Emotional Rescue
Alternative Press    Oct  '97

by Randee Dawn

"This is not even a career for me.  This is just really an exercise in trying to function and trying to stay alive," says Fiona Apple.  Randee Dawn joins Fiona on the Lilith Fair tour and discovers how the young chanteuse redeemed her dark experiences through the platinum-selling Tidal.

"I close my eyes and the world drops dead
I lift my lids and all is born again
(I think I made you up inside my head.)"
- Sylvia Plath, "A Mad Girl's Love Song"

"I got my feet on the ground and I don't go
to sleep to dream.  You got your head in the clouds.
You're not at all what you seem."
- Fiona Apple, "Sleep To Dream"

As the last chords of the melody she's playing fade across the heads of the festival audience and drift into the warm evening, the young woman moves from her piano.  All gangly arms and legs and bared, pale midriff, she approaches center stage for the first time.  In the space between the time her song vanishes and the crowd murmur rises, she snatches up the microphone and speaks.

“Listen to me!”

The rumbling continues.  Crowd members chat among themselves and await further entertainment.  The performer already has their eyes, now she wants their ears.

“Listen to me!”

This is the story of Fiona Apple, prodigy.  Of Fiona Apple Maggart, misunderstood teen.  Of Fiona Apple McAfee, who has been trying to make people hear her since she was 10.  To that end, she recorded an album called Tidal, of -- as she describes it -- compact and easy-to-understand emotions.  Still, she has to stand on stage in front of 18,000 people and scream for them to listen.  Her voice rises to an almost childish hysteria.

“Listen to me!”

And at last, they do.

“Okay,” she continues, lowering her voice. “I just wanted to say there was a very weird bug on my microphone just now, and I’m taking that as an omen that we’re going to have a good night.”

Fiona Apple’s career did not begin with a shout.  In fact, it was very businesslike and professional from the outset.  No toiling in grotty clubs in tiny towns across America for weeks, months, years.  Fiona, who would have been the piano-playing, sad-eyed attraction at such gigs, is still, at 20, underage in most states.   Instead, her story resembles the overnight-success apocrypha of 1940’s Hollywood, when young women congregated at the soda fountain at Schrafft’s hoping to be discovered by a movie director.  Fiona’s official success story goes something like this:  Shy, reclusive teenager writes songs about her difficult years growing up, about her being considered homely and about her overcoming the trauma of a rape when she was 12.  Said teenager barely leaves room during entire school career, expresses herself only in the notebooks in which she pours out her emotions.  Until one day…

“Basically I just stepped out of my bedroom in New York and all of a sudden all of this stuff started happening,” says Fiona.

…A tape of her songs finds its way through a baby-sitting friend to a well-known New York City publicist.  The publicist likes what she hears and plays the tape at her Christmas party.  Famous Los Angeles manager/producer hears this mystical tape and…

“I was shocked,” says Andrew Slater, the manager also responsible for the careers of the Wallflowers and Michael Penn, and the producer for Warren Zevon and Hindu Love Gods, among others.  “A 17-year-old.  I thought this was a joke.   And I said, ‘I want to meet her now.’”

Reclusive teen emerges from her room and meets with Slater.  They share souls.   They sign contracts.  They record the songs on Tidal, and the results are wonderful.  In a mature, alto voice resonant and rich with experience, Fiona sings delicate, deceptively simple tunes backed by a pounding piano, orchestration, a funky dance beat, a wounded, sometimes surly attitude and a lyric sheet dotted with complex verbiage.  The album certainly offers enough to delight and enthrall the masses.  And what creative mind out there doesn’t hope that if he or she just works diligently at an art that one day the world will come knocking without his or her ever lifting a finger to encourage the visit?  In the end, who could not fall in love with the story of this reserved, troubled, brilliant, ugly-duckling teenage girl who made good?

One million people thought it was a damn good story, indeed. Tidal went platinum.  That’s a lot of admiration.  And unexamined, the story holds -- it is, of course, the truth.  But up close, there’s more to it.

“I’ve got this idea to write a book,” says Fiona, “and it’s all going to be how it’s your perspective that decides what the reality is.”

