FKA twigs: Portrait of the artist

Cover of EP2, released in September 2013, cover by Jamie-James Medina. FKA twigs is on the Young Turks record label

FKA twigs has had a big year. The singer has been on the ‘cool’ radar since the summer of 2012, when she uploaded a series of visually striking films on YouTube, to accompany equally mesmerising songs. But in 2014, twigs crossed over into the mainstream: her first album, LP1, was released in August and swiftly nominated for the Mercury prize, and suddenly she seemed to be everywhere: all over Radio 1, wooing the US with a tour and a dynamite appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show and landing in the tabloids through her relationship with actor Robert Pattinson. What sets twigs apart from other breakthrough artists though is that her creative talents don’t end at music – she has been instrumental in defining her image from the start, and specifically using film to do this. She recently directed a film for Google Glass and, solidifying her role as a director, is now represented by Academy Films. Full of creative energy and ideas, with the requisite skills to make them all happen, twigs is the perfect star for the modern, do-it-yourself age.

While it might seem that twigs appeared out of nowhere two years ago, she’s in fact been in the pop business for around a decade, appearing as a backing dancer for acts such as Jessie J and Ed Sheeran. (A quick note on her name: born Tahliah Barnett, twigs is a nickname prompted by the cracking sound her joints make when warming up to dance. She became FKA (formally known as) twigs when she grew more prominent as a solo performer and US duo The Twigs complained about the use of the name.) Twigs did look to break out as a solo star earlier, but an experience with a record label put her off.

Portrait of FKA twigs on the Google Glass ad set. Photograph by Christopher Medak, the DOP on the shoot
Photograph by Christopher Medak

“I think as a music artist I’ve come through at a time when the music industry was in a certain amount of crisis,” she explains. “I think it still is now, in terms of the old formula that used to work for music artists – it doesn’t really work anymore because of streaming, and YouTube and all these different things, it’s kind of irrelevant in a way. I remember when I first decided I wanted to be a singer, going to a major label. I was maybe 17 or 18 and sitting across from this … I don’t know, he looked like a cheap estate agent. I remember him telling me I need four demos and first one has to be a club song, the second one a ballad, the third one a cover and the fourth one has to be a collaboration with another, more famous, artist. That was the formula, and if you look at a lot of people, that’s basically what they were doing at the time. I couldn’t see myself fitting into that formula, so I left.”

It was seven or eight years later that twigs was ready to share the music she was making with the world, but her ‘launch’, if it can be called that, was deliberately low-key, using YouTube, Bandcamp and Tumblr rather than more establishment channels. From the start she was aware of the importance of using visuals to tell the story of her music, and that she knew better than anyone else what it is about.

Still of FKA twigs' film to promote Google Glass, which was released in October 2014. Her first piece of directing work for a brand, twigs was given total creative freedom to create the film by Google. More a concept film than an ad, it features twigs using the product to call up music and dance references, which she then performs
Still of FKA twigs’ film to promote Google Glass, which was released in October 2014. Her first piece of directing work for a brand, twigs was given total creative freedom to create the film by Google. More a concept film than an ad, it features twigs using the product to call up music and dance references, which she then performs

“The music I was making maybe seemed like it was [of] a type but how I was feeling was completely different,” she says of this time. Twigs worked with director and stylist Grace Ladoja to create a series of four films that were released on YouTube. The meaning of the visuals is deliberately ambiguous – in Hide, the camera focuses on a female torso, set against a blood-red background, with the crotch covered by a bright red flower, complete with phallic stamen.

“Hide was based around a gif,” says twigs. “It was very hypnotising. I liked the idea that sexuality doesn’t have to be so overt, it can be completely in your face but then at the same time be quite uncomfortable, and that was the theme that was running through my music as well. I did those few videos and was by Grace’s side while doing that, learning from her.”

Still from Video Girl, directed by Kahill Joseph; Still from Papi Pacify video, co-directed by twigs and Tom Beard, which features provocative imagery of a man appearing to choke the singer; Still from the video for Pendulum, directed by FKA twigs. The imagery in the video references the Japanese bondage style shibari; Still from the video for Hide, one of four films created with Grace Ladoja
Still from Video Girl, directed by Kahill Joseph; Still from Papi Pacify video, co-directed by twigs and Tom Beard, which features provocative imagery of a man appearing to choke the singer; Still from the video for Pendulum, directed by FKA twigs. The imagery in the video references the Japanese bondage style shibari; Still from the video for Hide, one of four films created with Grace Ladoja

Twigs was similarly involved in the creation of her next videos, which were directed by Jesse Kanda. These films – for tracks How’s That and Water Me – are highly stylised and feature twigs at their centre, a tactic that helped build intrigue around the singer and her image, as well as her music. Following that was the video for Papi Pacify, which was a co-direct between director Tom Beard and twigs. Again, it is a striking piece, though this time more provocative, showing twigs being held, head back, by a man who is possibly seducing her, possibly choking her.

The central image came directly from twigs herself. “A few close people said it was disgusting, it’s not beautiful at all,” she says. “Nothing happens – that’s the funny thing – nothing happens. It evokes so much and nothing is happening. I’m not naked, no-one’s kissing, no-one’s having sex, but it’s really intense.
“Things are complicated,” she continues. “What I love about making things is that things are complicated so let’s show how complicated it is. And let’s not do it in a way just to get extra views – you know, have a naked girl in there for no reason. I’m fine with nudity but let’s not do it for no reason. I’m fine with sex, but let’s not do it for no reason. I don’t mind wearing loads of make up and having my hair done so I can look as cute as I can look but let’s not do it for no reason at all. What is the purpose of this? Why do I have to look like that? Why does my hair have to be like that? I always go into those things.”

