FKA twigs is a lightning-don’t-strike-twice kind of musician: Her music combines realism and the avant-garde, abrasiveness and vulnerability, intellect and instinct. Born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, she got her stage name during her career as a dancer, from the way her joints cracked when she was warming up (the FKA part stands for “formerly known as”). She danced professionally through her teen years, then she quit to make music full-time. She taught herself to produce music and to direct videos; today, she produces most of her songs and controls all her videos and imagery. The fruit of all her hard work is a very personal world that is completely magical and unique, as heard on EP1, EP2, and her latest, the excellent LP1.
This is the second time I’ve spoken to twigs, and each time I’ve been struck by how cool she is. In conversation, she’s a little shy and quiet, but very honest and thoughtful, and when she gets a little more comfortable, she talks and jokes like you’re family. This time around, we talked about being a lifelong professional artist, body image and beauty standards, and what becoming an adult means to her.
JULIANNE: You started dancing when you were a kid, right?
FKA TWIGS: Yeah. I was just really drawn to it in a really bizarre way. I begged my mum to take me to ballet class for years, but she was a dancer and she didn’t want me to get like, sucked into that whole world. But she gave in when I was eight, and I got into ballet and jazz. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t really be a ballet dancer, so I just took it into my own hands to discover the style of dance that suited me.
Why couldn’t you be a ballet dancer?
I don’t have a ballet dancer’s body. My bum sticks out, my pointe isn’t great. I’m sure if I were brought up in New York or London or another city in which they cater to people of different ethnic origins, it wouldn’t have been a thing. I would have just been able to dance and look beautiful within my ability. But I grew up in the country, and back then, when I was 12, you had to be, like, white and blond and a rake and not have an ass and have a pelvis that could tuck under for days. And my body’s just not made like that.
Were you dancing professionally when you were a teenager?
A bit, yeah. I’d gotten my first professional dance gig when I was 13, and I guess there was that fear that my mum had—that world just kind of sucked me up, and I spent the years between 13 and 16 going to London to do dance jobs and modeling jobs that were based on dancing and music. By the time I got to like 15, 16, I was very disillusioned about what I wanted to do. I was feeling really lost, and thinking that I just wanna be normal. I just wanna be a normal person, and not do all these things. So I just stopped. Because I wasn’t that kid—I never wanted to be on The Mickey Mouse Club or get that type of attention.
So I just gave it up. I went to Croydon College, did my A-levels, and started singing in youth centers and doing youth work, teaching other young people how to play music and write poetry and how to sing. I was a youth worker for like two or three years, then the government cut the funding, so I got sacked, basically.
I was really upset, because that was my job! I wanted to be an art therapist, I wanted to work with youth and work in the social sector. When it stopped, it was devastating, but it also made me realize I could do things myself, on my own terms. I can dress how I like and make the music that I like, and I can produce it if I want to. I can be a video director as well. I can do all these things.
I think there’s this perception that if you’re a studio geek—if you know loads about production, or you know loads about cameras and can direct all your stuff, or if you’re a songwriter who knows loads about lyrics and stuff—then you can’t get your nails done and you can’t get your hair done and you can’t, like, dress like this. And I just realized that that wasn’t true. So when I started making music and videos, it was on my own terms. I’m 26, and that’s not old for what I’m doing, but it’s not young either—there has been this whole idea for a few years that to be a female artist you have to be like 21, but I don’t really feel like that. I feel like I know exactly what I want, and no one can tell me to do anything I don’t want to do or pose in a way I don’t like or make a song or write something I don’t want to. I guess I got to the point where it’s all me, and only I am to blame, and that feels really great. And if something goes wrong, I am to blame as well—it was my stupid decision, you know what I mean? It feels great! To know that everything is of yourself. Every single decision that I’ve made to become the artist that I’ve become is because I really know what I want, I’m really ambitious, and I really want to be in charge of everything creatively.