FKA twigs: An incredible woman always in the shadow of a man? I can relate

After a breakup with Robert Pattinson and emergency surgery, the queen of art pop has written her most personal album yet and come out fighting

FKA twigs lives in a real house, in the real world, though this seems hard to believe. She appears so alien, in her music and her performances, in the way she presents herself, that youd be forgiven for believing that she lived in a cryo chamber alongside bejewelled hip-hop robots, or a martial arts monastery surrounded by an enchanted thicket of thorns.

Twigs art is not of the stripped-back, real me, acoustics-and-grubby-jeans variety. She arrived on the scene in 2012, whispering like Tricky, clattering like the xx, romancing like Prince, singing like Kate Bush, yet not actually quite like anyone else. A polymath she is a beautiful dancer and has directed pop videos and immersive theatre she works in experimental hinterlands, creating atmospheres rather than singalong stories. For example: the sparse and sad track Cellophane, released in April as the opening single for her new album, was accompanied by a video that featured twigs athletically pole-dancing in a sparkly bikini before being eaten by a lookalike insect, falling into watery depths and being covered in orange mud by caring tortoise creatures. Twigs is about intensity, beauty, sexuality and freakiness.

Because of this, Ive geared myself up for her to be a tricky interviewee. Distant. Abstract. Maybe a bit defiant. But twigs is not like this. She is friendly and quite serious. She has a light, RP voice with a slight lisp and a young face; though she is now 31, she can seem 10 years younger, especially when she laughs.

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At Glastonbury in 2015. Photograph: WireImage

We meet in her lovely home in east London. Her sitting room is olive green, with plants and a piano, fossils and tapestries and books about jazz. Preserved snakes twist under glass domes. There is a Diptyque Feu du Bois candle burning. The vibe is part museum of curiosities, part comfy boutique hotel. Her small dog, Solo, is lounging on the rug. I found her in LA four years ago, behind a nail salon, twigs says. She was tiny, about six months old, and all alone. (For the dog spotters: Solo enjoys chasing a ball and can do sit, paw and lie down. And, yes, she sleeps on twigs bed.)

Twigs thinks about how she presents herself. For this interview, she has dressed in an embroidered white shirt, Burberry shorts and white socks, with velvet ribbons at her throat. Her hair is partly dyed a wild red. Like the dancer she is, shes poised but casual, plonking herself on the floor (all dancers sit on the floor). Sweetly, she has three types of posh juice for me to choose from, though she herself drinks herbal tea.

Its taken her some time to sort her house out; for quite a while, she just had a sofa, a bed and a TV: Very discombobulating, she says. Before that, shed been living in a rented house share, and didnt have the money to furnish her new pad, though now she does (Nike appointed her creative director for a 2017 womenswear campaign, and shes made an advert with Apple, so her money situation has improved). Anyway, even if shed had the cash, she wouldnt have been up for decorating; she has had a difficult couple of years.

Though she didnt make it public and refuses to talk about it with me in 2017 she split up with her long-term boyfriend Robert Pattinson, the Twilight Saga actor whos set to be the next Batman. Their relationship had brought her tabloid scrutiny and weird fan abuse: Pattinson fans can be rabid, and racially trolled twigs on social media. After their split, she no longer had a home base in LA plus she was ill (more about this later) and, most importantly for her, she was in an artistic fug.

She found the new album Magdalene, her second really hard to make, she says, mostly because she wanted to change but couldnt figure out how. She began work on it as soon as she had finished her first, LP1, but couldnt find the right sound, and couldnt write songs in the way she wanted. Producers assumed she wanted to work with the fractured, futuristic noise of LP1 again and she felt trapped. Though she managed one song Day Bed, which ends the album, and is about being depressed she was stuck, workwise, in an artistry of her own making.

