How FKA Twigs Made the Sexiest Music Video of the Year
You’re going to want to watch this.
FKA Twigs has had a big year with the release of her fifth album and second LP, Magdalene. The musician, mover (FKA dancer), and director teased the album with the video for “Cellophane,” a so-sad so-sexy (as Lykke Li would intone) song that goes deeper than pure sensuality with its production and vocals by creating an atmosphere of not only electronic distortion but operatic precision. The “Cellophane” music video, which earned a Grammy nomination for Twigs and collaborator Andrew Huang, an artist who specializes in VFX, is an essential part of the listening experience.
I spoke to Twigs about her journey in first conceiving and later directing and choreographing her music videos, which are not only at the center of her latest album release but her entire body of work. Our conversation covered an incredible amount of ground, from the craft of developing intimate imagery of the female body that dares to reach beyond the male gaze to the challenges of contending with minuscule runtimes of Instagram videos to the impressive levels of physical training Twigs puts into the images she produces. The “Cellophane” video—one of the best of the decade—has been long in the making and bears many gifts that, as I found out, keep on giving.
Starting with your early videos like “Water Me” and “Papi Pacify,” and working at first with other directors, how did you begin to build a sensibility around how you wanted to visually express the songs in your albums?
I started becoming really interested in music videos around my first release, which I think was in 2012. At the time, I began to realize that my friends and I were going on YouTube to listen to music. So, I was one of the first people, maybe if not the first, to create the idea of having a visual placeholder on my first EP, EP1. The visual placeholder concept was in between a music video and a visual and a GIF. I created four videos that were… they didn’t even have my face in at the time. One was almost just my body moving for a song called “Hide.” One was for “Ache,” which featured one of my friends, a krumper, wearing a Nasir Mazhar mask and krumping in slow motion, and it was just one take, I believe. Just a visual placeholder so that you could listen to the music, enjoy it, and have a sense of the aesthetic—which allowed me to control the mood.
At the time I was working and also living with a flatmate, a director called Emil Nava, who’s done some of the biggest music videos from Ed Sheeran to Jessie J. He would hire me a lot as a backing dancer back then as well. I used to see what he was doing as a director and learn from him. And eventually, I thought, “Okay, I feel like I could do that.” So, when it came to release my second EP, I then started to become more interested in directing myself; I co-directed the “Papi Pacify” video with Tom Beard. I came up with the concept and worked together with Tom on direction, because he had a much better understanding of cameras and lighting than me. And then the artist Jesse Kanda directed the video for “Water Me,” but again, it was my concept. For my album after that, LP2, I directed my first music video by myself, for “Pendulum,” the one where I’m all tied up.
When you started directing on your own, with “Pendulum,” what was the process you developed and what did you discover in directing that video?
What I discovered from “Pendulum” was just that it’s really important with an artist like myself, when I’m exploring my sensuality and my sexuality, to make sure that it isn’t filtered through a male gaze. So even as a female director, in the beginning of my career I was working with certain male DPs, and even though they were so talented and so skilled and have way more technical knowledge than I even do now, sometimes the way that they would shoot the female body would be different from how the image would look if I was really was on top making sure my concept was executed. When we shot “Pendulum” I was in this shibari, which is basically a Japanese style of bondage. And you get hoisted in the air with your own body weight. So, we’d have to do the take and I’d be put down and I’d have to stay basically tied up and then look at the take on a monitor tied up on the floor.
It was really funny because we couldn’t do that many takes. But often with the male DP that I would hire, he was incredible, but naturally he would be looking at more conventionally sensual areas of a woman’s body. Whereas I was like, “No, shoot my feet or my ankles.” I would try to find something that’s a bit more unusual or shoot things that I liked on my body that weren’t necessarily the obvious areas. So, that was really interesting. And then later on when I began directing myself, I love this DP called Rina Yang. She’s Japanese and she’s just incredible, and we’ve got our collaboration to a point now where we almost don’t have to even communicate that much on set. We just do it all in the pre-work and we just know what our style is. I directed “Home With You” on this album campaign myself. And that was really incredible working with Rina again after a couple years after of directing.
The first video where I was aware of how much work you had put in to preparing for the actual physical part of the video was “Glass & Patron.” I remember on Instagram you wrote about how you had learned from Voguers and had dedicated a lot of time and attention to learning about the queer history and legacy of it, as well as the actual choreography. And that goes all the way into today, to the “Cellophane” video and learning pole dancing.
