FKA twigs has been transformed. Or to be more accurate, the world around FKA twigs has finally caught up. The lithe and honey-voiced songstress was in Chicago last July for Pitchfork Music Festival, performing an early evening set on the smaller side stage reserved for electronic, punk, and outsider styles. Her stage presence was already downright regal. The commanding body language, the practiced but striking dance moves, and the astral-projected voice were all readily apparent. Despite a relatively small audience, the doting, dewy-eyed, die-hard fans were in attendance as well. A seemingly predestined change in the 26-year-old performer’s fortune guarantees she will not be playing such a small stage again. Those lucky enough to see the Pitchfork performance caught the early flares of an ascending star.
In the last four months, the artist has been at work. FKA twigs (aka Tahliah Debrett Barnett) released her first LP (LP1) to critical acclaim; had a stunning, buzz-worthy performance on late night TV, and embarked on her current headlining tour. When she returned to Chicago last Thursday, selling out the midsize Metro, the air was thick with potential energy — as if the entire audience were holding their breath in anticipation. When FKA twigs took the stage, that energy erupted in devoted passion, like the energy of loyal followers welcoming home a hero or an icon.
For all her animalistic power, FKA twigs is a reserved and tightly composed performer. Her voice is stunning live, but she doles out its volume in carefully measured waves. The silence surrounding the emotional peaks is almost as deafening. On “Video Girl”, the most R&B-tipped of her newest songs, her voice is soft to the point of fragility. As she speculates, “Is she the girl that’s from the video/ Stop stop lying to me,” one’s heart can’t help but melt. But within this fragile vulnerability is a deep well of strength. She is beautiful without being an object. She is seductive without being over-the-top. So much of her power is in restraint. Bathed in the soft stage lights, she paced the stage with leonine grace, powerful, terrifying even, but in control.
It is difficult to categorize FKA twigs, as musician or persona. Her music exists in a gray space that borrows liberally from the echoing minimalism of Portishead and Massive Attack but is infused with a contemporary lust, part The Weeknd, part Zola Jesus. In this chameleon-like form, she twists her voice and her body in subtle but potent ways. As a dancer, she is hypnotic more than seductive. Her movements are erratic but graceful as she twists around the skittering electronic beats. As a fashion icon in the making, she treats her stage dress with care. This night she was garbed in a loose two-piece halter top and pants, covered by an overcoat. The overall message was one of strength and comfort — of being at one with one’s sexual power.
As a performer, she is electrifying, nearly impossible to take one’s eyes off. FKA twigs’ performance did not differ drastically from the artist playing Pitchfork, lit by the setting sun. But in the closed, reverberating confines of Metro, the temperature and volume were turned way up. She took the stage to the choral, skittering beauty of “Preface” and delivered a set heavy on songs from LP1 and EP2. When the first notes of her single “Two Weeks” were launched at the crowd, they responded with a wave of energy equal in strength.
Her setlist was tight and carefully orchestrated. She was backed by three musicians who alternated between percussion and keyboard/synth. The presence of live musicians helped lend a tangible humanity to the sometimes icy electronic beats and choruses.
Up-and-coming producer and performer BOOTS was the opener. He is another artist wrapped in the cloak of self-made myth taking on steam. His mixtape was heavily R&B- and dubstep-influenced, but BOOTS chose to perform a guitar rock-heavy set, perhaps indicating the new direction he is moving in as an artist.
In the end, everything was a footnote to FKA twigs herself. The lights, the sounds, and the atmosphere all hinged on the emotive grace of Ms. Barnett. In the face of this pressure and expectation, her performance was extraordinary. She is a musician currently undertaking the long transition into icon: one of music, dance, fashion, and feminism. Catching her perform live now feels like an intimate look into the future of someone destined for greatness.