FKA twigs on Vulnerability and the Magical Powers of Women

Interviews
11/27/2019
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Eric Tra

Earlier this month, the staggeringly creative and otherworldly artist known as FKA twigs released her sophomore record Magdalene. Over the past few weeks, it's become clear that the record will likely end up very high on the majority of end of year lists, if not taking the coveted crown of Album of the Year. While the record could technically fall into the category of "breakup album," the heartbreak explored and expressed over the nine tracks is more profound than just the ending of a romantic relationship. Loneliness, physical pain, and the realization of the unequal roles within normative heterosexual relationships are all themes articulated with utmost naked vulnerability and inventive creativity.

This vulnerability has been manifested on stage through her Magdalene live performance. Moments of astounding athleticism, marked by wushu swordplay and powerful pole work, as well as intimate heart-rending emotiveness are weaved around each other for a spectacle of a performance. KEXP spoke to twigs after her Seattle performance and before the release of Magdalene about the new record, her journey through feminism, and the transcendent universal language of music.

 


KEXP: You're releasing your sophomore record Magdalene on Friday, your first work in four years and first studio album in five. How does it feel, a few days before you birth it into the world?

twigs: Yeah, it's really exciting. I think my last album was four years ago but I released M3LL155X, the EP and "Good To Love," I've done some creative direction for Nike, Soundtrack Seven, and an immersive theater event. So I feel like I've been pretty busy, huh? Yeah, it's my first album in four years, so I'm just grateful to have it finished. [laughs].

 

Absolutely. You've previously said that even though it's your second album, it's the first record that you went into it with the idea of creating a full-length album. Was it more difficult or was there any difference in that approach?

I wouldn't say it was difficult, it's just a process, isn't it? You know, I think making things isn't supposed to be easy. Yeah, there's always a process and it can take longer. You know, songs which I write in a day and that the seed of the production is finished I'm always so grateful for. But I also know that those are few and far between and some things can take up to six months or a year to finish, depending on where you are creatively. So, no, it wasn't difficult, I think, with Magdalene, I'm just a bit older now and I've been through more things. So I think it's not my most honest work because I've always spoken from my heart. But being honest at 22 is very different to being honest at almost 32.

It definitely feels more personal, maybe just because it's more vulnerable. At last night's Seattle show, I thought it was really just amazing and beautiful and profound how you were so open and honest with the audience. Telling us, "I'm heartbroken. This is how I feel." Has it been a helpful coping mechanism for you to work through everything by making the songs and performing your heartbreak out live?

Of course, but I think I've always done that. I mean, even as a dancer, that's the most amazing thing about dancing is it's a language that doesn't need words. And you can just kind of express yourself and work things out through just moving my body throughout my life. And creating things I've always used as a way to figure out how I'm feeling or expel things or provoke things. So, I guess it's no different to that. I think I was lucky that my mom was incredibly creative and she encouraged that in me when I was a child. And so I think it's just always been the way that I've been taught to deal with trauma.

Absolutely. I feel like the audience really loved it. It was one of the most loving audiences I've been a part of in a long time.

Oh good! That's so nice.

You're still at the beginning of your tour right now but you've performed the Magdalene show overseas and in New York and L.A. Has the reception been similar to that?

Yeah, it's been a really wonderful reception. I think I'm incredibly lucky that people who enjoy my music are very open-minded and open-hearted and so individual and, you know, last night was really special because I looked out into the crowd and it was just full of so many different types of people. It made me feel really lucky to get to do what I do and meet so many interesting creatures. [laughs] Yeah. It's really, really cool. I think Magdalene has bought a lot of people together already and it's not even out yet but I can definitely feel the energy in the audience as well. Like, I don't feel nervous before I go on stage because it feels like we're all a part of it together.

And yeah, I mean there is an element to the album which is a heartbreak album, but I think it's also just like a feeling album. You know, it's just a feeling album. And we're so lucky we're in an age where to feel right now can be a superpower. That's really uniting, and it's nice to feel that I'm not alone in that as well. I know that obviously you, as the artist, that people say, "You've helped me through something" but I feel the opposite. When I'm on stage and I've been through something and I can see people singing back my lyrics to me and the way people look at me I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, you felt this too. I'm not alone." So that's really cool.

"Being honest at 22 is very different to being honest at almost 32."

