It’s only February, but the tree outside Twigs’ apartment is already blooming with clusters of tiny purple flowers. Tucked away on a quiet street in East London’s Bethnal Green, her renovated brick row house opens to a sidewalk littered with petals, and if you stand at her second-story bedroom window, you can see the blossoms blowing in the breeze. Visit at this time of year, and she’ll point out that it’s the only tree in her neighborhood with the disturbing irregularity of waking up a month early, so that its blooms fall off and die, unable to survive the final inhospitable nights of winter. “It’s sad,” she says, as though the tree’s abortive attempt at flowering were somehow a conscious act of poetry.
Right now, she’s kneeling at a floor-length mirror in her room, getting ready for a trip across town to the Notting Hill offices of her record label, XL. Born Tahliah Barnett, Twigs is petite and startlingly pretty, with shoulder-length, wavy black hair and big, round eyes. Her lips almost preternaturally resemble the heart shape immortalized by the 1930s cartoon character Betty Boop, whose plastic, doll-sized likeness is incidentally perched atop the bureau by her door, gripping a silver microphone. Twigs has been studying dance since she was six years old, and while her early ballet instructors deemed her feet to be poorly suited to point shoes, she’s got the conscious posture and long limbs that make it possible to pick a serious student of the form out of a crowd (the nickname “Twigs,” she explains, comes from her habit of cracking her joints when she stretches). A mug of decaffeinated tea sits beside her, and above her bed, which is freshly made and piled high with pillows in various patterns of floral brocade, there’s a frame of rose-shaped Christmas tree lights around a vintage poster for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, with the novel’s preteen protagonist licking an orange popsicle. Schubert is playing softly from her MacBook speakers; a portion of wall is covered in self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, the artist’s single, iconic black brow the lone masculine angle in the room. “Moths are the only animals I will ever kill,” Twigs says, showing me a hole on the elbow of her sweater.
She opened the door this morning unmade-up, and it isn’t until she’s penciled her eyes, rouged her lips and put on her hoop earrings and septum ring that Twigs finally becomes recognizable as the stylish, mysterious singer/producer/dancer/director I’d seen online. In the video for “Water Me,” a song taken from her second EP, 2013’s EP2, her head ticks side to side like a metronome before digitally inflating like a balloon and leaking a single, globular tear. “I just thought it was really interesting to manipulate your face beyond what is considered beautiful, and like, maybe it is more beautiful like that,” she says of co-directing the clip with the artist Jesse Kanda. Thus far in Twig’s career, as if by magic, all but one of her songs have simultaneously occurred to her with a concept for a video, typically revolving around the sort of fantastical, inscrutably symbolic scenario that arrives to one in dreams. “Breathe,” which she co-directed with close friend Grace Ladoja, contrasts Twigs’ spoken-word, baby-doll vocals with the sight of her smashing the windows of an SUV with a hammer. “Ache,” a supplicatory R&B stomper that begins with the line I’ll come when you ask me, slows down the violent gesticulations of a gas mask-wearing krumping dancer until it looks like he’s writhing in pain.
Since signing to XL’s imprint Young Turks about a year and a half ago, Twigs has been making a point of thanking the label for every release: tomorrow, they’ll put out a video for her collaborative single with inc., so today she’s delivering a box of frosted cupcakes to the label’s staff. (Officially, she records as FKA Twigs, the FKA tacked on between her first EP and her second as a result of a legal issue with another artist.) When she’s ready to head over to XL’s offices, she leaves and re-enters her bedroom several times to retrieve the odd personal effect and tube of mascara. Even in the most quotidian situations, Twigs has a flair for the theatrical. “I always look back before I go,” she says, staring somewhat ruefully down at the bed. I ask her if she’s afraid of forgetting something, and Twigs shakes her head: “No, it’s because I never want to leave.”
Twigs is a self-described loner, a trait she attributes partly to growing up in Gloucestershire, a rural county of southwest England she likens to the verdant backdrop of Downton Abbey. “I was always by myself,” she says of a childhood spent wandering the region’s rolling hills and feeling lost at the Catholic school she attended on scholarship. Born to a mother of Spanish descent and a father of Jamaican origin who left when she was young, Twigs was bullied for being biracial, and while an early affinity for ballet, tap, modern dance and singing made her the sort of enviable student who would invariably be cast as the lead in the school play, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for popularity. At 17, she left home to attend dance school, but soon decided it wasn’t for her, dropped out and enrolled at Croydon College, a school in South London. For the first time in her life, Twigs was one in a sea of people of color.