Interview: FKA twigs on Arca, Dressing Up like Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin and Tinnitus

Jamie-James Medina

“Everybody else in school was listening to Take That, and I was listening to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald,” explains FKA twigs. That love of classic songwriting goes some way towards explaining why the Young Turks-signed artist seems to stand out from the pack on her recent EP 2. The sub-heavy modern sound design, put together in tandem with rising New York producer Arca, also offers a clue as well. In this excerpt from an interview with RBMA Radio, twigs talks about a few of the classic tracks that have inspired her work – as well as breaking down “Water Me” and “Papi Pacify” from her new EP.

Marvin Gaye - Calypso Blues

When I was younger I used to dance a lot, and used to do choreography competitions. So basically we’d make up our own dance. You’d have a costume maker and all of the other children would do a tap dance dressed up as Charlie Chaplin or Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. All very light-hearted. So I was maybe 11 or 12, and I decided I was going to dance to “Calypso Blues” and do an interpretive contemporary dance, dressed up as a slave with imaginary shackles on my hands and roll around the floor. Maybe in larger cities that’s something that kids do, but it was quite unusual for where I grew up. [laughs] The things that I was into as a kid were always quite different. Every dance or creative outlet I had… I think people just knew, so they rolled their eyes and let me get on with it.

I’m looking forward to being an old granny.

It only really came into my head today how forward that might be. At the time, your intentions are so pure and honest. You see a film and it inspires you. Or you listen to the words of that song – being from a culture and aching to go home and explore that culture again... The idea seems so simple. But you’re quite unaware of the connotations – or how people might view it. But I guess that’s the great thing about being a kid, isn’t it? You can just do and say what you want. I’m looking forward to being an old granny, because then you have license to say and do what you want again. And everyone just rolls their eyes and lets you get on with it.

Louis Jordan - Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby

Louis Jordan - Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby

This was my first exploration as a child of adult love. It’s very lighthearted, but I remember thinking, “Is that what it’s like when you’re an adult and you fall in love?” There’s this line in it, “I’ve got a girl who’s always late / Anytime we have a date.” I always thought that was quite a grown-up thing: To be taken out on a date, doing your make-up for half-an-hour too long and having some boy waiting for you.

Was this the kind of thing that was playing in your home growing up?

Yeah, very much so. Even now I admire quite simple sentiments. Before I start any writing session, I listen to “Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick because even though the style is very different to what I do, it reminds that you can say one line in a song and it can relate to anyone. I think that’s something great about old music and has been lost in some areas of pop culture.

X-Ray Spex - I Am a Poseur

X-Ray Spex - I Am a Poseur

This defines my late teenage years. It was a very interesting time, because that was when I started to discover myself as a person and as a young woman in terms of how I wanted to dress, the things that I wanted to put across to people. I used to be obsessed with New Romantics like Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I used to dress up like Annabella Lwin every single day. I thought I was her basically. I remember going to some cheesy West End club dressed as Annabella Lwin and everybody else was dressed up in their designer clothes, and I just looked mental.

By trying to be something that I wasn’t, I found myself.

But across the room was this boy and he was dressed just like Adam Ant. This guy was so eccentric: He’d wear lipstick and brush out his hair and shave off one side of his hair completely. He’d come and stay with me and put on my clothes and he’d look better than I would. We ran around with this group of mad teenagers and we looked like a state, really. But in our minds we were this cult of punks that just didn’t care. By trying to be something that I wasn’t, I found myself. Because I was so into that section of art and culture, it taught me that you can be whoever you want to be. During that time every bit of music that I made sounded like a pastiche of Siouxsie and the Banshees or Adam Ant. But through that I discovered myself, FKA twigs.

FKA twigs - Water Me

Water Me” was something that Alejandro [Arca] and I did at the end of a session. It wasn’t a particularly successful session up until that point. We were making these beats and I was whisper-rapping over some stuff, and it all felt a bit empty. We had half-an-hour left at the end, and we started playing together. I was on the Tempest, doing some drums. And Alejandro started adding some synths. The Tempest has this great function where you can record something straight into it and start manipulating it. Very quickly the words came to me, out of nowhere. I’m not going to lie and say I laboured over it for ages. I think I wrote it in about seven minutes.

It’s really emotional. [laughs] We were really emotional in the studio on that day, I remember. Two emo little souls, together. That’s very unlike us. Usually in the studio it’s... it’s ridiculous. We’ll work for an hour and then put on some Janet Jackson and dance around the room. Then we’ll put on some merengue tune and tango through the studio. We work very quickly. Technically, he’s so fast, which really suits me. I don’t like to labour over things. In my experience, the first idea is usually the best one. And once I start to think about it, it implodes on itself.

What drew you to Arca, and him to you?

Well, meeting him was through a fairly inorganic introduction between my manager and his manager. I was taking a trip to New York to make some music, and my manager suggested Arca. He sent me a bunch of links, and I didn’t listen to any of them. [laughs] But I lied to him and said I had. When I got to New York we went on this very formal breakfast and I was thinking, “This is my worst nightmare.” So we sat there and kind of sized each other up for 15 minutes, but once we got to talking it only took a few minutes to realize we loved each other.

We just have this natural understanding for each other, so we’re not afraid to encroach on each other’s territories. I’ll play something and he’ll take out the best snippet. Everybody else that has ever suggested a melody or a lyric to me, I’ve always said, “No, sorry. It’s my song. I write the lyrics. I write the melodies.” But with Alejandro I was definitely able to be trusting and open in the same way he was with me. It’s a really beautiful relationship. I think we’re going to know each other for many years to come.

FKA twigs - Papi Pacify

I still very much feel like a novice, and that I’m growing every day as an artist.

I think everyone’s ears are different in how they hear sound. I’ve had tinnitus for four years, so basically I haven’t heard silence for four years. I think that might have something to do with the more weighted sounds in my music like on “Papi Pacify.” Anything that’s too mid or high is in the same range as my tinnitus, so it all just sounds like a long beep. [laughs] Make sure if you are going to lots of loud punk gigs, protect your ears.

You’ve had music out before. How did your approach change with EP 2? Did you set out with a specific vision for this record?

I don’t think so. It’s just growth. I never think about things in that sense. I never thought that “Hide” would get the positive response that it did. Never in a million years. I thought it would just be friends watching it. The response that those four songs got gave me the confidence to be more brave, to push the boundaries further. Hopefully that comes through. I still very much feel like a novice, and that I’m growing every day as an artist. I mean, I still feel like naming it is somehow too established at this stage. Imagine... “The second EP by twigs is called... Solarisation.” [laughs] Do you know what I mean? It’s like, “What do you even mean? What are you on about?” I just want to keep it simple and keep it honest.

Header image: Jamie-James Medina

By Ruth Saxelby on September 25, 2013

On a different note