 

I think we're at a time right now where people don't want like another plastic pop song. Even in pop, you want to feel something now. It's all just getting a little bit more... people are more vulnerable. You can talk about more things than you could talk about before.

Definitely.

In a way, it's kind of a beautiful time.

It is. It's confusing and kind of a dark, but also an incredibly beautiful time to be a young adult and to be making work. It's really exciting.

Absolutely. And back to your show, I could talk about your show all day, but just the athleticism of it was insane. Your thigh muscles! I didn't know you could have those kinds of muscles in your thighs! And the pole work was incredible! I'm curious about your dancers. Did you hire them because they already knew how to pole? Or did you work together to learn how to do that?

You know what, they couldn't pole before I met them. On the first tour, I took them to a couple of pole classes with me and when I travel a lot I find people on Instagram who are the cheese in that area of like a certain style. So we went to Australia and we went to this amazing woman called Michelle and I took them to their first pole class there. And then when I left, we had like a month or two months of tour and I said, just go and learn things. I said, "We all have to go and learn a trick." And so I went and I learned an aerial and then Andrew went and did some sort of like back handspring, you know, we're like sending each other stuff. And then the girls started going to take a few pole classes and then Kelley, who's my pole teacher in LA, had them in and did some workshopping with them. But isn't it so beautiful?!

So beautiful! Oh my god. When they were all gathered together below each other on the pole and lifting each other up. Wow.

Yeah, I kind of felt like a proud mom last night! I actually really did because we're all helping each other. I mean it's very new to me as well. I've only been doing it like a year and a half now I think. So, you know, I'm learning things all the time. And when I did the Fallon performance, I learned to treat the pole as if it's so precious, like as if it's really cold or as if it's really hot. So you can touch it but it's like if you touch a hot cup of tea like you don't just grab it, do you? You kind of like ease into it a little bit. So I said that that's what I learned when I did Fallon and then when we were in rehearsals a couple of days ago, they applied that technique and it just was a game-changer. And then yesterday in the show...yeah, I was so happy backstage! I had a quick change, but I went and I was watching them whilst I was changing, but yeah, they're smashing it. I'm so lucky with the dancers and they're not even "dancers" at this point, they're just like "movers." The movers I have on my tour are just...they're beautiful. They're beautiful.

 

 

What's your favorite part of the show?

Oh...I think I really like "Mary Magdalene" because I go down into the audience and then I find somebody to connect with. That's always a really special moment because I think I do sword after that, and I always feel like that kind of connection gives me the willpower and energy then to go and do the sword, which is really athletic and a lot of cardio. Sword is really strange because it's that type of tiredness like swimming that's like a real internal burn. Well, for me, anyway, I'm not a very good swimmer. [laughs].

Me neither.

For me, swimming is a real internal battle and that's how I feel about wushu. The poses are so low and you've got to be so controlled and you've got a weapon in your hands so you've got to be really present. So yeah, when I do "Magdalene" then I feel like it gives me this sort of like...it softens me. And then when I do wushu afterward, it doesn't feel so manic. Mentally and emotionally, that's just like a nice little hump that I sort of get over.

Yeah, the wushu is so crazy. Did you hurt yourself at all when you were initially training for it?

Yeah. I mean, I think in any sort of physicality you can hurt yourself. Pole dancing, doing aerials. I've fallen over so many times! I've got some like epic bloopers on my phone of falling over. Like when I got a good one I send it to a few group chats of me just like falling on my face. [laughs] Yeah, there's always an element where you're gonna hurt yourself but actually getting over that fear has been so good and it's something that I've only really come to terms with in like the last year, maybe.

Because I'm quite a gentle person, I've got quite good spatial awareness. So to do things like pole or wushu with the sword, it kind of tests my boundaries of taking risks physically. Whereas I think before I've been very cautious physically, in terms of hurting myself or banging into someone, and that's kind of gone a little bit and it's allowed me to be a bit more dangerous, which has definitely helped me improve a lot as a dancer.

 

 

Absolutely. I feel like body and movement have been so hand in hand with your music. When you're creating a song do you ever have that aspect in mind? Where you're like, "I'm really into moving my body this way or this type of dance right now so I'd like to create a song that works around that or is centered around it."

I have, but it never works out. You know, if ever I try and go in the studio with a prenotion of what I want to do, it never, ever works. So I have nothing that the world will ever hear.

Too bad. In 2017 you had six fibroid tumors removed. As a dancer and someone who's so in tune with their body, what was that like mentally to not have control or ability over your body for a period of time?

