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I Can Do All These Things: An Interview With FKA Twigs
On not listening to what anyone else has to say and doing whatever the hell you want!
Collages by FKA twigs.
FKA twigs is a lightning-don’t-strike-twice kind of musician: Her
music combines realism and the avant-garde, abrasiveness and
vulnerability, intellect and instinct. Born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, she
got her stage name during her career as a dancer, from the way her
joints cracked when she was warming up (the FKA part stands for
“formerly known as”). She danced professionally through her teen years,
then she quit to make music full-time. She taught herself to produce
music and to direct videos; today, she produces most of her songs and
controls all her videos and imagery. The fruit of all her hard work is a
very personal world that is completely magical and unique, as heard on EP1, EP2, and her latest, the excellent LP1.
This is the second time
I’ve spoken to twigs, and each time I’ve been struck by how cool she
is. In conversation, she’s a little shy and quiet, but very honest and
thoughtful, and when she gets a little more comfortable, she talks and
jokes like you’re family. This time around, we talked about being a
lifelong professional artist, body image and beauty standards, and what
becoming an adult means to her.
JULIANNE: You started dancing when you were a kid, right?
FKA twigs: I was eight. I was just really drawn to
it in a really bizarre way. I begged my mum to take me to ballet class
for years, but my mum was a dancer and she didn’t want me to get like,
sucked into that whole world. But she gave in when I was eight, and I
got into ballet and jazz. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t really
be a ballet dancer, so I just took it into my own hands to discover the
style of dance that suited me.
Why couldn’t you be a ballet dancer?
I don’t have a ballet dancer’s body. My bum sticks out, my pointe
isn’t great. I’m sure if I were brought up in New York or London or
another city in which they cater to people of different ethnic origins,
it wouldn’t have been a thing. I would have just been able to dance and
look beautiful within my ability. But I grew up in the country,
and back then, when I was 12, you had to be, like, white and blond and a
rake and not have an ass and have a pelvis that could tuck under for
days. And my body’s just not made like that.
Were you dancing professionally when you were a teenager?
A bit, yeah. I’d gotten my first professional dance gig when I was
13, and I guess there was that fear that my mum had—that world just kind
of sucked me up, and I spent the years between 13 and 16 going to
London to do dance jobs and modeling jobs that were based on dancing
and music. By the time I got to like 15, 16, I was very disillusioned
about what I wanted to do. I was feeling really lost, and thinking that I just wanna be normal. I just wanna be a normal person, and not do all these things. So I just stopped. Because I wasn’t that kid—I never wanted to be on The Mickey Mouse Club or get that type of attention.
So I just gave it up. I went to Croydon College, did my A-levels,
and started singing in youth centers and doing youth work, teaching
other young people how to play music and write poetry and how to sing. I
was a youth worker for like two or three years, then the government cut
the funding, so I got sacked, basically.
I was really upset, because that was my job! I wanted to be an art
therapist, I wanted to work with youth and work in the social sector.
When it stopped, it was devastating, but it also made me realize I could
do things myself, on my own terms. I can dress how I like and make the
music that I like, and I can produce it if I want to. I can be a video
director as well. I can do all these things.
I think there’s this perception that if you’re a studio geek—if you
know loads about production, or you know loads about cameras and can
direct all your stuff, or if you’re a songwriter who knows loads about
lyrics and stuff—then you can’t get your nails done and you can’t get
your hair done and you can’t, like, dress like this. And I just realized
that that wasn’t true. So when I started making music and videos, it
was on my own terms. I’m 26, and that’s not old for what I’m doing, but
it’s not young either—there has been this whole idea for a few years
that to be a female artist you have to be like 21, but I don’t really
feel like that. I feel like I know exactly what I want, and no
one can tell me to do anything I don’t want to do or pose in a way I
don’t like or make a song or write something I don’t want to. I guess I
got to the point where it’s all me, and only I am to blame, and that
feels really great. And if something goes wrong, I am to blame as
well—it was my stupid decision, you know what I mean? It feels great! To know that everything is of yourself.
Every single decision that I’ve made to become the artist that I’ve
become is because I really know what I want, I’m really ambitious, and I
really want to be in charge of everything creatively.
Who was your best friend when you were growing up “in the country,” as you say?
I did have a best friend, but [growing up in the country] was hard. I
went to an all-white school, and I still remember so many things that
people said to me. You know when kids say things and they don’t realize
that one sentence might stay with someone for years? I’m mixed race, and
my hair is either two things: It’s either beautiful—curly and shiny and
suited to humid weather and I feel like the girl from that Michael
Jackson video “The Way You Make Me Feel”—or it’s a nightmare, frizzy and
dry and all over the place no matter what I do. I spent most of my teen
years in that [latter] stage, because I didn’t know how to do my hair. I
would try to straighten it, and it just wouldn’t hold.