Well first of all, thanks for noticing that, because that’s definitely something that I put a lot of effort into; it’s cool when people notice. Some people just think you click your fingers and it happens. There’s a lot of training and sore legs and tiredness and mental perseverance that goes into learning a whole new form. I think that up until fairly recently, probably until a year ago, I would’ve always said, “Oh, I’m a dancer and I love dancing.” Now I don’t see myself as a dancer, I see myself as a mover, which is almost more fun. It sounds less qualified, but it’s more about boundaries being pushed.
I love moving my body and all these different forms really grabbed me. Voguing’s something that has just got the most incredible story and culture wrapped around it. And I was so lucky that my first introduction to Vogue was at Escuelita’s in New York, which is a legendary spot that unfortunately isn’t there anymore. But I had six months to a year of being able to experience that place, where I was welcomed by the Vogue community. Even before I came out as an artist, I was already going there, and I was taken in by Derek Prodigy, who trained me and did it just for the love. And so that’s just luck, really.
And then with “Cellophane,” I started pole dancing a little bit initially because...Do you know what? It’s weird. I can’t really exactly remember how I did my first class, or why I did it. I remember that after I had an operation [in 2018, Twigs explained on Instagram that she underwent surgery in 2017 to remove six fibroid tumors from her uterus], I saw that it would be good for my core muscles. I think I went into it in a practical way. I’d done a couple of classes and then sort of stopped for a few months and then I wrote “Cellophane” and thought, “Oh my gosh. This character is like a sad pole dancer.” She’s a beautiful, sexy, sad, pole dancer. And you think that she’s going to perform to you, seduce you, but she’s actually going to break your heart. And I was like, “How can I do that with pole dancing? How can I tell a story?”
With your music, are you thinking about world-building in the same way?
I think about world-building in everything I do, you know? Even in what I wear. When I was making Magdalene and I started to wear these ’70s, gunny-sack dresses all the time to the studio, it just felt sacred. And then I thought I’d discover oils like the ones Mary Magdalene would use—spikenard and rose and these oils that are considered to have been associated with Mary Magdalene. And then my friend Christi Meshell actually made me a perfume for Mary Magdalene and I would wear that to the studio. I was wearing these dresses, I was wearing this beautiful spikenard and rose fragrance
And then I was writing all of these songs in a way I’d never written before. So broken down and so vulnerable and full of… It just felt so feminine and so divine, and I was making my world. I was making my world on the ground level, and then it grew into a bigger world, which is the album. And I think, for me, Magdalene so far has been my most concise work. It’s in everything, from the photographs that we made with Matthew Stone to the album artwork. And there’s been these little eggs that some people have picked up on. The artwork of “Cellophane,” with all the little gold crosses on my face, that’s CGI-mapping of the album artwork.
I imagine actually being able to connect with your audience through imagery in this way is the most exciting part of an album or video release, which makes me wonder: How do you feel about awards in general? It must not feel very close to the work, even though it’s nice to get that appreciation.
That’s a very complicated question. It’s a really loaded question. I’m always very grateful for awards and the recognition, especially given my backgroud. I’m from Worcestershire, which is a country town in England. I had a very humble upbringing in many ways. So, to get to a level where a big awards ceremony that I grew up watching is recognizing me, to have that acknowledgement is really special, and I’m so grateful. But it’s not my driving force. My driving force is something slightly different, more about me being the best version that I can be. It’s more of an internal competition with myself: How can I beat myself? There’s not an award ceremony, like the Twigs Award Ceremony, rewarding my own internal struggle, where it’s like, “Congratulations, you’ve been nominated.”
It’s something that I feel exceptionally proud of and it’s wonderful to have people notice it because I’m from England, and I’m signed to a tiny indie label—it’s different when you’re an indie artist as well. Everything’s much more ephemeral and delicate and thought out. It’s less about budget and it’s more about how as an artist you’re really fighting and striving to be an individual, and you’re on the outside. Often a lot of artists signed to indie labels are more outside-of-the-box thinkers. We are on the whole pretty left. You don’t always get supported with the bigger accolades just because it’s not so center, not so connected to a wider audience. Sometimes people are less willing to take the chance, so it’s amazing to be supported by an award ceremony that is mainly quite commercial.
And how do you feel about those creative limitations, specifically on a budget? Are you glad you have them, or would it be nice to have more money to work on your entire concept?
Sometimes I’m grateful for budget limitations because the ideas have to be more concise and sometimes it forces me to have stronger ideas. It can go in two ways, because either you have no budget, so you have to make something really strong and simple, or, listen, look at “Nothing Compares” by Sinead O’Connor. It’s one of the most iconic videos of all time, and it’s just her singing on a walk in the park and then she cries that tear and that’s it. It’s just her face. And that’s a really iconic video and there are no special effects or pyrotechnics or sexy dances.