With her just-released “Caprisongs” mixtape and a fresh affiliation with a new label, Atlantic, British singer-songwriter-producer FKA Twigs ups the ante on her eerily experimental sound and intimately nuanced lyrics and goes big. That’s not only because the genre-jumbling, multi-octave performer has invited brand-name featured guests such as Jorja Smith and the Weeknd to the party that is “Caprisongs.” Rather, it’s because the Gloucester, U.K.-born artist — real name Tahliah Barnett — is having any kind of party at all.
The bottom line on Twigs has long been that her most ambitious music was deeply emotional and uncompromising. Darkly avant-garde, aggressive and atmospheric, the scorched earth-soul of 2014’s “LP1” and 2019’s “Magdalene” positioned her as a cross between Billie Holiday and Siouxsie and the Banshees produced by Lee Scratch Perry. Incidents with a private life made public (accusations of sexual assault and emotional distress against actor Shia LaBeouf) made it appear that the supercharged sentiment of her music carried over into, or came from, real life. With all of this harsh reality, what may have come off as distanced to some was perhaps a defense mechanism for the sake of self-survival.
Which brings us to “Caprisongs.” While not sunny in an obvious way, FKA Twigs and her co-conspirators – old friends such as Arca, and newer associates like Mike Dean, El Guincho and the Weekend – have created a mixtape filled with bold, blunter melody and open-faced, truth-telling lyrics touched by the smiling spirit of the zodiac. To call it mainstream, as the music has been described going into “Caprisongs’s” release, skirts the fact that it is glowingly theatrical and touched by idiosyncratic new musical expressions such as squeak-rap, hyperpop and Afrobeat. With that, “Caprisongs” is her liveliest, most spirited recording.
Even though “Caprisongs” was made during a challenging time, it’s brighter, more optimistic and less angular than your previous music. How did that happen?
My other projects really touched on personal, very specific things that I’ve gone through in my life. That’s usually how I write. In the pandemic, though, there was a shared adversity, a shared sadness and loss. Because we all lost something on some scale — be it our freedom, our routine, love, a sense of security. I think it was the first time as an artist that I felt the desire to create something for other people. It would be naïve to believe that it made them feel better… but I did want to provide truth, honesty, light and joy to people, to remind them what we had, and are grateful for. Everybody needed support during this time. I certainly had with my friends and family, and I wanted to share that with the world.
Along with “Caprisongs” came news that you’ve partnered with Atlantic Records in the U.S. for “this next exciting phase of [your] art.” What were you looking for in a label?
The pandemic, for me, was a time to really think about what I wanted as an artist. When I went into my career in my youth… look, I’m from a small town in England, Gloucester. When I first got signed I was just grateful to be signed — I wanted to please, to fit in. I was happy just to have a seat at the table. It has taken me this long to think about what I would truly like. I’ve had a beautiful career, and haven’t wanted for much. But I wanted to dream big, to make music around people that look like me, think like me and understand my cultural background more. The ambition that I have — to be a girl from a small town in England, to get to New York when I was 20, it all took ambition. Maybe I wanted to experience that on a bigger level. Don’t get me wrong: Young Records [formerly called Young Turks, which will continue to be her label in the U.K.] is incredible, and we’ve had a beautiful journey, but in my heart, it was time for me to move on in certain aspects: Push myself, dream bigger, have more people experience my art.
Is there a vision as to what the immediate future will hold post-“Caprisongs”?
Not really — I don’t reverse-engineer my career. [Laughs.] I get a hunch and I go from there… follow the feeling. I’m like a sniffer dog. You catch a scent and find its roots.
As a producer, you have always led your own charge. Even though you’ve worked with some major co-producers, such as Nicolas Jaar, Boots, Arca, Mike Dean and most recently El Guincho, it’s obviously your show. What do you look for in a co-producer?
People who love what they do. Collaborators with little ego. Who love to laugh with me and pursue a friendly relationship as well as a creative one. Whenever I create with someone, there is a shared energy that is like falling in love. It’s like having that third date, realizing you like them and being excited. I’m lucky: I get to fall in love every single month. I love working with Johnny Leslie, who has engineered so many of my projects with me. I couldn’t wait to see hm when we started “Caprisongs,” to hang out, eat food and have those eureka moments. As a producer, I prefer analog instruments where you can press buttons, turn knobs and change sounds; they evoke human sounds, human feelings. There are so many talented people in the world who are a bit grumpy — no matter how talented they are, I can’t be around them. I want to have fun. If I’m not, what’s the point?
Were you a tapehead as a kid? You use a tape recorder’s “click” across the entirety of “Caprisongs”; it’s almost literally a mixtape.
