While she was in town headlining AfroPunk Atlanta, FKA Twigs figured she’d stop by America’s oldest African-American strip club. In front of the all-female crowd at Blue Flame, the avant-pop star showed off the six months of intensive pole dance training she underwent last year. It wasn’t just a workout. Pole dancing was a reclamation of the “Madonna-whore” dichotomy that inspired Twigs’ opulent, trap-adjacent sophomore album: the excellent Magdalene.
“The virgin-whore is incredibly healing and empowering and important for women to embrace,” Twigs says of revisiting what she knew about Mary Magdalene. (As a child, Twigs attended Catholic school in Gloucestershire, England.) “She was this incredible herbalist, healer and doctor,” the singer says. “So why did we learn about her in Sunday school as ‘the prostitute’?”
Twigs uses the controversial biblical figure as the framework to examine her own sexuality and celebrity. From her 2014 debut, LP1, Twigs has cultivated a sound she calls “an ornate golden birdcage” featuring layers of orchestral elements and synths. But despite acclaim, she existed in a small musical bubble until her (now ended) romance with actor Robert Pattinson — who had recently completed his service as a heartthrob vampire in The Twilight Saga — became a tabloid and social media fixture. Twigs experienced racially charged, degrading cyberbullying from Pattinson’s fans. Like Magdalene, she says, her accomplishments were swallowed by the narrative of her beloved male companion.
“Throughout my twenties, I learned a lot [from] what my partners projected on to me,” Twigs says. (Following her split with Pattinson, she was rumored to be dating Shia LaBeouf while filming a role in his autobiographical film Honey Boy.) “In spending some time alone, I started to realize how confusing and how problematic that is for a young woman discovering her sexuality. I don’t have to be one thing or the other thing to sustain a partner in love.”
Twigs had some recent non-romantic hurdles: six fibroid tumors in her uterus, which had to be surgically removed in late 2017. Like much of her personal life, she kept the experience as private as possible until she was ready to make art about it. In early 2018, a few months into her recovery, she shared her experience in a post showcasing her then-newly acquired pole-dancing skills. She described the tumors as “a fruit bowl of pain every day,” citing the apple- and kiwi-sized growths within her. Even as she endured excruciating pain, the gymnast/dancer never felt disconnected from her body; rather she thought of it as an inevitable part of the process of being human.
“I’m always in myself, so I cannot lose control of myself,” she says. “Humans have incredible — but also frail and confusing — bodies. It was my time to experience that [pain]. I just embraced it and was gentle with myself.”
Later that year, Twigs made her musical “return,” when she appeared on A$AP Rocky’s “Fukk Sleep” and flaunted her pole-dancing for the first time in the song’s video, her first-ever appearance as a featured guest.
All the while, Twigs had been perfecting her sophomore album, which she say was part of a “lifelong process.” Technically, however, she began writing Magdalene soon after LP1, and it began to sonically take shape when she connected with composer Nicolas Jaar. “He’s a tremendous talent and quite an incredible producer,” she says. “I think the thing that struck me about him, besides all those wonderful qualities, is how much he listened and how emotionally intelligent [he was].” That last quality was important especially important to Twigs as she worked through her physical recovery.
Across the album, the star delves into some of her rawest personal reflections yet: depression, heartbreak and the vicious stare of the public eye are explored in the moving lyrics set among her most pop production yet. Like the physical pain she endured only a couple years ago, Twigs sees difficult emotions as inexorable. Which may be why Magdalene is her most accessible work yet: the pop production makes Twigs’ deeply personal meditations broadly accessible.
“It’s important that whoever is listening takes what they need and twists it,” she says. “It’s doesn’t really matter what [the songs] are about. The great thing about making music is that at some point it just doesn’t belong to you anymore.”