The journey started with a choppy conference call. It ends with a stirring three-video cinematic narrative that loads the world with expectations for Hayley Williams’s debut solo studio album, Petals for Armor.
Warren Fu, the acclaimed director with more than 20 years in the industry, has collaborated with everyone from Haim and The 1975 to Daft Punk and The Weeknd. He had previously worked with Williams’s band Paramore for their goofy, endearing 2018 video “Rose-Colored Boy,” and when the singer was ready to launch her own solo adventure, she knew who to hit up.
“We were all very happy with how ‘Rose-Colored Boy’ turned out and we had talked about doing more in the future,” Fu tells MTV News via email. “So when Hayley and her creative director, Lindsey Byrnes, reached out to me with new solo songs, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her again.” After hearing coarse versions of the tunes through a low-quality call, Fu was all in.
In just over two weeks at the top of this year, Williams shared three full Fu-directed videos, as well as two “interludes,” for intense and emotional songs that doubled as personal experiences. First came “Simmer,” a ballad about twisting your finger in someone’s most painful spot and holding on to marinating rage. “Leave It Alone” followed soon after, somberly chuckling about the cosmic irony of losing everything just when you want to keep it. The final piece was “Cinnamon,” changing the pace to talk about the sanctity of one’s home and Williams’s eventual liberation.
The visuals are full of slightly horrifying splendor; Williams is haunted by her own hooded doppelgänger in one, a butterfly-like beast in another, and living, dancing extensions of her house in the third. Inspired by the songs, these clips are also something different entirely. Fu’s videos let the songs speak for themselves while placing Williams’s two characters, whom he refers to as “Mercy” and “Wrath,” in a three-video journey about the internal battle to accept each other as one.
“These are very personal songs for her,” Fu says. “She had a collection of ideas that came from visions that she had. Some were loose, some were specific.”
After getting some initial notes about the ideas and direction in which Williams wanted to go, Fu went to work on establishing the world that they would visit. “‘Simmer’ felt like the pulse-pounding opening thriller,” he says. “‘Leave It Alone’ was the introspective second act, or meditation, and ‘Cinnamon’ was the weird fever dream that transitions into a climactic ending.”
“With that general framework in mind, I let the lyrics guide the storytelling,” he says. “I shared that framework, Hayley and Lindsey gave their feedback, and I made changes and expanded on it further.”
The videos were shot over the course of three days during a cold winter weekend in Tennessee. The crew cheered during dance scenes. Fu cleared the set for emotional and intimate ones. Everything came together in one or two takes for each song.
In the “Simmer” video, Williams flees an evil entity that chases her through a forest before cornering her in a house. Williams overpowers the masked demon before unmasking it and seeing that it’s actually her. After experiencing the brutal temperatures during filming, Fu was hesitant to push on with the idea, especially since Williams filmed her running scenes completely naked.
“When we got into town and saw ice and hail in the weather forecast, I began to wonder if we could change the concept of the video,” he says. “The idea behind Mercy running bare in the forest was to show a raw vulnerability and to give it a feeling of taking place out of time.” Though he had his doubts, it was Williams who nudged him forward. “'I’m all in. Doin' it for the art, man!'” he says, paraphrasing her.
In “Leave It Alone,” a highly made-up Williams gradually frees herself from a shell in her attic. She's become something else — part flower and almost insect-like, stashed in an attic where she then enters a cocoon. Fu kicked things off by checking out Williams’s house. “Hayley sent me photos and videos of it when I started. This sense of a home and feeling comfortable in your own skin was an important theme in her notes.”
“The most distinct and personal feature of her house is that she has a really cool attic. So that inspired me to set the introspective second act in a weird cocoon or chrysalis suspended in the rafters of an attic,” he says.
The attic from the scene, though, isn’t an actual attic. It turned out that the rented house didn’t have a big enough one to use, so they ended up repurposing a nearby barn.
Fu found inspiration for “The Creature” and its movements in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis, which he read as a kid. “The thing that always stuck vividly in my mind was the opening where the protagonist wakes up and finds himself as an insect,” Fu says. “I loved that visual of showing Hayley’s eye snapping open in a panic, and not knowing who or where she was. She gets pulled back to sleep by the house and goes into a state of hibernation, introspection, and transformation.”
Williams’s initial notes to Fu revealed that she wanted to have “unexpected combinations of beautiful and grotesque imagery.” She also gave Fu the seed moment that would define the rest of the video: “eating oysters while taking a bath.” This idea played a large part in the video for “Cinnamon,” in which Williams gets chased by creepy house-made creatures who she eventually dances with in an ecstatic display of emotional unshackling.
“Her eyes snap open again, and she’s almost unrecognizable from her former self,” he says. “After the long build-up of pain and struggle, this is the release, the payoff.”
This story of Williams accepting the different pieces of herself as both Mercy and Wrath is an important piece of Petals for Armor — so important that the singer has already released the three songs, along with two others, as the Petals for Armor I EP ahead of the album’s May 8 release.
While we wait for the full LP, fans have these three videos – and the intense YouTube analyses in their comments sections – to hold them over and keep them up at night. Fu loves that people “are entertained or moved by the art” and hopes that people can find themselves in Williams’s personal journey. “If someone going through their own problems can relate to it or find comfort in it, then you’ve done your job,” he says.