Hot List: FKA Twigs

5.13.2014

By Jason Lamphier

The U.K. singer’s beat-driven trip-hop evokes the chaos of the city — but she’ll always enjoy the silence.

Photography by JUCO. Hair and makeup: Angela DiCarlo | Photographed at ROW NYC

FKA Twigs grew up in a small rural pocket of Gloucestershire, England, and like most budding artists stuck in sleepy towns, she found herself drawn more to fictional worlds than to her own. “I was very quiet and used to love black-and-white movies,” says the singer and dancer, born Tahliah Barnett. “But my favorite was The Red Shoes. When I was young I’d sit and watch that with my mum.”

She studied ballet and opera, which led to an interest in classical music, and by the age of 14 she was singing in gospel workshops and a jazz quartet. She never had a lot of friends (half-Jamaican, half- Spanish, she was mocked for the way she looked), and even when she speaks of one particularly close male companion, her fondest memories involve them standing on bridges, gazing at the water below, locked in long stretches of silence.

Now 26, Twigs has relocated to London, but the solitude and expansive landscape of her youth are echoed in her first two EPs. Her music — a hypnotic blend of thick bass, cavernous production, and her spectral cooing — is indebted to ’90s trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack and Portishead. Tracks like “How’s That” and “Water Me” from last year’s EP2 are swathed in slick, ingenious effects, but every tinny beat, ticking clock, and ping-pong ricochet seems to creep in at just the right moment around an anchoring negative space. “Whatever I’m working on, restraint and reservation are two words that are very important to me,” she says.

But nine years in a metropolis have sunk in, and Twigs insists the songs on her forthcoming debut album are as much about disturbing the peace as keeping it. “There’s chaos in the record at times,” she explains. “I haven’t been afraid to layer sounds upon sounds. There’s still space and silence — that’s me and that’ll always be me — but I haven’t been afraid of adding a certain amount of disaster as well.”

She conveys this discord mostly through her use of industrial percussion. “I like city sounds,” she says. “I like sirens. I like metallic, mechanical sounds. When I was younger, I really loved music that was very noisy, like Kraftwerk or Devo.” She longed to emulate the raw power of punk but recognized the limitations of her voice, more reminiscent of Aaliyah or Janet Jackson than Poly Styrene.

This is partly why the visual component of FKA Twigs is so critical. The eight clips she’s posted on her Tumblr feature absorbing, perplexing imagery that’s now inextricable from the music. In “Papi Pacify,” a man stands behind her, covering her mouth and wrapping his fingers around her throat as if he’s about to assault her, but she appears to be drowning in ecstasy. The original clip for “Hide” showcases a woman’s bare abdomen and thighs, with a suggestive, phallic, blood-red flower covering the area between her legs.

It’s at once strange, winking, and erotic. “It would be so easy for me to do a video where I’m rolling around in my underwear and looking upset because my boyfriend didn’t text me,” Twigs says, but that’s not what her stories — which tackle domination and submission, heartbreak and acceptance — are about. “I feel there’s a massive difference between a music video and a visual,” she adds. “I am in the business of visuals, not music videos. A visual is something that can have a more cryptic and metaphorical meaning.”

It’s rare to witness a newcomer with such a focused, cultivated vision, which can only mean that FKA Twigs is poised for great things in 2014. She’s come a long way since her days in Gloucestershire, when she was a shy, mixed-race girl with precocious tastes. But she’s the first to admit she still prefers the simple life. She keeps her team small, her friends are her stylists, and she doesn’t go out much. This past spring, the day before Twigs flew to New York City to do press for her new record, she and her mother found her a beautiful black dress in a vintage clothing store. “The dress was too big, so my mum went behind the desk and got a needle and thread and made it smaller for me in the shop,” Twigs recalls. “She sat on a stool and altered it for 20 minutes.”

WATCH "Papi Pacify" below:

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