FKA Twigs, 2014

FKA Twigs photographed on Aug. 6, 2014 by Dorothy Hong at Webster Hall in New York City.

Dorothy Hong

FKA Twigs has just released one of the year’s most bold, idiosyncratic and deeply personal debuts -- LP1 (Young Turks), an exploration of warped beauty ideals, gender politics, romantic power dynamics and raw sexuality. But she isn’t really interested in explaining the person behind her art.

“The idea’s the idea: It’s about what you do, and not who you are,” she says, sipping mint tea in the lounge of New York’s Tribeca Grand Hotel. “That’s why when people are talking too much about my parents, or music I grew up with, or what I think about this, I’m like, ‘Eh, let’s just talk about the actual music.’ Because it’s much more about what I’m doing.”

FKA Twigs is 26-year-old Tahliah Barnett, a shy, breathy-voiced only child of Jamaican and Spanish parents who grew up in what she calls “the white countryside” of Gloucestershire in the British Midlands. As a teenager, Twigs was a dancer, a talent she’d later pursue in London (where she still lives), appearing in videos by Jessie J, Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran and Taio Cruz. She discusses her past head-on in the track “Video Girl,” but won’t reveal which clips she worked on.

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But her musical inclinations, toward bands like X-Ray Spex and Kraftwerk, had more sharp angles than smooth grooves. Her soft voice wasn’t suited for fronting a punk band, to her dismay -- instead, she honed her production chops with synth-obsessed friend Cyan. Twigs cut her performing teeth at underground London cabarets, singing sultry jazz standards and twisting her voice to sound like Etta James or Ella Fitzgerald.

FKA Twigs, 2014

FKA Twigs photographed on Aug. 6, 2014 by Dorothy Hong at Webster Hall in New York City.Dorothy Hong

These beguiling contrasts spawned FKA Twigs, the identity Barnett fully assumed in 2012 as she melded asymmetrical beats with heartbroken elegies and eye-popping visuals that feed sexual imagery through a warped, Wonkavision lens. Twigs says her contradictions bothered her when she was growing up, but now they have become her greatest strength, even if people still can’t get their heads around how to label her.

“When I first put out music, people didn’t know what I looked like,” she says, her voice so quiet it barely makes it across the table. “They called it a new type of something, they couldn’t put a genre on it -- it was where indie and urban kind of meet in the middle. I thought that was quite exciting.”

“But then, she says, someone leaked a photo of her face: a pixie-like heart shape that has since been immortalized in her creepy, subversive videos. (In “Water Me,” her features distort as the song progresses; “Papi Pacify” shows her intimately embracing a lover, who repeatedly inserts his fingers into her mouth.) While she’s firmly in control of her image, people jumped to conclusions once they saw her face.

“I’m mixed-race, and what type of music do mixed-race girls make? Well, we all make R&B, in unison, obviously,” she says sarcastically. “So then it was like, ‘Twigs is an R&B singer.’ Then I did a short interview and said I was from the Midlands, where trip-hop is from. Then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘R&B/trip-hop singer.’”

While her earlier releases were low-budget affairs, LP1 features big guns: Sampha (Drake, Jessie Ware), Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence & The Machine), Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Eminem) and Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) all contributed songwriting and production to the project. The record’s first single, “Two Weeks,” got a hypnotic, Queen of the Damned-esque video from Nabil (Del Rey, Nicki Minaj). Her next clip, for the despairing “Pendulum,” is self-directed and due out imminently, as are several more. Nearly all feature the entrancing, multi-jointed freeform dancing that’s a big part of her live show. (Twigs wrapped a five-date North American run on Aug. 13, selling out all three U.S. dates, and just announced a fall tour.)

She tends to describe her sound in terms like “wizardy synth” or “hi-hat that sounds like you’re running into a wall and as you smash into it, it turns into leaves,” but in the end she may be most content to leave it all in the ears of the beholder.

“I once said to a boy, ‘You’re a really good kisser,’ and he said, ‘You’re only as good as the person you’re kissing,’” she says. “I think it’s the same with the music. If someone [says], ‘Your music is really provocative,’ I’m only as provocative as the person that’s listening to it.”

This article first appeared in the Aug. 23rd issue of Billboard.

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