In 2013, a user called FKA twigs uploaded a series of videos, entitled EP1, to YouTube. Eerie and exhilarating at the same time, they started to rack up views overnight. About a year before, she had appeared on the cover of i-D magazine, baby hairs arranged in the word ‘love’ on her forehead. FKA twigs emerged as a kind of otherworldly creature, a genre-bending musician with little regard for convention.
She hasn’t put out an album since the critically acclaimed ‘LP1’ in 2014. twigs often cuts a curious figure - at once intensely vulnerable and incredibly private. This push and pull is evident on ‘Magdalene’, her second studio album which, as twigs says herself, is her at her most personal: “I think this album feels like me,” she says.
“I’m proud of the album not just for the way that it sounds, but also that I finished it,” she adds. “It was a big period of growth for me, just being able to complete something that I cared so much about - I definitely had moments where I was wondering, can I finish it?”
‘Magdalene’ comes out of a period of turmoil for twigs, including public heartbreak and health problems that complicated her work (on Instagram, she posted about fibroid tumours that had to be removed, calling them a “fruit bowl of pain”). But twigs doesn’t believe that’s the whole story.
“It’s difficult, because the narrative is one of growth, and I think people are almost more interested in the tragic, fallen heroine, but that’s not at all my truth,” she urges. “I’ve actually gotten a lot of joy out of this - it’s been amazing, training and finding strength, in so many different ways. The journey was really beautiful, and I was really gentle with myself.”
Born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, twigs moved to London from Gloucestershire when she was 17, working primarily as a background dancer. She knew she wanted to get into music, and started to find ways to record and write while working in bars, as a youth worker, and dancing (the name twigs came from the sound of her joints when she cracked them). In the years since ‘LP1’, she’s taken on a role as a creative director for Nike, danced in an advert for HomePod with Spike Jonze, worked with A$AP Rocky (‘Fukk Sleep’, which she also directed the music video for), and put out the ‘M3LL155X EP’ in 2015. twigs has never stopped fully making music, even if it’s been three years since her last solo release, ‘Good Time’, in 2016. She never really stops moving. “I wrote some of my last album 10 years ago, and I should hope I’m making different choices in every aspect - my personal life, my work life and everything in between,” she admits.
“It’s about growing and changing, and finding who you are. I’m always making music,” she continues. “I used to actually record things on my phone, bring it into the studio and import it into Ableton, but this record has been quite different. Yeah, there are some really big industrial sounds, because obviously, those are my fave, but this is more focused on how I can manipulate acoustic instruments and it really inspired a new way of writing. I also managed to write every song in the same notebook, which has been really precious to me.”
“I usually start with beats and drums whereas this time, I really fell in love with the piano,” twigs explains. “I play everything very badly, one note at a time - I’m a horrible musician - but I kind of muddle through and make it work.” Anyone who has seen twigs perform live is unlikely to believe that she muddles through anything. Her performance of ‘Magdalene’ - which debuted in select cities around the US in May of this year - is a dazzling live show, spanning piano ballads, dance breaks, pole dancing, and wushu, a kind of Chinese swordplay that twigs picked up. “I love learning,” she smiles. “These skills are not really for the album, they’re just tools that I can use within my craft. The dream is that they keep on developing, and I keep working and improving, and adding more range and colours to my palette. Picking up pole and wushu were things I never thought about two or three years ago.”
twigs’ work often lives within its own world - her visual output is as compelling and unusual as her music, often taking place in alternate universes (twigs on a throne in the ritualistic video for ‘Two Weeks’, or leading a cult in ‘holy terrain’). In the music video for ‘Cellophane’, released in March, twigs dances on a pole in a bronze, otherworldly dimension, flipping and contorting as the song builds into a desperate plea (“Didn’t I do it for you? / Why don’t I do it for you?”). While twigs seems to emerge as a lone figure often - on stage, in music videos - she emphasises that collaboration is crucial to her practice.
