The Caged Bird Sings

Enigmatic singer-songwriter finds her voice

CHRIS HEATHPosted Jan 22, 1998 12:00 AM

When Fiona Apple was young, and she felt like wallowing, the song she put on was Madonna's "Live to Tell." As it played, she would do what she calls floor-dancing: dancing while lying on the floor. She never really felt that she could dance standing up. When she felt happier, she would play Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." She would put on her roller skates. She had this ritual that she was convinced would make her safe. She would roller-skate around the dining-room table 88 times, 88 being the number of keys on the piano. After she'd done that, she knew she'd be safe until everyone got home.

Fiona Apple is on the 34th floor of MTV's New York offices, talking to a camera about her year. "You feel like it's been a second," she says, sitting down, "and you feel like it's been twelve years."

She's frank to a fault. "Alanis broke the ceiling, and then I walked into an office and they said, 'Girl . . . young . . . songwriter . . . sign here.'" And she's nicely sarcastic. After talking about her acquaintance with Marilyn Manson, she says, "Oh, it's just an act, I like to act angry . . . Me and Manson got together, he said, 'I'm going to act like a Satanist and you act like a brat, and everyone will pay attention to us and then we'll both say we're misunderstood and then we'll run off the edge of the earth.'"

After about an hour, she is done. "One thing," the MTV interviewer asks, "before you go. Do you have any favorite or worst Thanksgiving experiences?"

Fiona's brow furrows, and then she looks up at her sister, Amber, who is sitting just off-camera, and the two of them start laughing.

"You can't answer that," says Amber. "That's not a good question."

"We don't want to . . ." says Fiona, and the two of them laugh some more, the almost hysterical merriment of a sisterly secret.

"When they find out," Fiona says to Amber, "it's going to be really bad that we're sitting here giggling . . ."

When she was 12, on the day before Thanksgiving, Fiona Apple was raped outside her mother's apartment. She had walked home from school, and she figures the man must have followed her. At her building she was looking for her keys and she saw this man buzzing the buzzer, then walking outside. It seemed suspicious, so she waited until he was outside again, then ran in. He caught the door behind her. But he didn't do anything. Not yet. When she caught the elevator, she could hear him going up the stairs, stopping at each floor. That worried her.

There were three locks to open to get into the apartment. She was on the third lock when he started down the hallway toward her. Later she would remember, somewhere in her head, a weird, off-kilter thought: It's Jimi Hendrix. Maybe she was trying to imagine she was off in some strange fantasyland. The man who was not Jimi Hendrix came closer. She said she didn't have any money. He said he didn't want money. He had some kind of screwdriver or tool knife, and he told her that if she screamed, he'd kill her. She remembers letting out a sigh, and her muscles falling.

On the other side of the door, Fiona's dog was barking and growling. Maybe the dog saved her life. Otherwise, the two of them would have gone into her apartment, and . . . who knows?

When he had finished -- maybe ten minutes -- he said something to her: "Happy Thanksgiving. Next time don't let strangers in." After he left, she opened the third lock and went into the apartment. Her sister and her mother were holiday-season shoe-shopping in midtown. She phoned for help, and waited. All this time she was paranoid that there was also someone in the house. She started checking all the closets. She would continue to check them for years.

When she gave her statement to the police -- she had to retell it in all its specific ghastliness, over and over again -- she was left in a room. On the table was a notebook detailing past cases. She says that her only true regret of this whole period was opening up that book and looking inside: the most horrible things, beyond imagination, all in a day's work. A baby being molested. Stuff like that.

She still has terrible, violent dreams. The same feelings, but with different people. Sometimes people she knows. For years, older men would make her nervous. Even when she made her album, she refused to sit next to any of the musicians or Andy Slater, her producer and manager. She's honest enough to make other connections: "I had really bad boyfriends for a lot of times that had slight physical resemblances to the man that raped me."

Fiona hadn't thought about whether she was going to talk about her rape in public until the day a journalist asked her about the song "Sullen Girl." He wanted to know if it was about a guy leaving her. And it is not. It's lyrics -- "They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea/ But he washed me shore and he took my pearl/ And left an empty shell of me" -- are in part about what happened to her. So she said so. "I thought that ultimately, no matter what happens, if I lie about this, I don't like what that says," she explains. From then on, interviewers would agonizingly, circuitously bring up the subject. "I'd be, 'You want to ask about when I was raped?'" she laughs. "I was, 'Please don't act like I have got food in my teeth. It's out in the open. It's not something that I'm embarrassed about, so don't act like it's something that I should be embarrassed about.' Which I think I was sensitive about, because I was embarrassed about it for a long time."

How different do you think what you do now might be if none of this had happened?

It's funny, because I don't think that maybe I would be here. But then again, I don't think I would need to be here.

Explain what you mean.

I want everyone to understand me. I want to be friends with everybody. I want everybody to know how I feel, and I want them all to respect it and to think that it's OK. And that's why I'm sitting here . . . I think it was my desperation that drove me to have the will to do it.


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