Yeah, it's interesting. I didn't really feel like that. I can't really explain how I felt, but it didn't feel like I lost control. That's something that I think a lot of journalists have sort of picked up this like lack of control and then I gained my control back. That wasn't actually my story. My story was a period of stillness and a period of reflection and having to really get in touch with myself and be kind to myself. And it wasn't a lack of control. If anything, it felt like a gain of control because I really had to stop and think about what I was doing and life suddenly got very real. So for me, it was very painful, like physically and emotionally, but also one of the most wonderful things I've ever experienced in the whole of my life because the outcome of it has just been a real extreme elevation of my dreams, of my physicality, of what I know that I can get through. I didn't know that I could take on so much in my personal life at one time and I did. And so for me, I wouldn't change it for the world. I'm really grateful for that experience.

And you know, the thing about fibroids is they do grow back, you know. So this is something in the future I'll probably have to face again but there is a certain amount of power in that and I'm just grateful for that experience. It was really humbling. It was just incredibly humbling. And it gave me an understanding of what it's like to just to be in pain every day, which hundreds of thousands of people, millions all across the world are in pain every day with something relatively serious, and so I just have a newfound empathy for not just being like an athletic little insect all the time which is kind of how I was before and how I've been the whole of my life. So I have just a newfound empathy for that. It was just humbling and a very beautiful reflective period and it's just made me grow up. Basically, it just forced me to grow up in a way that I didn't know that I had to.

Absolutely. The average person isn't thinking about the physical pain they don't or could have every day. But there's so many people are going through pain. Thinking about it just makes me kind of grateful.

It makes me really grateful.

How long did it take you before you threw yourself back into work?

About four weeks.

That's crazy.

Yeah. When I shot the Apple commercial with Spike Jonze, I think it was four or five weeks after my surgery, which I would not recommend doing but it was an opportunity of a lifetime. And I just didn't want to be sick anymore. Like in my head, I was like, "I don't want to be a sick person anymore. I just need to change this narrative really quickly." And for me, being on set, being in front of the camera in like a video sense, that's where I really thrive. That's one of my great loves so I just wanted to go and be the best me straight afterward. But yeah, I mean, I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

 

 

It's understandable that it made you feel normal. And you don't say no to Spike Jonze!

Yeah exactly.

I love how it just seems like you're always working. Like you said, even though it's been a while since you released a full body of work, you've been doing all these commercials like Google Glass and the Apple HomePod and everything. So when I found out you're a Capricorn. I was like, "Oh, yes, obviously." Every Capricorn woman I've met has been like the baddest bitch who's always working hard, doing the most.

[laughs].

Do you feel like maybe, though, that you use work as a coping mechanism or as a distraction?

But is it work, really, what I do? It doesn't feel like work. It feels like dreaming. You know, it feels like a dream. So I don't consider it work. It's not like spending extra hours in the office so I don't have to like go home and deal with the kids. It doesn't feel like that. It feels like I'm making my dreams come true. So, no, it doesn't really feel like a coping mechanism. I've always been like this even when I was a kid, even before I had like real adult responsibilities.

Because you're a Capricorn!

Yeah, I think so. It's also just the way that I was raised. I was just raised to do what you love and make yourself happy by doing what you love and I really love what I do, so I just want to be around it all the time. But outside of that, I have loads of amazing friends and even outside of what I do, I'm very lucky... I've got a really wonderful support network. That takes time to grow as well and it's important for me to put energy into that as well.

Yeah, that's beautiful. I mean, yeah, if you love what you do, then it's not work. That's what they say at least.

Yeah, doesn't feel like work it's just like an existence.

 

 

You produced Magdalene alongside Nicolas Jaar, which was a great choice, by the way. I love his work. But also he did a pretty cool thing and removed himself from the production credits because he says you did the lion's share of the work and also because women have historically been erased from the visibility of their roles in producing. Have you experienced a lot of that in your work previously?

A little bit, yeah. I have experienced producers I've worked with denying my input after the fact. At the time like ranting and raving about how wonderful it is to work with someone that knows what they want and has so much input and then a year later when it's time to do the splits they're like, "No, you did nothing." I've definitely experienced that. But actually, you know what? I think when I was younger, it used to really bother me but now I just don't care that much because all my music sounds the same. Even the stuff that sounds really different, it all sounds the same because I know that I'm in it. So if someone feels like they need their name before mine or they feel like they need a bigger car, or if that's what's gonna help them sleep at night, I kind of don't care.

