PULSE   Oct 96
by Tom Lanham

The first day she timidly ventured onto the grade-school playground, recalls Fiona Apple, her second-grade teacher was swinging students around by their feet.  "Kids liked it, but I didn't wanna do it, so she kept saying 'I'm going to get you, Fiona!' the whole day, her and this nun who used to be in the Marines both very unpleasant ladies."  When her mother picked Apple up, she caught an unusual sight:  The schoolmarms had captured their tiny prey.  "They dumped me upside-down in my mother's shopping cart-my skirt fell down, my underwear was showing and they were laughing at me."  She frowns, nervously drumming her fingers on the table in manager/producer Andy Slater's office.  "I don't know why they did it in front of my Mom, but it was a sign -- the beginning of quite a few embarrassing years."

At 18, with a sultry blue-tinged pop debut under her belt -- Tidal (Work/Clean Slate/Columbia) -- she still gets the creeps remembering those awkward early years.  Her kindergarten teacher dubbed her "cocker spaniel," she sighs.   "I was missing teeth, I had really uneven raggedy hair and I just wasn't very attractive."  From then on, she was known as "dog," even to her friends.  By fifth grade, she adds, "People misunderstood me so severely that I was sent for psychiatric evaluation, and I had to go to family therapy and private therapy -- for years, in and out of therapy.  They thought that I was suicidal, that I was on drugs, but none of those things were true -- I was just thinking.  So without anybody I could trust to understand, to believe me that I was all right, I found a lot of solace in music."

All the pain of those tortured years comes tumbling out on Tidal via Apple's expressive piano playing and smoky, soul-drenched vocals, which travel the same dark path as Brecht-Weill cabaret.  In the somber ballad "Sullen Girl," she pleads her quiet-girl case to the outside world.  The Portishead-mechanized, string-buttressed shuffler "The Child Is Gone" means exactly what it says.  Apple trills so professionally, it's chilling.

Slater swears that when he first heard his protege's three-song home demo -- slipped to him through a friend's baby sitter, a chum of Apple's, he thought it was a prank. "I thought, 'No way somebody who's 17 is writing with this kind of sophistication and has a voice this powerful.'" Apple proved him wrong.  As a backlash to all that classroom heckling, she'd begun writing, then playing keyboards, then finally combining the two.  "That was what I did when I was overwhelmed by anger or loneliness," Apple admits.  "I'd just go into a room and play the piano and sing."  At Slater's urging, she hired a rhythm section and entered her first studio: Two demos from those sessions "Shadowboxer" and "Slow Like Honey" -- were so solid, they appear on Tidal with almost no overdubs.

These days, Apple is ugly-duckling victorious.  Long gone is the "cocker spaniel" look; her willowy frame is draped in hip black bell-bottoms and black satin halter, and her wavy brown tresses cascade down to her shoulders, past the biggest pair of crystal-blue eyes since Thumper first befriended Bambi.  Ah, if only those name-callers could see her now.  And the Apple/Slater team is prepared for any future slams, like an Alanis/Glen Ballard comparison.  'Yet any perceived Morissette similarity is only because, as Apple puts it, "we're girls and we're white and we part our hair in the middle and we play music that sounds angry sometimes.  Sure, 'Sleep to Dream' is mad, but how many people have written angry songs?"

Svengali/Trilby? Hardly, snaps Slater.  "In making the record, I tried to locate the reference points from Fiona of what kind of music she likes -- she's a fan of Debussy, different kinds of classical music, and a lot of rap.  So it was a journey, in a sense.  We were searching for what would work with her voice."  Now if those nasty teachers want to toss Apple into a shopping cart, they'll have to buy a copy of Tidal to do it.  fin