I find it easy to write over complete musical randomness, she says. But thats not what I wanted. I wanted something simpler, something honest. It felt like Id made this ornate golden birdcage, and everything was so intricate like tapestries and beading and beautiful wirework. And I stepped in and I locked the door and I was like, oh my gosh, this is actually a nightmare.

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With Robert Pattinson in 2016 Photograph: WireImage

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and Shia LaBeouf in 2018. Photograph: Backgrid

Her process of breaking free ended up being pretty thorough. Her music altered, her relationship ended, her health went haywire. A disciplined workaholic, twigs sees life as a matter of spinning plates You have family and friends, and you have adult things, like where you live and bills and stuff like that, then your health, maybe your relationship and, for a while, around 2017, nearly all the plates dropped to the floor and smashed. Everything was in complete turmoil, she says. The only thing that didnt get smashed or shaken was one or two great friends.

Things came to a head in LA, in just one week. Shed been searching for the right musical collaborator, and had found one in cult electronica artist Nicolas Jaar. They wrote Cellophane together in about 20 minutes, and she was thrilled. But she also felt physically terrible. She had a lump in her stomach that shed been ignoring for months and one day that week, she woke and found she couldnt sit up. She phoned her stepfather. I said, OK, I fucked up. I have some terrible thing in my stomach and its really big and I must have stomach cancer and Ive not told anyone and I just dont think theres any coming back. Twigs says this all in rapid-fire full tragedy mode, rolling her eyes at herself. What did your stepfather say? He said, Go to the doctor.

An ultrasound scan revealed not cancer, but fibroids hormonal growths on her uterus. Twigss were enormous Two cooking apples, three kiwis and a couple of strawberries: a fruit bowl of pain, as she described them on Instagram and she had laparoscopic surgery, back in the UK. They went in through three or four entry points she points at her stomach and pulled out the fibroids, like a string of sausages, through my bellybutton.

She had been in pain for a while; plus the fibroids had been pressing down on her bowel and bladder, making her want to pee all the time and giving her unpleasant IBS symptoms. She remembers working on a video before the operation. I had to do voguing in it and the choreographers, these two women, werent very nice and said, Youre really lazy and you keep going to the toilet all the time. My whole life, Id never been called lazy. It made me break down.

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Clothes and jewellery: Chanel. Photograph: Campbell Addy/The Guardian. Styling: Matthew Josephs. Hair: Rio Sreedharan at the Wall Group using Oribe. Makeup: Bea Sweet at JAQ Management using Marc Jacobs Beauty. Manicurist: Imarni at Imarni Nails

As if to prove how un-lazy she is, a few weeks after the operation she got a call from the director Spike Jonze. He wanted her to audition for an ad he was making for Apples HomePod. For the audition, she had to dance around this very room in front of her laptop, hoping her stitches wouldnt split. Then they said, Thats great. Now can you do it again and, like, touch the objects in the room? She laughs. But being a pro she had spent years as a dancer for hire she did as they asked. I was like, Sure, from the beginning of the song or halfway through? No problem. You want it again, but in a crop top?

Shes joking, but both incidents indicate the same thing about her. Twigs is a worker. She moved to London from Cheltenham when she was 17 and spent a few years as a back-up dancer, hired to shimmy behind stars such as Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue and Jessie J. Even now that shes an artist in her own right, she flips between being in charge, as a musician and director, and being directed, when shes dancing. Shes more inclined to the former, though doesnt mind being told what to do if shes learning and she thinks the work is good. She likes collaboration, and I have a good taste barometer.

Anyhow, she wants to talk more about fibroids, because she had never heard of them until she got them, even though many women suffer with them, especially women of Caribbean origin (twigs is half Jamaican). Shes learned that they can be managed through stress management and diet: its important to avoid sugar and foods with oestrogen, she says soy, dairy, non-organic meat. Also, receipts.

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In concert in New York in May this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Receipts? I say, wondering if Ive heard her wrong.

Yes. The paper they use, the ink, theres something about it thats got a lot of oestrogen and you ingest it through your skin.

