Before FKA twigs arrived at a quaint coffee shop in Los Angeles’ Arts District, she’d been on the phone with a friend, wondering whether she was intimidating. It had been a recurring theme in the 34-year-old’s life of late – it’d come up at least three times over the previous two weeks – and she wanted to know if it was true.
Much of the mythology that’s been built around twigs over the past decade has to do with this quality, or at least the assumption of it. Her songs and videos have an enigmatic feel that can be confounding yet stunning at the same time, the kind of art that draws you in whether its precise meaning is clear or not. Unable to assign a genre that felt exactly right, some critics settled for avant-garde, a description that, by definition, suggests a level of inaccessibility. For a while, she didn’t give a lot of interviews.
But when twigs, real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett, arrives on a sunny April morning, there is little intimidating about her. There’s no security, no assistants in tow. It’s just her – petite in stature, cosy in attire, warm in manner. She immediately apologises for her slight tardiness; years of spending time in the city’s sprawl and she still underestimates just how far apart things are. Relatable. For this particular trip, she’s been in town for a few weeks, working on new music even though her last project, a kaleidoscopic mixtape titled CAPRISONGS, came out only three months earlier.
That release contains some of twigs’ most immediate music. Her moody, experimental streak is there of course, but it’s also breezy and playful – the closest thing to club jams she’s made thus far. Though it’s the soundtrack of a blurry night out with friends, these are songs born of the crushing isolation of the pandemic. It was an attempt to imagine her way out of all that uncertainty and turmoil, to manifest some semblance of normalcy and levity where none existed. But she didn’t know that at the time; her approach to creating is more like, just start and see what happens. “It’s often only after the fact that I can really talk about where I was emotionally or mentally or what the work was supposed to represent,” she says. “I see that it was like a yearning to be a side of myself that I hadn’t been for a while, and I think it was a search for connection and also reconnection with myself and my heritage. I think being Black and British is a very particular flavour.”
Raised in the spa town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, twigs has long been hyper aware of what it means to be Black and British. She was one of very few people of colour in her area, raised by her mum, who is of English and Spanish ancestry, and stepdad, who is Bajan. (Her biological father is Jamaican.) Since she was young, people have seemed to stare at her – in part due to her skin colour but also her general appearance. “I was like a really crazy-looking kid,” she says, pulling out her phone. Her mum likes to send her old pictures, and twigs soon finds one she recently received. In the photo, a baby twigs poses; she’s not so much “crazy-looking” as supremely cute and uncannily doll-like, her distinct facial features already evident. The staring continued even as she got older, but feeling outcast helped her to “get over [her]self” at a young age and figure out how to be comfortable in her own skin. Moving to London at age 17 proved a game-changer. “It was really good for my spirit just to be around loads of different types of people and different religions and everyone looking different. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, really.”
She spent a few years savouring the multicultural melting pot and being a backing dancer for pop stars like Jessie J and Ed Sheeran. In between, she was experimenting with music herself. At 19, she booked a plane ticket to LA with plans to get familiar with hip-hop’s krumping scene in the place where it originated. A British krump crew called Wet Wipez had welcomed her into their ranks – her 2014 video of the same name features them – but immersion within a culture has always been important to twigs. It can be the difference between appreciation and appropriation, between adding to rather than solely taking from. Using Facebook, she contacted Miss Prissy, a South LA native also known as the Queen of Krump, who told her where to go once she touched down. “This is before Google Maps, so I just got off the bus, just asking people like, ‘Where’s this road? Where’s this alley? Okay, like four blocks.’” Thinking about this in the era when smartphones might as well be an extra limb sounds stressful, but twigs reflects fondly on the adventure of it and how she was embraced. “I remember all of those dancers, like Worm and Tight Eyez and Prissy. And these are people that I’m still following what they’re doing, and I’m still kind of connected to spiritually.”
When she later got into voguing – see her 2015 video for “Glass & Patron” for a sample – it was a similar experience. This time, she found herself in New York City, home to the ball culture that birthed the style. “I was just going to Escuelita’s, and it was before I was even a well-known artist,” she remembers, referencing the legendary (and now closed) LGBTQ+ nightclub in Hell’s Kitchen. Among the Black and Latino purveyors of vogue, she found a comforting familiarity that reminded her of the “very queer community” that she feels most at home with back in London. “Before I was famous, the ballroom scene [in New York] kind of just took me in and wanted me to go out and wanted me to dance and show me. And I think there’s an authenticity in the spirit of being an outsider in a way, and finding family.”
Hundreds of millions of views and streams later, a Grammy nomination and, most recently, NME’s Godlike Genius award (she’s the first Black woman to receive the honour), twigs still considers herself a bit of a misfit. It’s difficult to square – how someone so loved and respected could also be under the radar. “I’ve been that, and it’s funny, because even now, in what I do, I still feel like that. Even though now I’m a more successful artist, I still feel completely on it, the fringes.”
