FKA twigs isn’t special, she says, she just rehearses a lot. “I don’t think I was born with anything more than the rest of the world,” says the 34-year-old singer-songwriter. It might be hard to believe that anybody could do the splits down a pole or wield a sword, Wushu-style, the way twigs has done without possessing some divine powers, but it’s all in the training. She can afford private lessons now, but when she started out as a fresh-faced back-up dancer, YouTube tutorials and group dance classes helped her to perfect her craft. “I practise and I practise and I practise. That’s who I am.”
Twigs has had a spellbinding career, exploding on to the pop scene a decade ago with operatic vocal arrangements, conceptual videos and futuristic instrumentals. In 2014 the New Yorker magazine said that she “dresses like a high-fashion model from antiquity, but her songs promise the very contemporary pleasures of texture and emotional immediacy”. Since then, she’s released several acclaimed albums and is considered a trailblazer in pop, R&B and Afrofuturism.
But her journey hasn’t been all art and reverence. She was racially abused by Twilight fans while she was dating Robert Pattinson; she has suffered with fibroids; and in December 2020 she filed a lawsuit against her ex-partner Shia LaBeouf, accusing the actor of physical, emotional and mental abuse that left her with PTSD. Still, twigs has always come out fighting. Her latest project, a mixtape of party songs titled Caprisongs, was created with good vibes in mind, and made during lockdown, an experience that was both challenging and liberating. “It made me think in different ways, which made me make different music, which made me grow as an artist.”
When twigs first emerged, her celestial vocals and conceptual productions saw her compared to Tricky, Kate Bush and Björk. Despite a rich discography, a Grammy nomination and a British Fashion award under her belt, twigs still seems to be grafting just as much as someone who is starting out. She won NME’s Godlike Genius award for 2022, and put on a theatrical performance at the ceremony earlier this month, wearing a huge silvery alien-butterfly outfit with wings. A few hours before we’re scheduled to meet, I’m told that I should prepare to travel in a car with her as she might need to go to the studio mid-conversation. Does she rest? “No,” she says, bluntly.
When we do sit down together, her gaze is sturdy, an intense, curious type of eye contact. Her body language bounces between still and animated. When talking passionately, she gesticulates with her hands and shifts her body up and down. But otherwise she’s calm and focused. It’s a cold Monday afternoon and we’re sitting in her PR’s office in Mayfair. The room is professional and characterless, but this bland setting only makes twigs seem more majestic. Her hair is twisted into bright blond locs and a big ring light illuminates her face with a soft glow as she sips a cup of coffee. She tells me that she embraces her furious schedule. “I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself,” she says. “I don’t know if that will change as I get older or if I start a family, but at the moment, my destiny and my purpose is to rise to the challenge.”
She has talked in the past about the pressure to be 10 times better than her white peers in order to stand out; that she could never get away with just standing up and singing in front of a microphone and “strumming a couple of cute chords on a guitar … I have to be pole dancing, upside down, swinging a sword, directing, producing.” Even fashion-wise, she rarely slacks. It’s hard to find a picture of twigs that doesn’t look as if she’s just walked off the runway. She’s dressed more casually for our chat, wearing a light-coloured sweater and some jewellery, but she still looks offbeat.
It can be extremely tough for Black women to thrive in the music industry. Darker-skinned Black women face much more bias than those of lighter shades, but twigs also feels she has to be above average and epitomise excellence. “If the colour of my skin means that I have to try harder, you know what, I don’t care. I’ll do it. Every single time. I’ll do it till I’m blue in the face. Because that’s my purpose. It’s not always fair. But, guess what? Life’s not fair,” she asserts, without stopping for air.
Twigs was born Tahliah Debrett Barnett in 1988, in Cheltenham, to an English/Spanish mother and a Jamaican father. She was also raised by a “jazz fanatic” Bajan stepfather. “What’s it like in Leeds?” she asks me with wide eyes. Assuming she’s asking what it’s like to be Black in Leeds, I tell her that, surprisingly, I had a more Black experience up north than I ever did living in London. “I definitely understand what you’re saying,” she says. “As a teenager, I started getting the bus to Gloucester to be around people who were from the same culture as me. I’ve never experienced such an intense West Indian experience as I did in Gloucester.”
Twigs refers to herself as a “bursary kid”, having got a scholarship to go to a Catholic private school. “I was incredibly well educated,” she says. “I went to a beautiful school with beautiful grounds.” Those years were formative for her. It was when she harnessed her artistic abilities, and took opera and ballet lessons. She doesn’t keep in touch with her school friends, though. “There’s no beef with anyone,” she says. “But at the same time, with love, I need to leave that in the past. Making fun of my hair or telling me that it’s greasy, or that it smells funny, because I’ve put a product in it – that’s racist. And that was even some of my best friends. It made it really hard for me. I didn’t feel like I could be myself.”
