FKA twigs is unlike anything you've ever seen or heard before. Meet the British avant-pop auteur rewriting the sound of modern music
Last night in a small, hot, black box in east London, 200 people witnessed FKA twigs make the transition from cult YouTube star to IRL headliner. After emerging out of a cloud of dry ice to the creepy orchestration of Gavin Bryars’ epic “Jesus’ Blood (Never Failed Me Yet)”, the 26-year-old singer and her band rattled the crowd from their fillings to their feet with a tight repertoire of sub-bass slow jams. “Pacify me, twigs!” shouted one loved-up punter as she launched into “Papi Pacify”, one of her viral hits. “Banger!” gasped another after she debuted “Give Up”, a new collaboration with Lana Del Rey producer Emile Haynie. “You cutie!” yelped someone at the back after a small technical hitch halted proceedings on stage. “You can follow me on Myspace,” twigs giggled in response before dropping “Hide”, the track that kicked off her audiovisual invasion back in July 2012. Hanging off every perfectly pitched syllable, the crowd swayed and nodded their heads in unison, utterly entranced by this snake-hipped vision of the future.
“I was nervous about last night, but I think you always get a bit nervous,” twigs says the following afternoon, sitting in the conservatory of her favourite vegan café in Bethnal Green. We had originally planned to meet at her house down the road but “Barbie exploded” in her bedroom before the gig and she didn’t have time to clear up. “Everyone seemed really into it, which was nice,” she continues in a small, eloquent voice, “and I got the opportunity to play some new material. I thinkit went down well, although it’s hard to tell. The cheers seemed the same for every song – they didn’t waver that much. ‘Papi Pacify’ and ‘Water Me’ connected really well.”
It’s largely thanks to those two songs, lifted from 2013’s EP2, that twigs is currently the hottest musical prospect around. Combining weird synth lines, lingering pauses, pitch-shifted vocals, fragile whispers, ethereal shrills and skittish rhythms programmed by rising electronic overlord Arca, their videos have amassed over three million views and elevated her from a word-of-mouth secret to a global obsession. Yet she refuses to be “gassed” by the hype, and is taking it all in her stride. “I’m a strange person – I don’t really get rewards out of how many hits I have on YouTube,” she says plainly, gazing at her chai-spiced cupcake. “I love it, and I’m grateful, and it’s important to me. But does it equal peace within me? No, it doesn’t.”
Finding inner peace in the next few months is going to be difficult for the British R&B auteur. With her debut album, LP1, due in August and her first American solo tour to prepare for, the pressure’s on. If that wasn’t enough to contend with, she’s also been embroiled in a legal spat with The Twigs, an American kiddy-pop duo who forced her to affix FKA to her longstanding nickname just before her label, Young Turks, released EP2. The Twigs are worried about marketplace confusion, although they only have ten followers on Twitter and sing songs about runaway sandwiches and pretty ponies. FKA twigs, on the other hand, is rewiring the fabric of modern electronic pop and working with some of the industry’s most innovative producers, from Haynie and Arca to Clams Casino, Dev Hynes, Paul Epworth and inc. Critics and fans have dubbed her “The Weeknd’s little sister”, “the trip hop Sade”, “R&Björk” and even a “galactic alien”. The Twigs, meanwhile, have been described as “a mix of Lisa Loeb and the Beach Boys.”
“I was actually gonna be AFK twigs, but then somebody said to me, ‘that stands for ‘Away From Keyboard’, and I was like ‘Oh my God! Away From Keyboard twigs?’ I know I’m aloof, but that’s pushing it a bit too far!” she laughs. “I just swapped around two of the letters to FKA twigs. And I was pretty annoyed about that anyway, but I got used to it. I didn’t realise that FKA stood for ‘formerly known as’. And then The Twigs said that because I’m saying ‘formerly known as twigs’, that means that once I was called ‘twigs’, and so I can’t be called twigs now. The only way I won’t have to change my name is if they say that I don’t have to. And they’re not gonna say that. I’m not angry, but I do feel sad about it. It’ll be fine. I might call myself FKA tree trunk. Or FKA baby branches. Or IRL twigs.”
