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Aidan Zamiri on the FKA twigs' Caprisongs project: "She's not an alien war goddess, she's a really funny person."

Aidan Zamiri on the FKA twigs' Caprisongs project: "She's not an alien war goddess, she's a really funny person."

David Knight - 1st July 2022

We talk to Aidan Zamiri about his epic project for FKA twigs - directing 10 videos for the mixtape Caprisongs, and expanding the artist's iconic mystique into a 'real world' setting. BTS photography: Suzannah Pettigrew, Roxy and Orograph

 

Aidan Zamiri says that when he first met FKA twigs, he almost forgot that he did not already know her. At that point, he had been immersed in a project for Spotify where he had created visuals to accompany the tracks on her album Magdelene. He had created them from heaps of BTS from recording the album, her dance rehearsals and video shoots.

"They sent me hours and hours of footage," he explains. "So I felt I’d spent loads of time with twigs before I met her." The Glaswegian director and photographer quickly recovered from a potentially embarrassing encounter on that first meeting to quickly become fast friends with twigs - and establish a formidable partnership.

That has led to the huge project for Caprisongs, FKA twigs's first mixtape, released at the start of the year. Since then, visuals have appeared to support all the tracks on the mixtape - all but one directed by Zamiri - released between January and May 2022. And it is no exaggeration to say that the project opens the door upon the extraordinary mystique of FKA twigs. The ethereal elfin character we know from numerous videos remains, but she comes with a new sense of humanity, of comradeliness with fellow performers - and also a sense of humour. 

The foundations were set in Zamiri and twigs's first project together - her collaboration with squeaky-voiced rapper 645AR for Sum Bout You, where she plays a camgirl who pops up on his computer wearing all manner of outlandish lingerie and outfits - created by her longstanding costume designer and stylist Matthew Josephs - and described here on Promonews as a "ridiculously sexy" video. It is also possibly the first video where you see the artist formerly known as Tahliah Barnett actually smile.

Above: FKA twigs and Aidan Zamiri (Photo: Suzannah Pettigrew) 

She’d done the real tentpole videos for Cellophane, Sad Day and others. Now she wanted to flip it...

"I think from that video, we both realized it was just a really nice pairing and we just really got each other," says Zamiri. "I think we get each other on a taste level, and seem to be affected by imagery in the same way. And also on a work-ethic level. It's kind of unhealthy, but we both want to work as much as we can." 

With Sum Bout You, Zamiri had tapped into another side of twigs's personality not previously seen on camera - a much more irreverent and approachable persona. And that was a crucial factor in what followed, as the workaholic twigs created her follow-up to Magdelene - a mixtape of music under the title of Caprisongs. Conversations began about the mixtape shortly afterwards.

"I felt like I was able to pull out that part of twigs which is so present in who she is on a day-to-day level," says Zamiri of Sum Bout You. "She's a really funny person. Everyone just assumes that she's some kind of alien war goddess that just lives in some some ethereal place. But she doesn't take herself very seriously, she cracks jokes. She's just never really had the chance to express that in her work.

"She kind of realized that, a lot of people had a very specific idea of what they thought she was. I think she felt like a lot of her personality wasn't getting a chance to be communicated or allowed to shine."

We had to shoot everything in a five-day window - then lost a day. So we were shooting two or three videos a day.

Twigs made her statement of intent for the visuals for the mixtape in that very first discussion. "She said: ‘one thing that I know I want to do is something that feels more like human and real and something that I can have fun with’," Zamiri reveals. "And also she wanted a real excess of content – loads and loads. She’d done the real tentpole videos – like for Cellophane and Sad Day – now she almost wanted to flip it. Part of that was knowing how people consume media nowadays."

He admits that he found the idea of creating this huge amount of content, within her creatively demanding world, just a tad scary. "Then twigs said ‘I kind of think of these almost like advertising spots, rather than music videos'. That was an interesting idea, that we were playing with the form. We would find one really clever idea, one really cool thing that we wanted to see, and then just stick with it."

“It was about finding that space between like a full-length music video, and a visualizer - this entire space that's completely underused," adds Morgan Clement, executive producer of the project, with years of experience working with FKA twigs as well as Zamiri. "It still does the service of highlighting the track and adding a visual motif, that doesn’t feel like a visualizer or an afterthought. It actually has some substance to it."  