Hmm, I say, but when I check later, I discover twigs is right: receipt ink contains BPA, an artificial oestrogen, which can be absorbed through contact. God, what a tricky thing. She also avoids tap water, because it has traces of the pill in it, and cant use hormonal contraception: Im a believer in western medicine, but there are other ways, depending on how your body works. She has been really careful, but still her fibroids grew back within three months. Now she has six more, which she is managing. As soon as I had my operation, I felt so much better, she says, like all these trapped-up feelings were released. But Ive never felt the same since. Im different.

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Jacket and blouse: Celine by Hedi Slimane. Jewellery: Bentley & Skinner. Tights: Versace. Slippers: Manolo Blahnik. Photograph: Campbell Addy/The Guardian

She has thrown herself into getting immensely fit. She knew that she wanted to pole dance for the video for Cellophane and it took her six months of training to get strong enough to do it. She is a true athlete now: she has learned how to do an aerial cartwheel, she is proficient in a type of sword kung fu called wushu, which shes been using in her live shows. She chose to learn this, she tells me, because its the opposite of pole dancing, very grounded and weighted in the pelvis, requiring her to use her legs. She is stronger than shes ever been.

I do wonder about the pole dancing. Shes done it before, in the video for Fukk Sleep, an A$AP Rocky song she guested on, where it was more straightforwardly man-pleasing. But twigs has always explored her sexuality in her work and tells me, My sexuality tank and my creativity tank are the same tank, which is great, but also quite frustrating. If shes feeling sexually confused or uninspired, then her work is off; but equally, if her work is good, then she feels strong and sexual. In the Cellophane video, she is unbelievably sexy, but her needy lyrics Didnt I do it for you? Why dont I do it for you? play against this.

Well, she says, I think that, in society, as a woman, you can be this beautiful creature and you want to be that for yourself, but theres also a part of you that is doing it for the approval of the opposite sex. And that can lead you to feeling, Am I good enough? Have I done enough?

If it seems a bit extreme twirling around a pole in the full splits position just to get a man to think youre great well, twigs has started asking questions about such things. She watched the great Kathy Burke TV series All Woman, which she loved, and shes been noticing how women often do the emotional labour of a relationship, what she calls learned behaviour. To her chagrin, she is often referred to in terms of her boyfriends (since Pattinson, shes been linked with another actor, Shia LaBeouf, and is dating Reuben Esser, fashion editor of Another Man magazine). It irritates her, but she is also conflicted about relationships in general.

I feel like Ive been indoctrinated to feel like when Im with a man, things are better, she says, regardless of whether they are or not. Ive been made to feel like, if Im with a man, then Im doing the right thing, Im validated, I have a tick to my name. And even though I dont really believe that, because Im intelligent and I understand things, its somewhere inside me.

***

Twigs grew up in Cheltenham as Tahliah Debrett Barnett, the only child of an English-Spanish single mother from Birmingham, whod moved out to the countryside to give her daughter a better life. And it was, twigs says; she loved being outside, she enjoyed nature. The walls and ceilings of her room were painted dark blue, with stars and moons on them.

As a child, she had a great imagination It was on fleek! she says and often mixed up daydreams and reality: until she was about 12, she sort of believed she could fly and hang in the air, simply by jumping off the stairs. Clever and hard-working, she got a scholarship to a private all-girls Catholic secondary school, which she enjoyed while feeling entirely different from everyone else. There were no other mixed-race students. Her stepfather, who moved in when she was little, was one of the few black people in her life. When he gave lifts to her friends, she was embarrassed by the music he played in the car: acid jazz, real jazz, Fela Kuti, Nina Simone. She would ask him to play the radio instead, though he never did.

