FKA Twigs The Fader

FKA Twigs: Power Play

Emilie Friedlander’s FADER 91 cover story on FKA Twigs follows the shape-shifting pop singer through London.

Photographer Charlie Engman
April 22, 2014

From the magazine: ISSUE 92, June/July 2014

It’s only February, but the tree outside Twigs’ apartment is already blooming with clusters of tiny purple flowers. Tucked away on a quiet street in East London’s Bethnal Green, her renovated brick row house opens to a sidewalk littered with petals, and if you stand at her second-story bedroom window you can see the blossoms blowing in the breeze. Visit at this time of year, and she’ll point out that it’s the only tree in her neighborhood with the disturbing irregularity of waking up a month early, so that its blooms fall off and die, unable to survive the final inhospitable nights of winter. “It’s sad,” she says, as though the tree’s abortive attempt at flowering were somehow a conscious act of poetry.

Right now, she’s kneeling at a floor-length mirror in her room, getting ready for a trip across town to the Notting Hill offices of her record label, XL. Born Tahliah Barnett, Twigs is petite and startlingly pretty, with shoulder-length, wavy black hair and big, round eyes. Her lips almost preternaturally resemble the heart shape immortalized by the 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop, whose plastic, doll-sized likeness is incidentally perched atop the bureau by her door, gripping a silver microphone. Twigs has been studying dance since she was six years old, and while her early ballet instructors deemed her feet to be poorly suited to point shoes, she’s got the conscious posture and long limbs that make it possible to pick a serious student of the form out of a crowd (the nickname “Twigs,” she explains, comes from her habit of cracking her joints when she stretches). A mug of decaffeinated tea sits beside her, and above her bed, which is freshly made and piled high with pillows in various patterns of floral brocade, there’s a frame of rose-shaped Christmas tree lights around a vintage poster for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, with the novel’s preteen protagonist licking an orange popsicle. Schubert is playing softly from her MacBook speakers; a portion of wall is covered in self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, the artist’s single, iconic black brow the lone masculine angle in the room. “Moths are the only animals I will ever kill,” Twigs says, showing me a hole on the elbow of her sweater.

She opened the door this morning unmade-up, and it isn’t until she’s penciled her eyes, rouged her lips and put on her hoop earrings and septum ring that Twigs finally becomes recognizable as the stylish, mysterious singer/producer/dancer/director I’d seen online. In the video for “Water Me,” a song taken from her second EP, 2013’s EP2, her head ticks side to side like a metronome before digitally inflating like a balloon and leaking a single, globular tear. “I just thought it was really interesting to manipulate your face beyond what is considered beautiful, and like, maybe it is more beautiful like that,” she says of co-directing the clip with the artist Jesse Kanda. Thus far in Twig’s career, as if by magic, all but one of her songs have simultaneously occurred to her with a concept for a video, typically revolving around the sort of fantastical, inscrutably symbolic scenario that arrives to one in dreams. “Breathe,” which she co-directed with close friend Grace Ladoja, contrasts Twigs’ spoken-word, baby-doll vocals with the sight of her smashing the windows of an SUV with a hammer. “Ache,” a supplicatory R&B stomper that begins with the line I’ll come when you ask me, slows down the violent gesticulations of a gas mask-wearing krumping dancer until it looks like he’s writhing in pain.

Since signing to XL’s imprint Young Turks about a year and a half ago, Twigs has been making a point of thanking the label for every release: tomorrow, they’ll put out a video for her collaborative single with inc., so today she’s delivering a box of frosted cupcakes to the label’s staff. (Officially, she records as FKA Twigs, the FKA tacked on between her first EP and her second as a result of a legal issue with another artist.) When she’s ready to head over to XL’s offices, she leaves and re-enters her bedroom several times to retrieve the odd personal effect and tube of mascara. Even in the most quotidian situations, Twigs has a flair for the theatrical. “I always look back before I go,” she says, staring somewhat ruefully down at the bed. I ask her if she’s afraid of forgetting something, and Twigs shakes her head: “No, it’s because I never want to leave.”

Twigs is a self-described loner, a trait she attributes partly to growing up in Gloucestershire, a rural county of southwest England she likens to the verdant backdrop of Downton Abbey. “I was always by myself,” she says of a childhood spent wandering the region’s rolling hills and feeling lost at the Catholic school she attended on scholarship. Born to a mother of Spanish descent and a father of Jamaican origin who left when she was young, Twigs was bullied for being biracial, and while an early affinity for ballet, tap, modern dance and singing made her the sort of enviable student who would invariably be cast as the lead in the school play, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for popularity. At 17, she left home to attend dance school, but soon decided it wasn’t for her, dropped out and enrolled at Croydon College, a school in South London. For the first time in her life, Twigs was one in a sea of people of color.

