NEW YORK -- The mystery of the creative impulse, explained by Fiona Apple:
"You get hungry, you eat. You get overwhelmed, you write a song."
The waifish 22-year-old singer and songwriter has had lots to be overwhelmed by in her short time on the planet. Her parents divorced when she was 4. She was raped at age 12. Before she turned 19, she had to learn how to handle the slings and arrows of fame.
To each assault, her response was the same: to write out her pain, using music as a form of therapy.
"What happened was, I didn't really have any place to turn," Apple explains of her childhood in Manhattan. She's sitting in the midtown office of her publicity agent, wearing a fashionably frumpy black coat and low-cut top, her electric-blue eyes radiant without makeup. She's struggling to pinpoint when she realized that music and poetry could be her lifeline, and as she rehashes the events of her tumultuous youth you're reminded of an Aldous Huxley aphorism:
"Experience is not what happens to you, it is what you do with what happens to you."
"I can remember coming home from school singing, and not because I was happy . . . I was actually pretty unhappy. It was just my way of dealing with things. (Music) became a place to put whatever anger or frustration. It's very selfish -- I'm doing this for myself, absolutely."
The Los Angeles resident has ostensibly returned to her hometown to promote her second album, which arrives Tuesday bearing a 90-word title that sounds like an affirmation in the latest self-help book:
"When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right."
But it's quickly apparent that Apple is on a bigger mission: Having given "way too much" of herself the first time around, she wants to desensationalize her biography, to change the focus from her well-documented emotional torments to their musical manifestations -- songs of shattered love and other romantic obsessions that turn on blunt declarations such as "Please excuse me for my distance, pain is evident in my
"In a lot of the interviews, people just kept telling me what they thought of me instead of asking me about the songs," Apple says of the media wave that accompanied her 1996 debut
"Tidal," which has sold more than 3 million copies in the United States.
"They focused on the dramatic (stuff), and I just shut down. I became the perfect girl to make a terror child out of."
Those press accounts latched onto life experiences Apple willingly made public. One anecdote concerned an offhand remark she made when she was 11, about killing herself and her older sister. It was overheard by a teacher, who pressured Apple into psychotherapy.
"Now I need therapy because they forced it on me before," she volunteered to an interviewer.
The next year, Apple has said, she was raped by a stranger in her building, an incident she chose to reveal because she wanted to diminish the stigma associated with being a sex-crime victim. Her trauma found its way into exactly one verse of one song ("Sullen Girl"), but became the defining event in her media dossier.
As these anecdotes coalesced, Apple grew into a cartoon figure, the target of derision about damaged, self-obsessed artists. The last straw, she says, was a Spin cover story in the fall of 1997 that characterized her as a narcissistic drama queen.
"They just made this horrible person and put my name on her. My problem is I'm so, so sensitive. And I read that stuff and it hurts even though I know that it's meaningless."
The following month, when she saw letters from readers that continued the attack, she snapped.
"I was on the bus, just minding my own business. I pick up the new Spin, and I didn't expect those reactions at all," says Apple, a strict vegan who describes touring as a meal-to-meal challenge. ("All the drawers on the bus were filled with Fiona food -- crackers and stuff like that.")
"I sat down and wrote this poem" -- which became the title of the new album --
"in just a furious minute. It's not my best piece of writing or anything, but I was thinking that when it came time to record an album, it would be useful for me to remember this. It was another instance of writing something to help myself."
Lost in the various uproars was serious examination of Apple's music. She found herself lumped in with wounded women like Tori and angry girls like Alanis, and hailed as part of the Lilith generation, but rarely appreciated for what was evident on
"Tidal" and inescapable on "When the Pawn . . . " (Work, 4 stars): that she possesses a musical sophistication far beyond her years.
Unlike many of her generation, Apple is comfortable with the devices of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Her compositions are built on elaborate chord sequences, with sharply turned verses spelled by contrasting bridge sections. With French horns and strings, vibraphone and percussion, she creates lush atmospheres over which she layers a smoldering, predatory alto that harks back to the torch songs of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday. Her piano-based ballads evoke the songcraft of Laura Nyro, but with a penchant for relentless self-examination and an exceedingly flexible sense of melody.
