Earlier this month, FKA Twigs was announced as the recipient of the Godlike Genius gong at the upcoming BandLab NME Awards 2022. At just 34, she is the youngest-ever winner of this coveted prize with a rich history. “To see my name amongst the iconic likes of The Clash, The Cure and Blondie is unreal!” she said in a statement. “I am so proud to be the first Black female artist to have been honoured, still baby-faced, and inspired as hell. Here’s to the next decade of making art and music.”
When NME meets her on the day of the announcement, it’s clear that she is still wrapping her head around the award, which will be presented to her by Soul II Soul legend Jazzie B at London’s O2 Academy Brixton next Wednesday night (March 2). “I guess what it means is that you’ve made a lot of creative things and people like them,” she says while getting comfortable at her PR rep’s office in central London. “And maybe it means that, you know, your work has been influential to the industry. But it’s a massive title and I’m really flattered by it.”
“Creative” and “influential” are two words that definitely apply to Tahliah Debrett Barnett (“Twigs” is a longtime nickname playing on the way her joints crack; the “FKA” was added later because there was already a music duo called The Twigs). She’s now a decade into a career that’s seen her push R&B and avant-pop to its absolute limits, while also establishing herself as a gifted dancer, producer and music video director whose complete control over her own image amounts to a powerful form of visual art.
While her work has always been emotionally intense, Barnett’s most recent mixtape, last month’s dancefloor-focused ‘Caprisongs’, features the loosest and most relaxed music she’s ever released. It’s a notable change of pace: before she dropped her arresting debut album ‘LP1’ in 2014, she had already made a splash with a pair of EPs accompanied by stunning and unsettling music videos.
In the visuals for ‘Water Me’, for example, we saw Twigs’ eyes swell in size after a globular tear slid down her face. It could be interpreted as a metaphor for the way in which pain can foster self-growth. ‘Papi Pacify’ appeared easier to decipher: when a male dancer put his fingers in Twigs’ mouth, it seemed to be a physical representation of an emotionally abusive relationship.
When NME asks Twigs what she wants to pop into people’s heads when they hear her name, she says she “has no idea, really: and throws the question back: “What pops into your head?” Well, ‘visionary’, in that she executes her artistic vision at an incredibly high level. “Brilliant, we’ll do that one – what you said!” she replies with a playful laugh. Twigs isn’t just cerebral and reflective throughout our hour-long conversation; she’s also really funny.
Yes, she has seen that throwback photo of her with Peter Andre’s children Junior and Princess, taken years ago when Barnett was the pop star’s backing dancer and which the Instagram account @loveofhuns posted a few weeks ago. And, yes, she loves it too. “I think it’s iconic – I wasn’t sure I was an icon before [seeing the photo] but I’m sure now,” she deadpans deliciously. “I’ve hugged Junior and Princess. Has Dua Lipa done that? Has The Weeknd? Has Post Malone? No, they haven’t, so no one’s got anything on me now.”
When ‘LP1’ landed in 2014, it marked the crystalisation of FKA Twigs’ remarkable artistic visions: glistening, slippery, futuristic R&B music co-produced with fellow left-field pop architects including Arca, Sampha and Dev Hynes. It also heightened the beguiling mystique she had seemingly cultivated from the start.
Arriving in 2019, more than five years after ‘LP1’, Twigs’ second album ‘Magdalene’ was a panoramic art-pop masterpiece rooted in pain, heartbreak and, above all, recovery. “And I don’t want to have to share our love,” Twigs sings on ‘Cellophane’, presumably alluding to her high-profile relationship with Robert Pattinson which ended in 2017.
Last year, Twigs revealed on Louis Theroux’s Grounded podcast that she was targeted by racist trolls while she and Pattinson were dating. “People just called me the most hurtful and ignorant and horrible names on the planet,” she said. “He was their white Prince Charming and they considered he should be with someone white and blonde.”
Her subsequent relationship with another famous actor, Shia LaBeouf, whom she met on the set of the 2019 film Honey Boy, also cast an unwanted spotlight on her. In December 2020, she filed a lawsuit against LaBeouf accusing him of sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress; he denied the allegations, and it was reported in June that they had held “productive discussions” to settle the lawsuit.
Twigs has never really played the fame game. “I used to hate doing red carpets,” she says, “whereas now I just look at it like a performance [where] I just think that I’m really fab. And then in my head it becomes fun.” But at this point in her career, she’s enough of a celebrity to be written about on MailOnline and similar sites; the focus is usually on her outfits.
“I feel like maybe that kind of press don’t know what to do with me,” she says. “I’m probably a bit confusing for them. They know that I’m there, somewhere, but unfortunately I never do anything that interesting and so far I’m quite, like, unproblematic. So for them, I think an angle is maybe quite hard to find.”
