Feature Interview: FKA twigs on harnessing the power of vulnerability
June 17th 2019
Image: Daniel Boud
In her first Australian interview since the release of ‘Cellophane’, FKA twigs spoke to Monday Arvos host Tanya Ali ahead of a heart-stopping performance at Carriageworks.
If there’s one thing to know about FKA twigs, it’s that she doesn’t do things by halves. Early in the writing process for her latest release ‘Cellophane,’ twigs knew that to faithfully realise the work’s visual dimension, she would have to learn to pole-dance. Moments after touching down in Sydney, the British pop icon explains to me that the track – her first in three years – “in a way is pleading for the perfect, reliable, stable partner: the pole came to mind as a substitute for that.”
So, twigs underwent arduous, intensive training to master this new skill – resulting in the gorgeous music video for ‘Cellophane,’ directed by Andrew Thomas Huang.
Training is not something twigs is in any sense new to. A professional dancer before she was a musician, movement has always featured heavily in her aesthetic, and her rigour is almost superhuman. Her latest live show, Magdalene, which just made its Australian debut at Carriageworks, is relentless – featuring not only pole-dancing, but also tap-dancing, wushu, and intricate choreographed sequences. “Whenever I feel tired,” twigs says, matter-of-factly, “I think to myself, ‘well in the theatre people do it all the time, don’t they?’ If they can do it on Broadway every night, I can do it too.”
Every second of Magdalene is immaculately considered: pitch perfect, with every move calculated, a testament to twigs as simultaneously an artist, producer, director, performer and athlete. When speaking about the talented creative team alongside her, twigs gushes. “I’m getting very emotional at the shows at the moment, because I’m just so happy that I’m there with people that like what I do and we’re just sharing this experience. Everyone involved is really talented and kind… I’m travelling around the world at the moment with the most beautiful group of people and it’s just great,” she laughs.
twigs has closed each leg of Magdalene so far by singing ‘Cellophane’ in front of red curtains drawn, a rare lone moment onstage. In these final minutes, there are no elaborate routines, no props; much like ‘Cellophane’ itself, her rendition is honest and heartbreakingly vulnerable.
I left Magdalene broken. Broken, but hopeful, empowered. Broken, but aware that feeling brokenness is an important part of healing. Broken, but inspired to turn those shards into something productive, whatever that may be. twigs’ art encapsulates how vulnerability can be power, and ‘Cellophane’ is a perfect case study.
Every time I listen to the song, the final lines hit me hardest:
They’re watching us
They’re waiting, and hoping
I’m not enough
Hearing them live is even more of a gut-punch. Had twigs’ adequacy ever been in doubt – hard as it is to imagine – the epic performance that is Magdalene would irrefutably prove otherwise. twigs sings the last line and as if rehearsed, before the rest of us have even collected ourselves enough to applaud, a single voice from the audience rises: “You are more than enough!” The subsequent explosive cheers reinforce that sentiment.
While lovely, the crowd’s earnest reassurance misses the central irony of twigs’ powerhouse performance. In Practice, a seven minute behind-the-scenes look at twigs’ training process for the ‘Cellophane’ music video, twigs addresses this irony:
“…To be asking somebody ‘didn’t I do it for you?’ whilst doing these amazing tricks on the pole… to me there’s something almost humorous about that. I’m sure other people won’t see it that way, but to me, it’s sick and it’s funny and it feels powerful… ‘Didn’t I do it for you, am I not enough?’ I’m more than enough, you can’t even handle it.”
Practice, much like ‘Cellophane’ itself, is surprisingly intimate. Over twigs’ years in the limelight, she’s become notorious for her enigma, her mystery – often coded by a predominantly white mainstream media as rudeness or arrogance. But speaking to the artist even after she’s just disembarked a long-haul flight, she is genuine, passionate, and downright effusive. Digging a little deeper, the vast majority of her past interviews show twigs to be consistently candid, funny and wise. I can’t help but wonder, then, exactly how these myths surrounding her persona began. Time and time again it’s implied that she’s difficult, and she’s been painted a negative shade each time she’s stood up for herself in the face of unconscionable conduct or so-called journalism.
This reaction is almost predictable – bouts of indignant outrage have come to be expected when a Black woman in the public eye challenges her poor treatment by the media. What’s more, twigs’ audio-visual works reclaim sexuality in a way that so wholly disregards the exoticising male gaze, that they are bound to enrage a more close-minded audience derisive of anything they don’t quite understand.
But there’s something else here, too. Re-listening to twigs’ 2014 debut full-length record LP1, I am reminded that while being inspired by and in awe of her, I too felt intimidated. Her production and performance was unlike anything I had ever heard before – equal parts cerebral, spiritual and corporeal. During our chat, she talks about how “when something rings true” to her, she “can always see some sort of picture.” Since the beginning of her career as an artist, she has unwaveringly executed this clear, forward-thinking vision. The vision of an entirely unapologetic auteur.
With ‘Cellophane,’ and with Magdalene, we are seeing honesty – a radical vulnerability that she has grown into over her past six years releasing music. We are witnessing the birth of a new phase of twigs. Still revolutionary, but more grounded.
Perhaps those attached to the status quo do have something to be scared of. twigs is part of an advancing front of exceptional women and queer people of colour, transgressing artificial boundaries drawn by a musical establishment that can see its empire crumbling. In Practice, she notes her commitment to “changing the cultural DNA.” Seeing the feat that is Magdalene, combined with her sincere excitement about it and her unbelievable work ethic, there’s no doubt she will succeed in this – always growing and creating in defiance of an industry crying out for a shake-up.
Listen to the whole interview below and tune in to Arvos with Tanya Ali every Monday from 3pm.
Image: Daniel Boud