The Long and Winding Road That Leads to Fiona Apple
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So goes the oft-quoted line from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. Time is circular, and our relationship with our own personal histories is ever changing. This is a concept with which the enigmatic Fiona Apple is deeply familiar. The 34-year-old singer-songwriter is about to release her fourth album—the first in seven years—aptly titled The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. The spinning wheel of time cranks back and forth for Apple, who continues to re-examine her past while trying to keep up with the present. Like most artists, however, Apple finds that her fans cherish the past more than she does.
In 2000, a 16-year-old fan named Bill Magee approached Apple after a show in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania with a request: he told her he was a member of his high school’s gay-straight alliance and hoped that Apple could write a few words of support. “[I] was much more interested in interacting with a celebrity than building an alliance between gays and straights,” he admitted on his blog 12 years later where he posted a scanned image of the letter he received less than a week after requesting her response. Apple wrote: “All I know is I want my friends to be good people, and when my friends fall in love, I want them to fall in love with other good people. How can you go wrong with two people in love? If a good boy loves a good girl, good. If a good boy loves another good boy, good. And if a good girl loves the goodness in good boys and good girls, then all you have is more goodness, and goodness has nothing to do with sexual orientation.”
“My brother was the one who told me about it,” Apple tells me just weeks after Magee posted the letter on his Tumblr, which was then picked up by various sites like Jezebel and Pitchfork. “I was like, ‘A letter I wrote to someone when I was 22 has made its way online?’ That’s the scariest thing I could possibly hear in my life. And the subject matter was so important—I know how I’ve always felt so I knew it wasn’t going to be a bad letter, but I was like, ‘What did I say?!’”
The letter’s sudden popularity online is indicative of how much has changed since Apple released her debut album, Tidal, in 1996. For starters, she was then a 19-year-old singer-songwriter signed to a major record label and churning out emotional and dark odes at a time when her contemporaries were singing bubblegum-pop love songs. She made headlines after appearing in the video for “Criminal.” Shot in a seedy apartment, the video featured a scantily clad and emaciated Apple, sparking criticisms of the exploitive quality of the images (and suggesting that she had an eating disorder). In 1997, when accepting her award for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards, Apple infamously shouted into the microphone, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying.” While the speech was replayed and parodied on TV for years following, Apple was lucky enough to have said those words before the days of blogging and YouTube; had she given the speech 15 years later, it may have turned into a career-damaging viral video and sparked a few thousand snarky tweets.
She also has the luxury of being a successful artist who doesn’t need to promote herself online. “They want me to tweet now, but I don’t,” Apple tells me ofher label reps. “It doesn’t feel natural to me. But I do find it actually more interesting to see people posting ridiculously mundane shit. I like to hear about what people had for breakfast or what they did all day. It’s interesting because I don’t know how other people live.”
While Apple is hardly a recluse, she’s made few public appearances in the seven years since the release of her third album, Extraordinary Machine. The excitement following the announcement by Epic Records of the late-June release of The Idler Wheel speaks to the loyalty of her fan base. (And as for that long-winded title, it’s a callback to the much-maligned 90-word title of her acclaimed sophomore effort, universally shortened to When the Pawn…) The Idler Wheel does not deviate from the familiar sounds of Apple’s earlier records; the songs are still layered with complex instrumentation, and her reverberant voice still takes center stage in each tune. The album was produced nearly in secret over the last few years—a surprising move from an established artist with the resources of a major label at her disposal. But Apple explains that her experience with the label system is what allowed her to feel free to work on her own. “It was very casual, and I wasn’t fully admitting that I was making an album,” she says. “I got to use the time in the studio to inspire me to finish other things rather than feel like I was finishing homework to hand in. It wasn’t a lot of pressure. And the record company didn’t know I was doing it, so nobody was looking over my shoulder.”
Most might take that mentality as a reaction to the restrictions of her record label, especially after the drama surrounding the release of Extraordinary Machine. After collaborating with Jon Brion (who produced When the Pawn) to create an early version of the third album in 2002, Apple then decided to rework all but two of the songs with producer Mike Elizondo. The original version of the album leaked online, and Brion suggested in interviews that Apple’s label had rejected the demo and forced her to rerecord the songs (a claim that Apple later denied). Still, it incited an uproar among her fans. An online-based movement called Free Fiona organized demonstrations outside of the Sony headquarters in New York, and protestors sent apples to the label’s executives. The final version of the album was released in 2005 and received positive reviews and earned Apple a Grammy nomination. “I ran into the guy who started Free Fiona after a show in Chicago,” she tells me. “He apologized to me! They didn’t get the story quite right, but they did help me get my album out. I felt so bad that he had spent all this time thinking I was pissed at him—I had a physical urge to get down on the floor and kiss his shoes!”
It’s an intense reaction (she admits she didn’t bow to her fan because “it would be weird if I did that”), but Apple is still a very intense person. Dressed in a flowing skirt paired with several layers of spaghetti-strapped tank tops that reveal her slender frame (which seems healthier than in her early days, giving the impression that she must spend most of her downtime on a yoga mat), Apple fidgets in her seat during our conversation, often giving off an infectious giggle. But she is surprisingly comfortable to talk to, not much like the somber young woman who sang of heartbreak and disappointment. “I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” she replies when I ask if she ever worries that her lyrics, which are sometimes in stark contrast to the up-tempo, progressive sounds of her songs’ instrumentations, give off the wrong impression of her personality. “It’s all your own perception. I could easily be concerned with how I’m taken and then have all the good stuff filtered through to me and choose to believe that. For the rest of my life it’d be the truth for me, but not the whole truth.”
