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Singer, dancer, genre-bender: meet FKA Twigs

  • The British singer and dancer’s work is a combination of singing and stage performance
  • On her new, baroque-style album, piano ballads meet late-night electronica as she sings about love and breakup)

FKA Twigs performing at a music festival in Manchester in 2015.
FKA Twigs performing at a music festival in Manchester in 2015. (Photo: Alamy)

To someone who hasn’t ever heard FKA Twigs, the British singer and songwriter, I would recommend starting by watching Welcome Home, a short film by the American film-maker Spike Jonze. There’s a small catch in that recommendation though. It’s a commercial that Jonze made in 2018 for Apple’s HomePod and FKA Twigs (birth name: Tahliah Debrett Barnett) doesn’t sing at all in it. She only dances to the accompaniment of a song by American rapper Anderson .Paak. That’s the thing about FKA Twigs, an accomplished dancer. Her music is not merely about the songs but is a seamless combination of theatrical choreography, multi-media conceptualization and an opera-like rendition of what one could call electronic club dance music.

Albums by Twigs—she has three EPs and two full-lengths (Magdalene, the latest, was released in early November)—are well-crafted aural experiences but to really appreciate her work one has to see her live or, at the least, watch her videos. Twigs began as a dancer and on her videos and in live shows, dance is an indispensable component of her act. She is lithe and has the flexibility of a ballerina; and her movements, particularly when she has a pole as a prop, are comparable to the best in acrobatics. In October, on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show (essential viewing if you want to explore Twigs’ music), she begins singing cellophane (all the tracks from Magdalene have lower-case titles), and then, halfway through the song, moves to a pole and performs a breathtaking sequence.

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Twigs, 31, is half Jamaican and half British. Her career began in her teens as a back-up dancer in music videos for other singers, including Kylie Minogue and Ed Sheeran. By 2012, she had started making her own music and that year she released a self-produced single. A music video followed and the internet lapped it up. Her first full-length came out in 2014, and, five years later, she has now released her newest. Her stage performances and videos are largely conceived and created by her and they are at once graceful, provocative and aggressive. And while it is the sum of their parts—her music, singing and dancing—that provides the ultimate experience of her work, it doesn’t belittle the fact that Twigs is an accomplished singer and songwriter.

Her talent as a musician is best showcased in the new album. Written and recorded after a period when she underwent personal upheavals—a very public break-up with actor Robert Pattinson and recovery from the trauma of major surgery—Magdalene is a deeply inward-looking album. But it has all the elements that make Twigs’ music unique. She experiments with styles—her soprano vocals touch operatic highs; she adopts medieval choral church music influences; there’s R&B; there’s the idiom of electronic dance music; and there’s trip hop.

Then there are the lyrics. On Magdalene, Twigs sings about love, but also about a woman’s inner feelings about a relationship, particularly one that has ended. On cellophane, a standout track, she sings: Why won’t you do it for me?/ When all I do is for you? Twigs has said that the title and concept of her new album come from Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus who is a somewhat controversial Biblical figure. The references to religion, mysticism, and, in the videos, elaborately ornate costumes make the album a conceptual experiment.

In home with you, a song about love and breaking up, she sings: I’m so wired, fought it, seen it, tried it/ I die for you on my terms/ When I get my lessons learned/ Apples, cherries, pain/ Breathe in, breathe out, pain/ No, no, Novocaine/ Still maintain my grace. The song begins as a tranquil piano ballad but soon conflates it with the guttural electronica of late-night club music. That’s the thing about Twigs. Her influences are varied. She’s inspired by musicians and singers as diverse as Massive Attack’s trip hop and Janet Jackson R&B, but with her own music, she goes far beyond her influences. Far from being derivative, her music stands quite apart from the rest.

It would be pointless to try and pigeonhole Twigs’ music into a particular genre. Combinations of distinctly different styles often run the risk of going wrong but on Twigs’ carefully crafted compositions, they become kind of ethereal. Many of her videos are as otherworldly as her music can be and watching them on a large screen with a good audio system can be a treat.

Magdalene’s nine songs together last for just 38 minutes but the album’s introspective, intimate mood can be contagious. Most of the songs are about break-ups—from a woman’s perspective—and while that makes it a sad album, it is also an exquisite one. It’s an album that anyone emerging, and recovering, from a bad break-up could identify with. On daybed, a song that evokes the image of lying on a couch all day and reflecting (haven’t we all done that?), she sings: Active are my fingers/ Faux my cunnilingus/ Dirty are my dishes/ Many are my wishes/ Fearless are my cacti/ Friendly are the fruit flies/ Jaded is my father/ Childlike is my answer.

Many of Magdalene’s songs have simple, direct lyrics that are bereft of metaphors. But by no means is it a spare album. Its complex musical structures and permutation of styles not only make it Twigs’ best work till date but also an album that could go down as one of 2019’s best. Oh, and let me say this again: If you can, watch her live. Or at least check out her videos.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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