If there were a storm brewing behind the hazy blue lenses of her sunglasses you’d never know it. Today, twigs is Ms laissez-faire. She’s “chill”. She’s sipping chamomile tea. Her biggest concern right now is this interview; she’s only done a handful in her career, and punctuates our conversation with worries about saying the wrong thing or being portrayed incorrectly. After getting to know her over the past few months, from hearing early album demos in December to witnessing her work tirelessly to perfect an insanely complicated dance routine for a new video, one thing is certain: twigs craves absolute control. She insists that her name is always written with a little “t”, a throwback to her b-girl days, when she was called, you guessed it, “Little T". She refuses to do sessions with pre-made tracks – everything must be a new, spontaneous collaboration. The same goes for her videos. “I don’t think I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “My hope for this record is that people will be able to identify my sound as a producer and understand how much of this I do myself. I’m being fearless and finding a strength in myself to be more confident, to make bolder moves. It’s a tough industry. People always belittle what you’re doing, your creativity. I’m not listening to the sly putdowns. I’m finding the strength and confidence within myself to ignore those voices, and do what I’m doing regardless.”
Her commitment to artistic fearlessness couldn’t be more evident than in her lyrics. Her songs speak of lust, longing, paranoia and obsession, underpinned with raw melancholic sensuality that teeters from submissive to dominant within a few bars. She wears her heart on her sleeve at all times. “I don’t know if I’m a tortured soul, but I was born heartbroken,” twigs says candidly. “I remember feeling it when I was so young. I was like, ‘Mum, it hurts.’” She refuses to go into detail about any of the songs’ deeper meanings, saying that they’re open for individual interpretation – and are definitely not all about sex. She’s written hundreds for the album, but only ten will make the cut. “I’d like to think my songs are empowering,” she says, confidently. “It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable putting myself out there at all. When I stopped really thinking about writing a song, when I stopped really wanting to be a songwriter and a lyricist, everything fell into place. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened. Even my own style, how I dressed, how I wrote songs, how I heard my music sonically, it was all swilling around, and then everything just gelled, literally within a three-month period a couple of years ago. I just really understood who I was and what I wanted to say.”
“I don’t know if I’m a tortured soul, but I was born heartbroken. I remember feeling it when I was so young. I was like, ‘Mum, it hurts.’”
At the time she was working nights behind the bar at Camden’s Proud Gallery and cutting tracks during the day with Tic Zogson, co-founder of Young Turks and one of the men responsible for spotting Adele’s early potential. They recorded some demos in his dad’s Finsbury Park house. “Tic’s dad is called Zog,” she smiles. “It sounds like a cartoon, doesn’t it? ‘Tic, Zog and twigs were hanging out, making music, eating corn at his house. Tic, Zog and twigs went to the park.’ We always made up stories like that. They were good times.”
Out of the sessions came “Hide”, a spurned love story built around a slow guitar lick and clack-a-lack rhythm. Not content to just release it as an mp3, she recruited a friend, stylist Grace Ladoja, to help her create a provocative music video. Focusing on an anonymous female torso, naked apart from a red Anthurium flower over her crotch and a black fishnet bra, “Hide” lingers on a hand caressing the small phallic stamen, never once showing who the body belongs to. It didn’t take long for the internet to feel the heat. Who was this gender-subverting seductress? For twigs, the wave of interest quelled her artistic doubts. “Before I put out ‘Hide’ I was completely unknown,” she says. “There was a moment when I accepted I wasn’t going to be able to do this, that it would always just be a hobby. I don’t know why I felt like that. It did well straightaway, considering. After that I thought, I have to do this.” She’s repeated the template ever since, with just one out of her nine tracks to date lacking an accompanying film. “I hope to do a visual for every single thing, even if it’s as small as a gif or as big as a whole dance music film.”
In August 2012 she followed it up with the video for “Ache”, this time featuring Skullie, a member of London based krump crew Wet Wipez, dancing in slow motion. Juxtaposed against heavy trap claps and bottom quaking bass, her faint voice cries out: “I’ll come when you askme / Fast train / Make my eyes blue / Your love / Make my night go boom / That’s why I need you…” Produced by Liam Howe, it sounds like the Cocteau Twins after a night on purple drank – utterly intoxicating. That month she appeared on the cover of i-D with the word “Love” written on her forehead, fashioned out of her own hair. With no interview, the mystery surrounding her intensified. She dropped out of sight once again, resurfacing in December with the videos for “Weak Spot” and “Breathe”, plus an accompanying Bandcamp EP of her four tracks. Music critics, always keen for a neat new scene, lumped her in with “experimental R&B” artists like SZA, Jhené Aiko, Tinashe and Kelela. In reality, twigs occupied an altogether more surreal realm than her American peers. As one YouTuber commented on the video for “How’s That”: “You’re listening to 2046.” When Jesse Kanda’s vertiginous, bug-eyed film for “Water Me” hit six months later, it became clear that twigs was far beyond casual categorisation. Conceptually, musically and visually, there is no one else like her.