“When it’s my own stuff, I tend to micromanage a lot of things. It’s difficult because I’m wildly focused and independent, but when it’s the right people, I love working with these amazing people and it becomes fun; it becomes this little collective,” she says. “But I’m lucky, I have a lot of friends that I work very closely with, and we all just really inspire each other. We can go to a gallery, or a weird sort of vintage antique fair, and start collecting things, like books, or clothes, or ribbons, and we’ll create a little world for ourselves.”
On ‘Magdalene’, she’s worked closely with Nicholas Jaar, the electronic artist, as well as a roster of other producers like Jack Antonoff, Daniel Lopatin and Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never). “Everyone really tapped into what I was going through,” she enthuses, “and it just shows how sensitive they were, to take something that was really personal and fragile.”
In a video for WeTransfer, behind the scenes of ‘Cellophane’, she likens her training to an athlete’s regimen. “It’s important to me to never rest, to always keep striving for something more,” she professes. “I’ll do up to six hours training - two hours pole, two hours wushu - and I’ll do that until two, and then I’ll go into the studio and make some music.”
twigs often gets painted as an intensely serious workaholic, someone whose commitment to their craft is all-encompassing. She wonders whether it’s because she’s a female artist. “I’m a woman, and I make my own art, and that’s just me having agency over my skills, my voice, and I just want to make things the way that I want to make them. I get one life,” she says. “Why would I not want things to be the way that I see them to be, the way that I feel them to be? If I’m in front of thousands of people, listening to me and looking at me, I’d rather be telling the truth. That’s the bare minimum of what I should be able to do as an artist.”
‘Magdalene’ pulses with a potent mix of tenderness, intimacy and defiance, with twigs flitting between multiple kinds of music on each track. An album of stripped-back piano ditties this is not. Monastic chanting and feature heavily, as do big, brooding beats. twigs’ voice is the most versatile instrument - it soars on ‘mirrored heart’ (the closest thing to a traditional ballad on ‘Magdalene’), whispers on ‘holy terrain’, a sexy trap banger which features Future, and snarls on the quasi-punk ‘fallen alien’, over a stuttering beat.
Her lyrics combine the surreal and the sensual - like on ‘mary magdalene’, the near-title track, where she sings, “I do it like Mary Magdalene / I want your desire,” or on ‘day bed’: “Careful are my footsteps / Possessive is my day bed.” twigs has often rejected genre labels, and with her output, it’s easy to understand why: on ‘Magdalene’, there are shades of deconstructed club music on ‘home with you’, trip-hop and techno on ‘sad day’, medieval hymns on ‘thousand eyes’.
twigs will embark on a tour for ‘Magdalene’ soon, and the weeks leading up to it have been very intense. “Before the show, I always have a wobble,” twigs confesses. “As soon as I start singing, everything is fine.” Yet, she says she loves touring and can’t wait to get back on that bus - literally: “I love falling asleep on the bus and waking up somewhere else!” she laughs.
“It’s like a proper little family; we’re all just living together, moving together… I can’t wait to just go and giggle with everyone on the tour, it’s just so fun. I love finding new places to train and meeting new people. I’d love to go back to New Orleans - I didn’t feel like I finished exploring it.”
In the meantime, though, with her new album [at time of writing] less than a month away, how is twigs feeling?
“Is it weird if I say I don’t really think about it?” she answers with a laugh. “At this point, I’ve just concentrated on the truth and telling my story, in the most vulnerable and solid way possible. When you do all these interviews, things seem much more serious, but I just get on with it. It doesn’t belong to me anymore; it belongs to you.”
Words: Sanjana Varghese
Photography: Matthew Stone
Creative Direction: Matthew Josephs
Hair: Rio Sreedharan
Make-Up: Daniel Sallstrom
Nails: Jessica Thompson
‘Magdalene’ is out now on Young Turks. Listen on Spotify HERE.
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