FKA twigs: ‘I like to tell the truth all of the time’
She’s gotten some stick for her lyrical candour and a very ‘digital’ video, but for rising ‘R&Björk’ star FKA twigs, it’s the music that matters
FKA twigs at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago last month. Photograph: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images
That’s twigs with a lower case t, to you, mate. Yes, it might seem dangerously close to the next big pretentious arty thing, but in fact after you chat with FKA twigs (also known as Tahliah Barnett), you come to the conclusion that she’s as normal as the rest of us. Or she would be if she weren’t so damned talented.
The profile of the 26-year-old musician and former dancer (you may have seen her, some years ago, busting some rather vigorous moves behind the likes of Kylie, Cheryl Cole and Jessie J, notably in the latter’s videos for Do It Like a Dude and Price Tag) has risen so much over the past nine months that she has had to retreat from the media onslaught in order to prepare for the release of her debut album, LP1.
Not that she’s one of those overnight sensation pop stars – twigs has been biding her time since July 2012, when she dropped the controversial – and singular – video for Hide, a track from her debut release, EP1. A year later came EP2 and another, even more controversial video for the song Papi Pacify. We’ll get to the videos later – right now, twigs would like to talk about LP1.
It’s the best earworm blend of trip-hop, electro-pop and deep electronica you’ll hear this year – her music has been aptly described as “R&Björk”. There’s also something special about the lyrics, which tell it like it is in areas such as love, lust, insecurity, paranoia, obsessiveness and sexuality. Lyrical home truths and sonic hybrids – were these things she consciously set out to deliver?
“I wanted to be very honest about how I was feeling,” twigs explains, in a gentle tone that to the uninitiated might seem to belie the strength of her convictions. “And to have all of the decisions I made about what went into the making of the record true and uncompromised. That thing about not compromising is important to me, not only as a creative type but also as a person. The thing is, I like to tell the truth all of the time, I like to be honest all of the time, so that was my main objective.”
Sense of insecurity
Curiously, for such an assertive performer, she admits that the sense of insecurity some people have picked up on in her songs is real.
“That’s a fair point. Over the past 18 months I’ve been as insecure as I’ve ever been, which is ironic because I’m with a wonderful record label, I’ve worked with amazing people, and I know I’ve made a really strong album. Then there are all of the magazines that have wanted to photograph me. You’d think with all of this I’d have massive amounts of confidence, but no.”
The new album was a process, “as a person, not as an artist”, of overcoming her own vulnerabilities; of proving to herself that she could do something bold and brave. “And that I could relay a vision of what I wanted into something real. All of that was done very much on my own, despite there being people trying to sway me, or to inflict their thoughts and opinions on me. All this stuff – what was right, what I should do, what was wrong – was delivered by people who thought they knew me, but no one knows you as well as yourself.”
The singer pauses for breath, apparently reining in her annoyance. “And that meant I had to stop listening to people who had slight problems with the way a song sounded, the way the lyrics scanned, the way a video looked. Coming up against these things, resisting them, over the past 18 months was, I think, the time when I finally became an adult.”
One must be careful not to read too much between the lines and into the pauses here, but we’re guessing that twigs is referring to the aforementioned two videos, Hide and Papi Pacify. Each video is highly stylised yet beautifully simple: Hide (co-directed by twigs and stylist Grace Ladoja) largely lingers on a woman’s crotch covered by a red Anthurium flower, the priapic stamen of which is continually caressed by a hand. Papi Pacify (co-directed by twigs and Tom Beard) artfully pivots around the faces of a man and a woman in what appears to be a Fifty Shades of Grey scenario as executed by Robert Mapplethorpe. There’s a laugh from twigs at this one.
“Yes, well . . . ”. Another laugh, quieter this time. “Let’s face it, no boyfriend wants to see their girlfriend in a video with a big, handsome black dude feeding his fingers into her mouth, do they? But that concept is my expression, and boyfriends have to deal with that, don’t they?”
twigs explains how that particular video caused what she politely describes as ructions between her and her (then) boyfriend. “He said, why did I have to do the video that way? That it was disgusting, that there was nothing beautiful about it. I told him that was how I wanted to express myself, that it was how I felt, that the concept was what I wanted it to be, and that it had to be the way it was. It’s all about being true to myself, I remember telling him. He said I was just a silly pop star.”
We can almost hear her hackles rise down the phone line. “Yes, well, hmmm. Those kinds of people want you to be successful but only on their terms, never on mine. Bye, bye, chill out, bye, bye, mister.”
A big deal?
Expressions of sexuality aren’t always so easily explained, she points out. Throughout Papi Pacify, she details, all you really see are people putting fingers in mouths. “Is that so shocking? Is it such a big deal?”
Her irritation is understandable. “When some people say to me that I’m trying to provoke, I reply, right, so you’ve never had your partner’s fingers in your mouth at some point? I know they have, man. Is that more unusual than seeing a pop video of a young girl, who doesn’t understand anything about her sexuality, cavorting down the street. Isn’t that provocative in a more obvious way?”
Does she think about the consequences of such videos, whatever way the visual content might be viewed? “Nah – I just do it, and it gets done.”
Getting it done, getting it dusted, getting it right. Negotiating the path between pop star and artistcan be tricky. There’s little doubt that twigs could be most things to most people, but you get a strong sense that she’s not as malleable as some people think. She knows, for instance, that all the love and air kisses the glossy mags and websites are throwing her way won’t last.
“Music comes first. There has to be a reason why I’m in these publications, and the reason is the album. When the album is out there won’t be a reason any more, as far as I’m concerned. In months to come, if a magazine approaches me to be included in the 10 most stylish females of 2014, and they want me to be number seven, and to talk about what gels I use, then no, I don’t think so. That’s stupid.”
It’s not about looking cute, she says. “The fashion shoots are fun now, because I’m 26, but I want a long career. When I’m in my 30s, I might choose not to use make-up any more, to be a football mum, to wear chinos, flat shoes, shave off my hair, tend to my garden. You know, when I’m not looking so cute. Ultimately, I want people to care about the music, to care about what I’m saying.”
FKA twigs plays Electric Picnic, August 29th-31st. LP1 is out today and is reviewed on page 14