A tiny English artist whose septum-pierced face started appearing everywhere a couple of years ago when she released her restrained, erotic EP1. It came without fanfare or warning, to an audience who weren’t aware it was exactly what they wanted until they heard it.
In preparation for her debut album LP1, FKA twigs (real name Tahliah Barnett) spent two years since honing her craft and whetting her audience’s appetite with another EP and a handful of expertly crafted but-still-very-mysterious videos (for example, the clip for ‘Papi Pacify’ in which a hand literally covers most of her face for the entire song).
She describes the album as “a good stamp”, going on to say: “this is the best thing that I could do in that moment, that’s the level that I could reach”. Considering it has received high critical acclaim since it was released last week, it seems most people, in most places, agree with her.
Every single thing that has happened in her life, from frequenting youth clubs, to working in youth clubs, to training as a professional dancer, to bizarre, stalker-y encounter with her future label manager, has been the groundwork her for a career in performance and music.
FKA twigs grew up in Gloucestershire — t a very green place. There are lots of tractors and there are lots of animals and that’s pretty much it. It’s really pretty and it’s really quiet. FKA twigs grew up there and started doing ballet when she was seven or eight and through my dancing – she took it really seriously and did it to quite a high level – she was able to get to London and do dance competitions and explore more of the UK other kids who are from where she was from.
She knew as a child that she was going to end up moving somewhere. When she was living there the university wasn’t even up and running yet, so it was the kind of place where you grow up, and you stay there, and you marry the boy that you fancied from high school and you have kids, and then your kids go to the same school you both did. She knew that she wanted to get out and as soon as she was old enough. She moved to London and never really went back. After she’d been in London for a few years she went to LA and to New York – she just really wanted to know what was out there.
My mum has always been really creative and she really encouraged me to be creative as a kid. We didn’t always have everything – we didn’t have lots of money, and there were no big family holidays or large amounts of extravagance – but my mum and step-dad always let me know that no matter what I did they would always love and support me, even if it wasn’t very conventional. I was good in school, when I used to go – I used to bunk off a lot! Yeah, I was terrible, but it was never to do nothing! It was always because I wanted to go to dance class or to finish a drawing that I’d started at home, so I’d just be like: “I want to stay at home and finish my drawing”, and my mum kinda let me do what I wanted; she didn’t mind as long as I had my nose stuck in a book or was doing something that would help me one day. It was perfect for me to have a mum who wasn’t really strict about school.
My biological father is really creative as well. I didn’t meet him until I was 18 but he’s been a crucial part of my life. Obviously there are genetics at work because his creativeness has definitely rubbed off on me: he’s a jazz dancer and he’s made music. He’s a wayward creative person who always has really good ideas.
I’m lucky even though my family is really weird – I come from a really strange and broken family – it’s perfect. All of the cracks in my family are perfect, even though it’s been hard, it’s made me who I am. When you’re a teenager you hate it and you can be so conflicted by anything that’s other than ‘normal’ – you’re so hurt by it. But now, as an adult, I think it’s so wonderful.
And what did you do when you moved to London?
I started making music in youth clubs when I was 16 back home. When I moved to London I started going to youth clubs as well, and then when I was a little older I became a youth worker and helped other young people make music the way I was taught. That’s how I got into music, really: I used to work with young people, and even if they couldn’t sing I’d help them write poetry to help them express themselves and the things they were going through.
It must be quite amazing seeing the potential in these kids and to help them achieve it?
It was completely amazing but at the same time it was completely heartbreaking because the government changed in England and then all of the funding got cut. Literally overnight I got sacked because there was no money. All of the classes stopped and there were no facilities to do them in. It was really heartbreaking but in a way – just trying to look on the bright side – it was what I needed to concentrate on myself. I was teaching five times a week and then, obviously, if I was writing songs with like four other people the last thing I wanted to do was come home and concentrate on my own work. I just wanted to come home and watch something mindless on TV.
Youth work is really hard too because you do get sucked into everyone’s stories. Sometimes you’ll be working with someone for two months and they’re really getting somewhere, and then they just don’t come back, and there’s no explanation – they’re just gone.
Oh man, that sounds awful!
Yeah, it can be really hard and it definitely made me very tired, but in a weird emotional way, even though I wasn’t crying or anything.
And it requires a lot of emotion when you’re doing your own creative thing, and it must be hard to be able to do that when you’re giving so much of it to these kids right?
Tell me about the early days of making music. What stuff were you making and what were you being inspired by?
It’s hard to say what I was inspired by and what I was into – I just used to write. I’ve been making music for ten years and I think I just love writing, and words came really easily – I’d just be able to write and write and write. I used to love English at school and I used to read a lot and I think that helped. When I started the music was horrible though! I got to 23 or 24, and I doubted whether any of this was going to happen for me. I got signed just before my 25th birthday and just before I got signed I didn’t think anybody was ever going to hear my music, but I thought to myself that I just had to get more sonically involved otherwise I’m never going to be happy and nobody is going to care about what I’m trying to do. Because of my lack of skill I make heaps of mistakes, but I love making mistakes because it’s always at a point where I’m stuck trying to do something, and I’ll put the wrong effect on something, on the wrong channel, and all of a sudden I’m like “this sounds amazing!”.
