There’s something peculiar yet familiar about British singer FKA Twigs. Perhaps it’s the way her voice, cloaked in vulnerability, echoes into a crowd, or how her baby hair sprawls across her face like your favorite homegirl’s hairstyle back in the day.
Born in Gloucestershire, U.K. as Tahliah Barnett to a part-Spanish mother and Jamaican father, Twigs embodies a familiarity that still gives way to a certain mystique. Onstage, her voice hangs onto a spare beat before releasing itself into a calculated whisper. Her body writhes with precision in a display of sensuality and defiance. Twigs insists that this in not an act, but rather, a glimpse of a woman coming into herself with conviction.
What is worth noting about 26-year-old Twigs is her hands-on approach to everything. She got her start as a backup dancer, but moved her way to the front with relentless hours of work and practice. As a result, she has mastered what she puts in front of the camera just as much as what goes on behind it. Each shot, choreographed move and lyric comes from the artist.
Twigs recently made news after receiving a barrage of racist tweets regarding her relationship with Twilight star Robert Pattinson, but it is clear that the singer is not as interested in other people’s opinion of her personal life as much as perfecting her craft. This year alone, she released her first album LP1, directed a short film for Google Glass and opened for Prince at Paisley Park. Essence chatted with the budding star about pursuing her life on her own terms.
ESSENCE: Fans love your elaborate hairstyles, complete with slick baby hair. Has this always been your signature style?
Twigs: I grew up in a White area and I was the only mixed race girl in my school. I didn’t have this straight-layered hair like my classmates. I had ringlets. As a teenager, I was always really experimenting with braids and finding things I could have and the girls couldn’t have and they would try to do and couldn’t do. I think it kind of stemmed from there with me trying to be more comfortable with myself.
Then I moved to South London to go to Croydon College. All the girls always had amazing hair in South London. That was the style then; you’d slick your hair down to your forehead. After that I went to East London, which is kind of an artsy area. A photographer saw me on the Tube one day and was like ‘your hair is amazing’ and I ended up on the cover of ID with my hair kind of exaggerated. It’s weird because I’ve seen the way it’s created in fashion. I never would have thought that would happen. I spent a lot of time working in a lot of underground cabaret clubs like where Josephine Baker has that kind of look, so my style as an artist came from Josephine Baker 1920s films as well. But I just want to make music. I’m not going to be come a costume version or caricature of myself; I like to morph. It’s really funny when I think of how it started as me being a girl from the country who couldn’t straighten my hair.
There seems to be a sort of blurring of submission and dominance in many of your lyrics. Are you pushing back against the idea that all women should be one thing?
It’s not really something that I planned. I started making music at a very weird time in my life, when I was going from being a young girl to knowing what it feels like to be a bit more womanly. I’m going to be 27 in a month. As you get older, you kind of take control of your sexuality a little bit more. As a young woman, it can kind of feel like you’re not in control of your sexuality, or maybe the media is in control of your sexuality or this other pop star is in control of your sexuality, because if she wore that then I’d wear that and my friends would wear that. And you don’t understand why you’re doing that; it’s just like this domino effect. I realized that things can be unsettling and that’s okay, you can gently touch and that can resonate just as much as you going full force with something. I’ve realized that over the past two years. I think there’s a massive amount of strength in admitting that you’re vulnerable. That comes through in my records and I didn’t really think about it at the time. People can see who I am in the record and I can see who I was when I was making the record.
We live in a culture where artists are treated like mythical characters, like unicorns that live outside of the realm of reality. What does a day in the life of FKA Twigs look like? Are you a unicorn?
(Laughs) I think we live in a culture where it is really difficult to get privacy because everything is so accessible. It’s very difficult to maintain your comfortable life with a sort of mystique. Sometimes it feels like everything you do has to be an open book. Now people will have a video of you on YouTube just walking out of a hotel and it will have like 10,000 views, which is kind of crazy. The last 3 years I’ve been working every single day. I’m always making music or traveling somewhere to do a show. I honestly think in the last year I’ve had four days off total where I am kind of doing nothing, and I’m sure even then I’m planning emails or doing something. The last three years have been very intense.
You are very hands on with the entire process of creating your work. In what ways did being so involved with your debut album force you to grow?
You have to recognize at some point that even though you have the passion and creative level to be able to do something, you might have to do a lot of prep. Sometimes you just can’t do it as quickly as you want to do it. I had to do so much to understand the camera, but now I know what lens I want to use and color scheme. When I first started I didn’t understand mechanical things. I had to practice a lot and realized that although I knew how I wanted the album to sound in my head, translating that thing to something audible takes work. I feel confident now. I feel like now I am experimenting with knowledge.
What is something people may not know about you?
I’m a country girl. The more big cities I go to, the more fashionistas and designers I meet who want to dress me, the more I have all these kind of superficial but amazing experiences, the more I just realize that I’m from Gloucestershire. I’m from the country and I just want to get married and be a really good person. I love making breakfast. As much as I know I’m very eccentric in one way, I’m also not in many other ways.
FKA Twigs’ debut album LP1 is available on iTunes.