Fiona Apple: Turning tears on her pillow into pearls
MOJO    Nov 96

by Silvie Simmonds

Merely another striking, long-haired woman getting pissed off and pensive?  Uh-uh.   Fiona Apple's debut album Tidal is a powerful, mature collection of self-penned songs, from pained jazz ballads to scathing angst-pop.  The kind of material it takes others 30-odd years and a couple of ex-husbands to write.   Fiona Apple is 18 years old.

"I get the Alanis Morissette comparisons all the time because I'm white, have long hair parted in the middle, and get angry sometimes -- but open the door at any high school in the world and you're going to find 20 of those people," says Fiona, in a small and oddly monotone voice as if reciting a litany of sins in confession.

Fiona's musical education was somewhat disjointed. Introduced to the Beatles by a youngish step-father, she then discovered a book of jazz standards belonging to her mother, related to the melancholy mood of the songs, and taught herself the melodies.   She began writing her own songs at the age of 11.

"It was something I pointedly kept secret, because first of all there was no reason anybody should know -- it was my thing -- and secondly, it was something I was very serious about, and you know that people don't take you seriously at 11."

As a way of dealing with life in a dysfunctional New York family -- her singer/father and dancer/mother separated when Fiona was four -- this was as good as any.  "My mother always said there was a series of noises that followed an argument in our house -- a lot of yelling, me stomping down the hall, my door slamming, and then the piano.   When you're young, another language to express yourself in, that people can't make fun of, is very important."

Fiona Apple talks a lot about being made fun of.  They made fun of her in school, "because I didn't talk much, and I was awkward-looking and my sister was very beautiful.  So I'd spend more and more time by myself.  That made the teachers think there was something wrong with me, so they sent me to a psychiatrist and I had the ink-blot tests."

"I didn't feel there was anything wrong with me until I went into therapy, then everyone, including my family, was watching me with a magnifying glass.  I couldn't take a breath without it being analysed.  Everyone assumed I'm crazy because I'm not running around chewing bubble-gum and singing Debbie Gibson songs."

Fiona found a friend in the books of American author Maya Angelou.  "My biggest influence.  I have this compilation of her poetry I kept under my pillow and I'd sing the poems to myself every night.  I used to refer to her in my writing as my 'mother', because I felt she had brought me through some tough times and shown me a light."

Tough times like getting raped at the age of 12.  "It humiliates you and makes you feel very powerless.  And reading this woman's writing, I could see how she made it through and made it to her advantage  [Angelou was raped at the age of eight].  Most things that move me to write are things I've struggled over but that have given me strength."

Tidal started life on a cheap tape recorder in Apple's bedroom.  In one of those life-doesn't-happen-like-that stories, a friend played the tape to the record company executive she was babysitting for, and a new star was born.

"I'm usually pretty skeptical about other people's motives; I've had eyes in the back of my head the whole time, thinking they were going to try to change my image, tell me what to write.  But it hasn't been like that.  I don't have anyone's hand up my back," says Fiona.  "I've been allowed to be me."  fin