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“Has anyone ever written a song about depressive masturbation before?” asks FKA twigs with glee. “We’ve all had those days!”
This mischievous outburst comes about as we discuss her new ballad “daybed,” which starkly describes being immobilized by depression—as well as the fleeting relief of self-pleasure. Intimate echoes build to a climax of coos and sighs, but her breathy references to “active fingers” and “faux cunnilingus” have a kind of resigned inevitability. It evokes, as we say in the UK, the feeling of a sad wank. She seizes on this notion with delight. “And then after you’re like, ‘Nope, still feel the same!’” She claps her hands in satisfaction, vibrating with laughter.
We’re chatting in the back of a taxi with tinted windows on the way to a London dance studio on a drizzly October afternoon, a ride that takes us through a smog-filled tunnel under the Thames. The rehearsal space is dotted with Goop-y aphorisms on the wall, such as “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations”—a cheesy but not-inaccurate way to describe the labor-intensive discipline that twigs brings to her live performances. She is here today to practice wushu, an intricate style of Chinese martial arts with roots dating back to the Bronze Age. Usually, it’s done with a paper-thin jian sword—twigs named hers Lilith—but it can also involve umbrellas, spiked shoes, or heavy steel fans. It’s dangerous work; after a recent run of shows in which she performed a complex solo wushu routine, twigs’ lower arms are scattered with small scars from her blade.
In the airy practice room, she is joined by European junior wushu champion Sam Mak, who is there to make sure her technique is both authentic and undiluted. After a quick warm-up, Mak leads the session with a quiet, steady demeanor. “Let’s start and build up to some slashy things,” he says. Wushu is the kind of sport where a hair’s breadth can be the difference between losing an ear or not, and Mak gives pointers on twigs’ form, guiding her to bring the sword closer to her body for greater control. She takes the direction without question.
After propellering through a few sword twirls, twigs takes a breath. Something’s bothering her: the drippy acoustic guitar music being pumped into the studio. “I feel like I’m about to order an avocado toast!” she shouts. Someone scurries off to change the playlist, and soon enough twigs snaps back into focus. She’s training for an ambitious visual collaboration with Emmy-nominated Atlanta director Hiro Murai to accompany “sad day,” a blown-out highlight from her upcoming second album, MAGDALENE. It is Murai’s first music project since Childish Gambino’s epochal “This Is America” video, and the shoot, which twigs’ team has invited me to watch, is set to commence in less than 72 hours.
A reverent hush falls over the rehearsal room as twigs and her opponent, a ripped, preternaturally zen libertine named Teake, lock eyes and prepare for battle. In this moment, she is no longer the bawdy jokester of the cab ride; she is an exacting combatant. Twigs and Teake’s dark ballet crackles with energy. She ducks with arms splayed to avoid his swipe, spins to block his weapon with clenched teeth, and pivots 360 degrees on the balls of her feet before stabbing at him. As her blade quivers just inches from his cheek, she breaks away and lets out a quick, proud laugh.
Sword-fighting warrior is the latest guise for the 31-year-old born Tahliah Barnett. Since debuting with a string of enigmatic tracks in 2012, the singer, songwriter, producer, actor, and dancer has taken center stage in myriad forms including, but by no means limited to: a tap-dancing jester; a teleporting sleep angel; a super-sized goddess; and a human metronome with the eyes of a Kit-Kat Klock. Thanks to her work’s dauntless physicality, there’s a constant sense that twigs is shape-shifting before our eyes.
She is an artistic polyglot who is as fluent in opera as she is in punk and hip-hop, who will wake up and undertake training for many hours as part of her latest exercise in muscle-melting strenuousness before heading to the recording studio to work for many more. Twigs’ collaborators reach for unusual metaphors to describe her creative tenacity: experimental electronic producer Koreless describes her as “a fire hydrant of ideas”; EDM hit-maker Skrillex likens her to a “unicorn.”
But the day after her rehearsal, in a fancy north London cafe festooned with artfully stacked loaves, she seems less like a mythical creature than an eccentric, if sometimes spiky, friend that you rarely run into but are always happy to. Her red hair is swept up into a cloth bonnet as she sips an oat milk latte. Midway through our chat she buys an elegantly decorated box of dark chocolates, which we pick at before she insists that I take the sweets home.
She has a habit of catching me off-guard. Though her work often feels deadly serious, she’s quick to point out its hidden humor. Take the video for MAGDALENE’s closing piano ballad “Cellophane,” a twisted and desperately sad comment on sex, power, and spectatorship told through pole dance. In the stunning visual, twigs mournfully carousels around a metal rod for an off-screen audience, as if in a gilded cage, before climbing towards a heavenly light, encountering a winged robot doppelgänger, and finally falling, Icarus-like, to a place where primal creatures bathe in mud.
