The Caged Bird Sings

Enigmatic singer-songwriter finds her voice

CHRIS HEATHPosted Jan 22, 1998 12:00 AM

There is a closet in Fiona's bedroom at her mother's apartment. If you look closely you will see the splits where Fiona has stabbed it repeatedly with her stepfather's Boy Scout knife. That is what she used to do when she got mad. "It's better," she points out, "than stabbing someone." At the bottom is a single word that she carved one time, kneeling down there, crying. The word is strong.

Andy Slater plays me three versions of "Sleep to Dream" to help me understand how Apple's music ended up as it is on Tidal. On the first, mostly piano and voice, she holds the song together with a manic, percussive, awkward left-hand piano rumble: clever, but unlovely. In its second version, the studio musicians turn the song into a silly, New Wave eccentricity, with lots of asymmetrical guitar in the verses and a horrible, choppy rock chorus. Fiona Apple sings over the top like a fake punk rocker trying to catch up with something. The third is the stark, sinuous, final version. That was Slater's job: to try to work out how she needed this music to sound. One day he took her to a record shop to see where she was coming from. She bought the Roots, the Pharcyde, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, which helped him a little.

That is one story of how Fiona Apple's album was made. It is not the only story. Those months in Los Angeles were not good ones for her. She was in a rough way. For one thing, she was anxious around the musicians. "I just assumed that he had paid everyone off to be there and that they were all really pissed off to have to be there with me," she says, "because I was a stupid little kid and they were real musicians." Also, things weren't great with her parents. And there were deeper problems. She was getting thinner.

She had strange eating habits. "It was colors," she explains. "I couldn't eat things that looked a certain way, that were a certain color. I mean, there was a time when I couldn't eat things that I felt clashed with what I was wearing. I don't mean clash like 'fashionably clash' -- there was just something in my head that if it didn't balance, I couldn't eat it, and I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing. If I ate something, I felt like I was doing it because 'I don't want to be crazy.' 'I'm going to eat that fucking apple right now, even though I'm wearing a yellow dress.' This would go on in my head all the time. And it's exhausting. I would tell my sister, 'I'm just so tired I can't manage anymore.' I felt like I was the mother of some retarded child that was throwing fits all the time, and I couldn't help it. It would take me half an hour to pick an apple out of the drawer. I couldn't pick the right one."

So why were you like that?

Because I felt like I had no control over my life, and that was the only way for me to take control over my life.

She had a problem, but she didn't like it being misunderstood. "I definitely did have an eating disorder. What was really frustrating for me was that everyone thought I was anorexic, and I wasn't. I was just really depressed and self-loathing." The distinction was important to her.

"For me, it wasn't about getting thin, it was about getting rid of the bait that was attached to my body. A lot of it came from the self-loathing that came from being raped at the point of developing my voluptuousness," she explains. "I just thought that if you had a body and if you had anything on you that could be grabbed, it would be grabbed. So I did purposely get rid of it."

Slater was worried, and unsure what to do. He felt that, whatever these problems, if she didn't complete the record it would be worse for her in the long run. But, eventually, he pulled the recording to a temporary halt. Steps were taken. She got back into therapy, and some improvement was noted.

As she talks about this, Fiona pauses. She starts a sentence, then stops it. There's something she's not sure about telling me. But Fiona Apple can never withstand the temptation of the truth, so she explains. As much as any professional help, it was a new friend who pulled her out of the darkness. That friend was Lenny Kravitz. "I wasn't his girlfriend or anything like that," she says. But Kravitz and a friend came to the studio one night and told her how good it sounded, and they were the first people she believed. "And," she says, "I ended up talking to Lenny a lot. He was the first person I could sit next to. Literally . . . he'll never understand how much he helped me." When he went off on tour, they would speak all the time. If you look at the video for Lenny Kravitz's "Can't Get You Off My Mind," where he is filmed talking on the phone, it is Fiona Apple on the other end of the line.