So, the fact that Nico offered take his name off certain songs, I was really touched. It made me cry actually because it was really nice to have that acknowledgment of how hard I work and how much I put into the music. But that's not a reflection of how much he did because he honestly, helped me drive the record home so much. And we were such like a cute and powerful little duo in the studio. He's just amazing. He is such a beautiful, deep artistic spirit and each week I got to know him it was like peeling back another layer of the Nico experience. And I was at such a delicate time in my life, I don't think I could have worked with somebody who didn't have the level of sensitivity and spirituality he has. I just needed someone to listen to me and fill me in sometimes, like, let me channel myself through their skills and that's really what Nico did. It's one of the most wonderful music making experiences that I've ever had. And there were just some moments on the record that were truly magical, like "Thousand Eyes" or the end of "Mary Magdalene." What he did, programing-wise, is genius to me. It's like emotional euphoria and he did that. He's incredible.

What's your favorite song on the record?

Let's see, it changes all the time, but I think at the moment I'm going through a little "Day Bed" love affair just because I was doing festivals for a while so we took out the set and now it's back in the set because I'm just doing my own headlining shows. I really enjoyed seeing "Daybed" yesterday.

 

 

The use of Mary Magdalene as an inspiration for the record seems centered around feminism because of the way that she was slandered and essentially erased from the Bible as anything more than a prostitute. I feel like feminism for most women is a journey that we experience differently and we all come to who we are as feminists differently. I'm curious about what your journey has been through feminism.

Yeah. That's an interesting question. I think growing up with my mom, who was pretty much a single parent throughout the whole of my life, it was just me and my mom, like two women, at home. I think that I grew up kind of just assuming that women did so much and that we were so powerful and strong and, you know, my mom was often the mother and the father. And so that kind of duality of like feminine and masculine energy was something that I was privileged to already have quite a deep understanding of even as a child. It's been more in my later life that I've realized that things are not as equal as they should be, but it's more just, for me, talking about the narrative of women and certain words that can be used. This isn't really on the album but a few years ago I started to think about the archetype of the hysterical woman, you know?

Oh yes, I know.

That idea that if a woman is a feeling woman then she is hysterical and there's something wrong with her and she's overemotional and just sensitive, you know. These things that are actually like a superpower. For example, like hundreds of thousands of years ago when they're all living outside, if women were pregnant and there was a storm coming or some sort of natural disaster, the women would give birth early so that they would be able to carry that baby up a hill or to safety. That's such a level of emotional intelligence, to be able to utilize that sort of primal anxiety to know that you have to give birth so that you and your baby have a better chance of surviving and you can like go and hide somewhere or climb somewhere because something in nature is about to threaten your life and your child's life.

That's wild.

It's incredible. But now, that level of feeling and intuition is twisted or can be twisted to be something like hysteria and a lack of control over one's emotions and all these things that have got quite negative connotations. So I think that was the first time when I started to think about it. It was actually when I first started to feel unwell that I started to notice. I started to say to some people around me, "I don't feel good. There's something wrong with me." And they're just, "No, you're working too much. No, you've just come back on tour. That's why." And I'd literally just be like, "No, no. You don't understand. I'm not well. There's something wrong with me." And some people around me would like tell me that it was in my head. And then I started to think, "It is in my head." You know, I was like, "It's in my head. I'm in pain but someone's telling me it's in my head." You know? And then that just kind of like creates this psych false narrative.

I think that's when I started to think about what it is to be a woman and how that intuition can be stripped from us as women and how it's such a beautiful and positive thing and how all-knowing we are. How in touch we are with our bodies, nature, with other people's emotions, the emotional labor that women put into everything all the time in relationships. Like that conversation of the amount of unpaid work that we just do for free and it's not spoken about. I'm gonna get this statistic wrong, but I've read somewhere that a woman living with a man will do like eight hours extra housework a week. 

Yeah, I read that somewhere too, I don't remember the exact hours but it's something like that.

Yeah and it's not like a woman that's chosen to stay at home and, you know, be a housekeeper, which is fine. But a woman that also has like a full time job and who has children will do eight hours or something like that extra week. [Ed note: It's seven hours] It's things like that, just unpaid, unacknowledged. And these are things, obviously, that I have started to think about and realize. You know, I don't know the answers, I don't have any conclusions, but I just think as a young woman there's just things that I've started to think about now.