Above: twigs (with baby goat) on the Jealousy shoot (photo: Roxy)

“It was almost like we just collected all this footage of this weird pop star from the past.”

"It kind of meant that our, our pool of references actually started to grow into different places, because we were kind of looking at different forms in general," says Zamiri. "We started growing a lot of these ideas, quite slowly at first. But then twigs would vomit loads and loads of things that she'd just seen, into my Whatsapp!"

But they also had to contend with the fact they had the resources afforded to a mixtape rather than a full album - and there was also a 'proper' music video made for Tears In The Club, directed by Amber Grace Johnson. Furthermore, deadlines were dictated by the fact that Caprisongs needed to come out within the period of the Capricorn zodiac sign ("It's maybe the first time I've ever had deadlines dictated by astrological phenomena” says Clement). 

"We basically had to shoot everything within a five-day window," says Zamiri. "Then we lost one day due to COVID, so we were shooting two or three videos a day, leading up to Christmas and into January."

As a result, some of the visuals are for clips of songs, not the whole track. But overall, this a remarkable project, which creates a whole new body of work for twigs that has a distinctiveness and resonance like nothing before it. Considering what she has done before, that is quite something.

It is also testimony to what can be achieved when a director and artist are likeminded, have a great vision - and the the skills to achieve it.   

AIDAN ZAMIRI ON THE VIDEOS FOR THE CAPRISONGS PROJECT

CAPRISONGS TRAILER/INTRO

"I didn't know that much about Capricorns before started working on this. But I remember twigs talking about the fact that she felt like this whole idea of being a Capricorn, was to do with her having this kind of incessant drive to work, or to make things, or to express herself. She wanted to express as much as she could. And so we wanted to visualize that yearning in some way by like, making our own sort of pregnancy I guess - this creature inside of her that wants to express it.

We got this young artist, Yaz Whitlock, to create this Capricorn fetus, which was going to sort of float within this kind of Cosmic Womb..."

RIDE THE DRAGON

It summed up a bit of what the project was trying to do... find the surrealism within these real-world settings.

"I think what was interesting about it was that it was a bit performance art, a bit like sort of public disturbance, and a bit of a music video, all at the same time. And so it felt like it summed up a bit of what the project was trying to do. And we were trying to kind of find this world. It's a little bit like kind of messy and a little bit wobbly. And it feels a bit documentary. But it's also kind of like quite weird and stylized at the same time.

I think the running theme that we tried to keep throughout all of it was finding that kind of surrealism or that stylized thing within these mundane, ordinary or real world settings. Twigs loved the idea that this could almost be like a box of archive films that we'd found of her. That's what kind of gave us the license for us to make really anything - it was almost like we just collected all this footage of this, like, sort of weird pop star from the past.

Even the way we shot it was so different from anything I've done. What we were trying to do is just engineer us getting in trouble, which was terrifying for me! Normally I stay quite calm on sets. But I was so stressed on that one, because I'm just terrified to get in trouble.

We really had to try to look like we weren't a production. And of course, the girls had rehearsed the dance, but they didn't get to rehearse it in that setting, on the actual steps of Hackney Town Hall. So they really just have to go up, walk up and do it.

And actually what happened at first is they couldn't get the speaker to work. And then that woman, that you see at the start, she opens the door and she asks them what they're doing. And I was like - right, we're done. We didn't even get to start. Twigs said 'we're making a TikTok', and the woman just goes, 'okay', and closes the door to the Town Hall again. Then they started right at that moment, straight into the dance. I think we got a couple of run-throughs before getting booted off.

Then twigs and the girls just walked into this cornershop and started filming themselves dancing in there again until they got told to leave. I wasn't even with them at that point. Then we went back to Hackney Town Hall, and did it again. So what happened is pretty much in the exact order in the film." 

META ANGEL

This was the first one where it felt like the kind of like the Eureka, a-ha moment...

"That was, I think one of the first ideas that we had. It was kind in of some way related to the Zodiac quality of all, and that she was kind of hunting herself.

But the mythology, and the storyline actually came after that initial idea, which was about the arrow - the actual arrow firing was one of the things that just felt really right for it. There's a moment in that chorus when it's just twigs's vocal, and it feels like it's failing. So that image is actually something that we got first, and then we started to see how it fits into telling a bit of a story.