But perhaps that’s also the paradox of any marginalised person or group. It’s being visible without being seen, consumed without being cared for, imitated without being understood. It can be frustrating and thankless, especially for those who may never be able to turn their creativity into a living, but twigs recognises the imbalance and tries to help bridge the gap. “I always want to learn, and I always want to listen,” she says. “I think subcultures and outsiders are the most important parts of society. They literally start everything.”
CAPRISONGS returns twigs to the UK. It’s her most collaborative project to date, and, likewise, many of the artists she worked with have roots here, as does much of her palette of sounds. Pa Salieu, a rapper from Coventry, lends a verse to electro-bass of “honda”; Shygirl, a rapper and DJ from South London, features on the dancehall throwback “papi bones”; Dystopia, a band from East London, appears on the whimsical pop of “which way.” The mixtape’s locality reached altogether serendipitous levels on the drill track “darjeeling,” which calls on Homerton rapper Unknown T and West Midlands singer-songwriter Jorja Smith.
Lyrically, it’s an ode to London and the liberating joy of moving from a small town to the big city; behind-the-scenes, it turned out to be a family affair when twigs and Smith realised they were cousins. “I’d never met her before, and I jumped in her car with her… and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, that’s really strange. We’ve got exactly the same kind of skin,’ twigs recalls. She noted a yellow undertone that resembled her own and figured she’d inquire about the colour of foundation Smith uses. Not thinking too much more of it, the pair recorded the song and afterwards kept hanging out and eventually became friends. “A few months later, I was on the road to go to LA and [Jorja] left me a voice note saying ‘you’re never going to believe this, but I’ve just spoken to my dad and he’s spoken to his sister and we’re related.’”
The mixtape also allowed twigs to reconnect with some of the creative quirks that had been stuffed away in service of a more cohesive aesthetic. Her previous projects all share a metallic, almost vaporous quality that traffics heavily in atmosphere; CAPRISONGS, by comparison, is a collage of textures and colours. As a listener, it sounds revelatory, like twigs doing away with years of measured restraint. To her, it’s just levelling up. “I didn’t feel trapped, I felt like I was just being myself,” she says of her previous iterations. “But I guess I just unlocked a new door, like a video game. It’s not even like I broke out. I think I just unlocked another level. It’s so good.”
Film taps into yet another side. In twigs’ own work, she’s the one responsible for building a world and then pulling everyone into it; with film, it’s already done for her and she becomes a small part of someone else’s vision. In the case of The Crow, that’s Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman, Ghost in the Shell). In this remake of the ’90s cult hit, twigs stars as Shelly Webster, the fiancée of the titular character (played by Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård of It fame), and takes it as her responsibility to bring Sanders’ ideas – which she describes as a “beautiful, romantic Gothic world” – to life as clearly as she can.
Back in London, a few weeks after our LA meet, she’s just connected with the costume designers for the film, Kurt and Bart, the duo also responsible for the superhero threads in DC Comics’ forthcoming Black Adam. They began dreaming up ideas for looks for her character, “The first day that I began to meet Shelly,” she says. She took them to Fantastic Toiles, a boutique founded by designer Nasir Mazhar and located in Forest Gate, an unassuming creative hub in East London that is far and away from the capital’s more obviously high-fashion postcodes. The Instagram for the shop reflects a well-curated, eccentric, sometimes theatrical selection of pieces. Twigs describes it as one of the only “real, genuine artistic scenes happening in London at the moment.”
“It’s sort of a celebration of fashion and art and handmade things, and everyone puts all of these clothes in a railway arch and they play gabba music,” twigs explains over Zoom, the day after her trip to the shop. “It was special because I took Kurt and Bart there and they were able to see a bit of my London that I really love.” They met a handful of designers who they may work with when it’s time to style her; it’s all still very much early days, but it’s a start. “It felt, in that way, that Shelly began to come to life, almost as if she even began to find where she might have found her clothes or friends that she might have.”
The idea of meeting someone through their fashion sense is especially well-suited for twigs. She’s as attentive to the details of her looks as she is that of her songs and videos, and it’s through her image that she imbues her music with extra gravity. This is one of the qualities that her friend and Culture Club frontman Boy George appreciates about her. “I feel like this is a time when anyone can dress up as anything, but certain artists have a kind of authenticity when they step into a certain outfit,” he says over the phone. “I’ve been seeing some amazing Black girls doing punk looks that are just so authentic, but there’s just something about that switch. I think this applies also to twigs – she’s got this alternative take on it.” On the spot, George coins the term “funky punky” to capture what he means about how she takes a reference point and transforms it into a look all her own. But it was the theatricality of her performance in the “cellophane” video that first sparked his admiration.
