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Image: Dominic Sheldon

words Emily Carson

The main thing that seems to come up again and again when reading about FKA twigs (Formerly Known As – for legal reasons) is that she is mysterious. 

Until recently very little had been written about her in a real sense, although plenty of musings and fan-boy gushings have made their way onto the internet. Her work first appeared on YouTube and Bandcamp in 2010 with the self-explanatory EP1, and while people were captivated with her sound, it has been her hypnotic and arresting videos that have caused people to obsess over her aesthetic and sound combined.

Originally a dancer and performer from Gloucestershire, twigs has done everything from performing in Jessie J videos, on the London cabaret circuit and in BBC sketch comedy videos. Now that she’s in the driving seat as an artist she has total control over her output: co-directing her videos and choosing artists to collaborate with that are attuned to her own style. The result has been a series of fascinating and sometimes psychedelic videos. For her latest video Two Weeks, the first release from her LP1 (notice a theme?), she approached the artist and illustrator Ignasi Monreal to create an ancient-style temple background for a regal, Amazonian-sized twigs to deliver her sermon in.

She is fiercely protective of her own style and sound, involving herself in all aspects of production. For LP1 twigs wrote all the melodies and lyrics as well as collaborating with producers like Sampha, Dev Hynes and Arca. The result is exciting and experimental, with her signature breathy and vertiginous vocals coupled with a broad palette of sounds that take unexpected turns and breaks. A constant is her lush and sensual lyrical style that keeps you straining your ears to figure out just how dirty the lyrics are getting.

 Having tried to encourage twigs to summarise her stylings, I’m now loath to box her into another genre or class. The nature of the record almost prevents you from doing so as just as you feel you’ve got a handle on where something is going it takes you in a new direction. I caught up with twigs a couple of days before her performance at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and tried to see if I could pick her brains a little bit.

One of the things I’ve read over and over again about you is how mysterious you are, do you feel mysterious?

 I don’t feel mysterious. I feel quiet. I’m not mysterious because I’m in my own head, I always know what I’m thinking and what I’m doing so I’m not mysterious to myself although I might be to other people.I don’t know, I don’t really think about it, I just do what I do and do what I feel.

I think because you haven’t defined yourself publicly or put out too much information people have wanted to compare you to others, particularly with terms like the “trip-hop Sade” or “The Weeknd’s little sister”. How do you feel about those kind of comparisons?

I mean… without trying to sound too harsh, I feel like too many comparisons are just a representation of lazy journalism. I always feel that if you’re a true artist then you’re doing you and you obviously can’t be anyone else. I mean obviously you can define things that I do personally, for example with my EP1 I really thought it sounded like Chris Isaak but no one else thought that. People are much more likely to compare me to another female, mixed-race singer because that’s easy, and easy is lazy. I just don’t really like thinking about it too much. I don’t really enjoy describing the style of what it might be like or who it sounds like or what I’ve gone for because it’s different. It’s not supposed to be like other music. References don’t have to be music, references can be colours, or dance meters, or how you feel when you go to bed one night, references can be how your friends look at you. References can be anything they don’t just have to be to another female, mixed-race singer who wears red lipstick. I can’t really comment on what other people think about what I’m doing but I personally don’t think there’s much comparison.

You’ve worked with a lot of interesting producers on LP1 – can you describe your creative process and what collaboration looks like for you?

I produced Two Weeks with Emile Hainey and I worked with other people on the record like Sampha and Paul Epworth. Obviously each person has a different energy and it’s really exciting to get to know them and build a relationship even if it’s just for an intense few days in the studio. Although some of these relationships have been stretched out, like with Sampha, we only did a few days in the studio but obviously we’re signed to the same label [Young Turks] so our relationship has been growing as label mates over the past year like seeing each other in the corridor or at parties and festivals that we were both hanging out at. I guess it’s kind of exciting to come to the pinnacle of any of these relationships, producing a song and putting out the music. I suppose with anyone I work with I consider them incredibly talented and individual and I don’t really work with someone unless they’re going to meet me halfway in a collaboration because that’s what I like. If I’m going to work with someone they have to be enthusiastic and make sure things are equal between us, I don’t like if it feels as though I’m bringing too much to the table but everyone I’ve worked with really has their own thing going on.

So would you say you definitely take full control on which way the songs go and direct them?

 Well, I mean it’s my record so I make the final decision on everything, if it was their record I’d be happy to fall in line but I have to have the final say on everything whether it’s the keyboard sound or the rhythm of the snare or whatever. I mean the melodies and lyrics I always write alone and it’s my record, I don’t really understand the concept of you putting your name at the head of an album and not being in charge of the album, it seems so alien to me. I kind of think that if you’re not the person behind all of the ideas then you’re really more of an entertainer, which is also perfectly valid, but I’m not an entertainer, I’m a music artist.