She’s always been in her own world. As a kid, when not playing with her imaginary kangaroo, she dreamed of living in the cartoon rainforest of FernGully. At school, while her classmates were playing tag, twigs would sneak off to the bottom of the school field and disappear even further into fantasyland. “I would imagine pulling myself up a solitary spider thread,” she recalls, stirring her tea. “It’d go up really high and I’d climb over a tree or under a bush. In my head it was the most real thing. If I kept following that, I thought to myself, it’s gonna lead to a door and behind that door is where I should be. I was just naturally inclined this way. I was always really creative.”
Born Tahliah Barnett in Cheltenham, a spa town in the west of England, the young twiglet would often find herself being sneaked into salsa nightclubs by her mum, a Latin-dance specialist. Peeking out from under the DJ desk, she was hypnotised by the rhythms, clothes and moves. At home, her parents would play jazz, ska and African fusion. “I don’t know any Beatles songs,” she says. “My dad never listened to Elvis or Sting or Bowie. Any band name that’s on a t-shirt, I probably won’t know their music, like AC/DC or whatever. I don’t know what that is. As a kid I would sing along to artists like Tania Maria.”
For as long as she can remember, twigs always wanted to do something out of the ordinary. While other teenagers were vibing off the Spice Girls, she could be found singing “Wade in the Water” with a bunch of gospel grannies, or taking opera classes. “It was not cool but I loved it,” she laughs. “I’m just somebody that has always done really weird things. Everybody was like, ‘Why do you do ballet?’, and, ‘Why do you wanna sing opera?’, and like, ‘Why are you singing jazz with 80-year-olds? Why do you wanna do those things?!’”
“I’ve always done really weird things. Everybody was like, ‘Why do you do ballet?’, and, ‘Why do you wanna sing opera?’, and ‘Why are you singing jazz with 80-year-olds? Why do you wanna do those things?!’"
Much less fun was being singled out for the way she looked. She was the only mixed-race girl in her Catholic school. “Obviously it was hard,” she remembers. “People said horrible things about something I had no control of, which was tough. But that’s okay. Life isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? I never really saw anything wrong with how I looked, it was more that certain people pointed things out to you about yourself. Either your hair’s different, or the colour of your skin, or your features. Half of my life I’ve had people staring at me because they think I’m funny-looking and ugly. The other half of my life I’ve had people staring at me because they think I’m fascinating. Everything neutralises. It’s more of a statement on society and how weird it is.”
Growing up, money was too tight to mention. After her parents split up when she was little, her mum and stepdad devoted themselves to fulfilling her dreams. “They could see that I was a child who wanted to be stimulated and learn new things. We went on a weekend once to Blackpool, and that is my only memory of a family holiday; there wasn’t money to do other things, basically because I was able to go and do my lessons.”
She channelled her energy into dancing, winning most of the competitions she entered. For five years, “Tahliah Barnett” was a fixture on silverware across the UK. Her friend christened her twigs because her bones clicked like snapping branches every time she danced. At 17 she decided to move from Gloucestershire to London to throw shapes for a living. After attending Croydon College, she started getting video and tour work with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Cheryl Cole. In 2010 and 2011 she scored her most prominent starring roles, in Jessie J’s “Do It Like a Dude” and “Price Tag” videos. She also submerged herself in youth work, encouraging kids to make music. She only stopped when the government cut her studio’s funding. “I was building up a reputation with these workshops and all of a sudden it stopped,” she says. “It was really upsetting. I’d get young people I had started to build a relationship with messaging me on Facebook saying, ‘When are you coming back? I really enjoyed the classes.’ And there’s nothing you can do. You’re not coming back because the youth centre doesn’t have a studio any more.” Her encounter with Tic Zogson shortly afterwards couldn’t have come at a better time.
After experiencing so much in 26 years, does she finally feel like she has pushed open the door at the top of the spider’s web? “I don’t know,” she says. “I used to think that when I got signed to a label, that would be when the spider’s web would lead me to that place and the door would open. But I felt exactly the same. Then you think when you do that first headline show it’s gonna open the door. But no, I still feel the same today as I did before. People pin too much on career success. It’s important, but maybe that’s not what will open the door. Maybe it’s about being the best person you can be.” Considering the fragility of her vocal style and the origins of her nom de plume, does she regard herself as fragile? “No,” she answers without a pause. “I don’t feel like a fragile person. I’m a sensitive person. ‘Fragile’ implies that if you flick me I’ll break like a twig. But if you flick me I’ll just say, ‘Oww, what did you do that for?’” She laughs. “It’s not like Tahliah vs twigs. I remember one time I was having an argument with an ex-boyfriend and he was like, ‘I’ve only ever gotten to know twigs, it’s a shame you never let me know Tahliah.’ And I was like, ‘Babes, I’m totally the same person, you’ve just not been looking.’ There’s no difference. twigs is Tahliah. That is my name. ‘twigs’ is not my artist name, it’s my nickname. It’s a ridiculous name to have, isn’t it?”