“The Godlike Genius Award is a massive title and I’m really flattered by it”
For the most part, Twigs has protected her privacy. A notable exception came in May 2018 when she made an incredibly courageous decision to share the terrifying health issues that she later fed into ‘Magdalene’, an album about regaining strength and self-worth. Revealing that she was recovering from keyhole surgery to remove six fibroid tumours from her uterus, Twigs said on Instagram that she had been living with “a fruit bowl of pain every day”.
Twigs later underlined her recovery by incorporating pole dancing and sword-based kung fu into her stunning ‘Magdalene’ live show. Still, the Instagram post about her health issues suggested she could be willing to let down her guard in the right context. That context turns out to be ‘Caprisongs’.
In between conversations with friends recorded as voice notes, the mixtape glides between dewy dancehall (‘Papi Bones’), choir-backed grime (‘Honda’), undulating R&B (‘Jealousy’), hyper-concentrated UK garage (‘Pamplemousse’) and a bop O’clock duet with The Weeknd aka Abel Tesfaye (‘Tears In The Club’). “I wanted to push myself to do new things,” she says of that last track, “and Abel is the biggest pop star on the planet, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Twigs is equally matter-of-fact when it comes to ‘Caprisongs’’ unexpected flex. “There are so many different sides to me that the world hasn’t seen yet,” she says. “On this project, I’m rapping, I’m singing, I’m talking, I’m dancing and I’m doing videos that I wouldn’t normally do. I think with my other projects, it’s been like: ‘This is who I am, this is what I do.’ Whereas with ‘Caprisongs’, it’s more like: ‘This is my world. Come on in.’”
Twigs says she sprinkled the mixtape with conversation snippets and features from Shygirl, Pa Salieu and Rema to give it a sense of community. “I’m saying: ‘These are the people that I work with, these are my friends, these are my dancers, these are people that make me feel good,’” she explains.
She agrees that ‘Caprisongs’ feels “light” and “fun” compared to her previous projects, but insists that this doesn’t make it any less deep. “It’s really exposing and really vulnerable because I have my closest friends talking on there,” she says. Twigs wanted their relaxed chatter to flank her music because it reminded her of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown, when she quarantined alone and derived comfort from podcasts and the thrum of conversation.
“When I went for a walk, if I saw, like, six young people together in their bubble, I’d kind of want to hear a bit of what they were saying,” she recalls. “And I think that’s because we’re such pack creatures and we really needed that.” Twigs draws a contrast between previous “awful events” from history, where humans at least had physical contact as a temporary respite, and the way in which this pandemic left many of us completely isolated.
“With ‘Caprisongs’, it’s like: ‘This is my world. Come on in’”
“The biggest form of torture is solitary confinement, and we’ve all been put through torture,” she says. “And so that’s what this mixtape is about. It’s about voices and constant chatter in the background and the inspirational things that you need to hear.”
For this reason, Twigs also infused ‘Caprisongs’ with her interest in astrology: its title references her Capricorn birth sign. “Astrology is more popular than ever, and I think that’s because we’re all quite lost and literally looking outside the planet for answers,” she says. “We have such a lack of a sense of self, and also such a lack of leadership, that we’re actually looking to the stars to tell us [what to do].”
With characteristic self-awareness, Twigs admits she can use astrology as a kind of spiritual balm. Alluding to the LaBeouf situation, she says: “When I started making the mixtape, it’s no secret that my personal life was in absolute tatters. And I was like, ‘I’m going to go to the studio and do this and do that.’ And then I would think, ‘That’s because I’m a Capricorn: I’m obsessed with work.’”
When Twigs tried to rationalise her impulse to graft her way out of a crisis, she came up with countless other psychological reasons. “Maybe it’s because I’m really strong, maybe it’s because I’m tenacious, maybe it’s because of my upbringing, maybe it’s because I’m the woman my mother made me, or the things I went through at school and as a teenager,” she says. “But I feel more confident when I say it’s because I’m a Capricorn, because it’s allowing something else to lead me and tell me who I am.”
Twigs first realised her own strength when she moved from sleepy Gloucestershire to buzzing south London as a 17-year-old. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow – I’m so resilient! You can drop me anywhere and I’ll be OK – like a cat,” she says.
She took solo trips to New York, Paris, Berlin and LA “maybe twice a year” and always met people she connected with. When she was 21, she was so fascinated by a documentary about krumpers – US street dancers – in clown makeup that she flew to LA to track them down. “This was like pre-internet, before Uber, so I got on a bus to Inglewood by myself, walked around the streets and asked people where the krumpers were,” she recalls. “And I found them.”
On ‘Darjeeling’, a ‘Caprisongs’ bop that cleverly borrows from Olive’s ’00s Eurodance banger ‘You’re Not Alone’, she namechecks Croydon College, where she did her A-levels, and credits London with “diallin’ my confidence up / About my hair and my skin”. Last year, in an interview for The Face, Twigs, the daughter of a Spanish mother and Jamaican father, told I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel that she “100 per cent” has memories of experiencing racism and feeling othered as a child. “The first day I went to school, someone wouldn’t hold my hand in case the brown came off,” Twigs recalled, heartbreakingly.
