FKA twigs sits curled up in the corner of a sofa backstage at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. Dressed all in black, down to her sneakers, the 26-year-old experimental pop provocateur looks more like a 16-year-old ballet dancer. She raises her dark eyes from the magazine she’s lackadaisically flipping through and gives a weary smile that quickly disappears—midway through our interview, she’ll release some of the pent-up frustration beneath it.
“I don’t want to be like a famous person,” she says, when asked how she is coping with the transition from living an extremely private life to doing back-to-back interviews and grueling international tour dates. [A few weeks after this interview, rumours that she was dating the very famous Robert Pattinson also started flying.] “I just want it to be about what I do,” she says. “I just always try and answer questions in terms of what I do rather than who I am. And it’s hard. It’s like a massive sacrifice and I’m still figuring out whether it’s something I want to do or whether it’s something I don’t want to do.”
She’s understandably frustrated. On her way to the venue, her tour bus broke down, and by the time the Gloucestershire-born singer-producer and her quintessentially British looking band arrive, they’re starving, and only have a short time to prepare for the show.
“Like, say today,” she continues. “I don’t want to do this, you know what I mean? I don’t want to do this”—meaning this interview. “I don’t want to do that,” She gestures to the stage, where she will perform her second Toronto headlining date in six months. “I don’t want to. But on another day I might want to.” Later, when she does take the stage, she strides across it in a haze of red smoke like an empress. But now, visibly relieved at the admission, her face softens and she stares at me with a melancholy gaze. The industry around her sound and image is growing and art and fame are two different animals that she is finding a challenge to navigate. At times she appears to be lamenting the reality of turning her passion into a career.
“I love making music,” she explains. “I love making visuals. I love all the actual doing of things, but I hate it when the focus is on me. I feel uncomfortable when it’s just about me or it’s like, ‘Oh, this is how twigs does her hair. Here’s an online tutorial on twigs.’ I’m just like, go read a book.”
Born Tahliah Barnett, FKA twigs initially appeared on the music scene in 2010 as a dancer in Jessie J’s “Do It like A Dude” and 2011’s “Price Tag” videos, as well as dancing back up in videos for Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran, and Taio Cruz. Her sphinx-like stare stood out even in a room full of dancers and she was regularly recognized as “the girl in the video,” something she often denied, and recently wrote about for her debut album, LP1.
“I never wanted to be a dancer, I just did it for money. I always wanted to make music. I was working three jobs and trying to go into the studio as well, and I just knew that I could dance.” During that time she says she learned what she wanted to do as an artist by seeing what she didn’t want to do.
In the winter of 2012 she released EP1 on Bandcamp. One arresting video after another slowly unveiled an intriguing artist—“Hide (4 of 4),” with its pale washed torso clothed in just a black net bra and a phallic red petal, was one of her first. No one knew who the girl in the video was, but it was clear that dichotomies were her forte. Coy and shrewd. Fierce and vulnerable. Strange and sensual. By the summer of 2013, the sorrowful Frida Kahlo-esque bobblehead in “Water Me” and the uncomfortable “Papi Pacify,” hailed by feminist circles as revolutionary work, were out, and FKA twig’s second EP, EP2, was officially on the map. But the celebrated “Papi Pacify” nearly did her in. A boyfriend at the time despised it and made sure she knew about it.
“‘It’s disgusting. It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,’” she says his reaction was after an early peek at the video. “He was like, ‘it’s not beautiful.’ I said, ‘I’m just expressing visually how I felt. You know, I’m an artist.’ And he was like, ‘You’re not an artist. Michelangelo is an artist. You’re a pop star.’ It really put fear into me. Then it came out and no one said anything horrible.” She learned never to question her artistic instincts again.
A year later, in many ways it appears that FKA twigs has arrived. LP1, produced by twigs, Arca (Kanye West), Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi), and more, lives up to the hype, delivering dark alt-pop/R&B with a menacing sonic landscape and intoxicating sensuality. But FKA twigs still feels like an underground artist struggling to bring it all to reality. She recently shared in a publication that she had to borrow money from her stepfather despite having YouTube videos with over a million hits, sold out concerts, and a Vogue feature.
“This idea that you’re baller baller and half a million for a show, that’s all very well for the people at the top. But for other people, where it is more about the art rather than business decisions, it’s not like that at all,” she shares. “And it’s like, the pressure. When you’re on tour and you’ve got like six shows and you don’t have outfits for six shows and you can’t afford to go out and buy outfits, what are you going to do? And, like, maybe I don’t want to be gifted by Chanel. Maybe I don’t want to be gifted by Givenchy.”
That often comes with strings attached, I surmise.
“Yeah. And then anything you take it’s like, ‘Can you Instagram it? Why haven’t you Instagrammed it? Hey, I sent you that piece. Can you Instagram it?’ No!” she says with a laugh. “If you’re going to send something, send it.”
Like many female artists not interested in being perceived as a walking wet dream with a microphone, FKA twigs has been labeled a control freak by media—a recent headline read—“Don’t call her a control freak”—and it’s a label that amazes her.
“I find it absolutely astounding that people are so obsessed with the fact that I write my own music, produce my own music, and direct my own videos,” she says. “I do everything myself because I am an artist. Everyone’s so surprised. And you’re a girl as well. And you have your nails did. I think the problem is everyone is just so obsessed with being famous, it’s not even actually about talent, about working at things, getting better at things. I’m not the best singer. I’m not the best producer. I’m not the best video director. I’m not the most beautiful girl in the world. But I can work. I can just work and learn. Control freak [is] such a negative slam on such a positive attribute.”
Though clearly wrestling with fame, I ask what’s been her most wonderfully surreal moment of late. She thinks about it for a moment then jumps up to search for her phone. Throwing herself back down on the sofa, she smiles brightly as she reveals a stark black and silver photograph. She’s on stage at New York City’s Webster Hall, and a massive crowd is reaching out to her as she reaches back. She looks tiny and the crowd looks hungry. It’s glamorous and bizarre.
“It was so crazy. It just happened the other day. And I was like, whoa! Such a weird photo, isn’t it?” She chuckles. “Like, it’s beautiful and grotesque. I look so small. ”
In that moment FKA twigs is back firmly in her dichotomies, and she’s pleased. Chaka V.