FKA twigs: Exploring the Uncanny

FKA twigs is one of the up and coming artists that I have been most excited about in recent years. She first appeared in 2012 with her self-released EP1, and has since then also put out EP2, her debut-album LP1, and the EP M3L155X on the Young Turks-label. She reminds me in particular of some of the great trip-hop artists of the 90s (both in sound and in appearance), such as Tricky and Björk (particularly on Pre-Millennium Tension (1996) and Homogenic (1997)), or of a younger version of Martina Topley-Bird. But her sound, while clearly reminiscent of 90s trip-hop, also has its very own character: a compelling fusion of R&B, electronic, industrial, and even choral elements (among others).

Born in 1988 as Tahliah Barnett in Gloucestershire, a small rural county in Southwest England, twigs (a nickname turned stage name that she got because of how loud her joints crack, which then became FKA twigs after a lawsuit from the band The Twigs) was the only mixed-raced girl in a wholly white Catholic school. She has often talked about herself as an outsider not only because of her ethnicity, but also because of her interest in music, dance, and performance. She moved to London at the age of 17 to study and pursue dance, and made appearances in videos by artists such as Kylie Minogue and Jesse J. But her real passion was in making music herself – which resulted in her dropping out of dance school and only doing the music video-appearances for the pay check and the experience, while starting to develop her own sound and working for a brief time in London’s cabaret-circuit. In 2012, she self-released her first EP, before being signed by Young Turks with whom she has put out all her subsequent releases.

In a very short time, she went from being a novel underground-phenomenon to gaining a huge following also in more popular circuits. Her music videos uploaded to her Youtube-channel now have over 83 million views, she has appeared on several major magazine-covers, performed twice on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and became a major target for the paparazzi once she met and got engaged to the actor Robert Pattinson. But what is particularly exciting is that throughout all of this she did not compromise with her artistic integrity at all, which resulted in a compellingly unique artistic voice suddenly invading the mainstream in a way that we have seen few examples of in recent decades. Her blend of beautiful conventional melodies and song structures with surprisingly complex electronic arrangements – all bound together by her silky voice with and without synthetic augmentation – is something that I desperately have been looking for in the mainstream over recent years. I first listened to EP1 and EP2, and was immediately hooked by the synthetic melancholy of tracks like ‘Ache’, ‘Breathe’, How’s That’, and ‘Papi Pacify’. And LP1 and M5L155X only deepened that impression. Despite being of conventional pop-song duration, the majority of her tracks are packed with a complexity that nevertheless – like any good tune – make them feel both like cognitive journeys and emotional rollercoasters. They all feel much longer than their 3-5 minute spans, but in a good way since the complexity of the arrangements invite repeated re-listening. It is particularly the mixture between soft smoothness and harsh complexity – and between darkness, otherness, and melancholy – that excites me about twigs’ music in ways similar to the aforementioned Tricky and Björk.

In that regard, twigs is part of a small group of young London-based artists – also including the musician and producer Arca and the visual artist Jesse Kanda – who all have embraced this in their solo and collaborative work. Arca, who co-produced EP2 and parts of LP1 with twigs, has also released acclaimed solo-records and produced Björk’s latest album Vulnicura (2015) – and is apparently also working with her on her upcoming album – whereas Kanda created the (again ‘Björkesque’) cover for twigs’ LP1, and a number of astonishing music videos for Björk (‘Mouth Mantra’), Arca (‘Xen’ and ‘Thievery’, among others, as well as their collaborative film project ‘TRAUMA’), and twigs herself (‘Water Me’ and ‘How’s That’).

The collaboration with Kanda is worth elaborating on, since twigs’ uniqueness does not merely lie in her sound but also in her appearance and visual work in general. Critics have noted that Kanda’s work bears some resemblance to that of Chris Cunningham – mainly because of a similar fascination with the twisted and the corporeal – and it is certainly easy to draw parallels between Kanda’s many collaborations with Arca (in music videos, touring, and film projects) to those of Aphex Twin and Chris Cunningham (which also included touring and short films, beyond their famous work in ‘Windowlicker’ and ‘Come To Daddy’). twigs too shares Kanda’s fascination with a kind of alien corporeality, which is evident in the two music videos that he has directed for her: ‘Water Me’ – whose single close-up and gradual transformations of twigs’ face brings to mind Björk’s video for ‘Hidden Place’ – and ‘How’s That’, whose flickering, hollowed-out bodies somewhat resemble the bodies of the alien’s victims in Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary sci-fi Under the Skin (2013).

But even when on her own, twigs remains remarkably ambitious with regards to the visual side of her work, having co-directed or directed eleven music videos for her songs – including the short-film accompanying four tracks from her M5L155X EP (indeed, most of her tracks have been released with music videos). Like the Kanda-collaborations, the videos centre on femininity, corporeality, and also feature modern US dance-styles such as krumping and voguing that also tend to appear quite prominently in twigs’ work overall. Both dances have roots in African American and (in the case of voguing) Latino US-subcultures, with krumping being a kind of energetic, freestyle form of hip-hop/street dance that emerged in the early 2000s as a way for black youths to escape from gang life and release anger and frustration in a non-violent way (perhaps most famously depicted in David LaChapelle’s documentary Rize from 2005). One of twigs’ most explicit and powerful uses of krumping is in the video for her great track ‘Ache’, which shows a slowed-down version of a man doing the dance. Voguing, on the other hand, has its roots in the Black and Latino ballroom-scene of the early 90s, where non-white LGBTQs came together to organize extravagant balls for the city’s outsiders – and in which voguing – inspired by the magazine and taking the form of fluid movements between model-like poses – became a key dance routine. Voguing and the ballroom-scene is documented in another well-known documentary, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning from 1990 (and more recently in Sara Jordenö’s great 2016-documentary about the post-90s Kiki-scene, as well as discussed explicitly by twigs and some of her dancers in this interview), and did also gain mainstream recognition through Madonna’s single ‘Vogue’ (also 1990, with its famous music-video – directed by David Fincher – that features some voguing).

The brilliance of twigs’ usage of both these dance-styles lies in how she has extracted them from their hip-hop and ballroom-roots and inserted them in the context of her own artistic vision without losing what made them great in the first place. Even in her more recent collaborations with Nike, Google, and Calvin Klein – to direct ads for them featuring herself, her own music, and dance routines (much like David Lynch’s and Chris Cunningham’s ads for Playstation) – what is striking is how she manages to draw upon these dance-roots in the context of her own great music and thus, like Lynch and Cunningham, maintain her unique voice despite the highly commercial nature of the projects.

And this is indeed what is most compelling about twigs – much like many similar artists before her who also managed to break into the mainstream – that is, the consistency of her artistic vision regardless of whether the context is a live-gig, a magazine feature, a self-directed music video, a major commercial, or something else. There is an underlying theme that revolves around constantly twisting and morphing herself into novel forms, and about embracing the alien sides of herself – which connects her work to some of the best post-war popular musicians, for whom channeling the alien was one of the cornerstones of their artistic practices (such as in black ‘afrofuturist’ music). Speaking of her outsider childhood, she has remarked that her art helped her to come to terms with what of her was perceived as deviant, and allowed her to expand on it creatively rather than suppress it. She is somewhat reminiscent of the estranged alien in Glazer’s Under the Skin (a film that she probably not so coincidentally happens to love), except that for rather than eventually being devoured by the shallow demands of the human race, she instead creatively augments and further explores the uncanny through her art. This is certainly much welcome at the present, given the glaring lack of such cultural agents today.

To access the FKA twigs-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Jamie Bernstein