And like I said at the beginning, I think because my mom was a single parent, that dynamic between a female and male relationship is something that I've had to kind of learn about later on in life. Because I didn't always have that example at home to learn from and my mom was like Superwoman. She did everything when I was a kid.

So you just kind of assumed that if there was a mother and a father that they would do equal work?

I did. Yeah, I think I did. But I think these are all amazing conversations to have. And listen, like I said, I don't have the answers. I'm still figuring it out. But these are all things that definitely have kind of played into certain themes within the record. Just discovering myself as as a young adult.

I think it's an important theme to discuss, and I think the way that you talk about it is interesting because you put feminism in context of sexuality and sensuality and all that. So it's not like, "Argh I hate men!" You know, it's like, "I love men, I love sex and everything but things aren't equal and things aren't right. And how does this inequality affect me and my relationship to sex?"

Yeah, I think there's been a big theme on this record and that's the idea of the Virgin Whore, the sacred prostitute, and that is an archetype that women have lost in modern-day society. As a woman, we can be both things, we can be innocent and pure and, you know, like a juicy little fruit, like a fresh flower. But we can also be sensual or knowing, healing, strong, powerful. We can be all of these things at the same time. And that's okay. That's when we're at our most powerful and our bodies are so healing. A woman's body is so healing to whoever we're with. The level of emotional intelligence that we have and sensuality is incredibly calming and beautiful and healing to anyone who's lucky enough to be around us. Like we create life if we choose to. We make life!

It's honestly insane.

We're basically magical, you know. And yet if you say the word "womb," watch how people get so uncomfortable. If you say the word "uterus" and how people get so uncomfortable. It's so confusing to me. It's confusing.

You say that, of course, you don't have all the answers, but it is interesting that in 2015 Pitchfork wrote a review of M3LL155X that said, "Role models aren't universal, but if we need a feminist pop star, then twigs is it." How do you feel about that concept of being a role model?

I don't know, really. I don't know, I'm very much still figuring out. So I don't know if I like, have the need or the want to be a role model, but I'm definitely okay with talking about things. For anyone who wants to join in the conversation.

 

I mean, that's a start. Magdalene deals a lot with heartbreak and pain but you still have the elements of sensuality and sexuality, which has always been kind of a central theme for you. And I'm curious if you have ideas of different topics you want to explore in the future or if you think that FKA twigs, as a project, will stay centered around maybe one concept. A whole world, of course, but still centered around the concept of sensuality.

Yeah, I don't know. We'll have to see, won't we? I'm still a baby. I don't know, that's a big question. We'll see.

Maybe like a climate change themed record? Robots? Politics? There's so many things!

[laughs] Yeah, who knows? I'm still a baby so, yeah, I don't know what I'll write about next. I don't know what's going to happen in my life.

Well, I'm excited to find out. So KEXP is the station where the music matters. Why does music matter to you?

Music matters to me because it's a universal language and in each language there's all these phrases that don't exist in another part of the world. You know, have you ever been with friends and they'll say like a saying in French and then I'll be like, "What does that mean?" They'll be like, "Oh, it's hard to translate in English or in German." Or, "You don't have that word. It's kind of just a phrase and it kind of means this but it's a little bit of this." And then you're like, "No, I don't really get it but I'd like to." You've been in that situation before?

Oh, absolutely, yeah. Well, even just in America, there's so many different colloquialisms. If you go down to the south you're like, "I have no idea what that phrase means."

Exactly. Or even like, you know, I think, again, I might not be getting my facts straight, but I think in Japan, there's not really a word for "no."

What? Really?

I think so, like I think the word just doesn't 100 percent exist. Well, listen, you know, I don't speak the language, but that's what I've been told, that it's kind of like a "maybe no," you know, what I mean? [Ed note: After some investigation post-interview we realized there is a word for "no" in Japanese, but they tend to not want to use it.]

But anyway, my point is, is that in different languages, there's ways to express love or, you know, these things. To me, music and dance transcends that. And that's why music matters to me, because you can explain things in like a rise of something, whether it's like clarinets or violins or something that's beautifully programmed or even just like space, even just like a certain beat and then just space. It transcends language. It's a universal emotional activation that it doesn't matter where you're from, you get what someone's explaining to you. That's why music matters to me.

 

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