Watch the music video for ‘Third Eye’, the final part of The Odyssey – a 47-minute visual accompaniment to Florence + the Machine’s third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence + the Machine’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is the most personal record that Florence Welch has ever made. The album documents the breakup of a relationship – the heartbreak, and the emotional purgatory that comes with it. Most people would find it hard to channel this experience into their art – but Welch did it not once, but twice.
Together with director Vincent Haycock, Welch set about creating The Odyssey, a seven–part film that acts as a visual counterpart to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’s music. The Odyssey connects the music videos that accompany the album, uniting the sequences (shot in Los Angeles, Mexico, Scotland and Welch’s own house in south London) into one cohesive, 47-minute film. It’s a way to piece together what Welch half-jokingly describes in a north London bar today as “a bit of a car crash of a year”. And so, the film starts with a literal car crash before delving deeper into the album’s themes, telling the story through surreal imagery, contemporary dance, and references to biblical epics and romantic artists.
The Odyssey precedes Florence + the Machine’s largest London headline show to date, taking place at Hyde Park with support from Kendrick Lamar, Jamie xx, Cat Power and more. With the full film currently streaming online, you can watch its final part (for the song “Third Eye”) separately above, and read more about Welch and Haycock’s creative process below.
Where did the initial idea for the film come from?
Florence Welch: From the very beginning, we said that it would start with this idea of a quiet, chaotic world, and then end on stage. It was always a descent into madness. And you go further and further and deeper and deeper, and then come out (of it at the end). So we kind of had an endpoint when we started.
Vincent Haycock: Yeah, the beginning and end would be the Florence that everybody knows – the singer, the performer. So we start there, a storm would come, and then we’d end back on stage.
Florence Welch: It was almost like the car crash transported me into this other dimension, where I had to face all these things that were happening. The idea was of going to a show, and then a car crash happens – which is kind of symbolic of a bit of a car crash of a year – and then you just re-enter that world. But you’re totally imagining that year in a kind of magical realism.
The film is quite intense at the beginning, but it starts to calm a bit towards the end. Did you find the film matching the rhythm of the year?
Florence Welch: When I made ‘What Kind of Man’, I was still pretty tangled. It wasn’t hard to act that out.
Vincent Haycock: It follows the structure of the music – the highs and lows of a storm. We were creating a storm. ‘St Jude’ is actually written about the storm, and that’s the slowest, calmest song on the album.
Florence Welch: That was written in the middle of an actual storm. So it was interesting (having) those storm references coming up again and again. And then everywhere we played, a storm would hit! Honestly. And things that happened in the videos started to actually happen in real life – there was a big electrical storm when we played in Chicago. But it honestly felt really fitting, because as we were making it, it really resolved a lot of things.
“(‘St Jude’) was written in the middle of an actual storm... everywhere we played, a storm would hit! Honestly. And things that happened in the videos started to actually happen in real life – there was a big electrical storm when we played in Chicago.” — Florence Welch
Did you have all these locations and images in your head, or was it something that came afterwards?
Florence Welch: Some of them were based on real places and real times.
Vincent Haycock: Florence told me all about the real experiences that she went through writing the album, like how ‘What Kind of Man’, ‘St Jude’, and ‘Delilah’ were all referencing (real events). Florence does a great job of taking her personal life and creating this fantasy. She’s not saying ‘I’m broken-hearted,’ but if you read a lot of the lyrics, it’s so closely related to her real life. So when she told me what they really mean, the subtext, it was easy to make visuals.
How far back does your creative partnership go?
Vincent Haycock: (It started with the video for) Calvin (Harris)’s ‘Sweet Nothing’.
Florence Welch: I just turned up at this working man’s club, and he was like, ‘OK, you’re gonna be a stripper. You’re gonna be in drag.’ I was like, ‘I’m up for it.’
And how did you know you wanted to work together on this, and not with other directors?
Florence Welch: Vince had an idea for ‘Lover to Lover’, the last single from Ceremonials. The whole atmosphere of Ceremonials had been quite austere and grand. Towards the end, that started to feel a bit heavy. I wanted something incredibly raw and natural (for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful), saying goodbye to that era and that album. Vince had this idea of a couple having a relationship in a house, and then a really simple drama that goes on. I knew he was the right person to work with. We just got together and decided we’d do the whole thing.
