Joyride: the renaissance of FKA twigs
Having gone public about her experience of domestic abuse, FKA twigs has returned with creative confidence. Here, the artist and activist speaks to her friend and I May Destroy You creator, Michaela Coel, about a new batch of music inspired by a wave of freedom.
Interview: Michaela Coel
Introduction: India van Spall
Photography: Charlotte Wales
Styling: Matthew Josephs
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Order your copy here.
There’s a palpable new energy around FKA twigs. Only 15 months on from her experimental and emotionally raw second album, Magdalene, the British artist, director, dancer and style icon is primed to release her most accessible, and perhaps most remarkable, music to date: the result of a creative breakthrough that’s seen her collaborate with Dua Lipa, Rosalía producer El Guincho and some of the UK’s most distinctive rap stars, including Headie One and Pa Salieu.
One of the few people to have heard music from twigs’ next album is writer, actor and showrunner Michaela Coel, whose provocative, pivotal BBC show, I May Destroy You, became the first great television show of the 2020s on its release last summer. Based on her own experiences, Coel’s 12-part series captivated audiences with its equal-parts beautiful, shocking and vastly relatable portrayal of consent and the landscape of modern dating. It made a global star of its creator (who, like twigs, is 33) and opened important discussions around abuse in the process.
The pair met in London during filming for the show, bumping into each other outside a shop and immediately trading numbers. Since then, that chance encounter has blossomed into a very real and deep connection. The friends have supported each other through one of the most extraordinary years in history, as well as through trauma of the personal kind, notably the decision by twigs, in December last year, to sue her former partner, actor Shia LaBeouf, for sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress.
Undeniably, these two are at the top of their fields − Black women who have shown the courage and strength to overcome adversity, playing their lives out in the public eye with work that is open, unguarded and inspiring. It’s what unites them going forward, too.
“I don’t want to survive anymore,” as twigs puts it to Coel in this exclusive interview for THE FACE, the first time the pair have discussed their friendship in public. “I want to thrive.”
Michaela Coel: Do you remember our first meeting?
FKA twigs: When you were shooting I May Destroy You?
T: We bumped into each other and were like: “Oh God, I don’t know you but I kind of do! Hi, yeah!” And then you gave me your number, and a few days later I was like, I’m gonna text you.
MC: I don’t even remember what the text said, but I think it was the next day… I was with my brother and I was like: “Oh, let’s meet in the park!” And you said something like: “Look out for somebody who’s very small.”
T: Yeah, I said I’m wearing purple trousers and I’m unusually small.
MC: Then we sat and you were with your lovely dog, Solo. And I think that night I had planned on having a games night because this was when the coronavirus restrictions were slightly open for a bit. I was planning on going to cook with my brother and I liked you so much that it was like: “Let me just see if she wants to spend the whole day with me!”
T: Yeah, so we did! We went on a whole day date, didn’t we? It was really nice. We went and got some vegan food…
MC: And I’ve obviously been very lucky to have developed a very strong relationship with you since, to the point where I remember going to your house and I literally said [to myself]: “I’ve got to go slow because I just think you’re so great. Just day by day, Michaela, don’t rush.” But you rushed by sending me some of your new music.
T: OK, I did, I sent you a little care package.
MC: Yes. I play your music, the four or five tracks you sent me, every day. I play it when I run, when I’m cooking, in the car. Talk to me about it. This is your interview so I wanna hear you.
T: Well, the music that I sent to you was music that I’ve made over lockdown. It was really unusual because I’ve never really made music over the internet before. And with one person in particular, it just worked really well, and that’s El Guincho, a guy called Pablo [Díaz-Reixa] who is an artist and producer – he’s Spanish. For some reason, we just had this amazing connection over FaceTime. We’d only met once in real life before, but there was a period of time when lockdown was at its darkest in round one. And we just kind of connected in this crisis and were somehow able to have two amazing months of just making music together and sending melodies, sending little snippets of beats. Pablo works incredibly quickly, and I always think that, for me, pace is a really exciting thing in the studio. My favourite pieces have great pace and excitement. That’s also [about] being able to be quite sort of… egoless with ideas. So Pablo was my life line during the first lockdown.
