Fiona Apple learns to find whimsy in her fears and humor in her heartbreaks
No matter what Fiona Apple is talking about, abject terror always lurks around the corner. It comes up when Apple talks about crying and throwing up after playing her first-ever show — a 1996 Sony Records bash in Paris to christen her debut album, Tidal — or panicking after agreeing to participate in a VH1 Classic Decades Rock Live tribute to Elvis Costello. It even intruded during Apple’s June 16 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, when she nervously looked away from guest Magic Johnson because she was too awestruck to face him.
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The triumph of Apple’s career isn’t that she’s freed herself from such overwhelming fears, but that she’s taken ownership of them. Early on, as a preternaturally husky-voiced teenager (frequently likened to a young Nina Simone), she often masked her nervousness with a clenched-fist ferocity onstage and a blank detachment off of it. These days, she accepts her insecurities and knows how to work around them. For instance, she purposely avoids knowing her tour schedule, because the less she knows, the less likely she is to be struck with performance anxiety. And rather than obsessing about her set lists, she lets her backing band decide what songs she’ll perform every night. In an interview with the Current, she says her recent spate of touring in support of her acclaimed 2005 album Extraordinary Machine has been surprisingly enjoyable.
“I’ve always enjoyed it to a certain extent, but I also used to have a lot of stress involved in it,” the 28-year-old singer-songwriter says. “And I hated, hated leaving home. I still do have a feeling of hating leaving home, but I think that there’s a big difference now because I feel finally like I’m kind of an adult now. I think when I used to go on the road, I always had this feeling like I was the kid in the room. And it’s hard to feel confident when you feel like you’re the kid in the room. I felt like I didn’t really belong there and kinda felt scared of everything.”
Apple attained stardom while still in her teens on the strength of a sexually provocative video for the song “Criminal,” and some casual listeners probably lost track of her after that. But artistry and commercial success have been inversely proportional in her career. Her 1999 sophomore release (saddled with a 90-word title, but generally known as When the Pawn) was a pop masterpiece, but was also regarded as a bust, because it barely shifted a third of the 2.7 million units moved by Tidal. Extraordinary Machine topped several 2005 critics’ lists (finishing fifth in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll), but its sales have stalled at about 500,000.
Extraordinary Machine lives up to its title because it retains what was always appealing about Apple — the vocal instincts of a natural jazz singer and the compositional complexity of a musical prodigy weaned on the great American songbook — and adds a latent playfulness and an endearing touch of self-deprecation. You can hear it in the rollicking, art-song boogie-woogie of “Get Him Back,” which starts as an archetypal Apple revenge song, but ultimately turns the title on its head with a final verse about about a lover she mistakenly dumped (“I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me”) and now hopes to win back.
EM’s apparent ease and assurance belie its tortured recording history. By now, the story has been well-documented, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: After taking a long creative break, Apple starts recording with When the Pawn producer Jon Brion; after the album’s release is delayed, rumors spread that Epic Records rejected the album; Apple, secretly dissatisfied with the Brion-produced tracks, begins working with former Dr. Dre engineer Mike Elizondo; Epic execs ask her to submit each track as it’s finished, which she refuses to do, prompting her to briefly consider retirement; meanwhile, the Brion tracks surface on the internet and a Free Fiona movement pressures Epic to release the record; finally Epic and Apple agree to complete the Elizondo-produced version of EM.
Even though the decision to rework the album came from Apple, she does acknowledge that one of its tracks, “Please Please Please,” was her response when the label heard the Brion tracks and told her she needed to write a single. In an inspired fit of pique, she wrote an anti-single that simultaneously served as self-defense (“my method is uncertain/it’s a mess, but it’s working”) and mass-market critique (“no more melodies/they lack impact, they’re petty”).
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“That is like my poor, abused child, that song,” Apple says. “I ignore it, I don’t like it. I mean, it came from the heart, but I don’t like having given over something because they asked for another song. It’s definitely a song about not wanting to write another song.”
Apple says she loves Brion’s work on EM, but felt that she was too distracted during the sessions to articulate what she wanted. She adds that she never worried about his reaction to her decision to remake the album.
“We never even had a discussion about it,” she says. “It never even occurred to me that it was going to be a problem. And I would bet my house that if you were to ask him how he felt about it, he would say, ‘I just want her to be happy with her music.’ Our relationship is such that nothing is going to make us not be friends or love each other.
“When we did When the Pawn together, he would go in and do a whole bunch of stuff, and I was able to say what sounds I liked and what I didn’t. And for some reason, during our recording of this album, I didn’t know anything that I wanted. It was really frustrating for me, and really frustrating for him. I think just knowing that I finally had a direction to go in and that the songs were going to actually get out there, I think that’s what made him happy.”
Apple’s affinity for the stylings of pre-rock show tunes (and the fact that both of her parents sang in Broadway musicals) has obscured how much her phrasing and lyrical flow owe to hip-hop. The influence is clearly reciprocal, with both Kanye West and Roots drummer ?uestlove gushing about her talents, and West even enlisting Brion for production help with his Late Registration album in an attempt to capture Apple’s sound.
“When I was like 15 or 16, that’s what everybody around me was listening to, and when rapping is really good I love the sound of words flowing, and the wordplay that happens a lot in rap,” Apple says. “I feel like some of my songs could also be rapped if I didn’t sing them, and I like that.”
Even though most of Extraordinary Machine reflects Elizondo’s lean, groove-oriented approach, the two defining tracks are the baroque Brion productions that bookend the album. The title song and “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” capture Apple in Zen mode, convinced that everything will work itself out and finding blessings in solitude: “If you don’t have a date/celebrate/go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing.”
For Apple, doing nothing is part of her creative process, what John Lennon called the breathing-in that must take place before you can breathe out. And while she continues to derive pleasure from making music, she refuses to let her life depend on it.
“I think that it’s possible that I could be doing this forever,” she says. “But what I want to do, when I have time, is take some classes and just try to learn if there’s anything else that I’m really interested in, and find out if there’s something else that I can be good at. Because I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life just because it’s the only thing I can do.”