Ray Kay – video maker to the stars
Justin Bieber’s music video Baby has been viewed 1.38 billion times on YouTube. The director behind the smash hit is Ray Kay, a name unknown to most of those millions of viewers. And that’s just how the 37-year old from the quiet town of Haugesund in southwestern Norway likes it.
About Ray Kay
1978: Born in Haugesund, Norway.
1992: Hosts music programs on local radio station.
1995: Works part time at local television station TV Haugaland, both behind the scenes and on camera. Takes on a fulltime role later and writes his 10-year plan to become a top music video director in Hollywood.
1996: Makes promotional videos for the Norwegian military during national service.
2002: Directs Live From Pass It for Equicez and Barcelona for Paperboys. Both become huge hits in Norway.
2004: Moves to Los Angeles, directs Soldier for Destiny’s Child and Sugar for Trick Daddy, as well as a number of other music videos and commercials.
2006: Directs Back Like That for Ghostface Killah and Me & U with Cassie.
2008: Directs Poker Face for Lady Gaga.
2010: Directs Whip My Hair for Willow Smith and Baby for Justin Bieber, which wins MTV’s Best New Artist award.
2011: Directs Feels So Good for Steven Tyler and Till The World Ends for Britney Spears, which wins MTV’s Best Pop Video award.
2013: Directs Woman’s World for Cher.
2015: Launches music marketing and production company West Avenue Creative with best friend and colleague Øyvind Fjeldheim in Miami.
2016: Continues his music video directing career and enjoys life as one of the best acclaimed music video directors in the US.
“I don’t really want to be famous like the artists I direct. I’m happy just doing what I like,” he says.
Kay has made over 200 videos for some of the biggest names in the pop world, including Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Cher, Steven Tyler, Diddy, Enrique Iglesias, Cheryl Cole, Nelly Furtado, James Blunt and Gloria Estefan.
“My first big hit video in the US was with Destiny’s Child,” he says. “It seemed completely surreal that they would consider working with me. When my agent told me ‘Beyoncé wants to talk with you,’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding!’ I’m from a small town in Norway – this stuff does not happen to people like me.”
While growing up in that small town, Kay’s dad taught him photography. Kay also played guitar in a band, learned about sound technology and then did an internship at the local radio station, where he hosted music shows at the young age of 14. During a year of military conscription he made promotional videos for the Norwegian military and then got a full-time job at the local television station in Haugesund.
At this point in his life, Kay decided to draw up a 10-year achievement plan, with the goal of becoming a successful music video director in Hollywood:
“I thought, I have to give myself a challenge. It’s probably going to be impossible, but it’s my dream, so I’m going to give it a shot.”
Step one involved producing sellable music videos in Norway. He ticked that of the list by directing Norwegian hip-hop group Equicez’s Live From Pass It. Working on a slim budget, Kay did almost all the work himself, including producing, production managing, shooting, directing and even picking up the film at the printers’ while his assistant director warmed pizzas between takes to feed the demanding crew. But the work paid off as the video was a hit, as was the music video Barcelona, which Kay directed for local band Paperboys the same year.
Ray Kay was now a recognizable name in Scandinavia’s music video industry.
From there Kay “just followed the plan.” He moved to New York and then on to Los Angeles. He rented an apartment in West Hollywood with friend Magnus Rønningen, a Norwegian journalist who had interviewed Kay back home and was now covering the world of celebrities in Hollywood.
“We were two hungry Norwegians trying to make it in Los Angeles. At that point we were blown away by just being allowed inside a club,” Rønningen says. “We got along well and pooled our efforts in order to make it big in the Promised Land.”
Over the next five years, Rønningen experienced firsthand Kay’s particular style of getting to the top. “He has an extreme capacity for amassing knowledge and learning new things,” Rønningen says. “His approach is to always put in the hard work; he never wings it. If Ray decides he likes boiled eggs in the morning, he will spend one day researching egg cookers until he finds the perfect one. His belief in what he can learn is unlimited, which makes him also kind of unlimited. I believe this is part of his success story. He came to Los Angeles as a nerd in a track suit and developed into a very handsome and well-dressed man.”
Ray Kay’s hair is a perfectly coiffured, bouncy blonde mop. He is attractively engaging, and on the day we meet he wears a washed out Chevy-branded Heartbeat of America T-shirt, which completes the look of approachable heartthrob. We meet at the Hotel Setai seaside restaurant, one of Kay’s favorite spots in Miami Beach, where he’s now based. Kay recalls the day he directed Beyoncé. It didn’t start well, he says, despite the years of preparation for the big break. After a morning spent fiddling with lights and unable to get the desired result, Beyoncé cooly told Kay, “let’s hope for better luck after lunch,” as she swooped off the set. But in the end, Soldier was a success.
“I have a lot of respect for Beyoncé,” he says. “Working with her taught me a lot, the kind of stuff that’s hard to describe. It’s got that x-factor to it. She’s very hardworking and surprisingly involved with everything. She’s running her own ship. It’s very impressive.”
A few years later, Kay directed Lady Gaga’s Poker Face video. Gaga was a struggling artist who kept missing the mark with songs released first by label Def Jam and later Interscope Records. But Kay loved what he heard when he listened to Lady Gaga’s songs.
“At that point there was no other artist like her,” he says. “Looking at some of the videos she’d done before was like reading Italian Vogue – I thought it was super cool and very attractive. But I could see how mainstream audiences wouldn’t understand this from an unknown artist.”
Ray took Lady Gaga’s couture fashion and married it with an “MTV hip hop style presented in a brighter way” and created her breakthrough video.
“The shoot went very well”, he says. “And two months after the song’s release, Poker Face was number one in almost every country in the world. It was ridiculous – it just exploded!”
Kay remembers being asked to buy a poster of Lady Gaga in her Poker Face get-up outside Madison Square Gardens in New York where she was playing a concert.
“It was great,” he says. “I just laughed, saying, ‘I made that’.”
Inside the arena he says that the crowd roared as loudly as when the Beatles came to America.
“Everyone was taking photos of her. Lady Gaga’s manager had to put her on his shoulders to get through the crowd. We looked at each other and said, holy shit! This was a lot different to the last time we had seen each other. It was cool being part of her journey.”
Kay, who is now 37, says he’d like to still be shooting music videos when he’s 70. He’s working on several projects right now but isn’t allowed to reveal with whom.
“One of them is a rock star that I’ve worked with before and that I love working with,” he says.
He’s also putting lots of energy into West Avenue Creative, which he launched in Miami with best friend and Norwegian television talk show host Øyvind Fjeldheim last year. Together they produce videos for organizations such as energy company Norsk Hydro, clothing chain Cubus and TV2 Norway. They have plans to expand to the US market.
“We’re working with stuff we have a lot of fun with,” says Kay. “And the best part of it – we get to travel a lot doing it, which is perfect for a modern nomad like myself.”
Text: Liv Lewitschnik
Published: September 26, 2016