Tough Kooky
Harper's Bazaar    June 98
by James Servin

Mick Jagger is getting an earful from Fiona Apple backstage at Madison Square Garden.  The Stones are playing in New York on their Bridges to Babylon tour; Apple is the opening act.  Jagger tells Apple that he hasn't played the Garden in years and is nervous.  "You know what's good to do when you're nervous?" she asks him.   "Take off your glasses.  Then you can't see anybody.  Do you wear glasses?" Jagger, suitably Fiona-d (that is, totally, intentionally, put off), won't answer.

Instead he turns to survey the tiny 20-year-old wearing shiny jeans, a gauzy shirt over a halter top, a navel ring and suede shoes with tractor tread soles: "Is that what you're wearing?" he asks, lightly teasing.

"Yeah," Apple says, "except for the glasses."  With that. she removes her rectangular Paul Smith frames and strides onto the stage.  The Garden is one quarter filled.  People are talking, moving around.  After she performs her hit single "Criminal" ("I've been a bad, bad girl..."), the crowd perks up.  During the song's musical interlude, she goes wild.  Quite the groover, Apple does a lot of undulating swami moves, thrashing around in the yellow light.   A favored facial expression is a worried, haunted look, both eyes to the right.   It's not recommended for every performer, but for Apple it works.

She slips into "Sleep To Dream," offering up slinky, gyrating, hands-on-hips poses.  Still people are talking.  Apple takes control.  "Okay go ahead say it: 'Shut up, bitch'" she screams, channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist"One, two, three..." A few Stones fans oblige.

She explains it all later, backstage: "It's fun to yell out all those things during a concert.  At Lilith, I got up and made all those people scream at me.   I've got it on tape-20,000 people yelling, 'Stop whining, you pussy!'"

"Welcome to the nuthouse," says Apple's road manager affectionately.

The new breed of folky rock chicks has yielded a few front-runners.  Each bears her own stamp, a quick media reference point: Jewel is the breathy babe, Paula Cole the earthy poetess, Sarah McLachlan the ethereal overseer.  Apple, who at one time or another could have been any of the above, gets the Sinead O'Connor award for shocking the public the only way that's left -- by being a completely sincere loose cannon.  On the basis of talent alone, she stands tall amid the competition.  Blessed with a rich smoky alto and a world-weariness this side of Dusty Sprinfield, Apple has recorded a tight, accomplished debut CD, Tidal (Work), which has a psychomagnetic force, drawing the listener into its jazzy, kick-ass bittersweet world.

A year and a half after its release, Tidal has sold over 2 million copies and gone multiplatinum, prompting heart-to-heart conversations all over the world.  You can't hear it and not talk about Apple: her issues, her problems, your problems.  There are feisty ex-boyfriend songs, torch songs, love songs.   There's the dark, dramatic "Carrion" with its grueling lyrics: "My feel for you boy, is decaying in front of me/ like the carrion of a murdered prey."   There's "Sullen Girl," a song Apple wrote about the painful aftermath of a rape she endured in a hallway outside her family's apartment when she was 12.  With its refrain "But it's calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion," it has to be one of the best executed sad sounds of all time.

This is a white-hot moment for Apple.  The fact that she has the whole package -- youth plus beauty plus attitude -- has resulted in a feeding frenzy of attention, demands, pressure.  It all happened so quickly: A little more than three years ago, Apple -- who had been writing songs since she was 11 -- recorded a three-song demo tape.  One of the 78 copies she made got to music publicist Kathryn Schenker, who played it for producer Andy Slater (Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, the Wallflowers) at a Christmas party.   It was a very short game of connect the dots.  Almost before she could catch her breath, Apple found herself at the center of a gigantic career.

"Anybody can say to me, 'Yeah, you wanted to be famous,'" she says.   "But really, I hadn't made up my mind.  I made a tape, and that tape got to some people who said they'd sign me.  What was I gonna do? Say no?"

The youngest of two children, Apple was born Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart.  Her parents, who never married, drifted apart when she was four.  "Apple" is her paternal grandmother's surname; "Fiona" comes from the Cyd Charisse character in the 1954 musical Brigadoon"She sings that song, 'I'll never marry a m-a-a-a-n,'" Apple trills.  "My mother was really big on that."  Despite pressure from her label, she at first resisted taking the stage name Fiona Apple because it sounded like a pop fabrication.  "Apple, would I come up with that? Uh, no."

In the past, she's said getting raped never made her feel sorry for herself; she said she was just glad to be alive.  Upon being told she had to embark on a world tour, however she did moan with self-pity.  "Being attacked felt easier," Apple says, "because it felt like something I could gain strength through.  But doing this is like getting lucky -- and then being faced with the possibility that maybe you can't handle it."