With this one, it was really important that I kind of understood what the feeling of the edit was. I've always been very post production-focussed - when I started with photography, I could retouch before I could ever take a photo; and similarly I felt I was a stronger editor than I was the director when I started. We shot this on the same day as Ride The Dragon, in December. Then I spent Christmas in Canada, which actually gave me the time to understand what the visual language of everything was.

Meta Angel is the first one where it felt like the kind of like the Eureka, a-ha moment. When it was like - yeah, this is how it all is going to feel.

Above: FKA twigs on the Meta Angel shoot (photo: Orograph)

I guess it's very emotionally-led. Sometimes I'd be listening to the track and I would be stuck on a single frame, by accident or something like that. I'd zoom into a certain part of it or I'd crop into something. That's something I do in my photography a lot, crop into really small little moments within things. So I started to do that – zeroing in and punching in, seeing the grain of the film allowing that to be part of it.

I started to feel it was like making a sequence of paintings. Like twigs was making Renaissance paintings in the past, and now we were trying to be a bit more Impressionist. That had been the direction for Molly and Jeremy who were the DoPs across it – make it look messy. Wobble around as much as you can.

But I was very nervous to show anything to twigs to start with. I sent her quite a rough cut of Meta Angel and was convinced she hated it. But then she said ‘this is so fresh. It's exactly what I wanted.’ And that kind of stayed throughout the entire project. It just felt like we had got this kind of language together. I really lean on her on so many things - I know very little about dance, and she has this real understanding of movement. She's also has her way of storytelling, mythologizing her life, in a way. She also really leaned on me and trusted me when I was editing things."

JEALOUSY ft. Rema

Of all of the days we shot, that was like the most fun and relaxed.

I think this is by far our most nostalgic video of the project. I saw a couple of comments on YouTube, people being like - is this the Macarena?

Actually, the really big reference is Soul 2 Soul. Twigs is friends with Jazzy B and his wife Eufa – and we borrowed one of the original Soul 2 Soul’s leather jackets for the video. And all of the hats!

The Jealousy idea was actually one of the last ones to come together. At one point it was going to be like a kind of big club party thing, but she did something similar with Tears In The Club. And we really wanted to have Rema feature, and he was in Nigeria, so we also wanted to find something that felt like we could set them together in a way that felt natural.

I think out of all of the days, that was like the most fun, relaxed day, because we have one thing to do, and have twigs and all the dancers have fun in front of camera. They develop this kind of their own version of the Cha Cha Slide, which is called the Jealousy Slide - and it is like the Macarena! That was a really fun one.

And Jeremy Valendar, our DOP on that one, got it so down in terms of the lighting. Something he was really specific about were these really tight little spotlights on certain things, having a lot of silhouetting and stuff like that. We had a little turntable to dance on and this vast studio space. That meant we could have people walk all the way back into the cove of the syc, and become these tiny little figures.

DARJEELING ft. Jorja Smith, Unknown T

We were looking back on where she's come from, made it real for her, but also elevated it.

Darjeeling is very much a fat-free vid - it's only a minute long. It was one of the first ideas – to do a kind of Vogue routine in a pub. I remember that twig's stylist Matthew Joseph was really keen on that one being in a pub.

I think we were talking about shooting at The Dolphin in Mare Street, but that closed down. So we shot at the Palm Tree and that was better – a little bit more British, more Coronation Street. We got it a couple of days before when Alex Chamberlain, our producer, popped in for a pint and asked if we could film something there.

When we were filming it, Twigs was like, ‘yeah, it's weird. I feel like I'm on a TV show when I was growing up or something’. She grew up in the countryside, near Gloucester, and was, like the only mixed-race girl in her town. So I think in that way it felt like that.

Above: twigs with Maji Claire on Darjeeling shoot (photo: Orograph)

We worked with Maji Claire, this really fabulous Vogue dancer, and they workshopped this very specific routine. We were shooting all these other videos but she still had the time to nail this choreography, amongst all of it.

I think it was a very special track for twigs. Partly due to the features she has on the track – Unknown T and Jorja Smith are on it. There were a few things throughout the whole mixtape which felt like a reflection on twigs, whether it’s about her drive to kind of make things, or her fighting inner demons, or reflecting on where she's come from.