I remember when I was maybe 13, I went to London, and I saw a girl on the tube
who had really nice hair. She looked mixed race, so I was like, “How
did you do your hair?” She was like, “You just have to moisturize it and
put loads of oil in it and only wear your hair out when it’s a special
occasion.” I went out and got some coconut oil, and I put my hair in two
braids, and I felt good about it. You know when you’re young and you
start to take pride in your appearance? It’s not necessarily in a vain
way, it’s just, like, I’m getting older, and my mum doesn’t do my hair anymore. You just start to become more independent.
So, then, I’m in history class, and the girl who was supposed to be my best friend turned around and was like, “Ew, your hair’s so greasy.”
Like that. It hurt my feelings so bad. It was really hard, because I
just didn’t fit in. I remember when I was 12, they made fun of me
because I had a moustache.
Oh my god, I’m sorry. Kids can be so mean!
I’m over it! It’s just really funny. I guess as you get older you learn to embrace things. I always think to myself, like, Neneh Cherry has a moustache! Whenever I see her I think, That is so cute! That’s the way I see stuff like that now. But when you’re a teenager, it’s harder.
In my last year or so of secondary school, when I was about 16, Beyoncé came out with “Crazy in Love,” and Christina Milian came out with “AM to PM.”
Before that, it was about Britney, Avril Lavigne, Christina
Aguilera—all these really cute white girls who defined what the boys
were fancying. Then that year, there was this boom of all these
light-skinned black stars, and all of a sudden I was the sh*t. I was hanging out with the popular girls; I’d gone from people literally scribbling out my face in school photos and writing ugly
next to it, to, two years later, having everything be fine—all of a
sudden I was really cute. At the time I was super androgynous—I had
short hair and I dressed like a boy—and suddenly it was cool to dress
the way I did, and I was the most desirable thing on earth. I always
called bullsh*t on that!
It was right after that that I left my hometown with my mum and moved
to London and just completely started a new life. And then from like 17
to 22, I went back to having no friends.
It seems like London would be a place where you could thrive!
I was so shy. And the kids in London were so much more cultured. I was just Tahliah—a shy mixed-race girl with a farmer’s accent.
What does it mean to have a farmer’s accent?
Where I’m from, it’s really rural, and people talk in a country
accent. When I moved to London, people would be like, “You’re a farmer!”
I was like, “No, I’m not a farmer!” [Laughs] When I say I had
no friends, literally I knew like four and a half people in college. It
was just me and my mum hanging out every day.
Were you lonely?
I don’t really believe in being lonely. I believe in being alone, but
if you’re lonely, that’s just bringing some extra emotions into it.
Loneliness is self-indulgent. There’s always something to do when you’re
But then, I met Carri Munden by chance—the girl who started Cassette Playa.
And Carri completely and utterly changed my life. It was crazy. I met
her at a concert somewhere. We spoke briefly, and I was like, Oh my god, that girl is SO COOL.
I started stalking her on MySpace—I messaged her all the time and she’d
write me back with messages that were like one-third the length of mine
[laughs] and I’d get so excited! I didn’t have a computer, so
I’d go to the internet café and check to see if she’d written me back.
She was styling Billionaire Boys Club
at the time, and she used me for something, and then she used me for
her lookbook a couple times. Then she introduced me to basically
everyone who helped start my career: Matthew Stone, who did the i-D cover; Grace LaDoja, with whom I did my first film work; Sharmadeen Reid, who does Wah Nails—she had me play her Wah Nails party in New York, and that was the first show in New York that I’d done as twigs.
When I met Carri, I was just a confused 19-year-old, not knowing how I
wanted to be, but knowing I had so many ideas and so much inside me,
and she was the first and only person who saw it. One time she said to
me, “Who are you going as for Halloween?” I was like, “I think I’m gonna
go as Edward Scissorhands.” And she was like, “You should go as Tank
Girl.” I was like, “Who is Tank Girl?” And she said, “You’re Tank Girl. Just google it.” So I googled Tank Girl, and I was like, Oh my god, I am Tank Girl. From that point on, everything clicked into place: how I wanted to dress, what type of woman I was, and how I wanted to be.
The thing I really loved about Carri was that she was really
productive and forward-thinking, and really prominent in the scene, but
she was also very vulnerable, very kind, and very sensitive. She’s still
one of my best friends.
You said you met Carri at a concert, but you were so shy back then—do you remember how you started talking?
It’s really weird! I was there alone, and she was standing next to
me, talking to her friend about how to make your coochie taste good. [Laughs]
I knew how, so I spoke up: “Don’t eat asparagus, don’t eat too much red
meat, and drink pineapple juice.” I just came out with it! And I
remember her being like, “Whoa!” She started pissing herself laughing,
and that’s how we started talking.
What concert was it?
I think it was Kanye West!
I’m curious about the tomboy style you mentioned earlier. What was your choice to wear menswear about?
I am very petite, and my build is very athletic, from dancing and
running. In the ’90s, you had to be this size zero to be considered
beautiful, then in 2010 it was like “real women have curves,” but I
wasn’t like that, so I basically rebelled by wearing only Uniqlo
menswear or, if I was going out, a suit jacket from a charity shop. I
felt really awkward about myself and about my body, so I just had to
have everything really covered all the time. My body basically hasn’t
changed since I was 16 years old, everything is basically the same.
I just did this video for “Pendulum,” and I full-on look like an adult! I’m like, When did that happen?
I don’t even know! I only figured out in the past year that I’m not
skinny, and I’m not curvy, I’m just really strong. That is me, and
that’s really beautiful as well. People don’t really talk about athletic
women. It’s a whole segment of women who are completely missed out.
You know my music video “Hide“? That is me, too, and nobody really knew that was me. I made it when I was 23, and that was the moment when I thought, Well, if I’m basically naked in my first music video, then I just can’t really feel insecure.
Does that make sense? “Hide” is objectifying of women, because that’s
how I was feeling at the time. It’s about breaking up with somebody and
feeling like sh*t about yourself, so I thought it would be really brave
to be naked but not have a head! Because as soon as you have a face and
you smize into the camera, it becomes really sexy, and I didn’t want it
to be sexy. I wanted it to be awkward. I really thought people were
going to say horrible things, but they never did.
Something else I’ve learned, though, is that you can’t please
everybody. Not everyone is gonna find you attractive! I’m not the most
beautiful girl in the world—I’m just not, and I’m never gonna
be, and I don’t even know how to help you with that! I’m small, and my
eyes are too far apart, and I’ve got two weird front teeth. When I first
came to America, my manager was like, “We’ll have to get your teeth
fixed.” I saved up all my money to get these veneers, and I had all the
initial work done—they have to do all this work on your gums—and then I
was like, Oh my god, what the am I doing? This is an awful, terrible idea! So I paid for like half the treatment but never got the veneers done. I wasted about £900 [about $1,450].
I am very glad that you did not do that!
It would not be me! You just have to be yourself. It’s really not
that hard! You just need to stop going on Instagram so much, because
that sh*t is not real. I do not look like that in real life! It’s a
professional photographer and Photoshop!
Is that why a good amount of your artwork, like the “Water Me” video, is sort of exaggerated and blown-out?
Yes. I want everyone to know it’s not real. But even on my Instagram, people will say “Oh my god, ILY Twigs, you’re so perfect, I wish I could be you.” I tell them that I’m not
perfect, it’s not true. I hate the way young girls think sometimes,
it’s so depressing. They’ll write, “Why can’t I look like FKA Twigs?”
I’m just like, no, you don’t understand—I cried in the mirror as a
Another thing I want to talk to you about is this idea of learning.
Basically, you have to keep on learning—it will distract you from all
the bullsh*t that we’re talking about. Two years ago, I couldn’t produce
[music]; I learned how to do it in literally two years. I found it
really difficult to program when I started, then I had this leap of
confidence to actually get in front of the computer and learn how to do
it. It was a massive challenge, because I am not a very logical person
at all. It’s about facing your fears. If you do that, you realize that
you can actually do anything you want to do! It’s been the most
Last week, I bumped into a very famous music artist. She started
talking to me about her nails and her hair extensions, and how getting
this stuff done makes her feel like a woman, and she has to have so much
money to get this stuff done because she’s a woman and that’s what
being a woman is. I thought to myself, That’s very interesting, because what makes me a woman is when I know I’ve produced a song myself—when
I’ve found an artist to work with, given him a beat to work on and told
him what I wanted, and he’s given it back to me and it’s what I’d
envisioned as a producer. Or when I’ve made a video and released it into
the world. That’s what makes me feel like a woman. Like, anything
else— how tall I am or how long my hair is! This is the absolute
epitome of what makes me feel like an adult, and like I’m handling my
business. I’ve sat in front of my computer at three o’clock in the
morning and I’ve made something myself that I had to learn how to do
that was very difficult. When you find something easy, that’s a talent,
but when you find something difficult, that’s when you get to really
work and push and challenge yourself. I’m not saying that [that
artist’s] image is invalid, because that might be where she gets her
power from. Everyone is different. But for me, there’s something about
learning that makes me feel the most adult I’ve ever felt.
I’m so happy as well, because I’m not crying about stupid sh*t! I’m
busy, I’m doing things, and it’s an amazing feeling. If someone’s stupid
or someone’s mean, I’m just like, OK, love and light, go what you need to do, I’m busy! It feels amazing to be this way. ♦