"Fiona is a very emotional person," says Andy Slater, in what may be the understatement of the year.  It's two weeks after the Madison Square Garden concert and Slater, who produced both Tidal and Apple's upcoming album, is sitting patiently at the Sony Music Studios in Santa Monica, waiting for Apple to show.   With long hair and dark, collegiate looks, he could easily be a member of a band he manages, the Wallflowers.  A tape of Apple singing the bare tracks of a new song plays in the background.  Like the songs on Tidal, it has that unmistakable ability to nudge itself into your subconscious, refusing to be ignored.   "Here's the deal," Slater says.  "Fiona experiences things more intensely than most people.  Her senses are so heightened that she will see a color, or a person on the street, and she just feels more intensely than most of us.  I don't know why that is, but the result, combined with her immense brainpower and her ability to put emotions into words -- it's a real gift."

In a waiting area outside the studio, there's a framed photograph of Apple taken right around the time Tidal was released.  She stands in a narrow, fluorescent-lit hallway, looking up expectantly.  At the top of the photograph, there's an inscription: "To Sony music studios: thanks for putting a roof over my misery.  Fiona Apple."  The signature, with it's ordinary ranginess, is one casualty of her rapid success: Things happened so quickly for Apple, she had no time to devise an autograph.

It's nearly seven o'clock on a Saturday night when Apple arrives, wearing a comfortable looking red sweater over a white T-shirt and jeans.  Her long hair is streaked blonde, and she carries a little white bag embossed with an Adidas logo.

I ask her about her poster out front.  Was this place really a roof over her misery?  "It was hard," she says.  "I never even graduated from high school and all of a sudden I'm working 12 hours a day in a studio, and I'm supposed to perform -- and perform well.  It was just intimidating, like goddamn, I'm this little...nothing... who has felt like something because I could go in my room and write songs.  I was trying so hard not to freak out, but I did.  I was constantly crying, feeling, I can't do this.  I was just this blob of depression.  Had I known what the next year and a half were going to be like, it would have been even worse."

I am sitting at one end of a gray couch, therapistlike.  Apple is at the other.   Around us are packing cases of various shapes and sizes.  Most of them are stamped: FIONA APPLE, FRAGILE.  Beyond these stands a grand piano where she says she wrote "Criminal" in 45 minutes once night.  (Did she think it would be a hit when she wrote it? "Hell no," she says.)

The concept of calm before the storm figures strongly within the personality of Fiona Apple: It's in the cadences of the songs on Tidal, and it's in the cadence of her conversation.  She'll begin a sentence delicately, melodically, and by the time she's finished her thought, there may be the equivalent of a thundering piano in her voice.  A hand may curl into a fist, a foot may suddenly fly out.  And when the storm subsides, and when Apple finally comes back down to earth, she is gentle and young again, in the way that a very wise old person is young.

In the past, Apple has spoken of having distinctly separate selves: the unruly, crazy brat and the controlling parent whose 24-hour job is to monitor and appease the brat, occasionally letting her out.  She admits that the brat emerged last year during her acceptance speech at the MTV awards, where she won Best New Artist.  Apple, potential belle of the MTV ball became Carrie, prom nightmare.  (Her rebel sermon included the following: "I'm gonna use this opportunity the way I wanna use it... What I wanna say is... this world is bullshit and you shouldn't model your life about what you think we think is cool.")  "Everyone was trying to keep this smiling thing going," Apple recalls, "and when all of a sudden I went up there and I was like the drunken asshole at the party who yells out," here she gets giggly and snarl-screams, "Mom, you're fat!"  She regains composure.   "And everyone's like, Oh God."

Apple imagines that one day more people will relate to where she's coming from.   They'll see that there's a kernel of humor in almost everything she does.   "Nobody has a sense of humor," she says.  "Everything I read is," she starts kicking the couch, "'Fiona Apple, lighten up.'  What do you do? All you can do is do what you do, like your friends, do your shit, and try to laugh."

She lightens up.  I ask her if there's a song on the radio that's her guilty pleasure.  She smiles wryly and offers "You Make Me Wanna," by Usher.   She used to hate the Spice Girls, she says, "but I have to say, now I sweat Posh Spice so bad.  I like her best because she never smiles in pictures.  She also said once 'If you don't like us, then just have a laugh at us.'  She doesn't care if you get the joke the way she wants you to.  So from now on, Posh Spice is my girl."