MC: And what would you say is the relationship between Magdalene and… I don’t even know the name of this new… Are you saying? Do we know?
T: Gosh, I don’t know. Well, the thing is: I can’t tell you. And the reason why is because I saw last week that another artist had called their project this thing. That’s never happened to me before! Another artist who’s really well known has called… Not even a music project but another type of project that they’re doing. So now it doesn’t have a name again.
MC: Was it Black Is King? I’m joking!
T: Yeah, it was Black Is King! I’m joking. But yeah, I was a bit like: wow. I saw it and I texted all my friends, like: “Oh my gosh, no!” So I don’t know what it’s called. [But] I don’t think it does relate to Magdalene, to be honest with you, which comes as a bit of a relief. That was a whole era that had to end.
MC: Maybe publicly there is an idea that people have of where that album came from. But perhaps privately there’s more to its creation. Now that I guess we know more than we did when it was released, can you share a little bit about what that album meant to you at the time you were making it?
T: Oh gosh, that’s such a deep question. I don’t talk about LP1 so much as an era – LP1 is more like a happening, it felt like this thing. Whereas Magdalene for me is a real era in my life, and everything from the very beginning, which started from me having fibroids and having this operation to the very end, to the tour… Every single day just thinking: “OK, one day at a time.”
It’s nice that this [new] record really is very separate from that, in a way. I feel like I’m able to… It’s maybe too simplistic to put it this way, but I just feel like I can laugh again and have fun again. I think the album really reflects that. The fact that you say you’re cooking to it, you’re running to it and you’re vibing to it every single day is just a testament to that.
I have a feeling that it will be one of my favourite things I’ve ever created. When I’m older and I look back, I think Magdalene is gonna be something that I’m so proud of, and I am proud of it. But this next project is a lot more generous. I’m just feeling a bit more vibey, to be honest with you.
MC: There’s something about knowing and understanding Magdalene and then taking in this new music. I don’t know, it’s just great to see that you’re into some sort of light. You’ve emerged, there’s this joy, and I keep rewinding to go back. I don’t wanna get to the next song that’s not from this album. I go back…
MC: …while I’m cycling. You’d think I was mad!
T: That makes me so happy! That’s so good. You’re similar as an artist, the way you create work. It really does come from you and so it tells the story of your life. Even if the story isn’t specifically about your life, somehow there’s so much of you inside your work. That’s how I feel about my music as well. Even if you don’t mean it to be, it ends up being incredibly autobiographical in a way. Or something just seeps through, which can be incredibly vulnerable as well. When I did that, that was actually because there was some subconscious part of me that was dealing with something and it just came out in that one way. I don’t know how you feel, but it’s not always a conscious thing. It just kind of happens.
MC: How would you say, being in the public eye, that it’s affected how you exist in the world?
T: I’ve been very, very lucky because I realised very early on in my career that, no matter how much you succeed or how well people think that you’ve done, it means nothing if you don’t have lovely people to share it with. I’ve been on the biggest stages with the most people staring back at me, and I felt so lonely. You know? And so I think I realised in a calm and profound way – rather than a devastating, destructive way – how important it is to have someone to share that with, whether that’s a member of your family or a romantic partner or a best friend. For me to be able to take a lot of my closest friends along on this weird journey with me, it makes it worthwhile. If I think about the fame and the applause and stuff like that, that feels really hollow to me.
A lot of my creative relationships are heading into 15 years long, over a decade long. When I think about it, we’re this weird dysfunctional family and we all work together on these things. It’s like a spider diagram and it all goes off. That makes me feel really happy. Matthew Josephs, who’s my creative director and stylist, was the first person to street-cast me for an editorial. I don’t know if you remember this era, but it was a very sort of [East London’s] Brick Lane era where you’d walk down the street and someone would be like: “Ah, I’m a fashion blogger, can I take a picture of you for my Tumblr?” And it was really cool to cast people that looked a little bit quirky.
MC: I was not that girl, but I did observe that era, I think. I was like: “LET ME IN!” I know you weren’t born in London so I wanna know how you got here, where you came from… Obviously I know, but I want everybody to know.