Now 26, she enjoys a tight-knit circle of friends and collaborators (including Ladoja; her roommate, Sooz; and her stylist, Karen Clarkson), but says she’s still the one among them who’s always the first to leave a party. In conversation, she points repeatedly to her tendency to “sit inside [her] skull”—mostly because that’s where her best ideas come from, but also because she’s got the kind of brain that never stops grinding. On the tube to Notting Hill, to pick up cupcakes for XL, it suddenly occurs to Twigs that she may have forgotten to blow out a candle that’d been burning in her room. When the doors swing open at the next stop, without any warning, she runs across the platform to a train that’s pulling in from the opposite direction. I hurry to follow, and as we ride all the way back to Bethnal Green to check on the candle, she asks me whether I think she forgot to blow it out. I say no. “So you don’t think I forgot, and I don’t really think I forgot,” she says, her mind shaping the situation into a bet against ourselves. “What do we say happens if we go home and the candle’s still on? I know! If we go home and the candle’s still on, then we can’t eat cake.”

“Control” is a word that’s hard to avoid when speaking of Twigs’ music and videos, surfacing in her every contrapuntal drum pattern and physical twitch with a sly precision. Barely anybody had heard of her when she self-released her debut EP, but when the video for “Hide” caught the attention of the music press in late 2012, she seemed the rare artist whose vision had, like the glistening muse in Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, arrived fully formed. (In fact, after beginning to work casually with her current manager, Mikey Stirton, in 2008, she spent several years in search of her sound, writing songs and going into the studio with various producers.) The beat on “Hide,” a staccato, wooden flapping that she produced in collaboration with Tic, an A&R at Young Turks and member of the band Nautic, decelerates over the course of the track like a car running out of gas. The visuals, featuring what looks at first like an animated computer graphic but is actually a performance by Twigs herself, contrast the gyrations of her nude midsection with a phallic stalk jutting from an anthuriam flower that’s covering her crotch. With its confusing combination of masculine and feminine sexual attributes, the video draws in the male gaze as much as it disrupts it. As her hand pauses to caress the flower, it also raises a question: who’s really being pleasured here?

The song laid the foundation for a Twigs sound full of wayward rhythms and denatured hooks. EP2, which she co-produced with the Venezuelen artist and Kanye West collaborator Arca, juxtaposes a honeyed falsetto with the sound of her voice warped and pitch-bended until it hardly seems human. Synthesizers create convincing orchestral illusions with the sounds of strings and brass; drums hit on the offbeat or on a secondary meter entirely, often with the clarity and menace of a cocking gun. Twigs and Arca recorded EP2 simultaneously, with her banging out drum beats and singing while he manipulated her vocals in real time, and they sound like longtime partners, linked by a mutual interest in futuristic, rubbery pop music. Actually, Twigs had never even heard of Arca before her manager got them together for dinner in New York in early 2013, after the online success of the first EP had yielded an offer from Young Turks. When Twigs giggles and says that she and Arca bonded by tango-ing and salsa dancing around the studio, she sounds as if she genuinely believes that their compatibility as musicians stems simply from their joint Latin background. A similar feeling of accidental idiosyncrasy surrounds her explanations for her music’s complicated drum arrangements (childhood tap classes) and low-end bias, which she attributes to chronic tinnitus caused by a summer listening to X-Ray Spex on crappy earbuds in her early twenties, making it difficult for her to hear midrange frequencies.

“It was just the weirdest idea, but that was the idea, and I had to carry it through.”

By her own admission, Twigs is pretty “plugged out” when it comes to keeping tabs on music on the internet, including her own. At the XL office, surrounded by tables full of publicists and account managers combing American music blogs for the day’s news, she looks a bit sadly at the dozen cupcakes she has delivered, about half of which have yet to be consumed. She takes me over to a large Mac desktop computer and has one of the label people play me her new video with inc. It’s shot in lush black-and-white at their California desert home and casts Twigs and inc.’s two brothers, Andrew and Daniel Aged, in a surreal narrative she says was inspired by the incestuous sibling relationship in Bertolucci’s 2003 film, The Dreamers. Later, when we’re walking away from the office, she asks, “What did you make of the story? Could you get a sense of our respective contributions to the song?” I fumble around for something insightful to say, and mention how it’s interesting that inc. started as session musicians. “I think that describing them that way is pretty reductive,” she says, bristling slightly for the first time since we met. “That’s like talking about me and saying that I’m just a singer.”