Vincent Haycock: It became a personal exploration between us. We didn’t stop until we’d made it all.
Florence Welch: I don’t think we’d have been able to make something without that personal understanding.
Vincent Haycock: I don’t think either of us would’ve been comfortable, but because we understood each other, it allowed us to explore things we don’t (usually) get to explore in music videos.
Florence Welch: There has to be trust. If you’re signing up to do something that might take forever, you’ve got to know you’re working with someone you want to keep working with.
“The whole atmosphere of Ceremonials had been quite austere and grand. Towards the end, that started to feel a bit heavy. I wanted something incredibly raw and natural (for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful), saying goodbye to that era and that album” — Florence Welch
Did you ever have any major disagreements?
Florence Welch: Maybe about a waistcoat…
Vincent Haycock: Maybe wardrobe disagreements. The only time Florence ever said ‘no’ to me about something was that I asked her to put a plastic bag over a guy’s head in ‘Delilah’. I wanted her to fake-suffocate this guy with the bag. She looked at me like, ‘I’m not doing that.’ Fair enough!
Florence Welch: (laughs) I’d just hung out with this guy, and he’d let me cut all his fucking hair off already! And I was like, ‘Now you’re gonna make me choke this dude?’ I was worried I was gonna hurt him. I was doing it too lovingly. You said I couldn’t lovingly put a bag over someone’s head.
“The only time Florence ever said ‘no’ to me about something was that I asked her to put a plastic bag over a guy’s head in “Delilah’. I wanted her to fake-suffocate this guy with the bag” — Vincent Haycock
The choreography is the major part of the film.
Florence Welch: Dance was the first thing that we knew was gonna be a big part of it.
Vincent Haycock: It was a passion Florence had developed over the last couple of years. She’d always danced a little bit in her videos, but she really wanted to do modern dance, inspired by Pina Bausch.
Florence Welch: (How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful) is about human relationships, and I was watching these choreographers expressing so much about the human condition in a way I’d never even seen before. There’s something about dance that’s so vulnerable. You’re doing it with your whole body. It’s completely physical.
Vincent Haycock: You said it before – you can’t fake dance.
Florence Welch: You have to really be in it. Your body feels it.
Vincent Haycock: One important thing I learned from dance – because I’d never really done any dance-related videos – was that you can express ideas that could otherwise be sort of corny. Dance allows you the freedom to really get into a magical realism, because you’re already breaking the dimension of linear narrative. You’re way out there with this crazy expressive world with dance. It allowed us to make this film way more metaphorical.
“One important thing I learned from dance... was that you can express ideas that could otherwise be sort of corny. Dance allows you the freedom to really get into a magical realism, because you’re already breaking the dimension of linear narrative” — Vincent Haycock
There are a lot of images that recur throughout the film – weights, carrying, doppelgangers. How much of this did you discuss beforehand, and how much emerged during the making of the film?
Florence Welch: The doppelgangers definitely (came from) the year I was writing the record. I felt like there were two sides to me that I couldn’t quite control. There was a side that really wanted calm – then there was this other more demonic, chaotic person who would just pull the rug out from underneath me. I was battling myself a lot.
Vincent Haycock: It’s self-destructive behaviour. We’ve all gone through it at some point, and I think Florence was in a particularly self-destructive year.
Now that the film is finished, do you feel like you’re prepared to leave the whole world of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful behind?
Vincent Haycock: It’s bittersweet.
Florence Welch: Yeah – the making of it was so cathartic for me. As (we made) the videos, I was changing at the same time. It’s encapsulated two years of my life in an amazing way. That’s what I wanted – to reimagine it, to reclaim it, to somehow make sense of it.
Vincent Haycock: Someone asked, ‘If Florence writes another album, are you gonna keep doing this?’ I was like, would it lessen the accomplishment if we keep doing this? Should Florence find another director? Should we do something together that’s radically different?
Florence Welch: What would be the complete opposite of this?
Vincent Haycock: Maybe we’ll do VR. We’ll animate Florence.