Siren Songs
FKA twigs and her music of desire

by Mark Mordue

When I go to church, I pray to FKA twigs. In the strange ways of this new digital world being born around us, I discover she is praying back to me. All of us gods and goddesses, out there floating in the cathedral web. Lost, or meeting, in space.

To listen to FKA twigs is to be brought in so close it can become uncomfortable. Across a phosphorous electronic landscape dominated by futuristic percussion weaves and flecks of industrial sound, her sugar glass voice (glassy enough to break) speaks of sex and love, domination and submission – and the queer, unexpected turns of power such shifting ways of being can involve.

Never quite fixed, always fluid, the FKA twigs aesthetic is pure, beautiful, siren song.

I’m not sure I have ever heard another artist so intent on expressing their concerns about sex, love and power. Every track is a dialogue with herself and an ‘other’, between twigs and an obscure object of desire, be it a lover, her shadow self, or both.

Antecedents and parallels are easy to cite. The nocturnal, almost dripping, trip-hop densities of Massive Attack and Tricky; the sub-sonic melodic drive of The xx; the electronic moods of glitchy UK torch singers like James Blake and Sampha. Madonna and Beyoncé remain the obvious references for the mainstream, though FKA twigs has joked “I’m an underground artist moonlighting as a pop star.” We shall see.

Lyrically, twigs makes use of unfinished sentences, half-erased sentiments (as if words have been purposely removed), and repetitive, nervy invocations. This only heightens the intimate sense of shadows and tensions in her music. She seems constantly on the verge of the sacred and profane, on a closeness that edges into the unspeakable. In the common parlance of fans from Reddit chat rooms to BBC Radio 1 documentaries, FKA twigs’ music is simply “great to fuck to”.

Possibly, it’s this body politic, this deep consciousness embedded in the erotic, that made Anupa Mistry of Pitchfork end her review of FKA twigs last EP, 2015’s M3LL155X, with this declaration: “Role models aren’t universal, but if we need a feminist pop star… twigs is it.”

Real name Tahliah Barnett, twigs small-town upbringing in the country lanes and fields of Gloucestershire was starkly relieved by holiday visits to her father in Birmingham where she was exposed to that city’s renowned garage and dub music scenes. Growing up as the only mixed-race child – her father is Jamaican, her mother English but of Spanish heritage – in her primary and high school, she developed an inevitable sense of apartness and alien awareness that her music seems to now play off.

Trained in ballet and tap, twigs picked up her stage moniker from her years as a professional dancer, a nickname that arose from the bone-cracking sounds that sometimes came with her moves. Now 31, she has spoken of a realisation in her early 20s that it wasn’t so much dancing that she loved, it was the music she was dancing to. You can hear that sensibility underlining even the most slowed-down and sparse electronic songs, the snap and the crack, the cross-hatched blend of jagged and liquid motions present in her arrangements and vocals.

With her stunning first recordings EP1 (2012) and EP2 (2013), it was as if FKA twigs had arrived fully formed. Her image was dramatically strong, blending Jean Paul Gaultier fashion edges with warrior looks and something futuristically pagan. While her first EP was entirely self-produced, her second brought in the cutting-edge Venezuelan DJ and transgressive performance artist Arca. When her debut album, LP1, landed in 2016, twigs co-produced everything with collaborators like Arca and one-time Beyoncé producer BOOTS. LP1 was unsurprisingly short-listed for the UK’s most prestigious music award, the Mercury Prize, and favoured on critical best-of lists across Europe and the USA.

Yet after such a hyper productive and lauded beginning, FKA twigs stopped performing live in late 2016. No fresh original material has emerged since the release of the M3LL155X EP, apart from a February 2016 single, ‘Good to Love’. In a detailed Instagram post last May, twigs revealed that in December 2017 she had undergone laparoscopic surgery for the removal of six fibroid tumours from her uterus: “The nurse said the weight and the size was like being six months pregnant,” she wrote.

“I tried to be brave but it was excruciating at times and to be honest I started to doubt if my body would ever feel the same again,” twigs told her fans. “I was so scared, despite lots of love from friends and family I felt really alone and my confidence as a woman was knocked.” Empathising with other women who might have been through the same thing, she added, “I just wanted to say after my experience that you are amazing warriors and that you are not alone. You can get through this.”

The first step for twigs was to restore her body strength. Video posts of her pole dancing and doing martial arts emphasized the new powers. In the same month of May came a remarkable four-minute promotional video for Apple HomePod directed by Spike Jonze. Dancing to Anderson .Paak’s ‘Till It’s Over’, twigs featured as an exhausted commuter arriving back at her apartment, where she is endowed by the ecstasies of music with space-altering telekinesis as she dances through and stretches the physical confines of her home.

By the end of 2018 it was clear twigs was accelerating again, delivering a quarterly Instagram zine called AVANTgarden and featuring on ‘Fukk Sleep’, an icy new single by the American rapper A$AP Rocky. Her performance at Carriageworks for Vivid this June will be among her first in almost three years – a show that relaunches FKA twigs in full 2019 style.

This is a very exciting thing to contemplate. Live her three-piece band eschew the glow of laptops for the percussive intensity of SPDs, a rhythmically created and sampled sound that is at once synthetic and raw. There are no backing tracks; everything is happening as you hear it. Beyond her music, twigs has consistently focused on the power of her imagery, evident in her krumping and vogeuing moves, her fashion interests, her performance art installations, and the fetishistic video suites that have accompanied EP1, EP2 and LP1.

Twigs’ passions are rooted in her background as a developing artist in the London cabaret and circus worlds, “a very dark underground scene” where “everything is so close and so thick”. Densities which culminated in her direction of a 16-minute video for four songs from M3LL155X, a work that earnt comparisons with Bjork and Beyoncé’s wild visual narratives, as well as an enthusiastic reference to David Lynch by Rolling Stone.

In the meanwhile, twigs’ Instagram zine, AVANTgarden, has dealt with the history of braided hair, shown her starring in a super-hero comic designed by Icky H and, most recently, arrived as a fashion issue shot by Orograph in the aftermath of the ‘Fukk Sleep’ video with A$AP Rocky (can you dig her rhinestone eyebrows? her back-to-the-future John Galliano Dior outfit from his 2003 Fall collection?).

In short, FKA twigs is emerging as your classic 21st century multimedia art-pop star. If a narcissism seeps through her work, a mirror-mirror-on-the-wall intensity that almost arouses repulsion, twigs is clearly aware of it. Over four years ago she told FBi Radio: “It’s so difficult in this world to break out of yourself.” Twigs was referring to the ways people “box you in” and “define you”, how easily you can succumb to limitations and restrictions as a young woman and as an artist. Paradoxically, she also spoke of how “you can become two-dimensional if you’re obsessed with your art.”

For her, the answer was to “portray what you feel on the inside on the outside”. She was wanting to be a better person; she was seeking “softness”. All easier said than done. As she confessed: “It took me a really long time to perform as myself.”

After all she has been through, now there’s a feeling her songs of division, tension and union can only lead her forward again to something stronger, some place better. If FKA twigs is getting closer to being herself on that journey, it’s also true she’ll get even closer to that secret life of desire and love we seek – and hide from – inside ourselves.

FKA twigs performs at Carriageworks for Vivid Sydney 9 Jun 2019

Published: 19 Mar 2019