph her. “It’s a song that’s rightly critical of tokenism and appropriation of other cultures within various industries - where we ended up felt like the most direct way of saying that, and we’re all so happy with the result,” says Crowns & Owls.
“The story was an important one to tell and Crowns & Owls created a vision that perfectly told the narrative,” explains Javier Alejandro of NOIR, “It was one of those projects that we really believed in from the get go. When you have a story like this it is important to make sure it’s done right.”
Keen to eschew current trends, the music video for ‘dollar signs’ takes its time to unfold. “We’re proud that we’ve made something that feels like a counter-argument to the pace we’re becoming so tired of in the music video world right now,” says Crowns & Owls. “With attention spans seemingly shrinking and so much of the cultural output feeling like a deliberate sensory overload, it was nice to make something that just breathes.”
A similar slow-burn approach is taken in the music video for the second single, ‘i’m not going to kill you’, which sees an emotionally fatigued Nemahsis walking the city streets at night, pursued by the glare of a helicopter searchlight seemingly invisible to those around her.
The isolated quality of Nemahsis’ onscreen performance was derived from conversations with the artist about the emotional fatigue that the accusatory sense of being watched with suspicion brings over time. Crowns & Owls intended to illustrate the suspicion and scrutiny many Muslim people experience in the modern western world; “It was our job to articulate her experiences for such a personal and important song.”
The directors are resolute on the fact the success of both videos should be credited to Nemahsis’ creative input and presence throughout the process. “You need truly captivating artists to pull that off, and Nemahsis definitely falls into that camp,” they explain. ”She’s very, very special.”
A hands-on approach
Crowns & Owls tell LBB how their approach to directing is built upon initial foundations in the photography realm. “We came into the game through a very DIY, hands-on approach for a long time, so lightning and camerawork are very much hardwired into us. It’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about.” And it shows, in ‘dollar signs’ and ‘i’m not gonna kill you’ as well as across their portfolio, particularly in their previous collaborative work with NOIR for the Diesel and Skepta ‘Sound of the Brave’ campaign in 2021, and Nike’s 2020 ‘You Can’t Stop Us’ campaign.
On its surface, the video for ‘dollar signs’ is a simple one: a single concept, and what appears to be one shot. Yet, as Crowns & Owls explain, it was much more complicated than that. Working with cinematographer Konstantin Mazov, who the trio say “rose to the occasion beautifully”, the team had to make sure the two shots as the camera went through the window were done “seamlessly”. As Crowns & Owls put it, it was a “head blag”. But one they pulled off. They add: “That’s the beauty of this line of work - you’re constantly putting yourself in corners creatively and then having to problem solve your way out.”
Adding to that, Nemahsis reveals, “I always say that if the music video doesn’t make the song sound better then it’s a waste of space. Crowns & Owls took my one-shot approach to another level by experimenting more with the lighting and camera movements (especially in ‘i’m not gonna kill you’). It’s cohesive with the debut video ‘what if i took it off for you’ in all the right ways and gradually matures with each video.”
Speaking of the challenges on the set of ‘dollar signs’, NOIR reveals how the most interesting obstacle was establishing total stillness in difficult positions, for the desired shot. “One of the main challenges was keeping Nemah and the cast members still like a mannequin, and we ended up having these frames fabricated that fit around her body to be hidden in the take as much as possible and then the other bits were painted out in post,” says Javier.
When it came to ‘i’m not gonna kill you’ Crowns & Owls double-downed on their trademark ability to disrupt the music video world. “When the messages in the music calls for a listener's attention, why not do the opposite of what visual culture is erring towards in an attempt to arrest that attention?” explain the trio. For both videos, the creative vision of Crowns & Owls and Nemahsis aligned in perfect harmony, with the project seen by all parties as an opportunity to convey the important stories and experiences of an artist that thinks differently, presenting provocative and important messages.
Talking about the highlights of working on the two videos with the director trio, Nemahsis says: “All I had was a few songs and a concept. Nothing more. Crowns & Owls brought it all to life. The video for ‘dollar signs’ was somehow executed even better than how I imagined it, that’s rare for an artist like me to say. I live entirely in my head daydreaming of the impossible and for the first time in my life it was made real.”
It’s not the first time NOIR and Crowns & Owls have worked together, previously collaborating on the Diesel and Nike shoots, as well as with London Grammar’s ‘Californian Soil’ album.
“We’ve been into battle with them many times now over the past couple of years and there’s a mutual understanding that we haven’t found elsewhere in our careers,” says Crowns & Owls. “They’re truly invested in making disruptive work and taking risks with it - which is something you hear a lot in this industry but very rarely see in practice.”
“It is always such a trusting family experience and I think it shows in the final products we create,” concludes Javier. “After years of working together we can’t wait to see what’s next, keep your eyes peeled.”