The irony of twigs feeling like her hair or skin colour wasn’t “normal” is that her look is now very much in vogue. When she started out, she wore long box braids, elaborately patterned cornrows and gelled-down curls –– hairstyles seen on the streets of Brixton or the Bronx, but not often on the red carpet. Rap superstar Nicki Minaj called her an icon in a recent interview: “I remember before the baby hair trend became the trend, FKA twigs was on that shit.”
One new song in particular on Caprisongs, Papi Bones, shows her pride in her Caribbean roots. “Truth stay, vibe never realer,” she sings over a buoyant dancehall beat. Trips to Jamaica have helped her to connect with her heritage. Her grandparents, who are now in their 90s and live in Manchester, Jamaica, are her muses. “They’re still together and they’ve got this cheeky romance,” she says. “There’s a romance to Caribbean culture that people don’t always think of initially. You can go out to a West Indian club and you can dance with someone for a song and it can be so intimate and amazing. In that moment, you’re lovers. It means everything, but it means nothing.”
Twigs moved to south London, aged 17, to pursue a career as a dancer. She attended the Brit School and then transferred to Croydon College to study fine arts. A gig as a cabaret dancer in an underground circus gave her confidence. She went on to dance in music videos for Kylie Minogue, Jessie J and even Peter Andre, though she hated it. Speaking to the Observer in 2014, she said: “Do you think I want to be dressed up as a puppet?” She also worked selling shots in a bar for a while, but it was getting spotted on a night out by photographer Matthew Stone that changed things. He ended up shooting her for the cover of i-D magazine in 2012, and that same year she started recording music, putting out her first release, EP1, independently.
It was her first album, 2014’s LP1, that really made a splash, with the opulent video for lead single Two Weeks, directed by Nabil Elderkin, being nominated for best visual effects and best cinematography at the 2015 MTV Video Music awards. She also started dating Pattinson around this time, which pushed her into the paparazzi spotlight. The pair were together from 2014 to 2017, and during this period twigs experienced horrific racist abuse from Twilight fans. She doesn’t like talking about the relationship publicly. Who would want to relive such trauma, inflicted by strangers, again and again?
Before she was famous, twigs ended up befriending the artist Tracey Emin after a chance encounter on the street. “I was 20. I went up to her. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m your biggest fan. I wrote a song about your artwork My Bed.’” The two swapped email addresses and wrote back and forth for months. “She was really kind. It was a really big deal for me.”
She’d been thinking about Emin a lot during lockdown. “I sent her an email and a voice note,” says twigs, who then plays me the audio clip she sent to Emin’s Instagram account. It’s only a few seconds long, but in it, twigs, assuming Emin doesn’t realise who she is, sincerely unmasks herself as the young singer the artist had been speaking to “many moons ago”. Emin is yet to respond to the messages. “Maybe she doesn’t approve,” twigs laughs. “She’s busy. She’s living her own life. I respect that.”
Does she find it difficult to create genuine relationships and maintain friendships now she’s famous? “A lot of the friends I have, I’ve had for a very long time,” she says. “There’s a side of me where I think I’ll always be eight and desperate to make friends and meet people, but I also know that I do need to be a little bit careful and take things slowly. I’ve always been a bit of a loner and an outsider.” A handful of people helped to get her through the lockdown period, and snippets of phone conversations with friends feature on Caprisongs. “I just wanted to really highlight those voices because I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve been so lucky to have such wonderful friends.’”
Twigs describes herself as a private person, but she’s open about the things that matter most. In 2020, she shared her domestic abuse story after filing a lawsuit against LaBeouf. She accused him of threatening, trapping and choking her, as well as knowingly infecting her with an STD. They had met on the set of the film Honey Boy, and dated for almost a year, but the relationship turned dark. The experiences she describes going through are harrowing. LaBeouf allegedly banned her from looking other men in the eye, and threatened to crash a car unless she professed her love for him.
She says she got away by calling a helpline. Speaking to Louis Theroux on his podcast Grounded in early 2021, twigs described what happened. “I remember going back to where I was staying and calling an abused women’s helpline, and the person’s reaction to me was so serious. She was like, ‘OK, from what you’ve said, it feels to me like you’re in an unsafe place. Does your abuser know where you are? Who have you told about this?’ It felt really like … somebody is taking this so seriously and wants to get me somewhere safe, and that was a really massive wake-up call. That was the time when I realised, ‘I need a lot of help to get out of this.’”
LaBeouf has responded to the claims, saying that “many of these allegations are not true”, but said that he is “committed to doing what I need to do to recover, and I will forever be sorry to the people that I may have harmed along the way”. Twigs has filed a civil lawsuit against LaBeouf which will be heard next year.
“It’s really sad, but a lot of abusers use the same tactics,” she says. “Once you know the language, you can be like, ‘No, I’m not confused by this. This is what’s going on.’ On reflection, it’s been very healing for me to think about the situations I’ve been in and know now that that was love-bombing and gaslighting. I’ve got the words for it. And if I feel confused, I can YouTube it. I can read about it. I can talk to people about it.” The best thing about coming forward, she tells me, is helping people to understand the language around abuse (she has spoken out about why victims shouldn’t be asked why they don’t leave). Since coming forward, she’s been able to heal from her relationship and step away from it all. Now, she’s supporting those close to her.