Here’s perspective for you, how what is seen is not always what is real.  In person, Fiona does not look like the myriad of photo-portraits which have appeared in magazines and newspapers across the world.  The girl-woman in those images -- a painted urchin, head disproportionately large, huge sleepy-lidded eyes, both sexually suggestive and childishly vulnerable -- is related to Fiona.  But that person is not really her.  Greeting her you meet a lesser Fiona than her photos would lead you to believe exists.  She appears less glamorous, less Kate Moss-like than her photos and more petite, with a more proportionate head covered with a pony’s mane of brown hair, and eyes round and blue but not outsized.  This lesser Fiona is all the prettier for being more real.  When speaking, she perches on the edge of her chair as if suspended by an unseen hand, and hunches forward with a posture that is every mother’s nightmare.

Being recognized and admired for her music is something Fiona craves.  Being recognized and admired for her appearance -- that provokes conflicted feelings she can’t resolve.  For a long while she would not allow her make-up to be done in front of a mirror before a photo session.  To this day she tears up during nearly every shoot.  “Psychologically, photo shoots are torture for me,” she explains, and recalls, “I would be sitting there and crying, and then a stylist would come up and go, ‘Oh, you look so beautiful!’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, then, everything’s great!’, and fake it.”  Her voice twists with sarcasm.  “As if I wouldn’t have anything to worry about.  If I’m beautiful, what problems could I possibly have?  What is pain?”

Having been called “Dog” by her classmates while her older sister Amber was known as “the queen of the school,” Fiona bristles at the hypocrisy of fashion magazines. “They have great advice columns,” she says, “and they answer, ‘Oh, love yourself because of the way you are,’ and then you turn the page and there’s some chick in a bikini.”  Yet Fiona doesn’t yet have the power either personally or professionally to refuse to pose for photo sessions.  So she weeps while doing them.

“When I came into puberty and started developing,” she says, “that’s when I got raped, so I think I have a lot of issues with being recognized (as an object).  From then on I just felt that my body was bait for people to come up and grab me and violate me.  I got to this point where I would think I just wanted to be a floating voice; I didn’t want to have a body….I just wanted to be able to talk, but not to be able to be seen.”

Fiona remembers a New Year’s Eve party held at her house when she was 13, during which a boy who had flirted with her older sister in the past sidled up to her.  He told her how nice she looked in her dress, then let his hand wander down her spine, resting it on her backside.  They talked, then sat on a piano bench, and he told her, “You know, I used to think your sister was the pretty one and you were the smart one -- but now you’re the pretty one.”

Fiona pushed him to the ground.

“I got so pissed off,” she explains, making small fists, still angered.  “Like, I’m not smart now?”  She sighs. “I was so happy for just a brief moment to be an attractive person, but all of a sudden it was like I had to sacrifice everything else that I had been and everything else I was, to be that person.   And I hated that that’s the way people look at it.”

“So now part of me loves (the attention); it’s like, ‘Oh my God, people think I’m beautiful, this is so cool!’ and then part of me is just disgusted, because…if this was me eight years ago…you guys wouldn’t be paying any attention.”

Fiona’s Lilith Fair dressing room is quiet and dim, the orange walls glowing warmly in the bare light.  This is to her liking.  “I don’t like daylight,” she explains.  “I don’t know where it comes from; both my parents are such sunny people.  When I check into hotels, the first thing I do is adjust the light and pull down the curtains -- before I even put down my bag -- because I just can’t stand it.”   The multitude of bags she lugs from bus to hotel to venue to bus contain candles and scarves, which help her control the atmosphere of any room in which she finds herself.

A member of her band -- onstage her male musicians wear dresses to fit the supposed all-female Lilith motif and call themselves the Spice Boys -- darts through the curtains to the dressing room, handing Fiona a small package.  Opening the box, she withdraws a homemade clay mug sent from a fan.  She admires the gift, then sets it down to read the letter that accompanies it.

