The future has an odd way of sneaking up on you. There you are, Googling away at your smartphone, when suddenly you realise everyone’s walking around with hand-held computers like characters in a science fiction story. It’s the same with music. There are times when you’re suddenly struck that what once would have been considered fantastically futuristic is now normal.
One of those occasions came at FKA Twigs’ gig at Heaven. Her real name is Tahliah Barnett and she comes from Gloucestershire. Originally known as Twigs she added the FKA, short for “formerly known as”, when another performer with the same name complained. Technically the “Twigs” should be “twigs” in lower case, a trend among acts today (fun., alt-J etc). Text messaging has wrought typographical havoc on pop music.
At Heaven, Barnett – let’s be old school and use her surname – wore a cropped black catsuit with an elaborate jewelled suspender belt, a 21st-century Josephine Baker. The backing vocals were pre-recorded and fluently mixed with Barnett’s very impressive live singing. Three men surrounded her, obscured by dry ice and stage lighting, each standing playing electronic drum pads from which echoing beats and juddering basslines emerged.
Barnett, 26, was a mesmerising presence amid the computerised sounds. Her voice was high and breathy, yet the prettiness was offset by a hint of hip-hop swagger. Previously a dancer in pop videos, she moved gracefully, all twisting arms and sashaying hips. “Give Up” was accompanied by an immaculate spot of vogueing. One song was ended with a dismissive flick of the wrist, a regal gesture.
The songs were drawn from a series of EPs and a forthcoming album, LP1, confidently named in expectation of successors. The confidence isn’t misplaced. Barnett’s music is pitched between US R&B and UK trip-hop, a brooding confection of slow-motion beats and shimmering electronic textures. On stage the songs were made more dynamic with an extra layer of beats, a clockwork effect to which Barnett performed jerky syncopated movements.
In a rare between-song aside she spoke of moving from the countryside to London a few years ago to become “just another mixed-race girl in the street”. There was an uncomplicated interracial sensibility in her music too, the way her high-pitched singing in “Pendulum” sounded like Mariah Carey while that in “Give Up” was closer to Kate Bush.
Barnett joins a swelling group of UK acts, the likes of AlunaGeorge, Rudimental and Jessie Ware, for whom such hybridity is second nature. In the background is a deeper shift, from the almost 50 per cent of Britons who disapproved of mixed-race relationships when Barnett was born to the lower proportion of 15 per cent today. It takes a performer with as bright a future as FKA Twigs to make you realise that what now seems normal is in fact remarkable.