So it’s a little surprising, at least initially, to hear her describe her childhood in Cheltenham as “absolutely my secret weapon”. How so? “Because I never take anything for granted,” she replies. “I think everything in culture is absolutely incredible. Always. All the time.” Twigs makes her voice go high-pitched in a parody of excitement: “Oh my God – a new shop just opened and it’s got all these amazing clothes!”
“It’s not going to change my etho. I only make music that I want to make”
She pauses, then continues more thoughtfully. “You know, when I grew up, you couldn’t even get fashion magazines where I was from,” she says. “You had to subscribe to them in the actual post and sometimes they would come and sometimes they wouldn’t. I used to run to the end of my drive – because I lived, like, on a field, basically – to get The Stage magazine [in the post] from London so I could read all about the different castings and shows that were happening. I was just so excited by everything, constantly.”
Twigs’ first serious boyfriend, whom she refers to rather touchingly as “my sweetheart throughout school”, came from an affluent family who owned “the largest carpet business in Gloucestershire”. For a time, she half-imagined that she might end up with him, running the carpet company. “There’s a lot of beauty in that,” she says, “and sometimes I wish I had a family business to slip into; it would be quite comforting. But I just knew that wasn’t my destiny. As a half-Jamaican girl, you know, we love singing and dancing, so I don’t think that could have been my destiny.”
Even now, Twigs says she’s drawn to people who have the same bottomless passion for culture. She brings up Princess Julia, the legendary DJ who’s been a mainstay of London’s club scene since the ‘Blitz Kids’ days of the early ’80s. “She’s been supporting me since I was 19 – I used to send her my demos on Facebook,” Twigs recalls. “About three years ago, I was at [East London LGBTQ venue] The Glory and she was DJing. And she put on this demo from when I was 19 – she still had it on a USB stick! I was like, ‘That’s so incredible!’ She loves it, she lives for it, and she’s there still doing it’.”
Twigs also speaks with palpable affection about Jazzie B, the founder of iconic London collective Soul II Soul, who will present her with the Godlike gong. It’s a full-circle moment that clearly means a lot to Twigs. According to her mum, she used to “coo along” to Soul II Soul’s era-defining R&B hit ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’ as a baby . Twigs can also remember being profoundly affected by Soul II Soul’s music videos from a very young age.
“Jazzie would have all these dancers in his videos and there was one lady who looked like me,” she recalls. “When I was growing up in Cheltenham, I hardly knew any Black people, and I certainly didn’t see any mixed-race people. So when I saw this woman, it was a real thing for me. I could look at her and think: ‘It’s going to be OK. I’m going to grow up to look like that dancer.’”
Many years later, in a spooky twist of fate that even the Zodiac couldn’t have predicted, a friend recommended her personal trainer to Twigs. The trainer turned out to be that dancer from the Soul II Soul videos: Efua Baker, Jazzie B’s wife and a former recording artist in her own right. The two women have now formed such a bond that Twigs calls Baker her “life coach”. “Whenever I really want to look good, she helps me look good – but from the inside out,” she says.
Twigs also says Baker’s ’90s recording career was a “major inspiration” when she was making ‘Caprisongs’. At this point, she opens up YouTube to show NME the super-stylish video for Baker’s 1993 house single ‘Somewhere’, which came close to cracking the UK Top 40.
“She didn’t really blow up as an artist, but she always says to me that she did her career the way she wanted to,” Twigs says. “Like, she was really insistent about only having Black female dancers in her videos and not doing too much of a pop thing. She stands by all of her decisions and her work really stands the test of time. As an artist, I really respect that.”
As she enters the next phase of her career, it sounds as though Twigs wants to level up without selling out. She says working with The Weeknd on ‘Tears In The Club’ taught her a lot about the practicalities of collaborating with an artist on a different label.
“It’s not as simple as, ‘Oh my gosh! I love that artist – let’s do a thing,” she explains. “It’s complicated. You have to think about scheduling and song rights and what label it’s going to come out of. And now I know [all that].” Plus, after a decade with the “very nurturing” British indie label Young, Twigs is now also signed to Atlantic, the major that’s home to Ed Sheeran and Cardi B.
“It’s not going to change my ethos,” she says. “I only make music that I want to make. But I don’t want to stay the same – that’s the kiss of death for an artist, a sidestep into nothingness. I always want to learn more and keep growing.”
Her guiding principle is an expression she once heard on a documentary: “As an artist, you drink from your own thumb.” “Like, if the inspiration is coming from yourself, if you’re drinking from your own thumb, then your art is always going to feel very honest and authentic and real,” Twigs says. “So that’s how I stay in tune with what I should do next.”
‘Caprisongs’ is out now via Young / Atlantic. FKA Twigs will receive the Godlike Genius Awards at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 at the O2 Academy Brixton, London, on March 2