Fiona knows what it’s like to be a fan, even if her experience is limited.   The poet Maya Angelou’s works reached Fiona when she was recovering from her rape and have remained with her ever since. “I was never a kid who like -- I didn’t have any idols in music or television, no posters on my wall, never was a fan, never wanted to meet anybody famous,” says Fiona.  “But I wrote a letter to (Angelou) when I was about 12 or 13, and it was a very long letter.  I wasn’t writing to her even for her sake, I was jut writing to her for my sake because I just wanted her to know I existed.”

Outside Fiona’s dressing room, it’s noisy and frenetic with the din of 18,000 people wandering the grounds of Great Woods.  Waiting by the backstage gate, shivering with delight despite the thick, muggy air of Mansfield, Massachusetts, 15-year-old Brette Myers, who made Fiona the mug while at camp, stands with her friends, hoping for a glimpse of her favorite singer.  With nervous, darting eyes and a quick, short-circuited smile, Brette acts almost disinterested in a way that implies an extreme, absolute teenage fixation.  “She’s really different,” Brette says of Fiona.  “She’s really good.  And we’re only four years apart. I just haven’t had the experiences she’s had.”

She’s right about that, but the overwhelming fact is that Brette is still a teenager, in the full sense of the word.  Which means, like it or not, she’s still on the path to growing up.  Halfway between child and adult, she can emote better than she can explain herself.  Fiona, for all of her four-year difference, is both child and adult, teenager and woman, all elements simultaneously inhabiting the same space, all screaming for their own kind of attention.  What has been labeled maturity in Fiona is a lazy person’s pigeonhole.  Maturity implies full growth and development, and what Fiona has, more than anything else, is awareness.

“The worst thing that I can feel at any time is not to know how to express myself, not to know how I feel about something,” says Fiona.   “So not knowing how exactly I feel about something is just paralyzing.  The only remedy for that is to sit down with yourself, the person with whom you feel the most secure, and say, ‘This is exactly how I feel, I’m going to write it down.  Now they can’t intimidate me with their stares because I have it all written down, and it’s all clear on paper and therefore it’s all clear in my head, and therefore I am clear and I am confident, and therefore I can function.”

Fiona can articulate her feelings and beliefs better than most people twice her age can.  By insisting on understanding her motivations she is attempting to chart a smooth course along which she can sail the remainder of her life.   Fiona fights all attempts to grow out of her innocence, what she has left she wants to make damn sure she owns for as long as possible.  She doesn’t want her music or her words to be tainted by outside influence, so she rarely, if ever, watches other performers onstage.  When she and her band arrive in new cities she holes up in her room rather than exploring the streets.  She gives the impression of trying to hold onto something, perhaps the someone she is right now, because that is the someone who has gotten a million people to buy the words she wrote in her notebook.  If she loses that someone -- if Fiona Apple grows up -- there is the possibility people may stop listening to her.

“(My) songs are so compact and dense, they carry out an emotion in the easiest, most efficient way,” says Fiona. “So instead of having to sit there and stare in the face of some uncaring shrink, with their eyes bulged out like they really care, or saying ‘Listen to me! Listen to me!’ to my teachers or my friends, it was so great to be able to put it all in one package.  And (Tidal) has music, and it has words, and the music gives you the mood of it, and the words give you the intellect of it, and there you have it.”

She chops her hands against the table. “This is how I feel. There.  Listen.  It’s over.  That’s it. That’s all there is.”

Of course, that’s not all there is.  Perception versus reality, right?

Fiona’s discovery of her voice, in more ways than one, does not mean that her need to be heard is now a call for attention.  The body that just wanted to be a floating voice once upon a time still only wants to be heard, so she can be understood, so she can move on.

To say Fiona Apple didn’t grow up in a Brady Bunch household is hardly a stretch; these days, nobody did.  But it wasn’t quite the childhood advised by Dr. Spock, either. Fiona’s father and mother, Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee, never married but lived together until Fiona was 4. Even then, Fiona points out, the setup was more unusual than just the lack of shared last names.  “They didn’t sleep in the same room,” says Fiona.  “Me and my sister would go sleep with my mom, and my dad had his own room. So it was never like a little happy family growing up like that.”