It’s great that you have so much input into all facets of your brand, particularly how you chose to work with Ignasi Monreal on the Two Weeks video because you’d seen a picture of you he’d illustrated on the internet. Is it important to you to have a lot of influence ver the other aspects aside from the music?

 Yeah, I definitely get involved with everything, I usually co-direct all my videos. I mean with Nabil [Elderkin, director of Two Weeks] he obviously doesn’t need me to pitch in on directing as he’s very very experienced and extremely talented but when I knew he was going to be directing a video for me, I knew that I would control all of the aesthetics. I control the styling, I control my performance and I control the way that the art is done and that’s why I wanted to work with somebody who I already knew as an artist. When Nabil explained to me the idea of coming out of a painting – you know there’s lots of different paintings that you can come out of but stylistically it can be a nightmare – so I already knew Ignasi and I already liked his work and there’s so much delicacy in what he does and he has such incredible talent in creating atmosphere and mood and I love the colours that he uses, so it was an obvious choice.

You’ve come from a dancing background and have experience working on projects for stars like Jessie J. How did that influence you when it came to creating your own videos?

It made me realise that everything I do I want to feel, I want everything I do to be an emotion and something that other people can feel. I used to be a tiny cog in other people’s dreamwheels and I realised that everyone that I worked with… I wanted them to feel as well, to understand what I’m doing and be immersed in it and be committed to it because sometimes when I was a dancer in other people’s videos I didn’t like the song necessarily. I didn’t understand what the video was about, I often didn’t understand what the point or the message of the video was supposed to be. I was just wearing hotpants and dancing around trying to look cute. For me, I realised, that personally is not something I’m interested in. For me as an artist it’s not valid and it’s not the truth. So I just made a decision then that everyone that I work with, they have to be part of the team and be excited for the project. They need to understand that I need them just as much as they need me so that it’s a collaboration. Even if it’s another dancer like Aaron, my friend, who’s in the video for tw-ache, he’s one of my best friends in the whole world and he really cares about my music so I just feel so blessed to have such an incredible dancer who is also my friend and is so beautiful in how he expresses himself. So when we were working together it felt just as important to him and just as much his project as mine and that’s what I look for in terms of working with other dancers or choreographers or anything. I want people to be committed and 100 per cent within the moment, within the art and within the feeling and then hopefully if everyone is down for the same cause, then I think that creates a feeling that is portrayed through the video and makes the visuals so much more enjoyable. If people can feel it then I can hypnotise people with that feeling and project that everyone was completely in the moment.

It’s interesting because for all that you have a background in dancing it’s hard to imagine how that will translate into a live, stage show. Do you get up and dance? What can people expect from one of your performances?

I suppose I wouldn’t really call it dancing, it’s more like movement. My live show is hard to explain, it’s developing all the time because I haven’t done that many live performances so I wouldn’t really want to describe it as the next show could be different. All I knew was that I didn’t want anything running from a laptop, I didn’t want any click tracks and I wanted to be able to change the tempo and feeling of every single song if that’s what I wanted. The guys that are in my band, have great initiative in terms of how the audience are feeling and because we don’t play to a click track we’re not tied down by any metronome or strict rhythm so if the audience is really woozy or really sensual we can feed that by slowing a song down to suit their mood. Equally if I feel the energy needs to pick up we can take a song that might typically be a ballad and add in some extra drum counts or we can start improvising if they feel that it needs more energy and at the moment that’s the main objective in my live shows. Outside of that I’ve got so many ideas that I’m working on but as a performer, because I’ve performed for many years but this is the first time performing as twigs – as myself – and for the first time I can do whatever I want, because of that, the ideas are taking a while to develop.

Listening to the album I really got a sense of sexuality but also vulnerability which seemed so much more interesting than the type of sexuality we’re bombarded with every day. The video for Papi Pacify in particular seems to really push the envelope on what we might find sexual or shocking, what do you think about that, are you trying to be overtly sexual?

I think that what I’m doing isn’t all that shocking, it’s maybe just presenting things from another angle. When you think about pop culture and massive pop stars writhing around their videos in thongs and doing lots of things that may be perceived as being provocative but, in Papi Pacify for example, I’m not showing any of my body. I feel like it’s a different type of sexuality, more subtle. People are always talking about the sensuality and sexuality of my music and particularly the visual aspect of it but I think it’s coming from a different angle and is a lot more subtle. I find everything to be really beautiful and I want to show how beautiful things can be instead of being crass all the time. But to be honest, I don’t really think about it. I just have an idea and then I execute it. The next album might be totally different, I mean the next album might have one song that’s ridiculously driven by sexuality while the rest of the songs are completely dry, it just depends on how I feel.

FKA Twigs debut album LP1 was released in August. The closest to Stockholm she comes is Copenhagen on Oct 19.