though Fiona Apple wrote some of her songs at 15, she doesn't have a
problem relating to them today, night after night, show after show. "What
I always liked about poetry was that you could read it, and not understand
it, but make your own meaning out of it," says the
singer-songwriter, whose debut album, "Tidal," is one of
the year's most acclaimed discs. "You didn't
have to know what the poet meant by it.
"I know that the people in my audience have different meanings for my songs than I do. And I love that. I have different meanings for them as time goes on. Different lyrics start to stand out on different days."
Apple writes with the passion and intensity of a veteran. Her piano playing takes keen melodic shifts and colorfully emotive turns. And she sings in the dusky voice of a world-weary jazz chanteuse.
She celebrated her 20th birthday Sept. 13.
Success, which came quickly, pleases her. "For me, it's very cool, doing this and singing these songs for this long, as opposed to just writing them and singing them for a month and then not singing them ever again. It's really a great experience of self-discovery, because I remember what they were to me then. And to look at the difference really gives me some perspective as to how I've grown.
"It's just like if you were to look at pictures of me at 17, and pictures of me now, I could see something different in my face. With the songs, it adds a whole new thing, because it's an insight into my mind."
A SHY CHILD
As an adolescent, Apple hadn't yet become the pouting, doe-eyed beauty that gazes out from the
"Tidal" cover. She was a gawky and solitary child the other kids in her Manhattan school called Dog. She worshiped poet Maya Angelou, and kept a book of her words under her pillow.
For a long time, Fiona didn't even tell anyone she wrote songs.
"I used to just write on the piano, in my room, door closed, no one home," she explains.
"Once I put out my album, people started saying 'When's the next one coming out? Are you writing more?' I would get just panicked inside and think well, without my rituals, without my pre-set conditions for writing, how am I going to write?"
As demands on her time increased, Apple worried that life on the road would suffocate her muse. Ultimately, she says,
"I realized that I did it before not because I wanted to, but because I had to do it. And I still have to. When you have to do something, you do it. It's got to come out."
She describes herself as analytical, and years of therapy pepper her dialogue with nine-dollar words, but Apple's music sounds instinctive, almost primal. "Shadowboxer," "Criminal," "The Child is Gone" and "Sleep to Dream" alternate between the pent-up rage of an ignored child and the wistful retrospection of a woman with too much life experience.
Apple and her music make for an astonishing paradox.
"I see myself like this: All I am is just the pure truth," she says.
"I'm just the pure truth of what I feel at any given time. And when people see my songs as sad, these are the people that are saying the glass is half empty.
"I put hope in these songs. 'The Child is Gone,' is that a sad song?"
"'Sleep to Dream' is a celebration of finally knowing, when you're in a relationship with someone -- romantic, or family, or anybody -- where you start to second-guess yourself so much that you don't even know how you feel about things. You don't even realize that you're being mistreated, and it didn't even occur to you to defend yourself."
PAST A TRAGEDY
Although she names jazz vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as influences, Apple -- who began taking piano lessons at age 6 -- says she was well into writing and singing from her heart long before she ever heard their records.
At the age of 11, she was raped by a stranger who broke into the home she shared with her mother. She began extensive psychotherapy around the same time.
"I don't think I was very happy being by myself then, so I would come up with things to occupy my time," Apple says.
"Like I used to roller skate around my house, and do this thing called floor dancing. Those were my little hobbies."
She roamed the house, always coming back to the piano. Too lazy to read or study music, she gravitated toward an old self-instruction book she discovered on a shelf.
"I found this book, 'The Real Book,' which is a book of jazz standards, and it had guitar chords in it," Apple recalls.
"What I liked to do was, since I didn't know any of the songs, I would sit at the piano, play the guitar chords and teach myself the chords I didn't know from the back of the book.
"And then I'd go out and buy an album, and listen to them and see how much I had" screwed them up. "That was really a big influence to me."
To her credit, the solitary teen didn't make character assassinations out of her songs (although her assailant, who was never caught, makes an appearance in "Sullen Girl," one of the standout tracks on
"Tidal"). Instead, she wrote about her dreams, her fantasies, her closely held beliefs.
She didn't have any goals.
"When I was in high school I never even thought about what I was going to do when I was grown up, or whatever," says Apple.
"I probably couldn't even name five colleges. I never took my SATs. I never took my
PSATs. I just don't even remember thinking about it.
"And as far as songs go, I didn't even tell my friends about them. They were just what I did. And when I decided to make a demo and do all this stuff, it was just that I'd decided that I really didn't know what else to do. It was really the only thing."
Her parents, who never married and split when Fiona was 4, never advised her to "cheer up," she says, which she found encouraging.
"My parents gave me a lot of praise for the way I wrote, which was really my saving grace with everyone," Fiona marvels.
"They thought I was talented, so I thought I might as well make good on it."
SPEAKING HER MIND
Her success has little music business precedent. Little more than three years ago, she was still in that room in her mother's house, playing her songs to the furniture.
In September, Apple was named best new artist at the MTV Video Awards, and she made a brief, angry speech about the dangers of emulating celebrities.
"I proved to myself that I can ignore my fear when I think that it's important," she says.
"And that's more important than any album sales . . .
"I mean, whatever I do with my life, if I'm ever a mother, I'm going to have a great thing to pass on to my daughters and sons."