Says Diane McAfee over the phone from her home in Manhattan, “I consider myself mostly a single mom, even though I was married for a while.  Most of the time we were like three girls growing up together, and we were very open.”

But the bedroom as sanctum sanctorum and birthplace of all her songs indicate that at least for Fiona, family life was not one wide-open experience of giggling and sharing secrets.  “I love my parents and I would say that I am close with them,” says Fiona.  “But I’ve never gone to my mom with a problem, or for advice or anything like that.”

When she was 4, her father moved to California to pursue his acting career.   Shortly thereafter her mother became involved with Robert Pressman, with whom Fiona bonded as her new father figure.  Pressman recalls a different Fiona than the one portrayed in the press today.  Growing up, Fiona won medals for horseback riding and received an invitation to join the gymnastic Junior Olympic team.  In eighth grade, she won a nationwide short-story contest usually reserved for high-school students.   “She was into pottery; she drew me a picture of her dog Olivia,” says Pressman.  “Fiona was the kind of kid who liked to go into her room to think and play her music, but she wasn’t a recluse; she was an active member of her family.”

“Robert introduced me to a lot of music,” says Fiona.  “I think the only modern music I was into was Cyndi Lauper and Sinead O’Connor, and he brought in the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.  He was a lot of fun; he was like a friend.  For awhile I was closer to him than I was to either one of my real parents.  It was obviously easier for him to be more respectful of my individuality because I didn’t come out of his womb.”

Along the way, there was the issue of her name.  Apple is Fiona’s middle name, but growing up she had to trade last names twice a year along with living accommodations.  In New York she was Fiona McAfee; in California, visiting her father, she was Fiona Maggart.  “I would go out for the summer, and if my dad had a letter with ‘McAfee’ on it, he’d say, ‘So, you’re using your mom’s name now?’ So then I started putting Apple in it.   It gave me my own little identity. These two other names were ammunition with me, material to get mad with.”

Fiona turned 12 in September 1989.  The day before Thanksgiving of that year, she returned to her apartment building and discovered a stranger lurking around. “It was….a preventable thing,” says Pressman, hushed when speaking about the rape even eight years later.  Normally, a security guard kept watch over the building, but his schedule had recently changed and no one was around between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m. “She felt suspicious,” says Pressman, “and she tried getting back into the house and there was nobody for her to contact.”

The man who raped her was never captured, though Fiona went to a police line-up once.   She brings up the subject of her rape in conversation without prompting.  The years of talking to doctors after the attack have made her almost casually open about the topic; it pops up in the same way someone else might discuss a long-ago-broken arm.   But at the time, no one knew she would recover so well, and her parents put her in therapy. “We handled her more delicately because of the attack,” remembers Pressman, “which might have created more problems because she was very intelligent and knew we were treating her differently.”

Fiona and therapy did not mix.  “It made me feel very empty thinking that the only person in the world who’s listening to me is a shrink, and they’re getting paid,” she remembers.  So she made up her own therapy, finding comfort in ritualizing and repeating simple tasks such as writing or rollerskating.  When her parents would go out and leave her alone in the apartment, Fiona recalls, she would take out her rollerskates and circle the kitchen table 88 times -- the number of keys on the piano.

“That’s probably how it happened,” she says.  “I started getting into these little routines -- ‘I’ll do this 88 times, and by the time this is over they’ll be back and I’ll be happy and everything will be okay.’  And that’s how I think I became the way I am now in my head, because I was so in the middle of nowhere that I had to kind of create my own crutches, and these crutches were rituals.  I thought, ‘Talking about it didn’t help, but damn, rollerskating makes me feel better.’”

In the years after her attack, Fiona invented a delicate balancing act for herself.   On the one hand she put all of her energies into explicating her emotions in notebooks; on the other she tried to act just like every other 14- and 15-year-old.   It didn’t always work.

“I used to go out to clubs with my friends, and after about an hour of getting ready we’re finally ready to go out the door, and I’d be overcome with this feeling that I could not be seen.  I didn’t want anyone on the street to look at me.  I’d hide in a taxi because I didn’t want anybody on a train to see me.  I don’t know what that was.  I was so…not antisocial, but so secluded to my own self for so long.”