“Half of my life I’ve had people staring at me because they think I’m funny-looking and ugly. The other half of my life I’ve had people staring at me because they think I’m fascinating. Everything neutralises”
The café we’re in is hosting its own live show tonight and our table is taking up valuable real estate on the stage. Finishing her cupcake, we move to another spot. twigs places her sunglasses down on the table. “Sometimes I wear these because I get migraines a lot. I have tinnitus,” she says matter-of-factly. Given that her music is constructed around so many dramatic pauses, the revelation provides new context – her fans may hear spatial breaks, but their creator hears constant drones. She developed the condition after listening to too many X-Ray Spex albums on shitty earphones. “It was so bad this morning. I was like, ‘Oh, hey. Look at you, just hanging out in my head.’ When I first got it I cried. I was like, ‘I’m never gonna hear silence ever again.’ You never hear silence at all. I find that I have to really concentrate on certain elements of my music to be able to make sure they’re coming through. I struggle with low mids in music, and I struggle with sub. So I always need to really concentrate in the mix to make sure that it’s there.”
twigs checks her iPhone – she’s got dinner plans with friends and needs to get her nails did. She’s running late. We leave the café and walk to New York Nails on Hackney Road. An hour later she emerges with multi-coloured flowers shellacked on to each finger. It’s a present to herself after last night’s show. “This is a nail disaster!” she laughs. “I’m just being dramatic. Maybe I should have gone for the minimalist nails. These are like 12-year-olds’ nails. Usually I go for really sophisticated stuff, like a nice deep red. What was I thinking?!”
A week later, twigs invites me back to the Young Turks HQ in London Fields to hear some of the mastered album tracks. There’s a half-eaten tub of tabbouleh on the side table next to her Vivienne Westwood backpack and purse, and the studio bin is overflowing with empty Coke cans. She’s wearing her trusty blue sunglasses, and her nails have been deflowered. Although her lawyers are now confident that she won’t have to change her name, the atmosphere in the studio is noticeably downbeat. Tic’s dad, Zog, passed away yesterday. “I feel so sad,” she says, contemplatively. “I did my first EP in Zog’s house. He was such a cool man. He was really creative. He helped kickstart this journey. It makes me think about my own family; it makes me want to see them more. It’s difficult getting the balance right."
Her manager, Mikey, and bandmate Cyan leave the studio to smoke. twigs turns off all the lights except a single red bulb, and cues up “One Time”, an inc.-produced banger that’s rhythmically reminiscent of Timbaland’s early staccato beats and vocally as close as she’s come to Janet in her heyday – but with chopped and screwed vocals in the chorus. As she flicks through the tracks, from “Two Weeks” to “Lights On” to “Hours”, her mood brightens with each opening bar. They all sound massive. “I’m bored of playing stuff from my record,” she suddenly declares. “When I did your shoot, Inez and Vinoodh put on my music and I was like, ‘Err, can we turn this off please! I don’t like posing to my music!’” She bursts out laughing and pulls a cold steel pose while singing the opening notes of ‘Water Me’. “We put on Arthur Russell instead. Anyways, this is one I messed up at the gig. It’s called ‘Give Up’.”
As Haynie’s huge beat floods the room, twigs gets off the control desk chair and starts swaying along to the music. “Just nod your head and give up / I’m not going to let you give up, babe,” she sings. Closing her eyes, she lets the sound wash over her, soothing her ears and her heart. As it crescendos, her movements become more pronounced. She jumps up and down on the studio’s tatty, stripy rug, completely lost in the composition. She looks at ease. For a few precious minutes, there’s no pressure, no judgement, no hurt; just Tahliah Barnett dancing in a world of her own creation, happily inching up the spider’s web once again.
Hair James Pecis at D+V Management; make-up Yadim at Art Partner; nails Deborah Lippmann at The Magnet Agency; creative movement director Stephen Galloway at The Collective Shift; photographic assistant Joe Hume; styling assistant Alison Isbell; hair assistant Holly Mills; make-up assistants Mondo Leon, Kanako Takase; lighting director Jodokus Driessen; digital technician Brian Anderson; studio manager Marc Kroop; VLM print producer Jeff Lepine; executive producer Stephanie Bargas; production assistant Tucker Birbilis; post-production Jon Barlow