The video is weighted with the kind of symbolism that could keep a film class theorizing for hours. But when I bring it up, twigs brightens. “I find it quite funny,” she says. “I’ve got no clothes on and I’m in this sexy pose. You think, Oh my gosh, is it going to be some deep throbbing sexual anthem? And then it’s just like tears from start to finish.”
She lives what she calls a “very low-key life” in an arty, diverse, and gentrified area of Hackney, East London. When not working, her most regular company is her scrappy rescue dog Solo, whose fur is cut into a mohawk. After a day’s work she’ll usually come home, stretch, and sing Solo the Frank Ocean song that she shares a name with as a bedtime lullaby. Twigs says she enjoys watching reality shows like the UK’s Love Island. (Her favorite contestant this summer was the 6-foot-7 basketball player Ovie Soko, whose lovable antics—and abs of steel—made him a star of the British tabloids.) She shrugs off the contrast between her extravagant performances and modest home life: “If you think of an athlete, where are they when they’re not training?”
Despite her down-to-earth habits, twigs can often behave like a famous person. When we get lost on the way to the cafe, she gets visibly frustrated when she can’t figure out the directions on her iPhone. She has people to get her berries to snack on, and others to wash Solo after he rolls in fox poop. In conversation, she can be guarded.
It’s understandable that twigs would have something of a protective shield. Her relationships with actors Robert Pattinson and Shia LaBeouf across the last few years gave her a celebrity status far beyond what is typical for an artist of her experimental stripe. “Cellophane,” in particular, seems to talk of the struggle to maintain privacy as part of a couple that’s squarely in the public eye—“I don’t want to have to share our love,” she pleads—and much of MAGDALENE feels like a heartbroken purge.
Even though those high-profile relationships are over, twigs often has paparazzi waiting outside her house. This used to feel invasive; now she says it’s more annoying than anything. “It’s collateral damage,” she adds. “I guarantee that anyone who is looking at those pictures is not listening to my music.”
As the singer in a jazz band that often played a longing arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” at weddings, twigs started stirring her audience’s emotions when she was 13 years old. Growing up in a quiet farming town in the west of England called Tewkesbury, she attended an independent Catholic school, and her salsa-dancer mom encouraged her to take ballet and opera lessons from a young age. Twigs moved to London at 17 to become a dancer, yet she quickly fell into music even as she scored backup dancing gigs for pop artists like Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue, and Jessie J. Her favorite album, X-Ray Spex’s thrillingly noisy 1978 classic Germfree Adolescents, partially inspired her to sing in a London punk band called Delirium Tremens with friends CY AN and LJ Howe, who are still members of her live band today.
Her earliest solo music found latent pop potential in the deconstructed club textures that once powered a certain strain of underground nightlife, while also adding a dose of drama to experimental R&B and hip-hop. On her 2014 debut album, LP1, twigs deftly bent the sound of buzzy producers like Clams Casino and Arca to her own style; the record’s broken beats feel like the lonely electronic experimentalism of Janet Jackson’s cult-favorite 1997 album The Velvet Rope stripped to its skeleton.
MAGDALENE goes even further, spectacularly adding opera, choral styles, and three-dimensional sound design to the mix. Across nine songs, twigs captures extremities of her inner life in a soundtrack for agonizing nights of regrets as well as carefree stomps down the street. If her singing voice could sometimes play second fiddle to the beats before, then MAGDALENE synthesizes twigs’ taste for unusual arrangements and tones with melodies that could shine even without all the hubbub. “I really wanted to improve my songwriting, and have the production support it,” she says. “In the past, I’ve kind of done the song to fit the production.”
That doesn’t mean she’s traded avant-gardism for three chords and the truth. Twigs produced or co-produced all but two of MAGDALENE’s songs, with a granular attention to the idiosyncratic details that make her music sound like no one else’s. “I’ve never met anyone with her insane encyclopedic sound memory,” says Koreless, who spent a year and a half working closely with twigs on MAGDALENE. “She’ll be like, ‘Three weeks ago I was working on this track with a sound that was like an owl.’ So you dig the file out, and it’s this microscopic detail that’s buried underneath layers and layers.”
Twigs says she always does the lion’s share of her music’s production, and her approach on MAGDALENE was forensic enough for the obsessive electronic world builder Nicolas Jaar, who worked on seven of the album’s songs, to suggest that his own name should be removed from the credits. “He felt that his name on stuff wouldn’t highlight how much I’ve done, especially as a female producer,” she recalls. “When he said that to me, I cried.”
