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FKA twigs Is Here to Create and Destroy

In her only interview with an Australian publication, the avant-garde pop star gets real about the pain and heartbreak behind her new album ‘Magdalene’ and the struggle to reclaim her narrative.

It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m on the phone waiting to be connected to FKA twigs, only there’s a slight problem—twigs has gone MIA. For the next forty minutes several publicists scramble to ascertain her whereabouts. They tell me this is a common occurrence with her and that she can be hard to pin down. I overhear them discussing in mildly panicked tones whether or not they should try calling her room at the Ritz Carlton directly, and their apprehension rubs off on me. 

I assume it’s not without reason. Over the years, twigs has been described as a stand-offish, not particularly forthcoming subject. She’s perceived as somewhat unknowable—distant and aloof, a little bit tricky perhaps. An enigma. So, with this in mind, I was doubtful that she’d materialise, and if she did, apprehensive as to what kind of mood she’d be in. I needn’t have worried though. Once she was present on the other end of the line—making herself known with a surprisingly soft, “Hello, how are you?”—the conversation flowed easily.

She’s intelligent, incredibly passionate, thoughtful, and frequently takes lengthy, considered pauses. Sometimes she vocalises her search for a specific word, asking me if I know the word she’s looking for, a habit that lends a familiarity to our discussion, as though I’m chatting to a friend who’s forgotten the name of an actor from a film they saw recently. This relaxed friendliness is a little disarming at first, because it’s so at odds with her work and her appearance, both of which are very, well… alien. Everything she creates has an undeniably otherworldly feel to it. It’s how one might envisage pop music to sound in the year 2220, or, as a comment on the YouTube video for her single ‘Home With You’ put it, “I’d say the genre of fka twigs music is 4th dimension”.

But before she was inspiring YouTube comments by being a genre-defying, sword wielding, pole dancing polymath, twigs, born Tahliah Barnett, was a giggly daydreamer with a wild imagination. Growing up in the historic riverside town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, she was raised in a household where music was a constant, an environment that let her flourish creatively.

“My parents brought me up on a lot of jazz music, jazz fusion, African beats, salsa, psychedelic, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone… mainly I guess like black-centric, interesting beats. Both my parents have really amazing and quite eclectic taste in music so there was always music playing when I was younger,” she says. She was shy—painfully so—and in her own words, “…very, very sensitive”. Obsessed with movement and dance for as long as she can remember, by the time she was seven she was training in six different dance styles. This dogged determination to perfect her craft alienated her from her peers and she was relentlessly bullied at school. 

At age 17 she dropped out and moved to South London, becoming a backup dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jessie J. She tried her hand at singing in a punk band—an experience she’s previously described as an attempt to fulfill her Poly Styrene fantasy—but found she didn’t have the voice for it. Instead, she taught herself how to use Ableton and began working with a plethora of producers to find her sound, recording thousands of demos before eventually debuting in 2012 with EP1, an experimental four-track EP.

Even then it was clear that twigs was cut from a different cloth—the sheer physicality of her work and the unnerving beauty of the visuals that accompanied it placed her in a sphere entirely of her own making. Sonically she was a heady mixture of Kate Bush, Enya, Björk, experimental R&B, and broken beats, but at the same time she sounded utterly unlike anyone else. Her music videos inspired a sense of awe. She could be an oversized goddess one moment and a human metronome with googly eyes the next or be giving birth to a pile of ribbons, but one thing was obvious; twigs was entirely in charge of her artistry. 

Now 31-years-old, last month twigs released what she considers her most honest work yet—Magdalene. Her second full-length album, Magdalene is an innovative and searing exploration of heartbreak, pain, rebirth, and the intricacies of the female experience. “When I first started working on the album, life just suddenly got very real. I was single for the first time in a long time and I had a lot of health issues and it was a time for me as a woman where I just really had to embrace my independence and kind of rely on myself to get myself together and make great work again and be inspired,” she says.

That ‘very real’ stuff she’s referring to? Only an excruciatingly public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and serious health issues that culminated in her having six fibroid tumours removed from her uterus—perhaps very real is an understatement then. An obsessively disciplined workaholic, twigs had to learn how to be both firm and gentle with herself, and her quest to find strength in her lowest, most vulnerable moments is what shaped Magdalene. “I went through something very hard, a very human experience that I think a lot of people can relate to, whether that’s heartbreak or chronic pain, and I think that I just felt really grateful to be able to tap into that and be able to find, I guess, a sense of healing.”

Across the album’s nine tracks, twigs explores the idea of reclaiming a narrative, both her personal narrative—a narrative that she lost control of during the aforementioned high-profile relationship—and the narratives of other practices and people. But the narrative that’s front and centre is Mary Magdalene’s, the album’s namesake and someone whose story she wastes no time delving into.

She traces her interest in the religious figure back to her childhood; attending Catholic schools she would hear her name brought up regularly. Even then, she was aware that the narrative had been altered in some way. “Her story was always very vague and it just seemed quite ruled by the patriarchy and I think even when I was young, I was quite aware of that,” she says. “The more I learnt about her, I just learnt that she was not a prostitute or a woman that had to have things expelled from her, she was actually a healer and funded a lot of Jesus’s missions and in many ways was his confidant and the spine of the operation.” 

Twigs sees elements of her own life mirrored in Mary Magdalene’s, particularly the way Mary’s story was overshadowed by Jesus. “I think that I felt like that at times in my life as well, with every man I’ve ever stood beside. In my younger years I dated a couple of amazing athletes and I always remember being introduced in circles as ‘so and so’s girlfriend’, you know? But never… the man I was with was never ‘so and so’s boyfriend’, you know? I always found that to be very interesting and I guess there’s that correlation as well.”

