FKA twigs: A divine invention
Braids, baby hair, septum piercing. A dancer-esque pose, a Modigliani neck. In a hundred years, were some future Caravaggio to paint FKA twigs, they would use these motifs; if twigs is an icon, this is her iconography.
FKA twigs was born Tahliah Barnett – a Capricorn with a Sagittarius moon – in Tewkesbury, in the English county of Gloucestershire, a town she regularly refers to as “kind of in the middle of nowhere.” She was raised mostly by her mother, a former dancer and gymnast, who, she tells me, was “the witch of the playground,” (her father, a jazz dancer, was largely out of the picture). The multiracial daughter of a single mother, twigs was aware from a young age of the many ways in which women are stigmatised. “I don’t remember a woman more beautiful than my mum,” she tells me. Green eyes, olive skin, jet-black hair, “walking around with a baby that is Jamaican and Egyptian in a village as a single parent.” She remembers wondering, “Why does everyone always stare at my mum? Because she’s amazing and it’s intimidating? Why does she need to be othered?”
We’re a long way from Tewkesbury now, in a hotel room in Chicago’s River North. It’s mid-November, a couple of hours before she plays The Riviera, and twigs is getting her nails done for the second time today. Though she spent a significant while at a salon earlier, the nail polish colour, a pink-tinted white, just wasn’t right for her skin tone. “I feel like I’m on QVC right now,” she jokes, once she finally decides on a version of the tiger’s eye design on her nail tech Angela’s fingers. Angela had, upon entering the room, trilled at how petite twigs is. “No wonder you can throw yourself around like that!” she exclaimed of twigs’ slim 5’2” frame, referring to the myriad styles she employs in her performance, most recently pole dancing and wushu, a strain of Chinese kung fu practice (she’s named her sword Lillith).
FKA twigs is known for her complete vision. She has tied music to visuals and performance from her very first release in 2012, the breathy three-song EP1. In 2013 we were introduced to the twigs we know today with the mesmerising Water Me, from EP2, whose cerulean, Jesse Kanda-directed video sees a bug-eyed twigs nourished by her own tears as her head tocks like a metronome. Then there was Papi Pacify, a haunting love song co-produced by fellow future music vanguard Arca, made so much more by its video: twigs powerfully submissive, her mouth full of a man’s thick fingers, his hands holding her throat as she sings.
It’s interesting to consider twigs as we reflect on the past decade in culture. A key figure during an era when lines between indie and pop were blurred, twigs arrived on the scene amidst a wave of artists experimenting with deconstructing pop and club music – her longtime collaborator Arca, as well as Holly Herndon, Lotic, Rabit, and the PC Music crew all came up around that time. Her output pre-MAGDALENE was characterised by aching, lusty R&B with an industrial exoskeleton, a precise, forward-pointing vision both welcoming and jarring. Art of in-betweens. It not only inspired Rihanna (“I met her once and she told me I influenced her,” she says, matter-of-factly), but helped pave the way for a refreshing artistry in pop music, and a slew of young auteurs like SPELLLING, Kelsey Lu and Sevdaliza.
"I like conciseness. I see albums as very precious vignettes"
© Justin French
It is crazy to know that MAGDALENE is only FKA twigs’ sophomore record. “I like conciseness,” she tells me. “I think it shows bravery and confidence. I see albums as very precious vignettes.” She references Bowie and Prince, she scoffs at the idea of vying for streams, she shrugs at background music. She has written hundreds of songs but only nine of them wound up on MAGDALENE. “I’ve broken loads of songs,” she says. “Done too much to them. Working on it too hard and then the essence of it falls out and you can’t remember what the essence was and you’re like, ‘This isn’t the shiny one. Next!’”
In the studio, she prefers to let her producers and collaborators to work in their best environments. “I like there to be a flow,” she says. “I learn people and figure out the best way to navigate so everyone feels comfortable. I want everyone to feel like they can express themselves and try wild ideas that I can then pick up and choose the best ones to weave myself into.” And she’s always ordering food and encouraging people to eat. “I’m a pudding queen,” she says, with a laugh. “Matthew Josephs, who I work with on all my creative stuff, says the reason I always look like a grumpy cherub is because I want to be a salad goddess but secretly I’m a pudding queen.” When I ask her what she eats on tour (she’s vegan, to which she attributes all the fruit imagery on the album), she laughs again and says, “cakes.”
twigs tells me that in the past she’s worked with people who crowded her space with ego, who made her feel bad. “But we were doing good work so it was just, like, whatever, let’s get it done. Stay graceful and just keep it moving.” For MAGDALENE, coming out of a “curious and quiet place,” post-heartbreak and illness, she chose her collaborators – who happen to be mainly men: Nicolas Jaar, Oneohtrix Point Never, Koreless, Jack Antonoff, Michael Uzowuru, Benny Blanco, Skrillex, among others – carefully. “I only wanted to work with people that made me feel really good. I didn’t have the energy for ego this time.”
© Justin French
“This is my most honest work because I was able to be myself"
Because of the lack of ego in the studio, because of her ability to “keep the temperature”, you hear more of twigs on MAGDALENE than ever before. “I’m not overpowered by sounds or a vibe,” she explains. “This is my most honest work because I was able to be myself and I was able to lead the sessions. That allowed me to shine through – the inside of me. That’s the most you’ve heard my voice. I was able to sit sometimes with my notebook and just really think about what I was trying to say. I had space.”