Apple didn't start out trying to sound like anybody. From her youngest days, she says, she's been obsessively wary about being influenced.
"I've always been very conscious of parenting myself," says Apple, who lived most of the time with her dancer mother, Diane McAfee, on the Upper West Side, and spent summers with her father, actor Brandon
Maggart, in Los Angeles.
She rejected formal lessons almost immediately after taking up the piano, and began her own investigation of jazz standards by working with the
"Real Book," a massive songbook used by professional musicians. She taught herself harmony by looking at the book's guitar tablature, and pieced together arrangements of standards such as "Angel Eyes" by improvising until she "had her own vision."
Only after she was confident she'd developed a unique approach did Apple seek out a recorded version.
"I didn't want to be trapped by a style. I didn't want to listen to too many other people. The whole idea about music is to develop your own instincts, which is hard when the culture is telling you to sound a certain way and think a certain way."
Apple's drive paid off early. While still in high school, she made a tape of three songs that landed in the hands of veteran music-industry publicist Kathryn Schenker through a babysitter. Within months she had a contract with the Sony-distributed Work Group, and was working with producer Andrew Slater (the Wallflowers) on
"Tidal." Though the album had a slow start, its sultry ballads and piercing singles ("Criminal," "Shadowboxer") eventually found a home on the radio. Apple toured like a trouper, visiting most urban markets four or five times and doing
"whatever was asked of me." The result: Though she proved to herself that she wasn't "just lazy," as she'd always been told, her personal life disintegrated. She credits her boyfriend,
"Boogie Nights" director Paul Thomas Anderson, with helping her to restore balance: "We're both into control. . . . We seem to inspire each other."
That new-found stability is evident throughout "When the Pawn . . . ," which finds Apple channeling the raw anger and victim venom of her debut into more subtle realms -- tightly wound tangos and pieces such as "On the Bound" that combine a galumphing backbeat with melodies and counterlines straight out of musical theater. Though she sings about the same hurts and addresses her songs to a "composite set of characters" from her own past, her expanded musical vocabulary is less shrill. Less florid. Less overtly angry.
If the album's more restrained vocals "sound like I'm taking a step back (emotionally)," it's because "I'm more confident this time. . . . I can say what I mean and not dramatize it too much. When somebody sings in that over-the-top way, you can't hear what they're saying."
Apple's writing has changed to accomplish this. The CD's first single, "Fast as You Can," is an intricate suite of shifting moods that starts as a '60s soul-jazz stomp, then is connected by a rueful ballad interlude to a sauntering triple-meter chorus. The result is slightly off-kilter, perpetually destabilized.
"I wanted to explore different moods, the ups and downs of a relationship. When you get to the middle (of the song), that spell of confusion takes you out of the element for a minute, which is, of course, what happens emotionally. But the beat never changes."
On other pieces, she avoids anything fancy: For the refrain of "On the Bound," she transforms a simple -- and uncharacteristically upbeat -- phrase ("You're all I need"), into arch commentary on her own emotional emptiness.
"That's me saying that, at any given time, anybody could be all I need. I'm like grabbing on: `You, you're my best friend. I love you. Give me all your stuff. You can't do it? OK, let me go over here. Now you're all I need.' "
Apple knows that many won't pick up on the song's self-deprecating humor, and expects the same sneering reaction to some of
"When the Pawn's . . . " vulnerable expressions. She says she's teaching herself not to care:
"What's important is the saying of these things, not how they're received."
She mentions a song called "Limp," inspired by what she describes as her "routine, everyday frustration."
"I was standing there in this uncomfortable situation, when I realized my nails were digging into my palms. I got a pen and, without even thinking, wrote down the words `When I think of it, my fingers turn to fists.' I was miles away from trying to write a song, but there it was, staring at me. And kind of poetic, too.
"I was like, `Thank you. I can use that.'