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FKA twigs talks Social Work, Drag Queens and Making it in Music

Which have all been part of our cover star's path to world domination.
By Courtney Sanders, 06 Aug 2015
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FKA twigs talks Social Work, Drag Queens and Making it in Music

Acne Studios polo neck top, Slim Barrett metal pearl trimmed waistcoast

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Photography: Dima Hohlov
Fashion: Karen Clarkson
Make-up: Soichi at Saint Luke using Bumble & Bumble
Hair: Naoko Scintue at Saint Luke using MAC Pro
Nails: Imarni at Saint Luke using Ciate

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“Two years ago I had a conversation with my Step Dad, and told him that I was going to be a wedding singer; I told him I was going to be a wedding singer for the rest of my life," explains FKA twigs, real name Tahliah Barnett, over the phone. I chortle – yes, embarrassingly, I chortle; a kind of awkward marriage between snorting and laughing – in response to this comment from a 26 year-old on the brink of becoming internationally adored. “I'm serious!" She exclaims. “I got a friend to make me a logo, and I thought I was going to have to get some photographs shot, and take all of my piercings out. I used to perform at these bizarre, underground cabaret clubs where all these circus kids would perform. It wasn't proper performing; I would sing Wanna Make Love to You while wearing a blue dress with Swarovski crystals all over it, with high heels and a red lip, you know what I mean?" Sort of, but considering her dreadlock hair, septum piercing and penchant for leather today, it's quite a hard image to conjure. “I was like 'I'm going to have to do this for the rest of my life, and it's not what I planned but it's absolutely fine'."

Down the line from 4AD, her record label's offices in London, it's pretty apparent Tahliah is that evasive, mystical, breed of human: a creative with her shit together. She esoterically describes her passion for music, and to a lesser (but still very intense) extent, dance, while also matter-of-factly explaining her rise, and the realistic alternatives open to someone who doesn't “make it" in an in industry that's notoriously hard to “make it" in.


It's the dichotomy she was raised with, too, in rural Gloucestershire, amid “lots of tractors and lots of grass", by a Spanish dance teacher-Mother, and hard-working Step Dad. “It's the kind of place where you grow up and stay there. You marry the boy you fancied at high school, and you have kids, and your kids go to the same school you went to," she explains. “I knew that I wanted to get out, and as soon as I was old enough I moved to London and never really went back." She started taking ballet classes when she was little, which offered her an occasional, metropolitan reprieve. “I started doing ballet when I was seven or eight and through my dancing – I took it really seriously and did it to quite a high level - I was able to get to London and do dance competitions and explore more of the UK than other people who come from where I come from," she explains.

She credits her Mum, a spirited woman herself, for nurturing her creative vision. “I was good in school, when I used to go, but I used to bunk off a lot," she, kinda reluctantly, admits. “I know, I know, I was terrible! But it was never to do nothing! It was always because I wanted to go to dance class or finish a drawing that I'd started at home. It was bad because my Mum pretty much let me do what I wanted; if I was staying home from school she didn't really mind, as long as I was doing art course-work or had my nose stuck in a book. I don't know, maybe for another kid that approach would be irresponsible, but for me, because my mum knew what type of child I was, she knew it would be perfect." She met her biological father when she was 18 and any lingering doubts about why she is who she is were vanquished. “Obviously there are genetics at play, because his creativeness has definitely been passed onto me. He's a jazz dancer and he's made music; he's a wayward creative person who always has really great ideas and stuff," she explains. “I come from a really strange and broken family but for me it's perfect. Even though it's been hard, all of the cracks in my family are perfect – they've made me who I am."


The Conservatives won the 2010 general election and proceeded to abolish funding for youth organisations (along with everything else vaguely arts-related), and Tahliah found herself unemployed, and with time on her hands. “Literally, overnight, I got sacked because there was no money. All of the classes stopped and there were no facilities to do them in," she explains. “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 doing it like five times a week and then obviously, if I'm writing songs with four other people, the last thing I want to do is to come home and concentrate on my own work; I just wanted to come home and watch something mindless on TV."