T: OK, well, I’m from Gloucestershire, which is, like, farming. A very agriculturally rich place.
MC: What was it like growing up there?
T: It was good and it was bad. It was good in the sense that it was very beautiful, I could play outside. Although there was the overhang of [local serial killer] Fred West and not getting into strangers’ cars. But other than that you could go and play in parks, on the street, and stuff like that. It was nice in that way and it didn’t have the stress of London.
It was awkward in other ways because I was the only mixed-race person, or person of colour at all, I’d say in the village, pretty much. There’s maybe one other person that I can think of, a girl that was around my age that went to my primary school. But other than that I didn’t ever really see anybody that looked like me ever, other than my stepdad, who was from Barbados. So we were already quite a dysfunctional family because my mum had been a single parent for a lot of my upbringing and then I had a stepdad who was Bajan.
MC: How did you find that?
T: It was uncomfortable, and I think as I get older I only start to realise now how uncomfortable it was. When we’re young we adapt so well and we can take on so much and we think it’s normal. But it’s only as I get older that I think to myself: “Wow, that was really traumatic and such a challenge.” I really was so different and it was so difficult for me to accept myself, for so many years.
MC: Do you remember experiences of feeling othered? Or racism?
T: Oh my gosh, 100 per cent. The first day I went to school, someone wouldn’t hold my hand in case the brown came off. It was pretty much, yeah, straight away. It was worse, I think, as I got into my teenage years. You know, I looked very different and my hair was very different. I had massive wild hair, and I’ve spoken about this experience before, maybe even with you, of me going to London and going into a Black hair shop and getting all these oils for my hair. I must’ve been about 15. And it was just like I’d walked into heaven, all the different products with girls on the packaging that looked like me. I remember my mum spent quite a lot of money in this hair shop. She said: “I’ll get you this stuff but you have to use it and you have to look after your hair.” I was like: “OK, OK, I will, I will…” And it all smelled so good. It was Dark and Lovely [hair care products] and it was a leave-in conditioner that smelled like bubblegum.
T: It was amazing. Anyway, my mum’s Spanish, and we’d gone to a show in London and there was a mixed-race girl in the queue for the toilets. I remember my mum asking the mum how to do my hair – this other girl had really, really beautiful hair. She was like: “Oh, you plait it before you put all the oils in it?” Now [that’s] what we call “protective hairstyles”, but 20 years ago that wasn’t so much a thing [laughs]. But I remember thinking: “OK, I’m gonna do it.” I’d plait my hair before I went to bed, I had all this oil in it, and
then I went to school the next day in Gloucestershire, and I remember my best friends turned around – they used to call me Barnett – and they were like: “Eugh, Barnett, your hair’s so greasy!” And I remember them touching my plaits and all the grease coming off, and saying: “Oh my God it’s so greasy!”
MC: Oh my God.
T: I just felt so bad. It was just things like that that are othering. I don’t know if it’s racist…
MC: It’s othering, yeah.
T: I had a lot of experiences like that.
MC: There’s such a particular experience of being a person of colour outside of a city like London. When you’re around people that look like you from when you’re young, you don’t have this sort of othering. I remember you telling me this and just finding it so… I don’t know, it’s kind of intriguing. I’m also wondering how it informs your art, what you write?
T: It was really interesting then because, when I was in Gloucestershire, I was very much the Black girl. That was my “thing” that I then began to almost uncomfortably lean into because that’s what I was told and how I was made to feel, do you know what I mean? [Then] when I moved to London in my late teens, it was really funny because it was like: “But you’re light skin. You’re that light skin girl over there.” And I was just like: “OH MY GOSH! What? This is so confusing, I hate this!” Then I went to Croydon College and there I was just that light skin girl.
I remember [during the] Black Lives Matter [protests last summer], I was having almost a teenage crisis over being mixed race. It was almost like the 14-year-old self in me came back out again. I think maybe that’s something that will always come up in our generation. I’m hoping maybe our children’s children, if the world’s still going then, won’t have this complex relationship with the colour of their skin.
