As an artist, producer and visual icon, FKA twigs is indicative of a new, counter-intuitive stroke in pop music, one that subverts the patent textures found in successful, radio-friendly chart toppers. Conceptually, the 26 year-old Tahlia Barnett extracts the most perverse and perturbed elements of contemporary R&B to accompany her debut album LP1, but musically—psychotropic anomalies and dystopian bells and whistles aside—the Gloucestershire-native artist sources similarly restrained, quiet storm vocal powerhouses like Ciara, Sade, and Aaliyah (the last of whom shares a birthday with Twigs). Considerable hype has burgeoned the release of her first full-length, garnered by well-contemplated think pieces from the New York Times and the New Yorker; FKA twigs has infiltrated the mainstream’s stratosphere.
The streets of New York, from Downtown Brooklyn to Alphabet City, are currently plastered with images of the LP1 album cover, by visual artist Jesse Kanda, who composited several photographs of Twigs for the striking and unnerving cover. One Lower East Side pop-up store, on the corner of Delancey and Orchard street, Wallplay, currently devotes its entire theme to LP1. Outside the store, Barnett’s music videos flare along flat screen TVs, and inside vinyl copies of the FKA twigs record are mounted on large white podiums. I stumbled upon the Wallplay storefront late one night after finishing the first draft of this piece and was both arrested and bewildered at the bizarre and muted images, absent as they were of her captivating sounds.
FKA twigs’ formula for psycho-sexual, drug-addled trip-hop is easily one of the most exciting things to happen to pop music in recent history. But will Tahliah Barnett, as a fixture of forward-thinking, innovative R&B, sustain her relevancy, or will the wild and abounding novelty of FKA twigs ultimately be reduced as pallid or commonplace? Probably not.
Before releasing music and cultivating her alluring mystique, Tahliah Barnett was a backup dancer in music videos for Ed Sheeran, Jessie J and Kylie Minogue. A self-ascribed “old soul,” she picked up ballet at the age of six in her small rural community of Southwest England, and within a few years she was choreographing entire performances to Nina Simone standards or tracks like Marvin Gaye’s percussion-isolated “Calypso Blues.” But, as articulated during this month’s BBC Radio 1 Interview with twigs and her three band members, she remembers scatting along to Tania Maria as a young girl: Dreams of being a recording artist were always at the fore. “I didn’t love dancing,” she said, “I loved dancing to music.” At 17, Barnett moved to London for dance but only finished one term before dropping out to work full time on music. In interviews, she’s addressed the issue of being berated by strangers who recognized her simply as the “Video Girl,” and on her debut album she wrote a song about it (“Is she the girl from the video/You lie, you lie, you lie”). Allegedly, when posited with questions of “Are the girl from the ‘Do It Like A Dude’ video?” she lied, boldfaced and brash, and continue on.
In 2012, at 24, Tahliah Barnett self-released her primarily self-produced EP1 on Bandcamp under the alias Twigs. The nickname, gifted to her as a teen, was attributed to how loud she could crack her bones. The four tracks, each accompanied by a sleek, captivating visual, were included as bonus tracks on the Japanese and deluxe editions of LP1; the two years separating the release can barely be discerned. It speaks to the absolute singularity of her artistry, how alarmingly in-control she’s been since the very start. This is an artist who spent several years waiting patiently in the wings for the utterly bewitching image of FKA twigs to manifest.
When I first saw FKA twigs perform at Pitchfork Music Festival this summer in Chicago’s Union Park, she embodied the kind of tenacious self-possession I’d only ever associated with artists of a more grandiose profile—like Alicia Keys, Janelle Monáe, or dare I say it, Beyoncé. I’d seen the videos, those released under her name and otherwise, and I’d spent a generous amount of time gushing over the marvel of her riveting physicality. But Barnett spent the set composed and statuesque, pacing back and forth along the stage as some viperous predator, ready to strike at any given moment.
Barnett’s round oval eyes were soft but steely, devoid of any immediately discernible expression, and her demeanor was fixated and methodical, cold and calculated. On stage, positioned elegiacally in platform shoes and flowing gossamer pants, she evoked a peculiar, alien quality. Each contrapuntal, cicada-synthesizer and electronic drum pattern was synchronized with spastic and masterly contortions, small but powerful motions. Her words, her poise, her intentions, all felt volatile and dangerous.
The inherent, illustrious beauty I’d prepped myself for was there, sublime and surreal outside the space of a computer screen, but it felt somehow secondary to the enduring eccentricities presented in her musical and visual aesthetic. Like she was a nothing but a prop to facilitate the experience. I was often reminded of the Jesse Kanda-directed music video for “Water Me”; closely-cropped profile shots of the artist show Twigs mouthing slow, sensual lyrics while her eyes become enlarged and superimposed with digital effects. “I just thought it was really interesting to manipulate your face beyond what is considered beautiful, and like, maybe it is more beautiful like that,” she says of co-directing the clip with the artist Jesse Kanda.” Currently, the top comment for the video on YouTube, by DarkerThanBlackdast, reads: “She’s disgusting,” no period.
FKA twigs is sparse with her words, but when she does speak unprompted by echo-chamber drums and menacing future bass it’s meek and unassuming. It recalls another up-and-coming female electronic artist-producer, Hyperdub’s Jessy Lanza, whose rousing set at the Santos House Party earlier this year echoes the same, introspective and experimental leanings. Like FKA twigs, Lanza co-produced her 2013 LP Pull My Hair Back. Together, in conjunction with artists like New York’s Fatima Al Qadiri and Los Angeles’ Glasser project, they make up a devastatingly small community of female artists who both write and produce their own music. Pull My Hair Back echoes similar sentiments of masculine and feminine conflict and themes of victimization versus aggression found in FKA twigs’ music, hardly implicit lyrically but more than obvious in its visual representation.
In the music video for “Papi Pacify,” Tahliah Barnett is both literally and figuratively immolated by the male gaze: a hulking, shirtless black man cradles Twigs’ head and forces his hand down her mouth in a dizzying loop of undersaturated, direction-shifting footage. “If you were to say to your partner, ‘Pull my hair,’ you are seemingly the submissive person,” Barnett explained in a cover story interview for The Fader. “But actually you’re the dominant person, because you’ve said to somebody, ‘Pull my hair.’” The sexual energies that emanate from Tahliah Barnett’s performance as FKA twigs, upon further contemplation, almost seem like a ruse, laced with little white lies, a clever, premeditated ploy to seduce the unsuspecting voyeur. Once you’ve been caught in the mystical trance that is FKA twigs, there’s a very slim chance of thereafter relinquishing it.
Before one song from LP1, at her Pitchfork Festival set, FKA twigs coos to the crowd about her fascination with learning new things: “I’ve recently started trying to vogue,” she said before giggling to no one in particular. Be assured, there was no trying involved. In the same interview with BBC Radio 1, she spoke on both voguing and krumping as proliferating art forms that create specific, new cultural hubs in the London. Tracing the genesis of hip-hop, where music directly influenced other mediums like dance, visual art and fashion, Barnett says, these two forms of dance are attempting to do the same. “There were these different aspects and that’s what made hip hop so strong. That’s why it’s still here today, and I think the fact that in vogue and in krump these families are being born where you have to produce your own music. You have to be able to dance. You have to know the roots. Where does that move come from? What does it mean? What’s it saying? Essentially, that’s how hip hop started. So to have older people and younger people in these dance families informing us all in vogue and krump. It’s making something amazing.”
In less ambitious and obvious ways, it’s seems this is the underlying motivation for the FKA twigs project. Rather than proliferating from dance, however, the art seems to spawn from an inextricable link between the visual and the aural. And even though Tahliah Barnett is committed to both XL Records and Young Turks, much of her brand as an artist follows the DIY ethos, in practice and in theory. Days before the official release of LP1, in conjunction with the exclusive iTunes stream of the album, I discovered a SoundCloud page credited to Tahliah Barnett with a few hundred followers. The page name read “FKA twigs LP1 album” and contained almost entirely full uploads of the record’s ten tracks. I couldn’t discern whether it was actually her, or just an overzealous fan enacting a slightly less vicious kind of scandal than last year’s incriminating Jai Paul album leak. I woke up the following morning and the page was gone, totally erased. But within two hours, sure enough, a new page sprouted up in the exact same format, this time only “FKA twigs LP1,” which survived for at least another 36 hours. I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere across the Atlantic, Tahliah Barnett was diligently and excitedly leaking her own music, proverbially sticking it to the man.
It’s this admirable, grassroots ethics that distinguishes FKA twigs from peer PBR&B crooners across the pond like Frank Ocean or the Weeknd. Each of the latter artists infiltrated the mainstream scope, played the game and played it well attached to powerful monikers like Drake and Beyoncé and it amounted to their now flourishing fame. FKA twigs worked from the ground up, honing her chops at an inner-city Youth Center where she collaborated with a group of like-minded musicians (one of which was the British reggae artist Stylo G) and working with her current manager Mikey Stirton as early as 2008. When the lead single from LP1 “Two Weeks” premiered on Ellie Goulding’s BBC Radio 1 show, twigs phoned in and explained that nearly every one of FKA twigs collaborators—stylists, producer, dancers, directors, among others—began as friends. Some of LP1’s producers like Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + the Machine) and Emilie Haynie (Eminem, Lana Del Rey) boast impressive credentials, but when recruiting musicians for her live band, Barnett first confronted musicians inexperienced with electronic drum machines. One band member, LJ, is traditionally a bass player, while Tic (who also plays electric guitar and co-wrote LP1’s “Closer”) started music playing piano. FKA twigs’ music, especially when immersed in a live setting, retains that sense of hyper-methodical, futuristic transience, it still feels a bit raw and rough-around-the-edges—which may or may not be attributed to the group’s relative inexperience.
But the same thought can be refuted with a simple hyperlink, a live video of EP1’s “Hide” by DAZED shot in Marcario Gomez, Mexico on the eve of Young Turks’ New Year’s Eve bash. Performing in the dilapidated ruins of a Mayan village, the four members of FKA twigs enact an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the song, flogged in drowning guitar riffs and the hollow, diminuindo clatter of electronic drums. Tahliah Barnett looks delicate and stunning, and moves with all the fluid and nimble consistency of a sorcerous matriarch. Each time I watch the video, I get goosebumps; it serves to further justify my incredulous obsession.
Shortly after Tahliah Barnett’s brief stint as a freelance music video dancer, she went on to work as a cabaret performer, which surely informed much of the confident and capable artistry present in her solo project. “My cabaret character was someone much harder than I am, someone that could go and steal someone’s glass of wine and chuck it on them in rage, or someone that could climb over a table, or someone that could just be really daring in a way that no one ever got angry at her—I guess the side of womanhood that you would have always wanted to explore but rarely got the chance to.” It’s this very motivation that commandeers her music, a curious inquisition on how much the exhibitionist can get away with, how drastically she can subvert the ideal symbol, the relative norm, before it’s denounced as gross or repugnant.
FKA twigs crafts distinct images in her visuals, most of which test the limits of what a general audience might perceive as alluring or vile. These visual concepts are usually imagined by Barnett in tandem with the music, so most ideas are guaranteed to represent some conceptual extension of any given song. On the music video for “Hide,” Barnett exposes her middle section, sometimes even her bare nipples beneath a sheer black bra, but disrupts the gaze with a small yellow stalk jutting from a glossy red flower in her crotch. This fall’s concert poster for FKA twigs’ England tour features an eyeless, eyebrowless Tahliah Barnett seated indoors as if she’s actually outside basking in the sunlight. The supplementary artwork that accompanies vinyl copies of LP1 by Jesse Kanda distorts her supple face with harsh and warped spraypaint contusions, like a plastic figurine Twigs that’s been sequestered to a microwave oven. Her most recent music video, “Two Weeks,” directed by the acclaimed Nabil, is one long-moving, backwards establishing shot, the scope of which gradually reveals more and more clones of twigs, assuming various roles and attitudes. If nothing less than sensational, it’s fucking weird. Barnett spoke to Emilie Friedlander for The Fader cover story and explained how these visions propagate. “It’s finding your own perfection within yourself, but that isn’t the normality,” she says. “I was always the person on the outside of the group, but I think through my art I’m coming to terms with that. I’m making the things about me that aren’t so conventional into things I can express and feel comfortable with.”
Later in the piece, Friedlander recalls listening to Barnett deconstruct LP1’s “Kicks.” “The first part seems really needy, really submissive, like you’re sitting around waiting for your man,” twigs says. “But then as the song unravels, it turns into a song about masturbating, and how you can please yourself better than he can please you.” Her music is frank and fearless, absent of any immediate political predilections, and motivated by a simple, voracious creative hunger that propulses her to each subsequent idea. FKA twigs disengages with topicalities of feminism, even though she does much to illicit them, but the aggressive hedonism found in tracks like EP2’s “How’s That” or LP1’s “Two Weeks” suggests something less absolute.
As a female provocateur, Twigs employs the same kind of sexually augmented identifiers that expound in more prolific artists like Beyoncé or Rihanna. In direct contrast, however, Tahliah Barnett positions herself as pop’s alien antihero, actively delineating from both aural and visual touchpoints that have manifested in the pervasive culture. She is a sexual antagonist, formidable and sly, quick to change roles or skewer our orientation, imploring us to look harder, longer and with more conviction than previously exercised. Barnett offers us something no else can, something no one else dares to, and that’s what excites people so much about this music.
At her Pitchfork set, which followed the manic, footwork cadences of Teklife’s DJ Spinn, the sizable crowd stood solid and transfixed, essentially gawking at Tahliah Barnett in her lacy black brassiere. Someone broke the silence, “She looks like a robot,” while I was perched on the VIP platform a hundred or-so yards from the stage, but soon I disembarked for the photo pit to catch a closer glimpse. I stood between the band and a metal blockade separating the crowd, most likely wearing the same gap-mouthed, dubious expression I witnessed all around, trying desperately to understand the spectacle before me. There’s a solid chance I still don’t.
Cover photo illustrations by Jacob Garner