One month before we meet, FKA twigs, sitting in an east London cafeÌ, threatened to quit interviews for good. "I can't do it," she told an alarmed Sunday Times writer, staking out the border between her public and private lives. "It makes me feel nutty."
The dispute, sparked by a question about her rumored engagement to actor Robert Pattinson, testifies to a mounting frenzy around Tahliah Barnett. A former backup dancer for Kylie Minogue and Ed Sheeran, the 27-year-old has harnessed underground subcultures past and present -- from '80s NYC vogueing to Tricky's trip-hop mysticism to the dreamier outskirts of UK grime -- to radically reinterpret pop. Despite her inventive tastes, she's found a broad fan base spanning Tumblr diehards and mainstream dabblers -- some drawn to her vulnerability, others to the boldness with which she performs it. In addition to three virtuosic EPs and a well-loved full-length, last year's LP1, twigs recently expanded her pop culture empire with two multidisciplinary projects: Soundtrack 7, an ambitious dance endeavor encompassing the rehearsal, performance and real-time documentation of a new piece every day, and Congregata, her celebration of vogue, krump and bone-breaking staged in London and New York.
Born in rural Gloucestershire, South West England, Barnett is a self-described "country girl" whose capacity for creative expression vastly exceeds her desire to discuss it. In her videos, which she often directs or co-directs, twigs alternately satirizes and subverts sexual dynamics, presenting herself as a helpless porcelain doll ("Water Me"), a matriarch ("Glass & Patron") or a gilded goddess ("Two Weeks"), as if to demonstrate her total mastery over her own body. Sometimes, as her visuals challenge gendered notions of power and control, the music induces a state of ecstatic surrender. Her work feels utopian, hinting at a safe space for radical self-invention. The songs threaten to climax but more often collapse suddenly into negative space, where they're resurrected from the sparest elements. To listen in is to hover in a space of constant becoming. "I could take you over the edge," she seems to tease, "but you couldn't handle it." She's probably right.
We spoke on a Tuesday evening in the dressing room of a North London photo studio. Right now, twigs is hunkered over a takeout dish of steamed fish and vegetables, winding down from a five-hour shoot. In spite of her music, Barnett avoids addressing the political subtexts of race and sexuality in her art, preferring such tangible subjects as her peers and process. As a result, her most animated moments come when you least expect them. At one point, midway into a sermon on the virtues of health food -- "Being on tour, you have to be strict: sushi, tuna, sea bass and vegetables" -- she suddenly yanks the handbrake, saying, "But I do love cake." It's clearly a point of pride, because she elaborates on the theme -- "I mean, I love it" -- before leaning forward and catching my gaze with a look that says: "Please accept this deep truth." Seconds pass, and her expression melts into a dreamy sort of yearning before she concludes, "Cake's amazing."
PAPER: We're talking about Nowstalgia in this issue, and the way the past continually informs the present. Since you've been wary of appropriation in the past, I'm interested in how you went about respectfully incorporating vogue culture into Congregata and the "Glass & Patron" video.
FKA TWIGS: With vogue, it's because I've done the roots properly. I made friends with a guy called Derek Prodigy, and I said, "Will you show me some moves?" So I got a studio, and I started going to Kiki balls [an entry-level vogue subculture], dancing a little bit, but not competing. I've never done a battle, because I'm not good enough yet. If I went and walked in a ball, I'd get chopped. You have to freestyle for so long, sometimes for 15 minutes. It's been two years and I can probably only do two and a half minutes. And then I'd be like, [imitates drowning person] "Sorry, I ran out of moves!"
PAPER: Were there precedents in pop for your performance? Early BjoÌrk comes up a lot in your press.
TWIGS: Obviously BjoÌrk is a very sexual and beautiful woman, but she often keeps her sexy on a down-low. I don't really do that. I throb. Do you know what I mean? I have that throbbing energy, and I accept it, and I harness it when I need to. It's not even a conscious thing.
PAPER: People seem to connect viscerally, even though the shows are quite abstract. You seem to cultivate a different relationship from, say, the Taylor Swift model, where the hook is how much you want to be her friend.
TWIGS: I think Taylor Swift is great, but I wouldn't necessarily think, "Oh my god, I have to be friends with her." When I meet fans, they're quite creative and intelligent, kind, sensitive. Some are old ladies, witch doctors from Louisiana, kids that have just left art school. Gay or lesbian couples, straight middle-aged couples...
PAPER: Does that breadth reflect something about your work?
TWIGS: I'm honest, and that comes out. Honest people come in lots of different types and they relate to things that aren't straightforward. I'm happy that people can roll with me, give me a chance, and let me explain my songs through my visuals. But I don't even like calling fans "fans." It's like, [pulls face ] Ugh, fans. [laughs] It's just people that like your music.
PAPER: When you're a fan, though, you feel like one. You're in awe and you feel secondary.
PAPER: Do you remember hanging around after shows to meet famous people?
TWIGS: I never did that! I never went to any shows. I went to ballet class, or opera lessons. I was a bit too focused when I was a kid.