But seriously, two years ago I thought that this was never going to happen. I remember having a conversation with my step-dad and being like: “I’m going to be a wedding singer”. Seriously! I got a friend to make me a logo, and I thought I was going to have to get some photographs and that I was going to have to take out my all my piercings, because I had to start earning a proper wage. You know, I was coming to my mid-20s and I thought that’s when you have to start being a bit more sensible. I used to do all these bizarre, underground cabaret clubs where all these circus kids would go and perform. There’s kind of this weird underground cabaret scene that I was part of for two years. I was like: “this is me, this is what I’m going to have to do”. It’s not performing – I’m singing ‘Wanna make Love To You’, and I’m wearing a blue dress with Swarovski crystals all over it and high heels and a red lip, you know what I mean? I was like: “I’m going to have to do this forever”. And that was absolutely fine.
I would talk to Romanian girls who had been in the circus from when they were five years old and they were contortionists and could shoot apples, using bows and arrows, from their feet, whilst in a handstand! I used to sit backstage and talk to them for hours and hours about where they’d been and all the places they’ve travelled to with the circus. Drag queens taught me how to do my make-up, too: I can put false eyelashes on really well because all the drag queens would teach me how.
Was there a moment where it felt like it all came together? Where you were like: “Yes! This is how I imagined it!”?
I think all of EP1 was that point. I’d never really done music before then. I worked with a guy called Tic [Dodgson] on EP1 who also works at my record label Young Turks. I didn’t know he was A&R [artists and repertoire] at my record label because he’s so wild and he’s crazy. I met him in a club and he just wouldn’t stop pestering me and I was like “who is this guy?”. I remember I was in New York and he was messaging me over and over again and I was like: “OMG this guy is a stalker!”. Then eventually I was like: “fine, I’ll meet up with you”. It was absolutely pouring down with rain that day, and we said we were going to meet really early at like 10.30 in the morning and I walked all the way to Dalston, which is a long way away from my house, in the rain, and he didn’t turn up for three hours. I was just sitting on the doorstep of this studio For. Three. Hours. He’d gone out the night before and I was just sitting there in the rain and his phone was off, but somehow I just knew he’d turn up. When we got inside it wasn’t even a studio, it was like the black hole of death with some speakers in it. I can’t even describe to you what it was. It was the darkest place I’d ever been in, underground in some weird warehouse. We went in there and just started talking and playing each other some music and he was amazing. He just listened and we started working together. That’s how EP1 was made.
I remember when EP1 came out and we were all like “who is this girl”? Was it part of the plan to create such mystery around who you are?
No, but I really hate the idea of pushing my music onto people. I don’t want people to be force fed it. Today in the music industry there’s a lot of “ramming music down people’s throats” and I’ve never really liked that approach – if you play a song enough times to someone they’re going to start singing it and they’re going to start liking it, it’s only natural. But I’ve never been about that – I want people to discover it in their own way; maybe they’ll look at the visuals, maybe they discover one song, and maybe they discover all of the songs. I had this idea of making a map across all of the internet and having different websites for my different songs – like one website only has one song on it and you have to go around the internet discovering the album.
And you didn’t do any interviews or anything, either…
Well, I wanted to concentrate on my music, too. Now that I’ve finished my record it’s fine – there’s not as much pressure to write and release an album. So now I don’t mind doing press and opening up but before, without an album and as a female artist, the focus can be all on the wrong things. I don’t care about anything else other than making music.
Was it a concern of yours that as a female artist you weren’t going to be taken seriously or you were going to be written about for the wrong reasons?
The thought did cross my mind, but any journalist that would belittle what I’m doing is a moron. If you’re going to reduce me to a puppet then I think that’s lazy journalism. That’s absolutely fine if that’s someone’s opinion of me, I don’t care because I know that there’ll be another person at the other end of the world that will see how hard I work and the meaning behind my music.
Was there anything you wanted to achieve on the album LP1, sonically, or thematically, or otherwise?
To be the main producer across the whole record was a dream of mine and to write every single lyric and every single melody. On EP1 and EP2 I didn’t sing properly – maybe it was just because of the quality of the microphones I was singing into, and maybe it was because of my own insecurities, but I would never sing properly. People would always say: “I want to hear your lyrics!”, and I wanted to make a conscious effort to articulate a bit more and improve as a vocalist. I just wanted to be the best I could be in that moment. LP1 is a good stamp, it’s like: this is the best thing that I could do in that moment, that’s the level that I could reach. I still have so much more to work on and I know I could work harder and learn more things but at that moment I think I did the best I could have done based on my circumstances, within my reach, and that’s all I really wanted to do.
The first thing that struck me when I listened to the album is how honest it is. The lyrics feel so bare. Is that something that you feel, too, or comes naturally to you?
I don’t really think about it and I just write and whatever it is, it is. Sometimes the lyrics are really fun – actually, I guess that’s not true. I was going to say ’Give Up’ is quite fun, but now I’m thinking of the lyrics and they’re actually quite serious haha.
Are there any themes throughout the album?
I was waiting at the bus stop, in my gym gear, and a guy saw me and came up to me and said “I can’t believe it’s you, and you’re just sitting at a bus stop!”. I told him that I was just like every other girl around; like every other girl who waits for the bus stop. Absolutely nothing has changed in my life.