Twigs’ expanded sound on MAGDALENE called for an expanded cast of inspirations. The oceanic musical cosmology of Enya partially inspired crescendoing opener “thousand eyes,” a song about the anxiety of living life under a microscope on which twigs’ vocals shatter into fragments as fine as moths’ wings. “She’s a mother,” she says of Enya, “like Björk and Kate Bush.” And Enya’s influence is not only felt in the track’s sonic DNA—twigs is also quite taken by the new age godmother’s decision to shun fame for life in a castle. “Stunning,” she says wryly. “Very me.”
While creating MAGDALENE last year between Los Angeles, New York, and London, twigs mainly listened to Nina Simone. She cites the soul icon’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” as a particular favorite. “‘She makes love just like a woman/But she breaks just like a little girl,’” twigs recites, as if reading a poem. “I love that.”
The tension between strength and vulnerability powers MAGDALENE. The album is named after the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, a loyal disciple of Jesus who has often been portrayed as a sinner or prostitute by church leaders in order to underplay her importance. In another songwriter’s hands, the concept could have a certain pop-feminism slightness to it, but twigs’ new music feels the weight of a sexist telling of history that reduces women into two-dimensional scaffolds for men’s greatness.
On LP1, twigs’ sexuality was uncompromising to the point that it could wound like a weapon. On that album’s biggest hit, “Two Weeks,” she insisted, “I can fuck you better than her.” That carnality courses through the new record, but her earlier impetuousness is traded for a deepened knowledge of female archetypes. MAGDALENE feels both the pressures and pleasures of a female sexuality that is underpinned by the emotional labor of women and their age-old role as caregivers. In the album’s centerpiece, “mary magdalene,” twigs talks of “a woman’s work,” evoking Mother Bush amid echoing bells. When twigs intones “I do it like Mary Magdalene” on the song’s hook, the effect is both sacred and thrillingly profane. “She represents both things,” twigs says of Magdalene. “And in both is when [women] are the most powerful.”
Epitomizing that duality is “mirrored heart,” a cardiectomy of lost love that twigs delivers with the drama of Italian opera. “It’s all for the lovers trying to fuck away the pain,” she sings, her anguished voice playing cat-and-mouse with a revving noise that sounds like a hedge trimmer. “It was always about making sure that twigs was front and center,” says Koreless, who co-produced the track. “Everything else was around her, like Snow White lost in the enchanted forest.” Without the song’s unorthodox embellishments, “mirrored heart” could practically be an arena-filler for Adele.
“In the studio, I can write seven songs a day,” twigs says in the cafe, raising her voice over the squeal of a barista’s milk foamer. She recorded hundreds for MAGDALENE. “Sometimes it’s not truthful—sometimes it’s just writing things because it sounds good, or it sings good.” She rolls her eyes at the thought. “That is why I struggle with the idea of me doing pop music.” Has she tried to do straight pop songs? She nods. “I’ve got thousands of demos. Thousands.” Why doesn’t she off-load them to, say, Dua Lipa, and try for a No. 1 record? “Dua Lipa has her own No. 1s!”
Featuring the album’s only guest vocalist, rap superstar Future, “holy terrain” is MAGDALENE’s most blatant attempt at a playlist-optimized banger. “He’s so naughty,” twigs says of Future, an odd choice of words for a man who was steeped in public controversy over the treatment of his famous ex, Ciara. “[He’s] so ready to repent. He’s just figuring it out. That’s quite beautiful.”
She co-produced the song with Top 40 architects Jack Antonoff and Skrillex . (She says there was also a “completely new”—and doubtlessly freakier—version she did with longtime collaborator Arca at one point, but only a tiny portion of it survived in the finished song.) In L.A., twigs and Skrillex spent two days combing through the track’s 200 individual parts—busted strings, 808 snares, and a Bulgarian folk sample among them—to tighten everything up. Despite its contributors’ hitmaking pedigree, “holy terrain” has yet to chart, and Future isn’t even featured in its video. But if it was a play for mainstream success, it at least serves as an interesting failure, foregrounding twigs’ ability to bring A-list pop names into her orbit only to have them strengthen her music’s singularity.
Just as twigs bends and shapes her music, she’s equally willing to morph her own image. And if that means doing away with traditional notions of glamor, so be it: In one 2016 art installation in London, for instance, she took over a three-story building with a phalanx of performance artists and drag queen dancers, in an evening which climaxed with twigs slapping clay on her face until she was featureless.
British artist Matthew Stone created MAGDALENE’s impressionistic cover image, a portrait of twigs with skin texture like stucco and eyes full of flickering color. He also made accompanying images of her with swollen haunches, framed by kaleidoscopic paint daubs. They were all the result of a complex process involving thousands of individual brushstrokes being digitally mapped onto a distorted 3-D scan of twigs, ultimately making her look like a kind of fire-dwelling gorgon. “She might be short, but she’s not this little thing,” Stone says. “I wanted her to look really strong, and to be quite relaxed about whether that has any gender ambiguity.” Her staunch physicality was a reference, too. “Her body just looks different all the time; she’s always doing something with it,” Stone adds.
