FKA Twigs on 'Feeling Dark' and Fighting Fame: 'I'm Not a Pop Star'

U.K. avant-pop singer got her big break at a bondage party but vows she's just a "massive geek" at heart

FKA Twigs performs on July 19th, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Credit: Roger Kisby/Getty

One day in September, FKA Twigs looked at her phone to see an infinitely scrolling torrent of vicious tweets. "It was all this crazy, racist abuse out of nowhere," says the 26-year-old British singer-producer-dancer, who was on set at a former juvenile prison at the time, shooting a music video for her single "Video Girl." "But if you're an artist, you have to use everything to your advantage, even the pain."

Many of the hate messages had to do with Twigs' relationship with actor Robert Pattinson; others came from garden-variety trolls and bigots. That day at the video shoot, she made a concise statement over Twitter: "I am genuinely shocked and disgusted at the amount of racism that has been infecting my account the past week. Racism is unacceptable in the real world and it's unacceptable online." Then she got back to work. "It was amazing," she says now. "I was so disturbed, and that comes through in the video. It was almost like the world handing me a weird favor: a slap with one hand, then a kiss on the cheek afterwards."

It's the morning after Twigs' national television debut – a must-see Tonight Show performance of "Two Weeks," from her excellent debut album, LP1 – and she's having breakfast at a posh downtown New York hotel. The performance involved some tricky choreography with an air sculpture made of silk scarves, all of which could have easily gotten tangled – a risk that she relished. "There were 12 fans blowing in my face, and I had jewelry on, and six-inch stiletto heels," she says. "But I enjoy challenges. I want people to see what's inside my head, rather than just looking at me."

Twigs, whose offstage name is Tahliah Barnett, grew up in rural Gloucestershire, a four-hour drive from London. "It was boring and it was beautiful," she says. "You're running in fields, you're outside, you're imaginative – but there's also nothing to do, and when you get to be a teenager, sometimes you kind of lose touch with nature, like I did. You become so trapped in yourself."

For a few years in her teens, she got her mother to drive her into London for dance classes. At 17, Twigs moved there on her own, working three or four day jobs at a time. "It was like hell, but when you're young, you can do it somehow," she says. At night, she'd go out: "I didn't really have any friends. If I wanted to go to a rave, I'd go by myself. And I wasn't so street savvy. But I'm an only child – if you want to get something done, you've just got to do it."

All the while, Twigs was working on music – she says she's written a song every day since age 16 – and trying to find professional work in the arts. By her early twenties, she was appearing as a background dancer in music videos, first for local rappers like Lethal Bizzle, later for major artists including Ed Sheeran and Jessie J. "As more time goes on, I realize how much I hated it," she says. "If I didn't connect with it creatively, sometimes it would be a bit like, 'Ugh, why am I doing this?' Like a tiny cog in a wheel. But at the time I was very grateful – I'd do a music video and make £200 from it. It would have taken me a week and a half to make that doing four jobs."

Twigs' fortunes began to change when she crossed paths with Tic Zogson, an A&R rep at Young Turks, the hip label that launched the xx. "We met at some bondage party," she says, laughing. "Then over the next two months, he wouldn't leave me alone. I thought, 'OK, this guy is kind of persistent. Maybe I should go in the studio with him.'" Zogson, who is now a member of Twigs' backing band, helped her record her first proper release, 2012's EP1, in four days.

By 2013, when she released her second EP, Twigs was a critical darling and an emerging fashion icon – neither of which translated to a steady living. "Last year was the most painful year I've ever had in my whole life," she says. "There were a couple of personal traumatic things that happened – but aside from that, I just realized I was an adult. I didn't have money. I didn't have a career. I couldn't go back home. Magazines were ringing me up: 'Front cover! Do this! Wear Jean-Paul Gaultier! Put on this Balenciaga jacket!' But then I'm going home and saying, 'I don't think I can eat next week.'"

She channeled it all into LP1, a dark, seductive study in contrasts that pushes her breathy vocals up against provocative lyrics and jarring, bleeding-edge beats. "I love things that are harsh and things that are too loud," she says. "And I love lulling people into a false sense of security. That's life."

She recorded the album mostly in New York and London with a dream team of co-conspirators – Arca, Emile Haynie, Dev Hynes, Clams Casino – but always on her own creative terms. "When it comes to sound, I'm a massive geek," she says. "I often write over just drums, with no melodic information or key changes. Then I put in everything I can think – everything, everything – until it's just a massive wall, sometimes with no BPM, no structure, nothing. It's usually three in the morning by then, and I'm like, 'OK, I have to stop.' Then the next day I'll go in and just chip away at it and keep on chipping."

Twigs, who co-produced every song on the album, resents being reduced to just a pretty voice. "It's funny how people see things," she says, citing a track she produced this summer for Chicago rapper Lucki Eck$. "My friend sent me a story that said, 'Lucki Eck$ releases new song featuring R&B singer Twigs.' That's insane! If I was a male producer, maybe they wouldn't even say my name, or maybe they'd say, 'Beat done by this person.' But because I'm a small girl, it's 'Featuring R&B singer Twigs.'" She sighs. "Sometimes you have to work twice as hard without complaining."

Her craving for creative control extended to the promotional film she created for Google Glass this fall. "I've never made a decision financially in the whole of my career," she says. "The drive behind it was purely for myself. And it wasn't like I just picked out what outfit I wore. I directed it – location scouting, casting. It consumed my whole world for three weeks. I had to be completely 360, looking down on it like the puppet master, doing everything. That's exciting to me." She shrugs. "Maybe it's confusing for some people to accept how much I do myself."

Even so, Twigs is deeply ambivalent about her growing fame. "I don't want to be in front of the camera forever," she says, mentioning dreams of scoring films or directing videos for other artists instead. "I'm not thirsty. I'm not a pop star. I don't want to reign over all forever." She is firm on this point: "I don't want to be famous!" she adds. "It makes me feel sick, the thought of being a famous person. It's just not me. I'm the happiest when I'm in the studio, not on a beauty parade."

After the racist abuse incident in September, Twigs deleted the apps for both Twitter and Instagram from her phone. "If you stop looking at yourself on the Internet, is it really happening?" she says. "I really recommend it – nothing happens other than you start reading books more and you start texting your mom more and your life goes back to normal." (Speaking of books, she's lately been enjoying the mid-century erotica of Anaïs Nin: "I was reading it on a plane the other day, and I was like, 'I wonder if anyone knows.'")

But the truth is, Twigs has little interest in being anyone else's idea of normal. "I love feeling dark," she says. "The whole of my life, when people are getting to know me, they're like, 'You're so cute!' But how I look is not how I am. If you're going to get to know me on the body that God gave me, then you're going to get a shock at some point."

She pauses for a moment, then adds, "I look like an anime character, but inside, I feel like a warrior. Like a female mother-earth warrior in a tribe in Africa or a rainforest that we haven't discovered yet." Her eyes widen as she follows her metaphor out to the horizon: "I feel like I'm really quiet and really tall, six foot, and when I scream, all the leaves rustle and I can throw spears. I have all these big scars all over my face from where jungle animals have tried to fight me, but I've won. I've had loads of children, so my bones are strong, but my skin is all weathered." She smiles. "That's how I feel. I was just put in a manga character by accident."