Soon she had an album, but not a name. Or, rather, she had too many names. When I sit with Andy Slater, I see one old demo tape marked with the name Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart. Apple, her middle name, was from her father's grandmother. When she met the people from the record company, she had only one stipulation: "I said, 'Not Apple.'" She thought of finding another name altogether; after all, that's what Maya Angelou (real name: Marguerite Johnson) did. Fiona's mother chipped in with a suggestion: "She phoned up and said, 'I've got a great name! You know how you're always alone? You could call yourself Fiona Lone.'" The one idea Fiona considered seriously was Fiona Maria. "Then six months later," she says, "the contract comes -- 'Your stage name is Fiona Apple' -- and I started laughing." The biblical resonances didn't strike her until much later on. The apple: the thing that starts all the knowledge, but that also starts all the trouble.

We fly to Las Vegas. She is bleary and wearing her tour manager's sunglasses. Perhaps this is because she was up most of the night drinking Surfers on Acid (some malignant combination of Malibu, Jaegermeister and pineapple juice) with Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. We talk a little. She tells me about teenage high jinks. Shoplifting underwear by walking out of the stores wearing seven bras. Cutting 253 classes in a year. The time when she nearly got the lead in the fourth Karate Kid movie. "It would have been a disaster," she says.

A few times, she protests that she feels fine. She sinks back into her seat. "You know what?" she says slowly. "I really feel like shit." And we laugh. Though it's hard to guess from many of the words that get quoted, most hours with Fiona Apple are both funny and fun -- time spent in the slipstream of a smart, wry twenty-year-old who finds her own life, and those that surround her, a source of constant amusement.

When Fiona Apple read her first bad review, she began to scratch her left wrist with her fingernails on her right hand. It was some guy in Boston, saying that she was Sony's answer to Alanis Morissette, that she had a lot to learn and that she was saved by the instrumentation. (He also said she was "precocious." She somehow misunderstood and thought he said "pretentious," which made it worse.)

She scratched and she scratched, all the way up her arm. There are still some dark patches on her wrist, where she dug in the deepest. "I have a little bit of a problem with that," she says, frankly. "It's a common thing."

Yes, but it's not a great idea.

I know. I have bad, violent dreams and it has a bad effect on my mind. I know, it's bad. But it's not like a hobby of mine.

Did it make you feel better when you did it?

It just makes you feel.

Sometimes, she bites her lip as hard as she possibly can. "And it'll be bleeding, and I can't stop, because it almost feels so good when I bite my lip." Pause. "It was never, like, 'I am going to hurt myself and put myself in the hospital.' . . . It is that I am going to give myself the pain that I need to feel to put the punctuation on this shit that's going on inside."

How do you react when you realize people think you're crazy?

The first thing that happens is just the frustration and sadness. And urgency, the "No, no, you didn't get it."

Would you like them to know that you're not crazy?

Sure, but I'd better sane them up first, because there's a lot of them that are crazy and that's why they think that I am . . . The most annoying thing for me to hear about myself is that I'm trying to make people have a pity party for me. Everything that I've gone through has been dramatized by the people who've written about it, not by me. I'm just saying, "This happened to a lot of people." Why should I hide shit? Why does that give people a bad opinion of me? It's a reality. A lot of people do it. Courtney Love pulled me aside at a party and showed me her marks.

Does it ever worry you that you're too young for all of this?

Well, if I am, it's a good thing that I've got all of this to help me grow up.

I think it worries other people.

But what's going to happen that they're worried about? They're worried about just the possibility of my ongoing pain, or are they worried about the possibility of a horrible crash ending? That guy, Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, said something that just sounded cheesy . . . He said, "Hey, you know how risky life is? You don't get out alive." But in a sense, basically, what he's saying is: "What the fuck else are you going to do?"

From a quote by Martha Graham, about artistic expression, that Fiona Apple carries around with her: No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.


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