These were things we discussed, often through imagery - she would play me something or show me something. She's always made this mythology from her own life. But here I think we were looking back on where she's come from and what she's done and trying to create a visual that made sense for something that felt real to her and also elevated it or made it surreal in some way.

We realised when we were filming it that we were like, we could have got Georgia and an Unknown T to just come to the pub that day, and done the whole video. But within the schedule we were doing, it just wouldn't have been possible.

PAPI BONES ft. Shy Girl

We wanted to have a killer performance video for Twigs and Shy, and they really delivered on it.

The track featuring Shy Girl might be the fan favourite track, judging from fans' reactions on Instagram and Twitter. Anytime we posted a video, it was a constant flood of When's Papi Bones coming?

This was one thing we actually had quite a lot of ideas for, and we had to rein it in. With the kind of resources we were working with, we had to sort of figure out what the way it was to kind of tell the story. So we landed on the motorbike.

Shy and Twigs have a relationship with Burberry, so that was kind of another element of British culture that we could kind of bring into this. And of course, it's a really great Dancehall track. Twigs wanted to make it feel like Caribbean-British, West African-British. She really wanted it to be authentic. Shy's family is from Grenada and then Twig’s family is Jamaican.

She's been speaking a lot to a person who basically collects a lot of dancehall footage from the '90s, people really grinding and winding. It's gnarly. She really wanted to have an essence of that.

The goats referenced the Capricorn feeling, and there was this kind of also the sense of family - and also there was a kind of motherhood element to all of it, when they're wheeling the goats in the prams. Again, a lot of those kind of spaces we were going in, we were trying to place her back to where she might have grown up or where she might have been as a child.

But another thing is we also just really wanted to have a killer performance video for Twigs and Shy, and they really delivered on it. I think it was definitely the sexiest video of the entire project. But this one maybe took the longest to figure out the edit. I didn't let anyone see it for a while because I was really trying to find that magic. I’d been struggling a bit, and then shown it to Twigs and she was like – I know what you mean.

Above: Just kidding around - twigs and Shy Girl on the Papi Bones shoot (photo: Orograph) 

I love editing, but I also don't like to rely too much on too much on VFX. I like things to feel like they're done in-camera or they're done in a way that's a bit naive. Then I watched a couple of things and ended up watching Rubber Johnny again. There was something really unhinged about it, kind of like jump-cutting, breaking a little bit. That was the inspiration – we had this sexiness going on, but we wanted to make it less obviously sexy and more unhinged-sexy. I was like, yeah, let's remove these frames, slow things down… and make them jitter a bit.

It really started to make sense once we got that quite-staccato, jump-cut thing going. Almost felt like it was like buffering - on the beat.

ALL MY LOVE

It was always supposed to be about girls supporting each other, and making those safe spaces for each other.

The mixtape is so tied up to various locations. For me now that it feels like a mind map or like a memory map of London. Whenever I walk around, I can hear that particular song. (Morgan: I was going to say it's triggering.) All My Love is the nail bar one – shot in the nail salon in Mare Street that I walk past so often.

Thematically, it was always supposed to be about girls supporting each other, and making those safe spaces for each other. Twigs really wanted the salon setting, which made a lot of sense. It was like it felt like this space where women can talk to each other, like, take care of themselves, showing love to each other and also showing self-love.

The girls that talk on the track, in the intro, and later on, are two of twigs’ best friends: Suz P, who’s talking on the phone in the beginning; and then Abby who is the nail artist – she’s lipsyncing from a voice note that she sent twigs a while ago. She did it and she nailed it… I was really impressed.

We love how it felt within the nail bar, but we just kind of wanted to add this element, which gave us a little bit more performance from Twigs. We filmed that a bit later on, managed to sandwich it in. When we put the cut together I took it away once night, turned up the saturation, made everything truly gaudy and gruesome. Then adding the hideous typefaces you’ve ever seen.

Morgan: I think it's worth mentioning as well that one bit of creative reference that twigs sent over was this shitty nail salon flyer. If you put that next to the video, that's the reference.

HONDA ft. Pa Salieu

We decided to create this thing that she's riding that we'd never see.