PAPER: What were you obsessed with outside your own stuff?
TWIGS: Probably Marlon Brando or someone like that. Even then, half those people were dead, so I knew the limitations of that relationship. I've never had that, "Oh my god, I've gotta wait backstage!" There is one person: I met Prince when he did a little show at Paisley Park in Minneapolis, where I supported him. I was a little bit like, "Wow. I met Prince." Because he is, obviously, so epic. But even then, he just gave me some black currant juice and we played table tennis.
PAPER: You've said you were always a confident performer, even though you're naturally quite shy.
TWIGS: Once you get over the initial shock that the world could potentially be watching, it's fine. Obviously, there's that moment where your first video goes viral, and before you know it, 500,000 people have watched you. You freak out about it, you go and tell your best friend... but then you start chatting about something else and you forget. I'm not affected by what fans would think, or by people critiquing what I do.
PAPER: Who are you doing it for, if not fans?
TWIGS: For my kids, probably.
PAPER: In the Michael Jackson-at-the-Super Bowl sense?
TWIGS: Not the children of the world; I mean the children that I haven't had yet. [pats her stomach] I'm quite traditional. You know that saying, "You can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out of the girl"? I grew up in Gloucestershire, and there's a certain format that people fit into. And I'm actually quite happy with that format. I'm quite happy to say, "Go to school, work hard on your GCSEs, do your A-Levels, get married, have children. Send your kids to a nice school. Make sure you're in the right catchment area."
PAPER: Have you always been like that?
TWIGS: I think so. I just like working hard and learning things. I do this because I want my children to have a nice life, and I want my children's children to have a nice life. And I want my grandkids to be proud of what I've achieved. And I want to be a role model, but not for the world. I don't mind about that -- that'll come or it won't come. It's no different from being a car salesman. Imagine if I said to a car salesman, "Why are you doing that?" [They'd say] ''Cos I want to work hard, and I want to have a nice life, and when I have kids, I want to be able to buy a house." It's still the same values. You're looking at me like I'm mad.
PAPER: I don't think you're mad. I'm surprised though.
PAPER: Because your art seems to raise questions beyond yourself.
TWIGS: What kind of questions?
PAPER: The way you present yourself in your music and videos -- your body, feelings, desires -- feels sort of radical. When you mentioned kids, I assumed you wanted to shift an ideal for future generations. To make the world a more welcoming place for somebody like you.
TWIGS: I don't really look at it in terms of the world. It's amazing to create a platform for people I think are talented, whether it's my dancers or other musicians I know, but it's not a drive. It's just something that feels fun with your friends. It makes you less lonely.
PAPER: As you get more popular, is it tempting to think about those friends in terms of what they represent, rather than as individuals?
TWIGS: The thing is, I'm not a heavy person. Imagine it's this simple: someone is really good at fixing cars, and you're going to quiz them about how they fix a car. They'd be, like, [mimicking a Dickensian urchin] "Cor, I dunno, really. Me dad taught me this when I was a kid and then I got my first motor when I was 15..." That is literally how it is for me. Which isn't to say I don't take great care over what I do. I know what I'm good at and I know what I need to get better at. But I don't think in terms of a movement.
PAPER: What do you want to get better at?
TWIGS: Probably writing songs, or producing. Or classical dancing, contemporary dancing. Vogueing. I need to get better at being in front of the camera, not feeling awkward if I go on the red carpet. Or when it's one of those moments where you're suddenly the center of attention. It's fine like this -- if you're talking to me, I don't feel awkward. But if it's loads of people, like, "twigs! twigs!" I don't... I need to get better at that. I need to get better at talking to people in groups. If I go to a party or dinner party, not feeling like I have to be really quiet. I need to get better at texting people back. I need to get better at relaxing. I don't get much time off, but even if I get one evening, I'm like, "I will hand wash everything I own."
PAPER: When you covered Sia's "Elastic Heart" on Radio1 earlier this month month, I saw some Internet dude tweet, "Nah, not feeling FKA twigs. Bit of a wet blanket." The fact that that was a voice of dissent, rather than the status quo, felt like some kind of victory.
TWIGS: Totally. I mean, to do what I do, to put out music into the world and put yourself at the forefront of a feeling, you've got to be so brave anyway. Let alone to not just write a song [that is] like, "Baby baby, I love you maybe maybe/ Can I be your girl, let me rock your world." To write things that are, like, "Fuck, that was inside, now it's out," you have to be so brave, because ultimately you're going to get people throwing rocks at your babies -- throwing rocks at your songs, your feelings.
PAPER: You have to keep putting your babies out there.
TWIGS: Yeah, because it doesn't matter, you know? And because you can't do anything that everybody likes. You can't make shoes everybody likes. Me and my mates, we do whatever we wanna do. And actually, I think there's something quite punk about that. Not screaming into a mic or wearing leather straps every day, but doing whatever the fuck I wanna do. So to me, that's punk. That's not a wet blanket.
Read our second cover story with Grace Jones here!