The release of “cellophane,” in April 2019, formally marked twigs’ return following her debut. In the accompanying music video, she pole-dances, her body carrying her into the heavens before she falls into an underworld. It’s a sublime display of healing rendered as mastery. She’d spent the year before learning the craft as she recovered from laparoscopic surgery to remove uterine fibroids, as well as sexual trauma. “[Pole dancing] was linked to certain things in my past that helped me reclaim myself as a woman and really see my body, I think, for what it could do rather than what it looked like,” she says. “I’d spent the whole of my life looking at my mirror thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t like that bit’ or ‘I wish this was different.’ And when I was pole dancing, it was the first time where I was, ‘This is who I am. My sexuality is for me.’”
Twigs incorporated pole dancing into her live shows that year. Again and again, she found freedom on the stage in the months leading up to the release of Magdalene, her second album, in November that year. At the time, listeners couldn’t help but speculate that the lyrics were about the end of her relationship with Robert Pattinson, then still best known as Edward from Twilight. In interviews, she gracefully answered questions about healing from heartache in addition to the physical ailments she’d faced. It wasn’t until December of the following year, when twigs filed a lawsuit against ex-boyfriend, the actor Shia LaBeouf, accusing him of physical and psychological abuse, that it became clear she was dealing with a lot more. It’s hard to imagine how it must’ve felt then, to be holding on to such a painful secret, discussing the past when the wounds of the present are still raw. Looking back, she’s now able to admire her composure.
“One of the greatest achievements of the whole of my life was keeping my shit together. It was one of the things that I’m most proud of, that I was able to go on tour and do interviews and stay graceful and keep that calmness,” she says. “I don’t even know if it’s right or wrong that I was able to do that. I look at that as a testament to my upbringing and a testament to how much I love my art and a testament to how much I want to show up for people that bought tickets to my gig, because sometimes it was so difficult.”
She was still touring in support of Magdalene when stories about coronavirus began to appear in the news, and she started to hear industry whispers about insurance problems in the event of future cancellations. In January 2020, she was travelling in the US and randomly decided to watch the 2011 thriller Contagion on a flight. It drove home to her the precarity of the situation. By February, she was making plans to hunker down. “I just knew it was going to be bad, and I just felt like we were being massively gaslit that this was just going to go on for six weeks, you know?”
And this is where at least one bubble gets popped. Twigs is a singular artist who has been helping to bring the peripheral to the centre and remaking music aesthetics in her image for the better part of a decade. Her songs have been featured in TV shows like Mr. Robot, Power and I May Destroy You. She has the affiliations and the accolades. By most any measure, she is successful. But – and she hesitates to share at first – she was not in an especially comfortable financial position when the pandemic hit. She’s only talking about it now because she says it’s important that people know the reality. And the reality is that she nearly lost her home.
“I came really close, and it made me pay attention and learn a lot about things that I never really paid attention to before, because I’ve always been on the go,” she says, running down the list from studio to video to press to show, rinse and repeat. Until now, the business of being twigs ran partially through Young (formerly Young Turks), the indie label she’s been signed to since the beginning, and through herself, with her partners largely working on retainers. That means when the British government was giving out loans to small businesses, she didn’t quite qualify, and when all her shows got cancelled – at least 22 in that first year alone – she had no income. “I felt like the Titanic, and I said to everybody, ‘I’m just going to keep on paying everyone until I can’t afford to pay anyone anymore.’ And ooh, it got so close.”
She relays her upbringing – growing up in a working-class family, on benefits and in social housing. A home to call her own has been a place of safety, and coming to the brink of losing it was a humbling and eye-opening experience. As she watched her bank balance tick down and down, she thought of her collaborators and the people who were relying on her. (“I wanted to do the right thing and just try to keep supporting the creatives around me,” she says.) But she also thought of herself and the journey that had led her to this point.
Before the pandemic highlighted just how thin the threads that hold a life together can be, it was easy to not think about the intricacies of this or that agreement. As long as the money was flowing and she was able to create, she could afford a little naiveté. Now, though, she says she will never, ever live that life again, and that’s a matter of learning to feel like she’s capable and worthy of participating in those discussions.
“It has been intimidating for me being a young woman running a business because I felt like I didn’t deserve to understand everything. I felt like I didn’t deserve to understand the contracts – or even, sometimes now, when you do a song, there’s royalties, publishing, there’s points, there’s who gets paid first.” It sounds daunting, but she breaks it down like it’s become second nature. She’s finally in control. “I’m learning, and I want to make my own mistakes. I don’t want other people to make mistakes and then me not understand what’s happened.”