I think Honda is one of my favourite tracks in the entire mixtape. Listening to it really gives you heart palpitations - so rhythmic and fast - and we wanted to get that feeling across. We knew that with the song like Honda, we had to be on a road somehow. We got this thing where we wanted to have Twigs zooming down the road, but we didn't obviously want the kind of the conventionality of having her on a car or motorbike. We decided to kind of create this thing that she's riding that we'd never see. Just see her face, or bum, or her legs flying in the air. Like Papi Bones, but it was sort of both absurd, and also sexy.

We used two different low-loaders. One is a kind of miniature one, which is almost a bit like a golf car. Twigs is basically lying on something like a wooden plank in front of it. (Morgan: She was like a figurehead on a ship, basically terrifying for the producers in the room.) Literally strapped to this plank of wood zooming down like a road on a road that we didn't close off either because we wanted to see other cars in it.

So there's cars passing and worse than that, there's cars overtaking. Twigs is performing. She's grinding and winding on the mast. And cars are kind of pulling out in front of her, pulling away. she did maybe like two runs of that, which was more than enough. And then we put on the other low loader, which is a little bit less scary. When Jeremy was filming, I was like, just make it as really chaotic as possible. He was kind of like twirling around her and zooming around her and zooming in and out.

She kind of had to push herself up into a kind of yoga pose. And so she was like, all back bending and performing while zooming down the road and getting honked at for the entire duration of this track. And she did it like four or five times. And I'm there on the low loader screaming out like - go bigger! And she's like – ‘Are you serious?’ So I did give her a kind of good shoulder rub at the end…

WHICH WAY ft. Dystopia (01:19)

That felt like this was an amalgam of everything I've learned in my graphic design degree.

We did that one back in December, and that one was a really fun one to do. We kind of mapped out where we were going to go because we know we basically wanted a lot of variation throughout that video. We wanted to feel that we are chasing twigs and the three girls from the band Dystopia - the girls that are featured on track - through London. We mapped out a general route, in the Waterloo and London Bridge area, but a lot of it was really impromptu.

Twigs had been running for hours, so she was exhausted. There was three rickshaw riders, and Alex, our producer, just went up and asked - how much can we all just hop on for a minute. So we all jumped in. Every time we stopped at red light, Twigs and Molly [Manning Walker, the DoP] would hop out and run around and then hop back in. The rickshaw driver kept on being like - is she going to get back in or is she trying to bolt?

Above: twigs and Dystopia on Which Way shoot (photo: Suzannah Pettigrew)

That one was one of the most simple in terms of the idea. Then in terms of execution, it was a lot of running. That was another one which the edit took quite a while to get it right because we had so much footage – all shot on DV cams. We've seen a lot of DVHS videos, so again I just kind of took it away and experimented on it for ages and tried out these different things, like layering things up and changing speeds of things. eventually I arrived at a kind of Eureka moment. I was layering up the shots and my girlfriend said, ‘oh, it looks a bit like a Memorial plate’.

It was all these things that made me feel a bit nostalgic. I also kind of did a few things that made it feel a bit like an old PlayStation advert, I think - with that kind of type, with the way that I made the lyrics appear on screen. That one, I sat a very dark room and typed out all the lyrics and just recorded it on my phone and layered on top. Felt like this was an amalgam of everything I've learned in my graphic design degree.

THANK YOU SONG

I think that's one of the most magical performances I've ever seen her do.

This one was really, I think, very emotional and very special from the get-go. I think we knew that Twigs wanted to have a kind of character, which sort of represented something that brought her out, of sadness and heartbreak. She was looking at some kind of mythological creature, and again it was that thing of marrying that with something that felt really mundane – in this case a journey on a bus…

That was the day where we did Darjeeling and Papi Bones and so it worked out perfectly. Twigs was truly exhausted. She just finished dancing on that motorbike and then wheeling the goat through the streets. And we finally she's waiting for this bus.

And there's something I always find really quite magical about buses - the way the kind of artificial light looks so different from the kind of darker world around them. That song for me is so emotive and so special and so we needed something that just really relied on something that was contained, special and quiet and allowed to do a performance. I think that's one of the most magical performances I've ever seen her do.

It ties up a lot of these feelings - the surrealism in the everyday and the journey thing. Her getting a bus that says 'Not in Service'. It does feel like there's always the mythology and metaphor inside of it. But more than anything, this finished off the story.

• Aidan Zamiri is represented by Object & Animal. See more of his work here.

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