A rare glimpse into FKA twigs‘ world
Let’s step back for a second and size up the condition of new music in 2014. How many of the emerging acts are archaeologists, forming mosaics from fragments found in the rubble that is postmillennial pop culture? Sure, there’s an innate joy in an orchestrated frenzy that’s been conjured up by a group of individuals carrying stringed instruments, but the problem with nostalgic aesthetics is that they’re often limited to imitating ideas, feelings and desires of the past. And while innovative machine music continues to thrive in underground channels, there needs to be sources of future music that have a voice, a face and a human heartbeat.
An artist showcases this kind of potential on a summer’s night at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. Under minimal lighting and in front of a blank backdrop, FKA twigs flexes her limbs precisely in unison with a soundscape of hefty sub bass, warm sustained chords and fluttering hi-hats that are twisted into weird and unpredictable rhythms. When she performs Two Weeks, the anthemic and typically lustful single which was first aired barely 72 hours before the show, it already sounds like a contender for the best song of the year.
“The hour was over in what felt like minutes”, one reviewer reports, while another website suddenly implements a scoring system for live reviews just so they can rate the performance with a 10/10 score. So who exactly is FKA twigs, and why is she leaving those who attend her shows so hopelessly spellbound?
"I don’t have time to think about how much of myself I’m exposing. If you’re self-conscious, then you’re not giving yourself, are you?"
Growing up in Cheltenham, Tahliah Barnett was always different from the rest of the kids at school. While others would be listening to Take That and The Spice Girls, Barnett spent much of her time alone, falling in love with Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye and Ella Fitzgerald. Under the guidance of her mother, a creatively-minded salsa teacher, Barnett embraced performance-based arts from a young age. At the age of 17 she moved to London, where she continued to master ballet, hip-hop, krump and contemporary styles of dance while working on an agile vocal style that’s now drawing comparisons to Aaliyah and Kate Bush in equal measure.
The fuse was lit in 2012, when FKA twigs began her ongoing series of thought-provoking music videos with the sexually upfront, gender-mutating visuals for her song Hide. The following year twigs recorded her outstanding sophomore EP with the Venezuela-born experimental producer Arca, who’d just found himself under the spotlight after being enlisted as a production consultant for Yeezus. By this stage, FKA twigs was widely declared the Next Big Thing.
Two days after the ICA gig, we’re invited to meet with twigs and her team at a studio in Shoreditch where a marathon photo shoot is taking place. Over the course of the afternoon, the lounge area becomes increasingly flooded with bags of clothes sent by high profile designers desperate to align their brand with the era-defining chanteuse. But twigs keeps the atmosphere light. She dances playfully to a soundtrack of Drake and UK garage classics, cuddles a well-groomed dog named Hector and remains totally unfazed by the news that tickets for her next London show are nearly gone within hours of going on sale. It also turns out that she’s approachable, funny and unflinchingly honest.
“I actually had a terrible singing voice when I was young”, she tells me as she’s getting her make-up done, “I remember I was in a play and I had to sing a lullaby. It was in a proper theatre, and it was so bad that people were laughing while I was singing because I was completely out of tune. And I can remember my mum being like ‘OK Tahliah, I love you… but we need to practice that song!’”. Although Tahliah Barnett’s voice began to evolve into something unique during her teens, she suggests that it would be some time before the sultry sophistication of FKA twigs developed. “One of the first songs I wrote, I think I was like 16 or something, was about going on holiday and meeting a boy”, she laughs. “I wrote it to a really bad samba beat on a Yamaha keyboard, and it was like: [sings] ‘Holiday romance of my dre-ee-eams!’”
For those who’ve been hooked on FKA twigs since she first emerged online in 2012, her disarmingly friendly and self- deprecating personality could seem at odds with the mysterious, otherworldly seductress she transforms into as a performer. Up until this point, much of the hype has been sustained with a meticulously crafted promo strategy and a subsequent air of mythology. When her first videos were doing the rounds, it initially seemed unclear whether Twigs (the FKA came later following legal complications with another act) was a solo artist or a full band, an absence of biographical info online and her reluctance to do interviews then further fed the curiosity about the big-eyed, eccentrically beautiful girl on the now-iconic cover of i-D magazine. For a lot of fans, their first glimpse of her live performance was watching the gorgeously- filmed footage of her singing Hide amongst Mayan ruins near Tulum, Mexico while befuddled locals look on with amazement.
But the truth is that twigs has been working towards this project with her manager for years, and during our conversation she’s eager to debunk the perception that she somehow appeared out of thin air. “I’m not a spring chicken, you know what I mean? I’m 26, I’ve been in the studio four or five times a week since I was 19 years old, I’d just never put out any music, I was always making it behind the scenes”. After years spent labouring at the desk, twigs certainly seems to have developed a studio geek’s passion for equipment. She spends a good ten minutes enthusing about the settings of her Tempest drum machine and her techniques of embedding percussive noises with musical scales at a pace that becomes hard to keep up with. She also speaks affectionately about her bandmates Tic – who introduced her to the aforementioned Tempest – and Cyan, who she claims has always been willing to answer her panicky 3am phone calls about whatever Ableton-related malfunction has been keeping her awake.