Good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait. Around the same time Tahliah was planning her Wedding Karaoke Takeover, help arrived, in the form of a crazy stalker man. “I didn't know he was in A&R at my record label - he's so wild and crazy! I met him in a club and he just wouldn't stop pestering me. 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!'" she explains, describing respected producer, and A&R at Young Turks, Tic Zogson. “Eventually I was like 'fine, I'll meet up with you'. It was absolutely pouring down with rain on the day we arranged to meet, and we'd arranged to meet really early, at like 10.30 in the morning. I walked all the way to Dalston, which is quite far 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," she exclaims. “He'd gone out the night before and his phone was off, but somehow I just knew he'd turn up."


These early recording sessions, in “not even a studio, it was a black hole of death with speakers in it", became EP1, and were released online at the end of 2012. And a mystical figure was born. I was editing a music website at the time and wrote this very inspired news post about her: “Twigs [she had to add FKA to her moniker after another artist, named Twigs, complained] is a very mysterious solo artist from the UK who has released a couple of music videos, a couple of live photos, and absolutely zero press releases." Everything we could find out about her, which was limited to her music, and her burgundy lips and décolletage care of EP1's artwork, fuelled our interest. I ask Tahliah if this was on purpose? “No way. I really hate the idea of pushing my music onto people; I love it when people discover it for themselves. In the music industry today 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 with me I've never been about that – I want people to discover it in their own way."

The Internet interest for FKA twigs is comparable to the interest surrounding Grimes and the interest surrounding Lorde at the beginning of their careers, and it's got less to do with them all being young women, and much more to do with what they're all saying, and how they're saying it. Last year Stereogum published an article in which they coined the term 'monogenre' to describe young artists, Grimes, Lorde, FKA twigs included (they also included a collaboration between Coldplay and Rihanna as an example of this 'monogenre', which only just worked in their favour), who are writing music in the same way the Internet presents it: digitally, and without differentiation between genre or style. And people, used to consuming music via an endless flow of image links and videos on Tumblr, or via iTunes, or via Vimeo channels, are totally digging this new, democratic sound.


As on her album, FKA twigs has something going on in her visuals and in her video clips. Like Grimes and like Lorde, but, of course, completely different to both of them, she can translate huge ideas into compact little pieces, and Tahliah's visual direction, somewhat ironically, coincided with her blue Swarovski-encrusted dress days, performing in those underground Burlesque clubs. “Drag queens taught me how to do my make-up. I can put false eyelashes on super well because all the drag queens would teach me how to do it, and how to put my lip liner on, and they also taught me how to do my hair, all while I was sitting backstage." She also, as an insane aside, made friends with “Romanian girls who have been in the circus since they were five years old and now they're contortionists and can shoot apples from bows and arrows, with their feet, while in a hand-stand." Tahliah's transition from singing other people's songs into singing her own, a kind of modern, ugly duckling-to-swan transformation, is palpable throughout LP1: on Video Girl for example, insidious, thwomping (but y'know, a restrained kind of thwomping) supports sentiments like “the camera's on you, ain't that enough" and “Looking at the game, trying to make a stand", before breaking down into “You're lying, you're lying, you lie".

And while we're busy selling her into the fame game, all of her experiences, from her upbringing to her dalliances with contortionists, mean that she certainly isn't buying. “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!''' she explains. “I told him that I'm just like every other girl around, like every, single, other girl who waits at the bus stop." The wonderful thing about FKA twigs, despite her excellent album, her opulent video clips and her photo shoots for like, all of the magazines, is that she still vehemently believes this.

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Liked this? Read these articles about female musicians:

1) Lykke Li is Having a Quarter-Life Crisis Too

2) St Vincent Talks Internet Trolling and Why People in Byron Bay Wear Tie Dye

3) Talking Teen Angst and Pink Floyd with SOAK

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