The idea of control – power, narrative, agency – has been a central theme to the music of FKA twigs. In the video for Two Weeks, from her debut full-length LP1, twigs appears massive, crowned, golden, reigning over smaller, serf-like versions of herself. An image flipped by Pendulum, where twigs is tied up and suspended in a Kinbaku of her own braids. Twisted again by Video Girl, in which she dances through a man’s operating room, singing ambiguously about her past as a back-up dancer for the likes of Jessie J and Kylie Minogue. The last full release from twigs was 2015’s M3LL155X, an EP that arrived packaged as a short film. Its songs – including Glass & Patron, where she’s pregnant and voguing, and I’m Your Doll, where she is a blow-up doll, singing, “Dress me up… love me rough” – act as chapters, exploring all the sides of twigs, the shapes of a woman.
© Justin French
On MAGDALENE this idea is at its strongest. Sometimes it is as simple as grace through pain: “No, no, Novocaine/ Still maintain my grace,” she chants through static in a pitched- down rasp, on highlight Home With You. The record is somehow both poppier and more experimental. It feels android-esque, mystical and deeply physical. The beginning of mary magdalene sounds like it is introducing some otherworldly metallic creature; she goes on to sing about “a woman’s touch, a sacred geometry,” about desire, war, true nature, blood running deep and cold. Her arrangements remind me of records released this year by Cate Le Bon and Lingua Ignota: deliberate designs that are commodious one moment and cacophonous the next, the voice prevailing above all. It was purposeful. In the mixing, twigs worked to showcase her voice among the alien-like sounds so, instead of clouding her vocals as they can on previous releases, they serve to uplift them. There is so much less breathiness here – rather, clear and strong vocals, stretched in every which way.
“I really wanted my voice to be heard,” twigs states, after showing me the progress on her nails. “And if it is muffled, that’s a choice. If something is inaudible or if I am being swallowed up by something, that’s part of the meaning of the song.” Like on fallen alien, the back-ups get distorted and the dissonant sounds start clashing – “that’s all of the thoughts conflicting with each other and getting aggressive.”
She periodically touches her fingers to her forehead as she finishes a thought. She is very softly spoken. We don’t talk about her ex, but I know that after three years as one half of a much-discussed, high-profile celebrity couple – a period in which she released just one song and video, Good to Love – and then a very public break-up, she wanted to be sure what she said was loud and clear. Sick of the media and Twilight heads poking and prodding, trying to define her, pick her apart (which she addresses on MAGDALENE opener, thousand eyes), and following the removal of “excruciating” fibroid tumours which she has described as a “fruit bowl of pain”, she turned to a figure she was fascinated by as a young Catholic school girl: Mary Magdalene.
© Justin French
The story of Mary Magdalene is that she was Jesus’ confidante, his best friend, maybe his lover. There isn’t much known for sure about her, but she was probably some kind of healer, who worked with herbs and oils. As twigs puts it: “She funded Jesus’ missions. She was kind of the backbone of the operation.” But in Rome, in the year 591, a highly influential pope called Gregory the Great, an aristocrat-turned-monk, gave a series of sermons conflating all the different Marys in the bible, and calling Magdalene a prostitute. A once powerful woman became, as scholar Susan Haskins writes, “a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.” She was disgraced for 1,400 years in the eyes of Western history.
The story of Mary Magdalene is the story of all powerful women. It is about the control that men seize over women’s narratives, how they shape history by diminishment and erasure and violence. “Look at burning witches at the stake,” twigs storms. “What about a woman that’s too seductive? Or a woman that heals people? Or a woman that is too outspoken? [In the not-so-far-gone past] it wouldn’t be uncommon for a woman to be lobotomised if she were just a bit sassy to her husband. She can’t be a real person. She can’t have her own ideas or thoughts or rebel against something.” Mary Magdalene was the witch, twigs says, like her mum. So is twigs. “I’ve been the witch – when I first came out and everyone was being really normal, I was the witch, not in a good way. ‘Oh, god, she’s so weird. Why is she so weird?’ I had that. I remember when I became a little more mainstream, through no doing of my own, the absolute onslaught of racism… Mary Magdalene was the first person that I was like, ‘Something is going on here.’ She was the first woman I learned about whose narrative was changed for the worse because people clearly felt intimidated.”
© Justin French
This is not the first time twigs has tapped into the religious in her music, exploiting the possibilities for subversion of the thing with a chokehold on the Western world and the conservatism of her youth. On LP1’s hymnic Preface she repeats the line “I love another/ and thus I hate myself,” from the Renaissance poet Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet I Find No Peace, and Closer sounds like sacred music from Gregorian England, only clubby. twigs’ music has always existed in a liminal space, between genre and gender, pleasure and pain, hinged on paradoxes of sound and sexuality and image. But on MAGDALENE, galvanised by the story of Mary, by her own story, that space is an even deeper chasm, a wider, jagged plane. It is transcendent.
When I watch the cellophane video for the first time, I am overwhelmed. twigs struts onto a stage in Xena-like copper lingerie and spiked platforms, to an unseen, clapping audience, and begins to dance on the pole. At times you can hear her heels scraping the floor. The ceiling opens up and it looks like heaven; she begins to climb. There is a winged creature with her face, who she kicks straight in the mouth. She falls. She is Barbarella, she’s Alice down the rabbit hole. She’s Icarus. She falls down the pole, laughing, singing. There is a cave, and she lands in mud. Masked women emerge and crawl toward her, they cover her in the mud. It’s a triumphant fall from grace. She’s the angel, the devil, the human, the alien, the virgin, the whore. She is, in the words of Whitney Houston, every woman. All women, and no woman, and… just twigs.
Words: Leah Mandel
Photography: Justin French
Styling: Matthew Josephs
Hair: Lacy Redway at The Wall Group
Photography Assistant: Chad-Avery V. Hilliard
MAGDALENE is out now via Young Turks