Born Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart in New York City to Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee, Apple’s musical destiny was settled at birth. The McAfee-Maggarts are, while not reaching Barrymore-level name recognition, an entertainment family; Apple’s father was nominated for a Tony for his performance in the Broadway musical Applause, both her mother and sister are singers, and her half-brothers work in the film industry—one an actor and the other a director. She’s a third-generation performer, as her grandmother was a dancer in musical revues and her grandfather a Big Band-era musician. While Apple’s auspicious introduction to the pop world had critics calling her a prodigy, she crafted her early songs as a cathartic necessity. (“Sullen Girl” from Tidal, in particular, is about her rape at the age of 12.) “Over the years it’s transferred more into a craft,” she says. “I use myself as material because that’s what I’ve got. But these days I write less than half of my songs to get myself through things. I have to find other things to be meaningful— otherwise I’d just be miserable all the time.”
Her songs are still extremely autobiographical, which is perhaps their charm. Following in the footsteps of other singer-songwriters, especially women who emerged in the early ’90s and expressed their emotions in particularly vulnerable ways, Apple’s openness has always had an empowering appeal. Her songs seem to suggest that feeling a variety of emotions—sadness, glee, despair, insanity—is not only normal, but, like those self-reflective musicians before her, she also gives permission to her listeners to feel the same way.
Even for Apple, her older songs are relics of another time, and she now makes them applicable to her life in the present. “They all kind of become poems after a while,” she says. “You can take your own meaning out of them. It’s been a very long time [since my first albums], and I can apply those songs to other situations that are more current in my life.” She admits she has changed greatly since she started writing songs in her late teenage years, especially when it comes to how she portrays herself. “I don’t feel comfortable singing the songs that I wrote. I used to blame other people and not take responsibility. I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong.”
And she is much harder on herself in the songs on The Idler Wheel than she ever was before. Sure, she admitted to being “careless with a delicate man” in “Criminal,” arguably her most famous song, and in When the Pawn’s “Mistake” she sang, “Do I wanna do right, of course but / Do I really wanna feel I’m forced to / Answer you, hell no.” On The Idler Wheel, Apple examines her own solitude and neuroses as well as their effect on her relationships with others. “I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city,” she sings on “Left Alone,” “But not in the same room, it’s a pity.” On “Jonathan,” a somber love song layered with robotic, mechanical sounds that’s presumably about her ex-boyfriend, author and Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, she urges, “Don’t make me explain / Just tolerate my little fist / Tugging at your forest-chest / I don’t want to talk about anything.”
But performing, as a central requirement of her career, still takes precedence. “Some nights I’m very, very nervous, and some nights I’m not at all,” she tells me. “I think, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not a person who does a show, I’m a person who should be on a couch watching TV.’ But then it’s like I get knocked into another state of consciousness, and then I’m left behind, and the person that’s doing the show is there and there’s nothing else in the world existing other than the note she’s singing. It’s such a joy to do, but I forget about it until I’m on the stage.”
Apple has lived in los Angeles since Tidal’s release in 1996, although she admits that she’s “not an L.A. girl.” “I was supposed to stay in New York,” she tells me. “I remember being 17 and asking if I could record in New York. How did I end up here? It’s 15 years later… How did that happen?” Apple doesn’t seem to process time like other people. When I ask when she began recording The Idler Wheel and when she knew it was ready, she has a complicated answer. “It must have started in 2008. Or 2009. I don’t know! I have no idea. It’s weird to think that there was 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.” Her big blue eyes suddenly look to her right as she furrows her brow. “Where’ve I been? What was I doing? What was that year about?”
Maybe the solitary nature of living in L.A. contributes to her aloof tendencies. “I’m not a social creature,” she says, “I don’t go to parties all the time because I’d probably just wonder why I’m there in the first place.” Her preference for being alone may also stem from the kind of personal criticisms that people tend to throw at female musicians. “I’ve gotten so used to being misunderstood. Nobody’s ever really said anything bad about my music, but when I’ve had albums come out there are always people making fun of me. ‘Oh, she’s back?’” She didn’t even expect the comments (mostly online) when the full title of The Idler Wheel was announced. “I didn’t stop to think that anyone would call it ridiculous, but people did. I thought, ‘Ahhh. My old friends.’ I’m not sure what’s ridiculous about it, but that’s what they’ve got to say.”
I cautiously mention the infamous acceptance speech from the VMAs, a moment early in her career that defined the public persona of Fiona Apple as an angry, ungracious woman. “I’ve never been ashamed of that,” she replies immediately. It was the first moment, she says, in which she felt like she could speak up—to break free from the shyness that defined her childhood and early teenage years. “I genuinely, naïvely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends. I expected to give it to people and they would understand me; no one would say to me, ‘We don’t want to be your friend because you’re too intense or too sad all the time.’” It wasn’t necessarily the case.
“Do you still think the world is bullshit?” I ask when we talk about the VMAs. She laughs. “It’s not the world!” she exclaims. “Of course people think that ‘the world’ is the whole world. I felt that I had finally gotten into the popular crowd, and I thought, ‘Is this what I’ve been doing this for?’ I felt like I was back in the cafeteria in high school and still couldn’t speak up for myself.”
These days, Apple spends more time focusing on her own art rather than the reactions to it. With age has come calm and decreasing desire to pay attention to her detractors. “I’ve decided it takes too much energy to try to avoid it,” she tells me, brushing aside her freshly dyed crimson hair. “I’m not going to hide from the world.”
Photography by Dan Monick
Styling by Djuna Bel