In FKA twigs's world, before there was Mary Magdalene, there was Hercules.
“When I was younger, Hercules was my favorite bedtime story,” she recalls. “Those were the stories that were read to me before I went to sleep, different Greek mythologies and some old-fashioned stories that appear throughout time. The same moral, the same narrative with a different protagonist. These were things that were drilled into my subconscious.”
It’s not necessarily a given that the English musical polymath — twigs sings, writes, produces, directs, choreographs and dances masterfully — would maintain such a sense of the mythic. After a pair of EPs and 2014’s critically lauded LP1, twigs was heralded as a new visionary for the avant-garde, an experimental pop futurist stretching into uncharted territory. Whatever was next, that's what she was doing. And then its followup, MAGDALENE, arrived. While twigs hadn't abandoned her experimental bent (the imploding trip-hop beats and minor-key melodies that languish and contort under her voice remain), her concerns had evidently shifted toward the archetypal, the ancient, the biblical. Twigs was thinking about femininity, women, pain, and the weight of history and heartbreak. In doing so, she found Mary Magdalene.
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As Christianity tells it, Mary Magdalene is the fallen woman redeemed by God himself; a repentant prostitute, she embodies both scorn and forbidden desire. Unlike her female counterparts in the Gospels, she is a singular figure, referred to simply as herself rather than in relation to her father, husband or brother. In the centuries that follow, her fervent love for Jesus will nag clergy insistent on their savior’s purity; some non-canonical gospels suggest a possible marriage. (In our own century, Dan Brown will make a fortune imagining a scenario in which someone proves it.) And for twigs, Magdalene will prove inherently fascinating, a "brilliant" and "fantastic" character suspended between reverence and slander, her narrative lorded over by men with agendas.
“Mary Magdalene represents a very powerful archetype of a woman who is innocent and pure and desirable, but also somebody who is seductive and all-knowing and a healer, and somebody who really sits in her power,” says twigs. Magdalene is not just the fallen woman redeemed, but a figure moving freely between the virgin-whore dichotomy — and ultimately beyond it. In other words, liberation. Twigs seeks the same: “When I embrace both sides of that coin, that’s when I feel at my most beautiful, at my most powerful.”
True to form, on the track named for the titular character, twigs embodies her subject's complicated dichotomies: “I know where you start, where you end/How to please, how to curse."
If MAGDALENE’s mythos is multi-dimensional, so is its pathos. There is, naturally, the emotional pain — twigs wrote the record in the wake of two publicized breakups — but there is also an undercurrent of literal, physical suffering. In December of 2017 and after a year-plus of constant pain, twigs underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove six fibroid tumors from her uterus. Four weeks later, she was on the set of the Spike Jonze-directed Apple HomePod commercial, the stitches in her belly button splitting underneath her white Oxford as she performed her own choreography.
In retrospect, the illness, surgery and recovery were at once humbling, grounding and illuminating for twigs; she cites a newfound empathy for chronic pain sufferers.
“As a dancer, I’ve always had a high level of awareness with my physicality, but now I feel like I have a high awareness of the inside,” she says. “I’ve seen my organs on screen. I’ve seen it with cameras. I know what the inside of my body looks like.”
Twigs also knew the tumors removed were fruit-sized, a symbol easily transferred to MAGDALENE’s mythology. Within the synths of "sad day," chords reverberating with the reverence of a cathedral organ: “Taste the fruit of me/Make love to all you see.” Even more directly on “home with you," in which her airy high notes hover above punctuated piano chords: “Apples, cherries, pain/Breathe in, breathe out, pain.”
Once recovered, twigs took up pole dancing and, at filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s suggestion, the choreographed Chinese martial arts style wushu. She googled “Wushu LA,” clicked on the first result, and ended up under the tutelage of internationally regarded wushu grand master Hu Jianqiang. Lessons included an introduction to Chinese swordplay. She named her own blade, Lilith, after Adam’s first wife, famous for leaving Eden after refusing to be subservient to him.
Although twigs had been writing consistently in the years following LP1, MAGDALENE started to materialize about eighteen months ago, with twigs self-producing alongside collaborators Skrillex, Nicolas Jaar, Benny Blanco, Koreless and Noah Goldstein. Her process was measured and deliberate — “I’m somebody who takes my sweet time, and that’s my pace as an artist,” she insists — and the result, clocking in just short of forty minutes, has been met with another wave of critical acclaim.
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But twigs rarely mentions the perception of others. That she has ascended past the designation of critical darling, that her return is immediately welcomed by the likes of Zane Lowe, that MAGDALENE is now tied with Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! for the highest-rated album of the year on Pitchfork, well, those are accolades for profiles of her written by other people. In whatever level of postmodernist-cum-capitalist hellscape we inhabit, twigs, not unlike Del Rey, seems dangerously close to making art for art’s sake, all within an aesthetic she alone has crafted.
“I’m inspired,” she says, point-blank. “There are things I want to learn, obviously. Things I want to practice. I feel like now I have the freedom and the independence and the self-agency to do whatever I want to do. And that feels really exciting.”
FKA twigs plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 12, at Mission Ballroom. Tickets are $40 to $85 and available at missionballroom.com.
Hear FKA twigs and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.