Fear. When we let it take control, it constricts us, diminishes us, stops us from uncovering our true voice and vocation.
Here is FKA twigs talking, in an interview with Allure magazine, about fear and how it restricts true self-expression: “Imagine if you were an artist that wasn’t being herself. Imagine you didn’t know how to do your own makeup, your own hair, didn’t know how to put an outfit together, didn’t write and produce your own music, direct your own videos. They’re not artists. They’re vehicles, vessels. Imagine how hard that must be.
For twigs, the biggest fear is not being authentic. Like Kate Bush or Björk, Benjamin Clementine or Tom Waits, she is one of those rare artists who are so completely, utterly themselves that they defy neat categorisation. Since making her debut in 2012 with the edgy, oddly intimate electronic soundscapes of EP1, twigs has continued to push at boundaries in her music, videos and live shows.
She has since released two more innovative EPs—EP2 and M3LL155X, pronounced ‘Melissa’—as well as a critically acclaimed debut album, LP1. Her ambitious, theatrical 2015 show Congregata, was as much dance/performance art as traditional concert, and from the start, her videos have been striking and original, showing the emotional vulnerability that has become her trademark.
In the video to Papi Pacify, a song about an emotionally abusive relationship, a male dancer holds her tightly, putting his hand both over and in her mouth in a way that is both suffocating and erotic; in Pendulum, the camera slowly pans out to show her suspended in a Japanese rope bondage known as Shibari. In M3LL155X, we see her heavily (prosthetically) pregnant and prostrate on a bed, a deflated blow-up doll; in Two Weeks she is regal, while quietly promising ‘I can fuck you better than her’.
“Twigs is in complete control of her career, and the record label seem to recognise the long-term value in helping to preserve her visions and creative freedom,” says the British artist Matthew Stone, a friend and frequent collaborator. “Lots of creatives who desire commercial success tailor their output in an attempt to reach a broader audience. This logic operates from the feeling that once they have established themselves, they will be able to claw back their authenticity and express their true voice from a position of established power.
“Twigs has done the opposite, in that she has established her audience on the basis of her unflinching commitment to her deepest-held creative ideas and dreams. She set the tone at the very start, and it means that from here on, she will be supported in doing whatever she wants. We can all learn from that type of determination and self-belief.”
The daughter of a British/Spanish mother and a Jamaican father who she didn’t meet until she was 18, Tahliah Barnett grew up in a rural area in the west of England. Though her mixed heritage would excite little attention in most UK cities, in Gloucestershire it made her feel different, alien: a feeling that she says has followed her into adulthood.
She didn’t have a lot of friends as a child, preferring to play with her imaginary kangaroo or create her own fantasy worlds. Later, she won a scholarship to a private school in the genteel spa town of Cheltenham. It was a stressful time—“kids, everywhere, aren’t always that nice”—magnified by a sudden change in her family’s financial circumstances.
“I was always the poor kid, even though I very much tried to pretend to be the other way,” she has said. “Always well presented. Always doing fashion shows, plays, involved in every single aspect of the school. Overcompensating for the fact that I knew I wouldn’t be going on the ski trip every January. I guess it was character-shaping.”
But if money was short, twigs has often said her childhood was rich in love and creativity. Her mum and step-father played a wide range of music at home, from salsa to soul and jazz, and went without holidays to fund her dance lessons. While her schoolmates sang along to the Spice Girls and boy bands, Tahliah was already going out on a limb creatively, rehearsing with a group of older ladies in a gospel choir, or learning opera.
Her eclectic tastes showed at the choreography competitions she regularly entered and won. Most children would dance dressed as Charlie Chaplin or Disney characters. Tahliah chose instead to perform to Marvin Gaye’s Calypso Blues, rolling round the floor dressed as a slave with imaginary shackles on her hands. “Maybe in larger cities that’s something that kids do,” she says drily. “But it was quite unusual for where I grew up.”
At 17, she moved to London to continue her dance studies. Here she had more space to grow, to explore; enough space even for a new name: the cracking sound her bones made when she was warming up earned her the nickname twigs (the FKA came later, after US band The Twigs objected to her use of the name).
For role models at this formative time, she looked to the late-seventies and early-eighties. Poly Styrene, the feisty singer of punk band X-Ray Spex was an influence, along with Annabella Lwin of new romantic band Bow Wow Wow. “I remember going to some cheesy West End club dressed as Annabella Lwin and everybody else was in their designer clothes, and I just looked mental. But by trying to be something that I wasn’t, I found myself.”
Over the next few years, she learned her craft as a cabaret singer and performance artist, paying her bills—and her dues—with stints as backing dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Taio Cruz, Cheryl Cole and Plan B. She featured prominently in the promo for Jessie J’s Price Tag, dressed as a marionette—an unhappy experience she’d later sing about on her track Video Girl.
And slowly, twigs found her tribe. She met Matthew Stone in a London club in 2012. He featured her in his cover shoot for i-D magazine, before she was really known. Later, she collaborated with Stone on her striking album cover art.
“Working with twigs is great because she cares about the image as much as I do,” says Stone. “Not in the superficial sense that she wants to just look good or be perceived as cool, but in that total commitment that comes from being able to step out of the moment and the ego to look directly at something and see it for what it is—and what it might mean in the future, also.”
This willingness to experiment with others has become the thread that binds her eclectic projects together. She has collaborated with a wide range of visual artists on photographs and stage sets. She has worked with some of the best dancers in voguing (Derek Auguste) and krumping (Wet Wipez). She discovered Kaner Flex, the contortionist dancer featured with her in the 2016 Calvin Klein jeans campaign, when he was busking on the street late one night in London. “I just followed him round until three in the morning. We swapped numbers, and two weeks later he was on stage with me.”
In her music, Twigs managed to keep her own strong identity while working with an array of producers, from Venezuelan dance DJ/artist Arca to Adele collaborator Paul Hepworth. All were chosen, she told The Guardian, to “fill in my blanks, in things I’m not good at”. But she also taught herself to play synths and handle music software, so they had a shared vocabulary in which she could express exactly what she wanted. No matter who she works with, there’s never any doubt as to who is ultimately in control.
Her breakthrough came when she finally learned to trust herself and follow her instincts, with many tracks on her album written quickly, almost as a stream of consciousness. “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,” she told Dazed & Confused magazine. “It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened. 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. I just really understood who I was and what I wanted to say.”
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. I just really understood who I was and what I wanted to say.”
As her career advances, she’s taken increasing control, making waves as a director with inventive short films for brands such as Calvin Klein and Nike and producing her own digital magazine, AVANTgarden, which made its debut via Instagram last October. “It’s a way for me to express myself without any rules or guidelines, with imagination and care,” she explained.
She is currently working on new music, with an album anticipated later this year, and the new tracks she has already performed in live shows indicate that it will be as weird and wonderful as ever. Many artists would be feeling pressure to release something new after a four-year hiatus, but with twigs everyone accepts that it will all emerge in her own time, on her own terms.
In this, as so many things, she has quietly manoeuvred herself into a uniquely powerful position. A fearless artist who doesn’t need the attention (look at her deliberately low-key relationship with high-profile actor Robert Patterson), doesn’t long for fame, and will always be true to herself, the word compromise really isn’t part of her vocabulary. In fact, she has always made it clear that she’d rather walk away completely.
“If I’m unhappy, I’ll just disappear,” she once said. “I will shave off my hair and live … where no one gives a shit about who I am. I need to be happy.”