Growing up in Gloucestershire, Twigs says that even her earliest forays into music and dance involved careful consideration of all aspects of a given artistic spectacle. At 11, for instance, she signed up for a choreography competition and shocked the audience with a full-concept routine about the life of a slave, set to Marvin Gaye’s “Calypso Blues.” “I made my mum make me a costume, and it had to be to a certain piece of music, and I had to imagine shackles on my hands, and the shackles had to be heavy, so all the movements were like, low to the floor,” she remembers. “It was just the weirdest idea, but that was the idea, and I had to carry it through.” Twigs’ mother, a clothing designer and seamstress by vocation, continued making costumes for her even after college. While Twigs wrote songs in her free time, she kept dancing, landing backup spots in music videos and even touring with some big-time pop stars (“I won’t go into names—I’m sure people will find me in YouTube clips and stuff like that”). Still, she struggled to piece together a living.

For a couple years, Twigs worked various late-late shifts on London’s cabaret circuit, often incarnating a character she describes as a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Betty Boop and singing and dancing her way through a routine that revolved around Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” Twigs’ years on the city’s burlesque circuit, she says, provided her with crucial professional experience in crafting a performance from the bottom up—from costumes to music, dance moves and lighting—but more importantly, they afforded her an opportunity to experiment with being someone she was not.

Onstage in red lipstick and a long, backless blue dress, her hair parted to the side like a ’40s pin-up girl, she’d conclude most performances by walking up to an attractive-looking couple in the audience, singing the last words of the song to the man as though she were “going to devour him,” then, just as the sexual tension became too intense for comfort, turning to the woman and kneeling down to kiss her hand. “Just like, playing with people,” she remembers. “My cabaret character was someone much harder than I am, someone that could go and steal someone’s glass of wine and chuck it on them in rage, or someone that could climb over a table, or someone that could just be really daring in a way that no one ever got angry at her—I guess the side of womanhood that you would have always wanted to explore but rarely got the chance to.” Interacting with Twigs, it’s hard to imagine this unblushing seductress emerging from the same soft-spoken young woman who shyly offers me cupcakes and tea. When she starts addressing me in text messages with the pet name “Naughty Emilie,” though, it’s startling, like I’m witnessing flickers of the performer in her that likes to catch other people off-guard.

The week I’m visiting, Twigs is in and out of the studio, putting the finishing touches on her debut full-length for Young Turks, due out later this year. She’s been working with a variety of collaborators, but also honing her fluency with synths, drum machines and bass so she can record some of the instrumentals herself. One day, she takes me to Pineapple Dance Studios in Chelsea so I can watch her run through the choreography for a video she’s making for a new song called “Kicks.” It’s slow and soulful, cresting with a breathy refrain, Tell me, what do I do when you’re not here? At one point during the rehearsal, Twigs has trouble executing a move she’s been tasked with by her choreography team, which includes the contemporary dancerAaron Sillis and a krumping and vogueing  specialist by the name of Brooklyn Sanchez. The move seems almost anatomically impossible: Twigs must lie on the ground and roll her shoulder underneath her body as leverage for a backwards somersault into a standing position. The choreographers get down on the ground and demonstrate it for her in a blur of flailing arms and legs, but Twigs pauses to rest for a second, flushed and sweating slightly in her black leggings and sports bra. One of the choreographers chides her for being “a purist,” and explains to me that the only reason why she hasn’t nailed it yet is because she’s the only one in the room who refuses to cheat her way through it. Between repetitions of the song over the loudspeaker, piano music floats down from a ballet class in the room above, a reminder of the spirit of perfection and self-discipline that most childhood students of the art never truly shake. Twigs says she’s wanted to be a recording artist since she was 16. After linking up with her manager, it took nearly half a decade before her label situation afforded her the chance to focus exclusively on her music career, but it’s not for a lack of hard work.

Another afternoon, Twigs takes me to her friend Karen Clarkson’s vintage store, Found and Vision, so they can have a chat about styling options for “Kicks” while I watch. “The first part seems really needy, really submissive, like you’re sitting around waiting for your man,” Twigs says, describing the track. “But then as the song unravels, it turns into a song about masturbating, and how you can please yourself better than he can please you.” A tiny terrier named Hector sits on the counter as Twigs begins to make her way through the racks of colored clothes, describing visions of black mesh and a vogueing Liza Minelli. We gather around Clarkson’s laptop to look at some press photos of Twigs that Clarkson styled last week, and Twigs points out parts of her body that she would like the photographer to artificially elongate in post-production—some fingers, a neck, a spine.