MC: Last year obviously a lot was going on with the BLM movement. What new thoughts did you have? I loved our conversations, walking around London in the middle of the night! How much our stories, even though sometimes they seem different, were so similar. I was so surprised [that] you also felt this external pressure to bleach, or to make sure your skin didn’t get too dark or your hair didn’t get too crinkly. That experience for me, of trading stories with you, was very special.
T: I really felt that as well. And the loneliness, I guess, in our own ways of doing what we do and not being white? That can be quite a daunting experience. I was speaking to my manager today, just about this new year. I said to him something that sounds like it should be a rap song. I was like: “I don’t want to survive anymore, I want to thrive.” I think this year I want to thrive in what I’m trying to create for myself and create in my creative family. I don’t wanna feel like I’m constantly the only Black girl in the village, trying to prove herself or make something of herself. I don’t really think people are ready to have the mixed-race conversation yet, but it’s coming. Maybe it’s not time, there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m never trying to take up space with any of my opinions.
MC: Why do you think people are not ready?
T: Because I think there’s been a real time of acknowledging I guess what we call light-skin privilege. There’s been a time to acknowledge that and understand that, and there’s been a time within the Black community to collectively come together and have bigger conversations, just about the way
Black people of all colours are treated in general. I think there is a time where having a conversation about being mixed race or light skin, it does need to happen as well. I guess I feel that no one has the right to gatekeep what it is to be Black. And I feel sometimes, as a mixed-race person, [that] it can be a complicated conversation. It can be really difficult to kind of… know your place.
It’s funny because we talk about Black excellence, which is an overall thing that we’ve all experienced, which is that to be acknowledged within the white community, you have to be 100 times better than your peers and do so, so well. So there’s that thing of why I think I’m so neurotic about music and dance moves and skills and craft. It’s because, for me to be acknowledged amongst my peers because of the colour of my skin, I feel like I have to be 10 times better than the white, blonde girl sitting next to me. I could never get away with just standing up and singing in front of a microphone – like, “Are you mad? Strumming a couple of cute chords on a guitar – are you MAD?” That would never cut it. I have to be pole dancing, upside down, swinging a sword, directing, producing, AAHHH! Do you know what I mean?
T: There’s that. And also, I guess, there’s that thing of being mixed race and to excel within my own community, to be acknowledged as being Black. It’s super fucking weird, so complex. But like I said: people aren’t really ready to have that conversation.
MC: Yes, yes. And what I love about you generally is your transparency. We’ve had this conversation before and it sometimes does feel like, depending on where you are in the world, Black means something very different. How would you see yourself?
T: In terms of my race?
T: Oh, I’m Black.
MC: OK, mmhm.
T: I’m Black because the first time I was put into the wider world, through dating a white man, people had no problem with calling me the N‑word over and over and over again until I would scroll on my Twitter and that’s all I would see. People have no problem calling me a monkey or a jungle bunny, whatever it is. People have no problem calling me these terms. I go by my experience, you know, and my experience has certainly not been that of a white woman’s. I have never been accepted at all by the white community in any way, shape or form.
MC: Do you feel like you’ve been accepted into, quote-unquote, the “Black community”?
T: Umm… Yes. Yeah, I do. I do, I do, I do. One hundred per cent. Obviously, there’s always gonna be the odd remarks of the gatekeepers, but there are always gatekeepers in anything, you know, even in fishing clubs. The way there’s been a lot of new and important conversations around gender or sexuality or any of these things – if you feel something and if your experience is that of something, then no one can take that experience from you. That’s how I feel it is for me having a white parent and a Black parent. I believe very much in bloodline trauma as well. I really believe that certain races carry a lot of trauma in their blood. I’ve known from a very young age that I’ve carried that trauma. It’s something that I’ve only been able to understand and communicate since having a Black therapist. I understand how much of the fears and anxiety that I have don’t belong to me, and I’ve spoken a lot about ancestral healing and the things we can do now to heal things that our ancestors have been through. My family’s Jamaican and my given name, or my dad’s name, is actually Smith. We all know what that means. I feel that and I carry that, I really, really do. So who’s to tell anybody how much bloodline trauma they have inside them? I think my only salvation for that is honestly… to work through a lot of those things by making music and visuals and slowly massage it out of myself. Once it’s out in the open, a problem shared is a problem halved. Once you’re able to share it with a million people, it feels good. I feel lighter for me and for my ancestors as well. That’s how I felt coming forward even about domestic abuse. I felt like [exhales deeply] a big relief and a lot of healing for my ancestors who have been abused. I felt like it was a real step, not just for me, [but also] for any women who, God forbid, are experiencing or have experienced that. It was also for my ancestors that have been abused. Which is a lot.