She emphasises that this is no pity party. On the contrary, she sees the ordeal as a more positive experience than not. She saw the bottom closing in and she took the opportunity to learn from it. That she’s talking about this at all isn’t even about her – she’s bouncing back, starting a collective and recently signing a deal with Atlantic Records, which will represent her in the US where she has a larger audience. (“It’s not that I don’t feel the love in the UK, because I definitely do, but it is kind of on a different level in America,” she says.) But she wants others like her to take control of their destiny, to not be “so grateful to have a seat at the table” that they forget to read the small print.
“I think it’s important for specifically young women in a creative industry to have the confidence to understand their business and have the confidence to understand their worth and have the confidence to want more for themselves,” she says, tacking on a reminder that it’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to not be the most studied or still be in command of what aligns and what doesn’t.
It’s also for a similar reason that she came forward with her story as a survivor of domestic abuse. She doesn’t retread the horrific details, and she doesn’t need to – they are available and on the public record as part of her civil lawsuit against LeBeouf (he has claimed “many of these allegations are not true”) which is due to go to court next spring.
Never did twigs imagine going through something like that, let alone speaking about it in the open. Her intention was to release the pain so that she may once again be healed and so that others, also like her, can maybe somehow find a way to do the same. “I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt, and that trumped any way that I felt about what people may think about me now, positively or negatively.”
To that end, she lent her celebrity to an organisation called Sistah Space that provides resources to survivors of abuse with a particular focus on people of African heritage. Its operations manager, Djanomi Headley, says twigs has become “like family,” collaborating with drop-ins, material support and raising awareness of the organisation’s work. Headley credits her with helping to secure enough signatures for parliament to debate Valerie’s Law, which would ensure mandatory cultural competency training for police officers and others to respond to the specific needs of Black women in domestic violence situations. The endorsement, Headley says, “created a huge snowball effect and gained us the necessary exposure to ensure that the voice and perspective of Black women affected by domestic abuse were seen and heard.” The significance of twigs’ decision to use her voice is not lost on Headley. “Twigs advocating for survivors is saying, ‘Whilst the world is looking at me, I am choosing to look at you. I am seeing you, I am hearing you and I will use my position to ensure that others do, too.’”
Speaking up thrust her private life into the spotlight in ways she’d largely managed to avoid before. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the one she needed to make – not just right now, but for the future, for the babies she might have and for the silence and shame she refuses to pass on. “If I ever have children, I want them to know that I stood up for myself, and that’s important. And sometimes, standing up for yourself is messy. Sometimes it can cause more trauma, and sometimes it can be dividing. People don’t expect you to stand up for yourself, but I did and I’m proud of it, and what happened to me wasn’t right.”
If that all seems like a lot to take on, it’s because it is. And if people think her ability to survive and thrive and create intentioned and regenerative art through it all makes her or her work intimidating, then that’s probably not about her. Which is what her friend was telling her before she arrived at the café and sat down for tea and fruit she barely got to eat in between chatting. “You just really know who you are, and you’re so still, and you’re okay with that. And if you don’t want to say something, you’ll just sit there and be quiet,” she says the friend told her. “But do you know what?” twigs lights up a bit as she asks, like an epiphany is coming into focus. “When you think something of someone, it’s usually just a reaction – it’s like a reflection of something you don’t like about yourself.”
CAPRISONGS may be the most comprehensive portrait of her yet. She’s FKA twigs, the dancer who will travel around the globe just to throw herself into a world that interests her and get to know the makers of it. She’s the daughter who receives old photos and thoughtful quotes from her mum (“The world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence, a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related,” reads one) and several-minutes-long voice memos from her dad, playing the entirety of a song he simply wanted to share with her. (His most recent choices include D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” and something that sounds like the Pablo Flores remix of “Mi Tierra.”) She was the kid who, at eight, used to write her own songs and sing them in the back seat of the car over the radio – “Don’t get upset, learn to chill, no one cries over milk that you spill, do the dupe,” one goes as she chants it over our follow-up Zoom call.
Being twigs hasn’t always been easy, and she’s been open about that, but she presses on. And maybe what people deem to be intimidating is actually resolve and self-possession. Maybe it’s the fact she’s “so broken” and “so vulnerable” and yet “so comfortable.” Maybe it’s what the world calls a Black woman who is unafraid to enforce her boundaries and speak and live in her truth, no matter what. Maybe it’s the cost of refusing to justify your existence. “I’m never going to explain myself,” twigs says, “but if I have to prove myself in a situation – if I have to prove that I deserve to be there – I will do that every single time.”
Briana Younger is a writer based in LA.
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “FKA twigs: ‘Sometimes, standing up for yourself is messy. But I did and I’m proud of it’”
Photographs by Lee Wei Swee
Styling by Matthew Josephs
Makeup by Lauren Reynolds for Gucci Beauty
Hair by Louis Souvestre
Nails by Simone Cummings