Art Basel: The Story Behind FKA Twigs' Moniker
The singer — who's gotten more attention for being Robert Pattinson's new fling than her art — discusses growing up in a creative household ("If I wanted to be a cat for a day, I would be a cat.") and sounding like a woozy wizard
While Miley Cyrus’s spliff-toking, silver-pasty-shaking performance at the Raleigh Hotel made the headlines, the pop star was only one of the high-profile music acts in South Florida for Art Basel Miami Beach, joining the likes of Andre 3000, Solange, Usher, Theophilus London, Blood Orange, Nabiha, Kelela, Swiss Beatz, A$AP Rocky, Omar Suleyman and even 2 Live Crew.
The newly rebranded YoungArts Foundation sought to lure visitors in from the beach with a series of concerts by James Blake, SBTRKT and singer-songwriter sensation FKA Twigs (nee Tahliah Debrett Barnett), whose performance with Clams Casino last night marked the end of a three-month tour in support of her debut album, LP1, released last August by Young Turks.
Before her show, the beguiling singer — who admittedly has still gotten more press stateside for her relationship with Robert Pattinson than for her eerily beautiful vocals and breathtaking videos — joined ubercurators Hans Ulrich Obrist and L.A.-based artist Alex Israel for a conversation as part of Surface’s Design Dialogues series, held at the newly opened Edition Hotel in Miami Beach. Before a rapt audience (including Pattinson, who hunkered down in a doorway despite the front-row seats cleared for him), the singer opened up about growing up in Gloucestershire, her cabaret beginnings at The Box, her recent Jimmy Fallon performance and her ad for Google Glass. Through it all, what emerged was a portrait of a fiercely independence and unnervingly serene new presence, whose creative output defies categorization.
ART DISCUSSION: Alex Israel (left), FKA Twigs and Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Miami's Edition Hotel on Thursday. (Photo: Getty Images)
"I originally trained as a dancer," FKA Twigs began, taking the stage with her trademark kiss curls and an asymmetrical white sheath. "But when I was 15, I realized that I didn’t love dancing, I loved dancing to music." She got a job as a youth worker, helping budding singer-songwriters learn to express themselves. When the government yanked funding for these programs, FKA Twigs found herself out of a job, but also forced to turn her focus on expressing herself. "In some ways, that turned out to be the best thing for me."
"I was brought up in a very creative household. If I wanted to be a cat for a day, I would be a cat. My mother would lay out a saucer of milk on the floor for me." She recounted one humorous occasion, when, as an 8-year-old, she went into her room and fashioned a homemade thong and tights, which she then wore downstairs, proudly proclaiming herself to be Jane Fonda. “You would think my parents might be horrified, but they actually found it quite funny, taking photos and everything," she laughed. "But their support is what has allowed me to do what I do. I can really relate to something Tyler the Creator said: 'I’m a unicorn.' Don’t tell me otherwise."
In her early 20s, FKA Twigs plied her trade on the London cabaret scene centered at The Box, where she appeared as a character equal parts Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit and Josephine Baker (from whom she borrowed her signature hairstyles.) "I was boyish and a little awkward, so it was really important for me to explore my sexuality and femininity. It was like cabaret offered a magnified bit of a very small part of my personality." She described one of her acts — "Spell on You" — where she filled an instrumental pause with hand-gestures. "That was really the beginning of 'Twigs.' "
As for her moniker, the singer attributed that to a necklace she was wearing as well as her habit of cracking her long, slender fingers. The initials came later, when, the day before her first U.S. tour, the discovery of a band called "The Twigs" had her manager worried about possible injunctions. "I actually didn’t realize that 'FKA' meant 'Formerly Known As,' " she confessed sheepishly. "I just liked the combination of letters. Actually, originally I really liked how 'AFK' sounded, but then someone told me that meant 'Away From Keyboard.' " She has a remarkable self-possession in her attitude toward the name change. "It just shows you how, as an artist, you can’t really stick to your blueprint. What you end up with is not your name or your brand but what you’re making. That’s all that can really define you in the end."
When it comes to what she’s making, FKA Twigs is resolutely independent, controlling every aspect of her sound and visuals herself. "I don’t like to start things with, 'As a female,' but it’s true: As a female artist, there is a certain pressure to have someone tell you how to sound. Think about it. Kate Bush was the first to have a number-one single that she wrote herself, and that really wasn’t that long ago. But for me it’s very important and even necessary to do everything myself. I mean, if I want something to sound woozy and sad, like a wizard who just stabbed his son, how do I tell the sound engineer what a wizardy synth should sound like?"
This independence also leaves a lot of room for improvisation. FKA Twigs admitted that she wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to pull off her stunning performance on Jimmy Kimmel, where she sang the song "Two Weeks" while dancing with a giant, fluttering sail of fabric, like a modern Loie Fuller. "My friend Leo [Fitzpatrick] had showed me this video by an artist called Daniel Wechsler, and I loved the idea, but I just felt like I wanted to do it live. We tried it in rehearsal, and it was like a battle, and the organza won. I remember watching the tapes and thinking, OK, this will only work if I stay in absolute control. I didn’t have another option."
This was also her policy for her Google Glass ad, which shows her dancing in different personas and genres to her song "Video Girl." She explained, “They approached me to do an ad, and I said no, and then they asked again, and I say, 'No, stop asking!' " After she eventually did agree — recognizing the value in branching out from her comfort zone — she insisted on complete creative control. "I told them I would provide anything they needed, storyboards for every second, if they need, but that once it was done, they couldn’t touch it. And they agreed to that. They were actually the best company I’ve ever worked with."
At the close of the panel, Obrist pressed FKA Twigs to talk a bit more about the impact of technology on her work. The artist pointed to YouTube as a critical development, as it allowed her to bypass certain formulas. She told a story about when she was 15 and she met with an A&R guy who immediately chided her for not wearing a shorter skirt, before laying out the secret formula for her. "First, they give you a pop song, and then your second song should be a ballad. The third is a collaboration — and luckily for me, he worked with N-Dubz — and then the fourth, the fourth was like a cover, or something." She pointed out how with self-distribution and circulation, the industry could no longer control what people clicked on. "Everything is structured differently now. I released my first EP without anyone knowing what I looked like, and now I have this album without a 'single,' and it still works."
As far as her upcoming projects, FKA Twigs was quiet, but it’s clear that whatever she has planned, it will be a vision uniquely her own.
CREATIVE GENIUS: FKA Twigs at the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival on June 19