MC: Yeah, it’s a lot. You are a lot and you’re very small but incredibly mighty! Incredibly mighty. I guess on that topic of sharing about the domestic abuse that you experienced, how did it feel before you shared it? When you had to keep it?
T: I felt like I was holding on to somebody else’s dysfunction. And now I feel like I’ve given it back to him. It’s his to hold and rightly so. He can hold it because it’s not mine. That’s how I feel now. I can only hold my things, which is fine, I like holding my things because I know where everything is in my handbag, do you know what I mean? I know how to organise it, how to organise my handbag so I can get through the day. Whereas if I’m holding someone else’s dysfunction it’s heavy and I don’t know where everything is, and it comes up at weird times. It’s chaos, you know? I don’t feel like that anymore…
You know, it’s important in this day and age that everybody’s able to be accountable for their actions. And I don’t mean in an “outrage culture” kind of way, because I’m not really here for that either. I mean in a real, genuine, deep place that, thank GOODNESS, we are finally in, where women don’t have to be quiet about that sort of thing anymore.
I felt like the conversation around domestic abuse is a very new one and it’s massively uncharted territory. I didn’t really necessarily want to be the person that had to start it, but my life has somehow led me down this course. I just thought I’m old enough and I know myself enough that I felt I could do some good. I felt like I could make a change and I’m not gonna get everything right. I’m not gonna word everything correctly and I’m sure that there’ll be things that the world or society needs to understand about this new topic. I didn’t understand it when I was going through it. But maybe, if I’d have known what I know now, I’d have been able to get myself out sooner, or seen the signs not to get in it at all.
That’s how I feel. I feel like I’ve given someone’s dysfunction back to them and I feel that I need to live my life now.
MC: What’s amazing for me is that even whilst you were carrying that, and before you shared it, my mind is going back to the time when I went to your house and I was having… I was crying! First of all, I came in, it was all to do with the topic we’re on, sexual abuse, I won’t say too much. But I remember sitting in your house and sharing that thing with you, and crying. And you were so nurturing, you hugged me like I was your child, twigs. I literally felt like I was in my mum’s arms, MY BLACK MUM’S ARMS! Yes! Black bish! That’s how I felt.
T: Aw, that’s sweet.
MC: Now I’m getting fucking teary, like…
T: Yeah, me too.
MC: You had energy to do that, to live for me whilst you were holding all of those items that didn’t bloody belong to you. So really it’s a testament to your character and your energy, to look after me, to also look after a whole generation, population, I don’t know, of people who… I don’t know what to… Let’s say Black because there’s the whole mixed- race thing that you don’t like. But that group is waiting for that conversation about the nuance within the Black community. You have energy and bravery to speak about these things. It’s just part of why I love you. I think you’re a really incredible human being. What keeps you feeling normal? What do you like to do?
T: I love making work, I just love it. I love making music, making videos, genuinely. I’d do it if no one was watching, I just love it. It makes me so happy learning things as well. I love being bad at things – I’m so bad at piano. So bad, and I get such a buzz out of it. When I do gymnastics, I love watching all of my bloopers, seeing all the times where I fall over and I can’t do something, and [then] see the progress of being able to do it. When I’ve done things in gymnastic places… That’s not the word, like gymnasiums… Everything I do in gymnasiums. If I wear a T‑shirt, remembering that day and how I felt, and then looking at it a month on and seeing how my body changed when I do that, the mechanics of physicality – I’m really into it. It makes me excited about getting older. The idea of learning more makes me excited about getting older, which is usually a fear in people. I feel excited about it because it means the older I get, the more things I’m gonna learn.
MC: And the more things you realise you thought you knew but didn’t know… I love learning. That’s growth, isn’t it? What musicians are you into at the moment?