Sometimes, says Apple, the best jokes are the ones only a few people get.  Last November, Courtney Love announced that she and Billy Corgan, lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins, had been trying to speak to Apple but that Apple's management was keeping them at a distance.  Her concern, Love stated, stemmed from an impression that Apple, while doing a jailbait turn in her slick, stylish "Criminal" video, was being exploited as she romped about somewhat unhappily in her underwear.  Apple eventually met up with Love and Corgan at a party.  "We kind of joked about it," Apple says.  "She wanted to be there for me like an older sister.  I told her, 'Bitch, you're out there wearing your underwear too,'" she says laughing.   "She said something to the effect of, 'I'm a grown woman, and I can do that.'   Courtney's one misconception about me is that she thinks I'm nine years old."

She may no longer be a child, but for Apple, who first went to private school, then to public and night school, and then studied at home, the entertainment industry is just more school; it's all a popularity game.  Apple remembers all too clearly the days when she was called a dog by her classmates because she had unruly hair, wore glasses and kept to herself.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that her older sister, Amber, was pretty and popular.  When I tell Apple that this scenario reminds me of the film Welcome to the Dollhouse, she says: "My shrink told me I should see it, and I did. Life was bad for me back then, but not that bad.  Actually the sister in that film reminded me of Amber, because she was pretty and popular but also very sweet."

Later I ask Apple's sister about those days. "I almost collapsed when she told me she thought I was like that sister twirling around in a tutu in Welcome to the Dollhouse," says 22-year-old Amber, who currently plays the ingenue in a Venice, CA, production of the musical called A Happy Lot. "When I was younger I would feel bad because I got a lot of attention, and I was aware that Fiona felt lonely and unsocial. But I always had this feeling that everything Fiona felt had knocked her down as a child was contributing to something good that was waiting for her."

I ask how Apple's rape affected the family.  "I was very angry," she says.  "It happened at a time when she was developing as a woman, coming out of her shell.  It was such a blow.  I was so afraid that she was going to retreat.   But she was so strong.  She learned to lift herself up.  I remember her reading Maya Angelou's book of poems.  She used to sleep with that book."

If Apple is, in her sister's words, "a compulsive truth teller," lately she has been developing a new policy of discretion, at least where relationships are concerned (she will say that although she's not seeing magician David Blaine anymore, the two are still close).  "I don't want to get into my personal life," she says.   "It's just not worth it, you know?" She pauses for a moment, a mischievous spark in her eyes, and brings up the name of a woman whose send-up of her MTV acceptance speech on a comedy album made her cry: "I'm going out with Janeane Garafolo.  Could we just pretend I told you that?"

Apple has spent three days in the studio working on her follow-up to Tidal, but she's not happy with being here.  She feels rushed.  There is the title: Initially called Corrupt, it's morphed into a variation that Apple spells out on my pad: OKerupt.  She explains in a dry tone: "It's like, okay, erupt. Like I'm going to erupt on this album."  Or you could read it "Oh, corrupt," as Apple also does, but you'd have to hear her say it wearily to really get it.

Track titles include "Limp," "Paper Bag," "Fast As You Can," "On the Band" and "Love Ridden" -- "like plague-ridden," she adds.  This collection of songs is not nearly as introspective as Tidal, she says, but at this early stage, who knows what shape the album will take?  Of the song "Limp," she explains, "It's about when people try to make you feel that there's something wrong with you, because they have a need to be a savior.  They make you feel like you're crazy just so they can be the ones who help you.  But I'm not going to give them the opportunity anymore."

We've been talking for three hours.  At this moment, Andy Slater strides into the studio.  Apple looks up.  Artist and producer-manager speak in the shorthand of an old married couple.  Apple says "I'm going to have to..." and then reading the expression on his face adds "What?"

AS:  "You have to what?"
FA:  "Go."
AS:  "Home?"
FA:  "Shopping."
After a brief silence, Andy says: "Do you want to work tonight?"
FA:  "Record?"
AS:  "We should work tomorrow."
FA:  "I thought I already said we weren't."
AS:  "You know what?  Jake wants to use the time.  I'm going to let him use the time."
FA:  [arms crossed in front of her, defiantly]: "Good."

Andy slowly walks out of the room.  Apple looks ahead, silent for a moment.   Yes, she confirms when I ask, Jakob Dylan will be taking her unwanted studio time tomorrow.  "You just witnessed a big step," she says.  "Because the option is always there for me to work.  He'll mention it, and I will say yes.   And that's why I've killed myself in the past."  Fiona Apple pats herself lightly on the arm.  "Good girl," she whispers, and then exhales. fin