Picture yourself as singer-songwriter Fiona Apple. Now imagine that virtually every article written about you over the better part of a decade (even the complimentary ones) has portrayed you as something of an oddball -- a gifted but fragile artist who thoroughly dislikes the interview process. If that's the case, wouldn't you eventually stop subjecting yourself to this brand of torture?
Not Ms. Fiona. Upon re-entering the public consciousness with last year's Extraordinary Machine, an intriguingly quirky effort that's generated Apple's strongest notices since Tidal, her 1996 debut, she's made herself available to numerous scribes. Yet she remains a wary, often skittish subject who'd rather remain in the dark about the features she's facilitating.
"I don't read anything anymore," she notes. "There's really nothing I can do about what people are going to say. All I can do is to try to have an honest conversation with whoever I'm talking to, and then it's out of my hands. I see no reason why I should ever know about what's said or not said, and what's twisted around or not twisted around."
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Hence, Apple embraces blissful ignorance -- and she sticks with this philosophy no matter who the messenger is. When asked if her supporters ever complain about the way she's depicted, she seems befuddled at the mere thought that she has fans at all. "I guess I see them at the shows and after the shows," she belatedly acknowledges. "I don't know how else I would have contact with them." If she ever chatted with people in that category, she adds, she'd make damn sure such topics wouldn't arise. "The conversation about what the media is saying about me is just about as interesting to me as talking about how you hammer a nail into a piece of wood," she announces. "I have no reason to bring up that conversation with anyone, and just having this conversation now, you've made me think that everybody's saying bad stuff about me. I really don't like it -- so let's not talk about it anymore."
As the above exchange suggests, Apple makes it awfully difficult for reporters to argue with any degree of authority that she's risen above her flighty reputation -- not that this goal is on her agenda. Indeed, she's the first person to point out her foibles.
"I feel like, in every area of my life, I'm really high-maintenance, except for when it comes to music," she concedes. "I'm pretty simple and straightforward when it comes to music. I guess it's because I don't really feel that it's that important to me." After the briefest of pauses, she says, "I know it is -- or I kind of do. But I take it for granted. I don't dwell on my music, because I know the rules of it, and the rule of it is that I say what I mean. And I know what I mean, so it's easy, in that sense. But in general, if I have an argument with somebody in my life, or if I've been hurt by somebody, or if I think that I've said the wrong thing, I dwell on every teeny little thing. I cringe at pretty much everything I do in normal life."
Granted, Apple may have a different definition of normalcy than the average person, for very understandable reasons. She was raped at age twelve -- an incident that dominated many of her early profiles -- and suffered from a variety of behavioral ailments, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. But she was a precocious piano player, songwriter and vocalist, and thanks to a demo tape that reached the right exec, she was inked to a major-label deal in 1995. Tidal arrived the next year, when she was just eighteen, and so did the video for the memorable single "Criminal," in which Apple lolled around in a bra and panties amid a group of desultory youths too exquisitely bored to bother having sex with each other. These visuals stirred up so much buzz that even Courtney Love felt compelled to weigh in on the singer: "I want to take Fiona Apple and shake her and say, 'You have a beautiful voice. You don't have to do some of this stuff that's obviously making you miserable' .... She doesn't have to wear her damn underwear," she told Us magazine. As for Apple, she insisted that the video's representation of her as a wanton woman didn't offend her in the slightest. "I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself," she declared in a 1997 Spin cover opus.
Today, the Spin offering sticks in her mind as a journalistic low point. "I learned later on from the writer that there'd been a setup from the get-go to fit me into the role of this crazy, annoying brat," she says. "He told me that the editor at the time just kind of took it and put it together the way they wanted. It was a bad one." So bad, in fact, that it convinced her to quit perusing her clippings.
The timing of her boycott couldn't have been better. When accepting an MTV Video Award for "Criminal," Apple announced that the glittery world the honor represented was "bullshit" -- a true statement, but one so naively expressed that she soon became the most needled statuette recipient since Sally "You like me!" Field. By not laughing off the gaffe, Apple came across as self-serious and pretentious, and she certainly didn't undercut that impression when she named her 1999 followup CD When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. The disc garnered a few raves but sold weakly, due largely to the public's perception of Apple. Suddenly, a performer previously applauded for her incisiveness and insight was dismissed in many quarters as a tiresome windbag.
Why has Extraordinary Machine reversed the curse? For one thing, the disc comes complete with a dramatic backstory: Legend has it that big wheels at Epic, Apple's imprint, rejected versions of Extraordinary songs produced by longtime cohort Jon Brion, and only agreed to let her re-record the material with another overseer, Mike Elizondo, after an Internet leak and assorted protests by many of her loyal admirers. More important, however, are tunes such as the ebullient "Better Version of Me" and the lighthearted, cleverly arranged title cut, which plays lines like "I seem to you to seek a new disaster every day" for grins, not gloom. The result is a more buoyant listen than even Apple expected. "Only recently have I been hearing that it sounds more upbeat," she says. "And that makes sense. Inside, I think I feel more upbeat than I did a few years ago."
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Likewise, Apple agrees that "Please Please Please" and the rest of the tracks tend to be less loquacious and more emotionally precise than their predecessors. "I think when anybody's starting out writing in their younger days, they put a lot more effort into being poetic with their lines," she concedes. "I don't know if it's because I'm older and more direct, or if I'm just older and lazier, and I'm not willing to spend the time trying to form perfect little poems. But that's the way they turned out."
Had the ditties been unremittingly morose, Apple would have celebrated them as well. "I've always felt that my only job is just to be honest, and mean what I do and be genuine," she says. "If I'm happy with something, it doesn't matter to me what anybody might think about the writing or the music. As long as I know that I've told the truth, then I'm fine."
Well, maybe not in every case. "I'm a sensitive person," she allows, "and if somebody disagrees with me, I'll take it to heart. Deep down, though, I'll know that I did my job."
That's good news -- but it's just as well that she won't read this article.