T: I think my favourite new UK artist right now is Pa Salieu. I just love him so much. I think he’s really breaking the mould and he’s true to himself, and he’s gone through a lot. I feel like there’s a lot of love and joy in his music, but it still feels like he’s very truthful to his experience. I think I’m really craving truth, which can be dark, but it’s not grim, it’s not heavy. He tells the truth and it’s got depth. Somehow it’s uplifting and I think his lyrics aren’t the average thing that you talk about. And his voice is so good.
MC: His voice, I was gonna say that. His tone, the way he says every word, is like…
T: It’s unbelievable, and I’m lucky enough – as you know because you’ve heard it – to have a song with him!
MC: Can I just say, I’m like: AH! I want everyone to hear everything now!
T: Working with him has been really amazing, to meet a young new artist that’s so professional and so loving and so… He’ll just message me little cute things. He’s just such a sweetheart, man. There’s a couple of Nigerian artists as well that I really love. One is Rema, who I’ve been feeling for a while, he’s kind of coming up. There’s another artist called Terri, he’s got the sweetest voice ever, you should check him out. Who else? There’s a band that’s kind of local to Hackney that I randomly discovered called Dystopia. Three girls making amazing guitar-led music, it’s brand new. You should definitely listen to them. Who else am I liking? Other than that, this is gonna sound a bit hippie but I like healing tones or massage music. In my house I’ve always got that on. I go on YouTube and put on my television and [listen to] “healing music that cleanses the chakras…”
MC: Oh, wow.
T: And I never talk about this with you, Michaela, because I never wanna feel cringe! But [I’ve done] a couple of fun things over lockdown, because I’ve had a lot of time with not travelling or touring. I’ve been able to get a couple of ideas down for TV series and films. There’s one that’s had the IP bought by [US network] FX, which is off the back of…
MC: I saw it! It’s awesome, I don’t wanna give too much information. You sent me something?
T: Did I?
MC: Yeah, you walking to, like, a deserted café.
T: Oh, sad day! So off the back of sad day, a music video that I did for one of my songs off Magdalene, I’ve developed it into a TV series and they’ve picked it up. So I’m currently making my first TV series.
T: It’s like a martial arts TV series which is very much centred around outsiders. And the idea of wanting to fit in but not being able to. I’ve been putting a lot of research into the way that the Black community and the Chinese martial arts community have a really deep connection. It goes into music: the Wu-Tang Clan came together almost through martial arts.
MC: It sounds so unique and like, SICK.
T: I mean, honestly, God knows, I’ve never done it before. So we’ll see. I’ve been working on that and just allowing myself to try new things and not be restricted. But I’ve not been coming to you about it because I know you’re probably like: “twigs, no.” I send you my music…
MC: I know this though! You should have told me!
T: I know, I know, but I don’t wanna be, like, annoying little sister vibes…
MC: No, but you’re not being that! And you can be that! Because I care about you, so… You know what I mean? I feel so lucky to have you in my life and to feel this sense of mirroring. There are so many strands in terms of creativity, the things that we’ve shared with the wider world. I see myself reflected in you so much and I feel lucky to know you.
T: Yeah, honestly I feel the same and we’ve said it before. But don’t be mistaken – I don’t usually dive headfirst into relationships like this, especially as I get older. But you’re an incredibly inspiring, nurturing, beautiful friend to have. You’re just… one in a million. And I feel lucky to have you in my life. Thank you for being my friend! [Laughs]
MC: My pleasure, thanks for being mine. I’m glad we both feel the same way!
T: I can’t wait for you to come back so I can give you a big hug.
Hair Virginie Moreira @ MA+ World Group using TIGI BED HEAD. Make-up Daniel Sallstrom @ MA+World Group using PAT MCGRATH LABS. Nails Sylvie Macmillan @ MA+World Group using CHANEL. Set design Alice Kirkpatrick at STREETERS. Production Mini Title. Senior producer Lolly Bedford-Stockwell. Production runner Kinga Czynciel. Photographer’s assistants Tomo Inenaga, Felix TW and Max Glatzhofer. Special thanks to The Car Carer Detailing
If you are in the UK and experiencing domestic abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for 24-hour support.