Like all aspects of twigs’ work, her approach to making music sees her being collaborative while maintaining control. While she’s worked with the likes of Arca, Emile Haynie, Dev Hynes, neo-RnB brother duo inc. and Clams Casino (who, much to twigs’ dismay, was incorrectly credited as producing Two Weeks by countless music websites), LP1’s list of producers probably wont be shared before release so that the album is digested as twigs’ cohesive project. She’s also co-directed most of her videos and – according to her stylist and close friend Karen Clarkson – turned down some pretty lucrative offers in order to protect her image. “Obviously a lot of designers have been very keen, there’s been a lot of buzz around twigs, and naturally she suits that world. But you don’t want to fall into the thing of her being a fashion show pony”, Clarkson tells me. “And it’s not like [her style] is what’s fashionable now, we do what suits her and what’s natural and what we like”.
Maybe it’s because opportunities to discuss twigs’ working processes have so far been scarce, or maybe it’s just down to plain old patriarchal assumptions that there’s a discrepancy between autonomy and expressing vulnerable emotions from a feminine perspective, but either way, you could argue that the press have downplayed twigs’ role as an active agent. “It [production and directorial work] hasn’t been covered enough and I think that’s unfortunately partly down to me being a female artist; everyone’s constantly trying to turn you into a pop star. Pop stars don’t write their own music, they don’t produce their own music and they don’t direct their own videos. With a lot of people it’s just like ‘So, who’s your favourite designer?’.”
"Being a female artist, everyone’s constantly trying to turn you into a pop star. But pop stars don’t write their own music and they don’t direct their own videos"
I ask her if she’s ever felt under pressure to compromise, to comply with the aforementioned ‘pop star’ demand, and she recalls her sessions with Paul Epworth, the producer who’s recently worked with Azealia Banks, Coldplay and Paul McCartney. “I remember before I went in the studio with him I had this moment of fear. I was thinking like ‘What am I doing? This isn’t me, why am I going into the studio with this massive producer? Everything’s going to sound like Adele or something’”, she confesses. “I was really stalling all morning, I was already an hour late for the session, and I called him on the train like ‘Hi, do you mind if we meet for lunch?’. I thought ‘he’s got kids, he’s going to be popping off at around eight. It’s fine, I can handle three hours in the studio of bullshit, of pretending to like something’”.
Fortunately, Epworth had no intention of ironing out her eccentricities: “So we went to get some lunch and the first thing he said was ‘I’ve got to be honest, I was a bit hesitant about this session, I feel a bit nervous!’” After the ice was broken, it was fine. We went in the studio and he was so sweet, he really listened to everything that I said, he let me have full range. It was an amazing session, we did Pendulum together, which is probably one of my favourite songs on the record”.
Like a lot of twigs’ material, Pendulum explores the themes of psychosexual power struggles and the desires that are enhanced when a lover evades, denies or withdraws emotional commitment. And testament to her skill as a songwriter, she’s got a knack of flipping between passive and dominant roles with subtle adjustments in her lyrics.
“I love doing that”, she says. “I’d say a good example would be [LP1’s final track] Kicks. The lyrics go “tell me, what do I do when you’re not here?” And in the beginning it seems quite desperate. But in the end it’s like “What do I do when you’re not here? I get myself off. And I’m better at it than you. I’m busy!”, she laughs. Does she ever feel uncomfortable singing about such personal subjects in public, I ask. She shakes her head. “I work quickly, I don’t have time to think about how much of myself I’m exposing. If you’re self-conscious, then you’re not giving yourself, are you?”
Her makeup, hair and nails are complete, and now it’s time for FKA twigs to position herself in front of the camera. Previously, twigs has been portrayed as reclusive and media-shy, and now the silence is truly broken, surely a gruelling press grind is impending. So how does she really find interviews? “It’s fine, I’m down to talk about what I do, but it’s really boring talking about me”, she insists. “It’s not about me, it’s about my music, it’s about my visuals, it’s about the feeling, it’s about the atmosphere. It’s not about what my mum did for a job when I was between eight and twelve or, like, my relationship with my granddad … but my relationship with my granddad is fine, for the record!”
She has a point. It’s natural that we’ve been curious to know more about the enigmatic singer who’s been carving new pathways for pop music over the last two years. But at this stage, the veil is off. The world knows FKA twigs’ story, and they also know that she’s made a boundary-pushing debut album for the lovesick kids of 2014. Now they’re ready to hear it.
LP1 is out 12 August via Young Turks