Oh yes. I grew up buying tapes from HMV and Virgin shops. My parents had these really long cassette and CD shelves in our living room; I had a Walkman with headphones as a kid, and I did make cassette mixtapes for my friends. I can still remember the tapes twisting if you rewound it too much to play the same track over and over, and you had to a use a pencil to un-twist it. That’s my earliest experience with music. I grew up with all sorts of music: Latin music fused with jazz, a lot of experimental music. My stepdad was a massive jazz head — my friends would get in the car with me and ask why my parents listened to such weird music. It was absolute beautiful orchestral mayhem in that car. I’m grateful for that now.
What’s behind the astrology imagery and the whole powerful universe feeling in the lyrics of “Caprisongs”?
I have joked with friends that the pandemic was a perfect opportunity for me to work all the time; I wasn’t traveling or touring so all I could do is make music. With that, a lot of people have turned to astrology for a sense of control over their lives. It’s about reaching out into the universe, be it the stars or numerology, to tell us what to do next. Whether you believe in astrology or not, in a moment of complete loss, hope and structure, people have tried to gain control through the zodiac. It says something about human nature that we have looked outside of ourselves for answers after humans have clearly had no answers for the last several years — at least no good ones. People are literally looking outside of the earth for answers and relating it to their most personal parts of their life for guidance.
Advance word on “Caprisongs” was that it was more mainstream. Were you aiming for a broader audience?
I’ve never really been able to turn pain into joy in the past. I’ve managed it this time, though, so I’ve learned a lot. Many of the lyrics on “Caprisongs” are still sad, definitely not ignoring how I feel and what’s been going on, but I’ve taken rhythms that I really love and tried to approach them in different ways here. The fact that I’m singing opera over some of the tracks says it all. “Caprisongs” is an expression of me returning to a side of myself that I lost over the past several years. I’ve kept who I am away, for the most part. In reality, I am a very funny, goofy person. I was a class clown growing up. Even when I’ve gone through traumatic experiences, my sense of humor gets me through and makes me strong. In that way, “Caprisongs” is about me laughing again, rediscovering that cheeky side of myself.
How did “Tears on the Dancefloor,” your collaboration with the Weeknd, come about?
Honestly, in its very beginning, I couldn’t imagine he would say yes. Pablo [Díaz-Reixa, co-writer/producer El Guincho] thought I was being silly and that of course the Weeknd would want to be on it. We got up the confidence to write the text — you know how your friend gasses you up to do something — so I did it, sent him the MP3, and he knocked out the vocals within two weeks. He loved it. That restored a lot of confidence in me, that I can reach out to Abel [the Weeknd] and other artists I might want to work with. I write about this on “Lightbeamers” when I say “Lay down your fears, baby, ain’t nobody die from it.” One thing I have learned on this album is that you’re not going to die from asking a question or hearing “no.” If you want something, go and get it.
Just like the new label deal.
Yes. It was time for me to move on. Going to Atlantic, I feel as if this could be a brilliant home for me. It’s OK for me to strive for more. That’s what “Caprisongs” is for me: an OK for me to learn laugh and smile. After what everybody has been through for the last two years, I learned to believe that it is OK to dream that things are going to get better.
And yet some of your lyrics are so vulnerable, especially “Thank You Song”: “I wanted to die, I’m just being honest / No longer afraid to say it out loud.” Can you discuss coming to that song?
[Co-producer/co-writer] Arca and I hadn’t worked with each other in a long time, and in the space of four hours, we did this song and “Tears in the Club.” That’s a testament to how great we can work together. Arca had so many beautiful sounds, it was all so experimental, but I told her I just wanted to write songs now. We’d done the vibe thing before, the whole palette of sound thing that has inspired so many people in the last ten years. So I asked her to start with a piano, and that lyric just came out.
It wasn’t premeditated — sometimes your soul speaks for you. Sometimes it’s not me writing it; it just comes out, or something comes through me and writes that. I had gone through a lot over the last past few years, and when you are in the public eye, it’s hard to feel publicly. It was hard for me to say “I wanted to die” out loud — but saying that “love in motion will save me now” is also how I feel. I’m grateful to have fallen in love with music again’ I’m grateful to have fallen in love with myself again. And I guess this song is the most distilled version of all that.
By this point in your life, where does Tahliah Barnett leave off and FKA Twigs begin?
It’s always been the same person. I’m just an outsider girl from the country, who now is a weirder outsider in the music industry. I thought if I made music, I would become one of the popular girls. I’m still, however, one of the girls at the lunch table by myself, doing my own thing. The only difference now is that I’m comfortable in my journey, being different. After 10 years, I’m proud of myself for that. There’s no shame in not being in the popular crowd.