The first video that twigs directed entirely by herself was for the Dazed website and starred the krump crew Wet Wipez. As might be expected on a first shoot, not everything went according to plan. “On the day it was a complete shambles,” she says, “some of the dancers didn’t turn up, I didn’t know the DOP, I just felt like this young girl screaming at cameramen that weren’t listening to me. It was frustrating, because I just wanted them to trust me and I could tell that they didn’t. It was a real battle to get them to do what I wanted, but maybe that was partly down to my direction, and partly down to it being my first video as well.”

Twigs first got to know the team at Academy Films (where she is now represented as a director on their A+ roster) early in 2014 when she worked with director Nabil on the video for Two Weeks, from her album LP1. When it came to shooting the video for her next track, Pendulum, Academy associate producer Morgan Clement encouraged her to direct it herself.

“She’s really good at coming up with these striking visual ideas and what she really needed was production support and a good DOP,” says Clement. “She had the idea so set in her head that really she just needed production support to make it happen, rather than needing someone to interpret her idea and spit it back out to her.

“What sets her apart is the fact that she’s been working in music videos for so long as a dancer, and keeping friends in that world,” he continues. “I always say that the best film school is just being on set – every time you’re on set it’s almost like you’re at a lecture or something, and learning the various bits that people do. So it’s not like she’s just come to this completely cold, she had quite a well-rounded knowledge of the process, all the way from casting and pre-production to post and editing.”

Pendulum sees twigs reference the Japanese bondage style shibari. The singer spends much of the film tied up – not the easiest position to be in to direct. Despite this extra difficulty, she is clearly very proud of the finished piece. “It’s the biggest creative thing that I’ve ever done,” she says. “I wrote the song, I co-produced the song and then I directed [the video] myself. I came up with the concept myself, it’s a complete 360 involvement in terms of creativity and leadership.

“To me it’s a dream come true because I’ve never wanted as an artist to have everything as a beauty parade,” she continues. “It makes me feel sick if I’m in a video trying to look as hot as I can look…. Although in my music there is an element of sensuality, it’s not really about sex, it’s not really about being sexy, it’s actually so much deeper than that. I think that’s why it’s really important that I have been directing my own videos, because maybe other people wouldn’t understand that.”

This search for a less predictable image of a female pop star led to quite specific instructions from twigs on set. “I had to explain to the cameraman that ‘you’ve done it from a man’s eye view’,” she says. “‘You’re shooting and you’re going from my face down to my chest and it’s great but it’s not me’. I was like ‘let’s look at my calves, let’s look at feet tied up, let’s look at the marks on my arms, let’s find things that are more interesting’.”

Portrait of twigs by Dominic Sheldon
Portrait of twigs by Dominic Sheldon

Soon after the Pendulum shoot came the opportunity for twigs to shoot the ad for Google Glass. The film is centred around her, and sees her scrolling through different dance styles, while listening to versions of her tracks Video Girl and Glass & Patron. The product is central to the film – it’s the method she uses to access the music and dance ideas – but twigs was given complete creative freedom in making the work. Perhaps because of this lack of interference from the client, plus her starring role, twigs says that making the ad didn’t feel vastly different from her previous directing work, apart from the fact that it had “an actual budget”.

Academy Films provided production backing on this piece too, and Clement feels that Google Glass was a good project for her to begin commercial directing with. “The one thing I said was that it needs to be a project that allows you to still keep your identity as a performer and director. I think the Google Glass project was a good one to springboard that, as she managed to keep it weird, even though it’s got a product in it and all those things.”

fka_twigs__lp1_artwork_copy_0.jpg - FKA twigs: Portrait of the artist - 7076

Clement is aware that the performer-director tag can be somewhat clichéd, or at times a downright conceit, and he is keen to stress that twigs is the real deal. “I think that artists directing their own videos has been used as a bit of a PR tool, and there’s some artists where it says that at the end of the video but that’s not actually the case,” he says. “With her, the treatment and the concepts are 100% her vision, and she’s involved in every stage of the process. It’s exactly like working with any of the other Academy directors – the only difference is she’s doing it in ridiculous heels and having to dance in between checking the monitor.”

While definitely unique in her style and vision, Clement also sees twigs as part of a new generation who are beginning to redefine what it means to be a director today. “Something that we’re finding with a lot of our younger directors [is] they’re not just interested in being solely a director, they’re interested in post-production, they’re interested in doing installations…. I think the term director as a whole with the new generation is becoming a lot more fluid and she’s a great poster child for that.”

Twigs describes the Google Glass film as a kind of farewell to her established style and image, one that has been hugely influential on the fashion industry and other pop stars. “Google for me was a way of first of all acknowledging my growth over the past two years aesthetically but then also, in a way, saying goodbye to it,” she says.

As to what comes next, twigs is excited to bring some of her creative ideas into her live shows – mentioning specifically that her forthcoming shows at London’s Roundhouse will be “more like you’re going to enter my world, in terms of sonics and visuals” – as well as exploring more opportunities in film.

“I’ve said it before… but I don’t want to be a pop star, I just love making things,” she says. “I don’t want to be on stage wearing a see-through fishnet catsuit in ten years, I just don’t want that for myself. It’s amazing now and I’m so happy that I get to sing and make music, and I’ll always make music, but at some point I do want to just be able to go behind the scenes and explore that…. I’m constantly creating and I’ve just started getting more into the idea of writing shorts, playing around with ideas. Hopefully in the next couple of years I can make something that I can then score myself and shoot, and not necessarily have to be in.”

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