Fiona pauses, staring off to the side, and says, “I think when I was very young I was happy and nave and open with everybody.  And I think honestly that during the next years of my life I was taught by experience to get inside my own head and stay there.  Because what came out of my head to other people was misinterpreted or scoffed at, and it wasn’t comfortable being outside my head, and I didn’t like having to explain myself all the time, and I didn’t like being different so I didn’t show myself.”

Which makes Fiona’s platinum-selling, MTV-award-nominated, Lilith Fair-playing career somewhat different from, say, Hanson’s.  Fiona is still amazed anybody decided to listen.  “This is not even a career for me,” she says. “This is an exercise in trying to function and trying to stay alive.”

In the back of her bus, as it trundles along the Massachusetts Turnpike, Fiona is both inside and outside her own head.  She is decorating herself.  To Fiona, every day is a project, a space, as she explains, which she has to fill. Part of the time may be taken up with her show, another part may be taken up with what she is wearing.  She focuses intensely on the yellow mesh bikini that peeks out through her black tanktop, and as she weaves a strip of brown scarf through her belt loops, then her belly button ring and finally around her waist.  She murmurs, “I need more yellow.”

“I think I’m becoming more myself as I was when I was 5,” she says.  “If you looked at home videos of me when I was 5, my sister used to do all of these ballet dances and you’d always see me in the corner, putting on costumes, taping construction paper to myself and tying ribbons around myself.  I’ve found myself doing this now.  It’s very symbolic to me because I feel that when I was born, to the time that I was like 8, I was this wild, fearless, happy child.  And now I’m perceived to be this tragic thing, and it’s just because life has shown me certain things, because of what childhood can do to you.  My childhood took away my childhood, and now I feel like I’m getting back to that place where I’m as uninhibited as when I was a kid.   There was that time when I was just having fun and you do whatever you want and you live completely intuitively.  And you get to this place where people call you names, and you start seeing the world around you…”

She shakes her head.  “I was talking with the guys in the band yesterday, and I asked, them, ‘Do you ever look around and see other people doing things like getting their dinner and think, “She’s normal; he’s normal; he’s normal; she’s normal…they’re…all…so…well….adjusted”?’   Which I know isn’t true; I know that everybody’s fucked-up in their own way, but that’s just the way my mind works.  I’m always looking at other people, thinking, ‘They don’t do the weird shit I do; it must be so cool to live like that.’”

Normalcy is overrated.  Most adults ad-lib to get through the day.   That’s the reality.  And at some point, Fiona Apple will realize this.   For now, she’s still doing her balancing act.

“I feel like two different people,” she says. “I feel like there is this part of me that has to oversee everything I’m doing.  I have this voice of reason that’s struggling to come out, and it’s almost like I’m taking care of myself.  Like I’m some kind of emotionally disturbed or emotionally retarded kid that I’m trying to manage and keep okay.  I always feel like that, and that’s why it’s so hard just to live, just to be conscious.  So much of the time I feel like I’ve been given this kid that is so high-maintenance and so high-strung, and I’m stuck with her and I have to take care of her 24 hours a day and try to keep her happy -- not even try to keep her happy, just try to keep her from lashing out or being crazy."

She finishes tying the brown scarf, stares at it, decides she doesn’t like the look and begins affixing a bead necklace to her waist.  She does all of this while staring in the mirror, but it never comes across as an exercise in vanity or narcissism.   She’s just filling up space.

“For most of the day I feel like the ugly person; some people think I’m faking it,” says Fiona, piano-player, emotion-packer, space-filler. “And there are probably girls out there who see me and want to look like me.”

She pauses and remembers:  “Some little girl came up to me at a show the other night and said, ‘People tell me I look like you!’ and she was this beautiful little girl, and she wanted me to say, ‘Yeah, you do,’ so she could think, ‘I’m okay, because I look like Fiona Apple.” But oh honey, if you only knew…”   fin