Before FKA twigs arrived at a quaint coffee shop in Los Angeles’ Arts District, she’d been on the phone with a friend, wondering whether she was intimidating. It had been a recurring theme in the 34-year-old’s life of late – it’d come up at least three times over the previous two weeks – and she wanted to know if it was true.
Much of the mythology that’s been built around twigs over the past decade has to do with this quality, or at least the assumption of it. Her songs and videos have an enigmatic feel that can be confounding yet stunning at the same time, the kind of art that draws you in whether its precise meaning is clear or not. Unable to assign a genre that felt exactly right, some critics settled for avant-garde, a description that, by definition, suggests a level of inaccessibility. For a while, she didn’t give a lot of interviews.
But when twigs, real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett, arrives on a sunny April morning, there is little intimidating about her. There’s no security, no assistants in tow. It’s just her – petite in stature, cosy in attire, warm in manner. She immediately apologises for her slight tardiness; years of spending time in the city’s sprawl and she still underestimates just how far apart things are. Relatable. For this particular trip, she’s been in town for a few weeks, working on new music even though her last project, a kaleidoscopic mixtape titled CAPRISONGS, came out only three months earlier.
That release contains some of twigs’ most immediate music. Her moody, experimental streak is there of course, but it’s also breezy and playful – the closest thing to club jams she’s made thus far. Though it’s the soundtrack of a blurry night out with friends, these are songs born of the crushing isolation of the pandemic. It was an attempt to imagine her way out of all that uncertainty and turmoil, to manifest some semblance of normalcy and levity where none existed. But she didn’t know that at the time; her approach to creating is more like, just start and see what happens. “It’s often only after the fact that I can really talk about where I was emotionally or mentally or what the work was supposed to represent,” she says. “I see that it was like a yearning to be a side of myself that I hadn’t been for a while, and I think it was a search for connection and also reconnection with myself and my heritage. I think being Black and British is a very particular flavour.”
Raised in the spa town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, twigs has long been hyper aware of what it means to be Black and British. She was one of very few people of colour in her area, raised by her mum, who is of English and Spanish ancestry, and stepdad, who is Bajan. (Her biological father is Jamaican.) Since she was young, people have seemed to stare at her – in part due to her skin colour but also her general appearance. “I was like a really crazy-looking kid,” she says, pulling out her phone. Her mum likes to send her old pictures, and twigs soon finds one she recently received. In the photo, a baby twigs poses; she’s not so much “crazy-looking” as supremely cute and uncannily doll-like, her distinct facial features already evident. The staring continued even as she got older, but feeling outcast helped her to “get over [her]self” at a young age and figure out how to be comfortable in her own skin. Moving to London at age 17 proved a game-changer. “It was really good for my spirit just to be around loads of different types of people and different religions and everyone looking different. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, really.”
She spent a few years savouring the multicultural melting pot and being a backing dancer for pop stars like Jessie J and Ed Sheeran. In between, she was experimenting with music herself. At 19, she booked a plane ticket to LA with plans to get familiar with hip-hop’s krumping scene in the place where it originated. A British krump crew called Wet Wipez had welcomed her into their ranks – her 2014 video of the same name features them – but immersion within a culture has always been important to twigs. It can be the difference between appreciation and appropriation, between adding to rather than solely taking from. Using Facebook, she contacted Miss Prissy, a South LA native also known as the Queen of Krump, who told her where to go once she touched down. “This is before Google Maps, so I just got off the bus, just asking people like, ‘Where’s this road? Where’s this alley? Okay, like four blocks.’” Thinking about this in the era when smartphones might as well be an extra limb sounds stressful, but twigs reflects fondly on the adventure of it and how she was embraced. “I remember all of those dancers, like Worm and Tight Eyez and Prissy. And these are people that I’m still following what they’re doing, and I’m still kind of connected to spiritually.”