While never referencing her recent relationships directly, it’s clear that the experience of being unintentionally thrust into someone else’s spotlight was discombobulating, and Magdalene is littered with allusions to that struggle. ‘Thousand Eyes’, the opening track of the album, is centred around the idea of walking outside and waking a thousand eyes—presumably referencing the paparazzi that continue to hound her post-breakup—and on ‘Cellophane’ she declares, “I don’t want to have to share our love”. 

At times the album feels gut-wrenchingly sad. ‘Mirrored Heart’ finds twigs sifting through the ashes of her relationship, sounding both devastated but determined when she sings, “But I’m never gonna give up / Though I’m probably gonna think about you all the time / And for the lovers who found a mirrored heart / They just remind me I’m without you.” But there’s also an undercurrent of white hot rage bubbling beneath the surface—a frustration at the way women’s identities and narratives are shaped and controlled by men. She’s impressively frank when it comes to this topic, sometimes catching me off guard with an incisive remark. “I think that men need women more than women need men, but I think that we are indoctrinated to not feel that way because that gives us too much power and too much agency and too much autonomy,” she says.

At one point in the midst of discussing the history of prostitution in relation to Mary Magdalene’s story—more on that later—she says in a contemplative manner, “I often think to myself—I wonder what would happen if all women for a year decided that they weren’t going to give their bodies to men. I wonder what would happen.” When I agree that it would be a fascinating exercise and ask her how she thinks it would play out, she replies, “Oh, I don’t know. It would be so interesting wouldn’t it!”, her tone a little gleeful.

“The interesting thing is, I feel like if men denied their bodies to women, I feel like we’d be fine. We’d be fine, we’d be crushing it, we’d be concentrating on ourselves, we’d be harnessing our own energy, we’d be back in touch with mother nature, we’d be aligning ourselves back with the moon instead of, whatever, you know?” I can’t help but agree with the sentiment, having watched most women I know perform an untold amount of emotional labour for the men in their lives, often getting little back in return, and I tell her as much. Laughing, she replies, “Yeah, I think we’d be fine. It’s very interesting. I feel that, you know, these are the questions that in my adult life I’m starting to ask myself. These hypotheticals.” 

Twigs’s work has always explored sexuality in thought provoking ways—her memorable delivery of the line “I can fuck you better than her” from 2014’s ‘Two Weeks’ comes to mind—but while creating Magdalene she became particularly intrigued with the virgin-whore dichotomy and the way it governs women’s lives. “Mary Magdalene, she represents something else, which is the archetype of the virgin whore and the fact that women can be both virginal and pure, like a fresh flower and, you know, desirable, because they’re innocent and naive and have a lightness to them. But also we are seductive and have so much depth and we’re dangerous and we’re mother nature and that creates and destroys. For me, I recognise myself as both of these things, and especially with my sexuality, when I embrace that, I feel the most complete.”

When she tells me about the origins of prostitution—“there was an archetype of the sacred prostitute, which is basically when the women would be in the temples and would be regarded as holy, and the men would go and make love to the women and the women had the power to heal the men that had come back from battles”—she returns to the idea of narrative, but this time in relation to pole dancing. Twigs’s fascination with pole dancing makes sense. It’s a practice that embodies both strength and vulnerability, but it has also traditionally catered to the male gaze. “Men go to strip clubs to view women, to get their kicks, and so the pole dancers, they dance for the men, which is fine and I think there’s a lot of power from the female point of view in terms of a woman seducing a man to take his money—I think there’s a lot of power in that.” 

So why did she choose to pair ‘Cellophane’, perhaps the most achingly melancholy song on the album, with a pole dancing routine? Twigs thinks for a moment. “I just wondered what would happen if I danced for myself. And I changed that narrative and I danced for myself and I danced for the feeling of the music and the concept of the song.” I tell her that I cried while watching her live performance of ‘Cellophane’ on The Tonight Show. I wasn’t alone in my emotional response to it; the comment section of the YouTube video of the performance is littered with people expressing disbelief that they are shedding actual tears while watching a pole dancing routine on a late night television show.

She sounds genuinely moved. “It’s exciting to touch people in a new way and make people view things—like a woman taking charge of her sexuality and pole dancing and showing it with the same moves and with all of its heritage, but at the same time changing the narrative to be something more emotional and embracing the female body—in, I guess, a slightly different way. I’m all into changing the cultural DNA of things and it’s just furthering, you know, women having agency over themselves.”

After all our talk of women’s lives under patriarchal rule, twigs has something she wants to tell me; a theory about why men have sought to control women throughout history. “The interesting thing about women is that we birth life if we choose to do that. Now, the most important thing on earth, above oil, above money, above, I don’t know, the stock exchange, above any of those things, the most important thing to our survival is life, and I’m holding that within my womb right now as I’m speaking to you,” she says, pausing for effect. “I hold that within myself.” Her delivery leaves me wondering if she’s hinting at something—a pregnancy, perhaps?—but I cast that thought aside.

Twigs would announce a pregnancy in a far more considered way than telling me, a journalist on the other side of the world, in a phone interview. Maybe she’d declare it with an elaborate dance routine, her limbs all glossy with oil, her hair hanging in long tendrils around her face. It would probably make me cry. Either way, whether it was serious or metaphorical, after a tumultuous few years, twigs’s life is pregnant—pregnant with meaning, joy, and divine feminine energy. “Now I’m on stage and I’m not in pain anymore and my health is great and I’ve never felt more skilled and therefore I’ve never felt more beautiful. I’ve never felt more complete, I guess, in my life so far,” she says. Twigs is a woman who has learnt that it’s her time—just like the lyrics in ‘Mary Magdalene’ insist—to put herself first. 

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