Her mother took pains to make her feel beautiful, telling her her hair was lovely and her skin colour was gorgeous, but she didnt feel it. Shed pump me up at home and Id be like, Yes, I am pretty and Id get dressed up and think, Yes, I feel good. And then Id go to the school disco and as soon as I got there Id want the floor to eat me, because all my friends had this perfectly straight blond highlighted hair. When, aged 15, she asked her friend to come with her to a bashment party called Jamaican Club in Gloucester, her friend only came once, because, she told twigs, she didnt feel comfortable as the only white person there.

And I was like, Thats how I feel every day at school! Twigs says, almost laughing with outrage. I got angry. Thats how I feel when I go to your brothers house party and its all Cheltenham Ladies College girls. When I go round peoples houses and theyve got swimming pools and ponies in the back yard!

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On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2016. Photograph: Getty Images

There is something about twigs that will always feel other, even now. Shes not often been allowed to fit in. When she moved to London and enrolled in dance college, she missed the first two weeks because her mother was looking for somewhere for them to live. Before she arrived, the teacher told the whole of her year and the year above that they had better start working, because this brilliant dancer was about to join them twigs and was going to wipe the floor with them. So I turn up on my first day, in my pink leotard with my hair in a bun, with my farmers accent, like, Hi guys! and everyones like, No, absolutely not. My shoes went missing, my leotards I think I lasted a month.

She went to Croydon College to do six (six!) A-levels sociology, psychology, fine art, English literature, philosophy, French but found it hard moving into a class of 30 kids when, at her previous school, there were only 12. Everything was confused and confusing: she remembers going into an exam, looking at a question and thinking, We havent been taught this. After college, she wanted to get into the music industry, but couldnt work out how you did it. So she was a youth worker in Borough and Tower Bridge, a shot girl at Tiger Tiger. She continued with her dancing. Then, when she was 24, a photographer spotted her and put her on the cover of style magazine i-D. She got a manager who started teaming her up with producers surprisingly, she learned songwriting for a time with Mike Chapman, veteran of the Sweet (she tells me he taught her how to structure a song) and finally, she released the four-track EP1, in 2012. Every track was accompanied by a video, directed by her.

Its been a while since twigs has been asked to look so far back, and she is different now, she says. I was a young woman, stepping into my sexuality and owning it. I was sassy! Coming from the outside and being alternative. Not like a Nubian queen, not a powerful goddess but something just as powerful, but fractured. Like in Japan, where they smash the pots but join them up again with gold.

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Winning the best video award at the 2015 Mobos. Photograph: Getty Images

Now, though less sassy, she still feels good. People thought I was quite odd-looking, until a white male validated my beauty, she says. (She means Pattinson.) Thats frustrating and I still dont accept it. But if I sing really well, you cant question that. If I dance well, you cant question that. If I express myself honestly, or if Im pole dancing or wushu-ing excellently, you cant question that. Ive never felt more beautiful because Ive never been more skilled. Everything else is ephemeral.

She called her album Magdalene because of the way Mary Magdalene has been written about, she says: as a prostitute, when she was a healer and a mystic who washed Christs feet in rare and expensive oil. An incredible woman who was always in the shadow of a man, twigs says with irony. I can relate.

Shes a mass of contractions, twigs: a homebody who sparkles in the limelight, a seeker of male approval who wants to own her sexuality, a willing apprentice whos made for centre stage. And the next few years will be about her. She might be in a new relationship Dont get me wrong, Im completely open to love but she doesnt want to compromise, to mould her life around someone else, man or child. Id like children in my late 30s, she says, because as a dancer, your body doesnt come back. She wants to enjoy her new strength. It would be a shame if I didnt question what it is to be in a relationship, she says. I think I need to do that, to grow. And to make sure when I meet someone wonderful, it can be on my own terms. I hesitate to talk to you about it, because I would love to have a piece written about me where my name is not attached to a man.

But you were dating someone very famous, I say.

But my work was so beautiful, she says. It was so much louder than my love life. It is so much louder.

The album Magdalene is out on 25 October.

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