As with her music, there’s an underlying autobiographical precedent behind Twigs’ meticulously crafted image, the stretched limbs and curls a kind of willful exaggeration of the parts of herself that made her different from her peers growing up. “It’s finding your own perfection within yourself, but that isn’t the normality,” she says. “I was always the person on the outside of the group, but I think through my art I’m coming to terms with that. I’m making the things about me that aren’t so conventional into things I can express and feel comfortable with.” At one point, Clarkson pulls up a particularly arresting image of Twigs wearing an exaggeratedly large chain-link necklace over a delicate cream camisole, her eyes obscured by round John Lennon sunglasses, her hair parted into four separate braids and arranged around her face in a series of gel-slicked curlicues. Everybody falls silent for a moment. “I don’t think anyone’s looked like that before, have they?” says Clarkson.

“I’m not trying to push any cause. If I’m doing that subconsciously, it’s because that’s how I’m feeling in that time.”

Of the eight videos Twigs has released as of this writing, perhaps the most provocative is the Jesse Kanda-animated clip for EP2’s“How’s That,” which distends an abstract, 3D rendering of a female body until it reveals itself to be little more than a mass of digital clay, ready to be molded into any shape one could possibly dream up. As with many of Twigs’ videos, it suggests a certain violence against the female body, a sense of the myriad shrinkages, enlargements and embellishments that a female pop star must undergo in order to conform to a certain hourglass-shaped standard of beauty. But as we watch her shapeshift from one video to the next, her works begin to read like transmissions from a not-so-distant future in which one might physically transform into one’s own cyberpunk avatar, a techno-utopia in which physical idiosyncrasies become magnified as strengths, and where beauty begins to be understood as a malleable combination of one’s own masculine and feminine attributes. As I get to know Twigs, it’s hard to tell whether she’s more the soft, vulnerable, girlish creature I met in her room, the cabaret temptress singing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or the stubbornly willful auteur who always seems to know exactly what she wants. Probably, she’s all these things, and her videos assert the freedom not to choose between one identity or another.

Twigs’ work seems obviously feminist, but when I ask her about her political intentions, she says, “I’m not trying to push any cause. If I’m doing that subconsciously, it’s because that’s how I’m feeling in that time. I just think of an idea in my head, and get obsessed with that idea, and then I make it, and then I think of another idea, and then I make that.” Twigs says she tried to study philosophy and sociology at Croydon, but that it required “too much thinking” for her already busy brain. As she explains them, the scenarios she presents in her videos are simply the fruit of an imagination that’s drawn to the poetic paradoxes of everyday experience, especially where sex and power are concerned. Explaining the erotic pas-de-deux in the video for EP2 track “Papi Pacify,” for example, where she appears with her mouth and neck engulfed by the probing fingers of a muscular black male, she points out her character’s latent control over the encounter. “If you were to say to your partner, ‘Pull my hair,’ you are seemingly the submissive person,” she explains. “But actually you’re the dominant person, because you’ve said to somebody, ‘Pull my hair.’” She hints that “Papi Pacify” was inspired by a real-life relationship, but keeps pretty tight-lipped about her love life over the course of my visit. “I think I’ve had very interesting relationships with men, both romantic and not romantic,” she says. “I’m always quite curious about male energy, even within females as well. Like how I react to a male energy within a female. I always find that quite interesting to think about.”

Consequently, it’s hard not to wonder what she’s thinking about the relationship that’s unfolding between us. When she sweeps me into a lingerie store one night and asks me to hold some of the panties and bras she’s picked out from the racks, I can’t help thinking that, on some level, she’s consciously constructing a scene for my story. Like her demonstration of submission in the “Papi Pacify” video, though, it’s a gesture that’s hard to read. Is handing me underwear a showcase of hapless honesty in the presence of a journalist, or something more confrontational? It’s also just surreal, albeit not as surreal as when we sit down to lunch one afternoon and she proclaims her intention to interview me on the spot, beginning with the question, “So what do you think about the representation of women in the media?”

During my days with Twigs in London, she tells me repeatedly that she doesn’t feel comfortable about our encounter being all about her. Occasionally—in the park by her house, at the vintage store, at the dance studio—she pulls out a blue disposable camera and asks me to pose for a photo. I can’t tell whether she’s doing it because she wants to record our time together, or because she’s subtly trying to turn the spotlight back on me. After all, it isn’t easy to show another person the sort of woman one is on the spot. Over dinner at an organic restaurant, about an hour before we part, I finally work up the guts to ask her about it, and she reaches into her bag and hands me a camera full of photos of myself. “I did it because I wanted to you to have this,” Twigs says. It’s confusing, but it sounds like she’s genuinely hoping I’ll appreciate the gift. 

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    FKA Twigs: Power Play