In the early stages of recording MAGDALENE, twigs’ body became a battleground. After experiencing months of abdominal pain, six fibroid tumors were removed from her uterus in December 2017. They were as big as fruit; “Apples, cherries, pain,” as she sings on recent single “home with you,” her vocals pitched-down to suggest parasitic malevolence.
At a time when her body was failing her, twigs began learning pole work as a way to reconnect with its strength. She was taught by L.A.-based choreographer Kelly Yvonne, who notes that twigs’ expertise in a wide range of dance methods, from vogue to krump, gives her a unique perspective. “She would bring movement styles and a way to maneuver that often I had never seen,” Yvonne says. twigs’ pole work is a staggering feat of physical strength, yet she also looks utterly liquid. In the cafe, when I ask her how it feels to be up there, she says, simply, “like flying.”
For all of MAGDALENE’s internal dynamics of both mind and body, the album unambiguously feels the whiplash of current global chaos. “I’m of a general anxiety for this society, for nature, for politics,” she says, adding that she cried when Trump was elected. “I wake up with it and I go to bed with it.”
The patriarchy has ruled for too long, twigs recognizes, and she feels “indoctrinated and poisoned” by society’s expectations for women to couple up with a man. “I’ve got a mortgage on a house down the road,” she says, practically. “It’s the type of house I could be in for the rest of my life. I could have one or two children. I’m starting to think, as a woman, where does a man fit in? Making MAGDALENE was a really big turning point into that. I’m more happy just doing me and making my work.”
Twigs thinks that her music can be “subconsciously political,” specifically when it comes to sexual politics and resisting gender roles. She brings a point of view to sex that’s far away from, say, the joyful boasts of male pelvic domination from many other artists today. She reminds me of her erotic passivity anthem “I’m Your Doll” and her 2013 video for “Papi Pacify,” in which a man towers over her 5-foot-2 frame and plunges his fingers deep into her mouth.
“I feel like when I’m at my best I can say things that other people don’t,” she says, before leaning in and lowering her voice to a near-whisper. “My sexuality ranges from all different things. But if I’m saying, ‘I want to put myself in this position; I want this to be the scenario but I’m just going to be like this”—she makes her body floppy —“I think that’s quite dominant.” Well, I say, that’s topping from the bottom. She laughs, amused by the turn of phrase. “That sums it up.”
“I sometimes find that a certain type of enforced empowerment is very oppressive,” she adds. “I mean, I am powerful and independent—and incredibly vulnerable and sensitive. As a woman of color, this idea that I need to be a Nubian queen all the time is very stressful. I do find it problematic to always feel like your icons are always strong and always OK. If that is somebody’s idea of slaying in this time, it’s wildly off the mark.”
A few days after her sword-fighting rehearsal, I head along to twigs’ “sad day” shoot at a makeshift studio on the roof of a London warehouse. When I first see her on set, she’s munching on a rice cake and laughing with her styling team. “Hi babes!” she says to me with a smile.
In the video, twigs and Teake play a couple whose emotional conflict is represented by a spectacular wushu duel. A large portion of the action takes place in a set styled like the apartment of a thrift-store-obsessed art student, with junky furniture, dusty tchotchkes, and a ceramic phrenology head on a bookshelf. As part of an intricate fight scene requiring multiple takes, twigs knocks over a tasseled floor lamp and busts the lightbulb. “This is the sixth time,” bemoans a crew member, rushing over with a dustpan.
Several hours later, as the clock creeps close to 10 p.m., twigs is on the rooftop in the rain, filming a climactic sword fight. The sound of clashing steel rings in the air. “Every two hours I realize how ridiculous it is that we’re doing this,” Murai says merrily, huddled in an alcove as rain continues to pour.
After several runs through the rooftop scene, Murai whoops in approval, and the crew applauds. They’ve got the take. Or so they thought. “I fucked up,” twigs says, walking over to the monitor, shaking her head. “Really?” says her choreographer, incredulous. Really. The crew hustles to reset. Twigs slowly returns to her mark, stretches her neck, and picks up her sword. Back to work.
Stylist: Matthew Josephs; hair by Virginie Moreira using Oribe; makeup by Bea Sweet using Pat McGrath Labs; nails by Jessica Thompson at Eighteen Management; set design by Sophie Durham; produced by Laura Galligan / LG Studio; clothing by Louise Gray; movement design by Adam Rae Ursell; custom type by Drew Litowitz; motion design by Arjun Ram Srivatsa
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork