FKA twigs on learning to be the boss

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FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

The other day, FKA twigs was waiting for an Uber out - side a London dance class when a man came over to chat her up. This is clearly not a rare occurrence for FKA twigs. But this individual must have had some - thing going for him, as she didn’t immediately tell him to f*** off.

‘He said to me: “Can I get your number?” Then he goes: “Actually, you look a bit young, how old are you?”’ she laughs. She told him to guess her age. He said 21. ‘It was just so funny! I was like: “Don’t worry, it’s fine.”’ FKA twigs, real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett, is 34. And yes, she gave him her number.

I suppose one lesson that you might take from this is that sometimes, chatting up pop stars outside dance studios actually… works? As for FKA twigs, she took it as confirmation of her current theory. ‘I think I’m ageing in reverse,’ she muses. ‘They say that’s what Capricorns do, we age in reverse because we start out so serious. Then we kind of get a bit older and start having fun.’

And while she doesn’t take her astrology too seriously, she did call her latest album Caprisongs and, well, the whole Benjamin Button reverse-age - ing theory — pun intended — sort of twigs. Growing up in Cheltenham, where she won a scholarship to a Catholic private school, she felt like an old soul. She was into opera and ballet — ‘so Capricorn’ — and was highly studi - ous and serious. After training as a professional dancer, she released her debut album, LP1, in 2014 and even now, it sounds like the sort of singular, cerebral work that it usually takes an artist decades to gather the self-confi - dence to make. She is the youngest-ever recipient of the NME Godlike Genius award, too. But Caprisongs, released this January, feels like the sort of care - free collection an up-and-coming teenager might fling out into the world.

FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

In the spoken-word introduction to the song ‘Meta Angel’, she laments her own shyness and announces her new ambition: ‘I wanna be more confident, I really do!’ And it seems to be working. The album is a hook-laden love letter to her Jamaican roots (which come from her father’s side) and to the multicultural London that she arrived in as a dance student at 17. ‘I wanted to do something happy,’ she says. ‘Like, my music’s always so sad and romantic and sexy and sensual. I was like, no: I want to channel pain into happiness and collectivity.’ She calls it a mixtape, not an album, as she wants it to have that ‘flirty’ feel, like something handmade you give to some - one you fancy. And that’s how she feels just now, she says: ‘Like I’ve released a mixtape and I’m a new face.’

Only that bright, fresh, newborn feeling — it has not come easy to FKA twigs, who has had more than her share of ordeals in recent years. There was the racial abuse she received from fans during her three-year relationship with the actor Robert Pattinson, which ended in 2017. During much of this time, she was in physical agony: in December of that year, she underwent laparoscopic surgery to have six tumours removed from her uterus. She then endured an allegedly abusive relationship with the actor Shia LaBeouf, whom she is suing for sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress, allegations LaBeouf has denied. A court case is due in Los Angeles next year — which she has been advised by lawyers not to talk about.

Also off-limits: the split with her more recent partner, Matt Healy, of The 1975, which spilled out into the tabloids the day this interview was sup - posed to take place on the set of the ES cover shoot, to promote the launch of new Viktor & Rolf fragrance, Good Fortune, for which she is the new ambassador. This tête-à-tête was rearranged as she dealt with the fallout among her immediate circle. And so I have to make do with a Zoom call as she heads back from the airport after a trip to Berlin — and a long list of things I am not supposed to ask about.

At first, she seems a little testy. Her life seems hectic, I remark. ‘Yeah it is.’ Do you like it that way? ‘No.’ Surely there’s an element of choice in that? ‘No. There isn’t always choice in it.’ What would you ideally like to change? ‘About what?’ Even when I bring up the evils of social media (which she has been quite vocal about in the past) she is dismissive — she doesn’t want to be seen to moan.

 (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
(FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

While LaBeouf is off-limits, I wonder whether witnessing the co-ordinated attacks that Amber Heard received from supporters of Johnny Depp has given her misgivings about her own upcoming trial? Here she becomes thoughtful. ‘I don’t know the whole ins and outs so I wouldn’t want to comment on that — but I definitely don’t agree with the fact that a woman who has said she’s been abused has been meme-ified and made fun of in front of the whole internet,’ she says. ‘I definitely have found it really disappointing about human nature.’

As for the Healy split, when I ask about that, she sits there, smiles and we stare one another out for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 seconds. Hardened politicians reliably start spilling at this point. Not FKA twigs. I remember I am dealing with a trained ballerina who is used to retaining her poise through far more excruciating situations than this — and it’s me who blinks first. ‘Oh, I’m so fine not talking,’ she says eventually, with a laugh. ‘It can be really unnerv - ing for people!’ Shyness clearly has its own advantages; it can be sharpened into armour. But what FKA twigs really wants, I begin to sense, is to be in control of her own story. To resist being meme-ified. Or cast as the support - ing player. ‘I have always had big dreams for myself and although twists and turns have meant things have not always gone to plan, I believe that in the end the challenges I have faced have helped me grow into the woman and artist I am today,’ she says. And, well, fair enough: this is the godlike author of ‘Cellophane’, not some tabloid arm candy. ‘I’m an artist and I’m also a woman and I’m also of colour,’ she says. ‘I think all of those things make you lose a lot of agency — but they shouldn’t.’

Around this point, she arrives back at her high-ceilinged home in Hackney, where her puppy, Bam-Bam, comes bounding up to her, demand - ing attention. Once the pair of them have caught up and conversation turns to her actual work, she relaxes and becomes far more forthcoming. She explains that she is only just ‘coming to terms’ with the fact that she is the leader of her own business. ‘There’s something about being a dancer that has always led me to believe that I’m there to follow the choreography, or that I’m a part of someone else’s thing,’ she says. ‘But I’m trying to turn that mentality around. I am the head of my own company. I’m an actual grown woman. I support everybody financially and everyone’s there because I paid them to be there. Therefore: everyone should listen to me! Ultimately I’m the boss, so like if my time’s not managed properly then it’s probably something I’m doing wrong.’

She has tended to take the ‘skills-based’ route to achieving her ambitions, whether it’s ballet, singing, songwriting, pole-dancing or sword-fighting (which she regularly shares videos of via TikTok and Instagram). ‘That’s what I know how to do and what I’ve been told I’m good at. But what I’m learning is I’m also a really good businesswoman. I shouldn’t apologise for having that agency to take control of my business and to tell people how I need something to be to make me better and to make things run smoother.’ In business, as in anything, there are rules, skills, techniques and disciplines that can be mastered.

FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

Indeed, there is more to FKA twigs’ career than might be immediately apparent. She has a successful sideline as a commercials director, having made short promotional films for Facebook, Apple and WeTransfer; and then there is the fragrance collaboration, which seems to have brought her real satisfaction. ‘I certainly see perfume as an extension of oneself, a way to project our inner personality,’ she says. ‘I spent a lot of time in lockdown meditating and reflecting on how my upbringing shaped me into the person I am today.’

Working with brands can be a risk, she says. ‘It can feel like giving up everything that you’ve built and all the integrity and all of the rules that you’ve kept for yourself. But actually, this one has been a really magical process. It’s about, like, having the curiosity and… God, the only word I can think of is the audacity to believe in yourself, you know? Because it does take a lot of audacity to believe in yourself.’

After exploring her poppier, party-loving Caribbean side with Caprisongs, she is into a ‘new era’. ‘Now I find myself being drawn towards distillation and purity.’ She has an excellent new single out, ‘Killer’, which she says is her searching for the purest version of herself. ‘I will dance till my feet bleed and I will tend to my wounds with care after,’ is how she puts it. ‘With all my greatest achievements there has come a great sacrifice. I am okay with this now.’

And as we explore what the most distilled version of herself might look like, I’m afraid we are back to star signs. It’s not that she believes that our personalities are defined by the movements of heavenly bodies; it’s just that she identifies with all the common female Capricorn traits. ‘When you do get to know a Capricorn and they let you in, we’re like the most loyal, loving, generous, romantic people — and we’ll never leave you, you know? We’ll always care in some capacity. And I’ve read before that Capricorns take sex really seriously: we just can’t stand anyone making a joke of it or not being present. It’s just something that’s really sacred and you have to really apply yourself to — which I find really funny.’

FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

Because it’s true or because it’s not true?

‘Ha ha, I guess that’s the thing with astrology, you could read a few and be like: “Yeah! That applies!” But I guess in my work, I do take sensuality very seriously, you know? Considering I’m quite light in real life, I think sensuality is a very sacred thing.’ The connection that each person has to their body is one of the most precious things on Earth, she says. ‘And I think it relates to everything: art, dance and movement, and the body and the flesh, and the ability to give. It’s not to be messed with, ever. It’s only ever to be nurtured and held on, like, the highest pedestal.’

As she talks, it becomes ever clearer how deeply painful those long months of illness and uncertainty, and then surgery and recovery, must have been — and not merely in a physical sense, but in terms of purpose and meaning. ‘It was really difficult but I think looking back, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me,’ she says. ‘I have a renewed respect and gratitude for the days when I feel good. I mean I was in pain every single day for a year and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My stomach hurt to the point where people would talk to me and I couldn’t really concentrate on what they were saying. So it was such a relief to know what it was and to have a great doctor and a great surgeon. And now, I really look after myself.’

FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)
FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine (FKA twigs photographed by Louie Banks and ES Magazine)

It was during her recovery period that she began pole-dancing, which she has recently taken up again. No longer able to dance in the high-energy way she always had done, this was a ‘ritual and therapeutic way to use my sensuality, my sexuality, to get back into my body’. She also learnt to eat extremely ‘cleanly’ and, after a few lockdown lapses, she is back in control of that, too. ‘I’m grateful that I learnt that in my late 20s because I think a lot of people don’t figure it out until they’re mid-40s if at all. So I feel a bit ahead of the game in terms of respecting my vessel.’

And this rather shy person has no issue with putting her own physicality, her vessel, out there in the way she does. ‘I have no issue with my sexuality,’ she says. ‘I mean like my relationship with it has changed and it’s been like healthy or unhealthy, but even in the unhealthiness, I’m okay with acknowl - edging it. I’ve always been very comfortable in my own skin. Not to say that I look at myself naked and I say that is the best ever. But I’m happy being naked because this is just where my body is right now.’

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