“I’ve got a friend who came out about being in an abusive relationship with a public figure. At the moment, the abuser is just laying into her online. Making Instagram accounts. Doing the absolute most to destroy what’s left of her name,” twigs says. “I said to her the other day, ‘You need to look up what a smear campaign is. He will do anything right now to make you look bad. He will lie, he will hodgepodge bits of bad evidence.’”
Her relationship with LaBeouf came the year after she was dangerously ill with fibroids. In 2018, she announced that she had six of the non-cancerous tumours removed from her womb via laparoscopic surgery. “When I look at myself and pictures from the year before, I look so unwell. I can just see the hormones in my skin. I was puffy and uncomfortable. I remember how much pain I was in. It’s weird because I look so much younger now than I did in that period.”
Black women are at a much higher risk of developing fibroids than women from other backgrounds, and are more likely to have larger ones and suffer at a younger age. TV and radio presenter Clara Amfo recently announced she was having the growths removed. “If loads of people have it, why hadn’t I heard of it? If this is something that’s not a big deal, why is it an actual hell living in my body right now?” twigs says. She is eager to speak out about it more, but the ordeal has left her feeling exhausted. “I’ve not even been ready to open up because it’s an ongoing journey. I’m constantly learning. I changed my diet for ages. I was so strict.”
Does she have a self-care routine? She looks at me, baffled: “What? Like moisturising? What do you mean?” Perhaps it’s presumptuous to assume all celebrities are like Gwyneth Paltrow, spending unlimited hours on their mental and physical wellbeing, but I can’t help but feel sisterly concern. “I’m not very good at sleeping. But last night I got about seven hours. That’s quite impressive.”
Music is a place for twigs to take refuge and process her triumphs and tragedies, her sexuality and her insecurities. She’s had a hellish couple of years, but Caprisongs signalled a positive shift. Its purpose was to be the soundtrack for a night out in the new world. “I just love the getting-ready process of going out. I love deciding what you’re going to wear. I love having your friends over and having a couple of drinks, and everyone making the sink really messy. I love the cab ride. I love not being able to get a cab. I love getting into the club. I love not getting in the club. I love the anticipation of it almost more than I love being there.”
The mixtape is on a different wavelength from her previous work. Less ethereal and musically abstract, it’s upbeat and linear. Darjeeling, which features Jorja Smith and Unknown T, for example, sees twigs swap the sensual falsetto delivery and eerie melodies that feature on the Mercury-nominated LP1, for a UK drill beat and cadence.
This isn’t a move towards mainstream pop, though. In fact, twigs doesn’t listen to and doesn’t care about what people want her to do. “It’s a trap,” she says. “I’ve written massive pop songs, but no one will ever hear them. If it doesn’t feel natural, I can’t put it out. I just need to do what I want to do.”
Still, it’s obvious that she’s on a new trajectory. She recently signed to Atlantic Records, and collaborated with the Weeknd on an R&B-pop track about pain and partying, called Tears in the Club. But she assures me the change in tone isn’t a commercial ploy – she just wants to make songs that she can dance to on stage. “Magdalene was so amazing. I really wanted to sing and do something beautiful and deep,” she says, referring to her 2019 heartbreak album, which was acclaimed for its experimentation and honesty. “But I couldn’t have kept on doing that over and over again. You just back yourself into a corner. I can’t sing high and on one note for the rest of my career. It’s insane to do that. It makes touring not fun.” She does three of her signature breathy soprano hums, and says that there’s only so many of them she can do. “I can’t keep on that wailing about my heart,” she says. “My fans are going to have to move with me. Or not. Either way, it’s totally cool.”
When it comes to her future, her only focus is on finding her confidence and learning more about herself. “And being a good daughter and a good friend and a good girlfriend, and all those things.” For the past two years she has been dating the 1975’s Matty Healy. What she desires from the rest of the world, however, is a little more complicated. “It’s really difficult to mute the noise and focus on what makes us happy. We’re wrapped up in algorithms and this post-truth era and the news and not knowing what’s the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, or the right thing to say, or the wrong thing to say,” she says. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘Sometimes you just want your mum to come and pick you up from swimming, you know?’ I just want that feeling again.”
Conscious of her time, we wrap things up. As we say our thank yous and goodbyes, twigs retreats into her phone as her PR ushers me out.
While she might not believe her skill, talent or dexterity make her special, there are elements of her character – brutal honesty and a reluctance to shy away from the darkest parts of herself – that do. Earlier, she said to me: “I think vulnerability is really hot. Am I supposed to lie about how I’m feeling or what happened today? I don’t have secrets. I’m not ashamed of anything.”
• Caprisongs is out now via Young/Atlantic.
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