Fiona Apple: The Time Is Ripe
With 'Pawn, Singer Moves To a More Mature Beat
Washington Post  ·  Nov 28,  '99

by Richard Harrington

NEW YORK—Twenty-two-year-old Fiona Apple, whose 1996 debut, "Tidal," sold more than 3 million copies, returns with what is surely the world's longest album title: 

"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."

The title makes a lot more sense once Apple explains that it's her response to a less-than-flattering Spin magazine cover story in 1997.

"They screwed me from the beginning," says Apple of the Spin story, which painted her as a self-obsessed drama queen exploiting her psychic wounds. "They knew what they were going to do with the story and it didn't really matter what I said, but I said some things that they could very easily edit together and make me look like a moron. I was upset about it but thought, well, that's just what they do to you.

"A month later, I was just going back on the road for another two-month run and I was really tired," Apple adds. "And I had just sat on the bus and there's Spin with Bjork on the cover and I picked it up and there were all these terrible letters in reaction to my story--'She's the most annoying thing in the world, etc.' And I got so upset, I was crying, and I didn't know how to make myself go on, make myself feel like it was all going to be okay."

So Apple did what she has done pretty much all her life--she responded by writing, the 90-word mantra serving as her version of Chumbawamba's inspiring "I get knocked down but I get up again." Writing has always been a lifeline for Apple, who worked out many of her adolescent obsessions and frustrations with youthful abandon on "Tidal." On the new album, she exhibits a more mature perspective, focusing on the complexities of establishing and maintaining relationships.

Sitting on--and almost sinking into--a couch in her publicist's office, Apple looks far happier and healthier than she did in some of the videos from "Tidal" or on the covers of dozens of music magazines that posited her as a flaky and/or neurotic new-waif rocker--"Kate Moss with songs," Q suggested. Apple is 5 feet 2 with eyes of electric blue, but there's nothing sallow in her makeup-free look and she looks like she's packed a few much-needed pounds into her small frame. In fact, there's a bustling energy and enthusiasm evident as she prepares for a world tour that will include stateside dates starting in February.

If "When the Pawn" suggests a compulsive writer, it's because writing has been a liberating process for Apple since she was an 8-year-old trying desperately to be heard in a fractious home where her parents were in the long process of dissolving their relationship.

Apple--skinny, withdrawn, often picked on in grammar school as an ugly duckling--was already in therapy by then. She had come out of chapel one morning and been overheard saying, "I am going to kill myself and I'm going to bring my sister with me." It was a quick trip to the principal's office and a short one to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed depression and antisocial behavior.

At home, Apple says, things weren't much better than at school.

"I'd get into arguments with my parents and I couldn't ever make my point. It was when I was in therapy for whatever everyone thought was wrong with me and it kind of made my credibility nothing. If I was making an argument, everybody thought I was . . . trying to manipulate them, so I could never have my side of the arguments heard," she says.

"So I'd go back into my room and I would write a letter and an hour later, I'd come out and read it--'This is how I feel'--and I'd go back into my room," Apple explains. "I would love the way that it felt to have your side of an argument right here in front of you. If I wrote a letter, I didn't even need to win an argument."

By 10, the letters had a score to them--Apple had taught herself piano--and though she was too shy for school talent shows, she began to share the songs with her parents. Fiona, who lived most of the time in New York with her mother, a former dancer and singer, spent summers with her father, an actor who was by then living in Los Angeles. He encouraged her writing and helped her with some early demos, but the teenage Apple had no plans to pursue a music career. It was just a fallback position when she couldn't get into college in the fall of 1995.

"I'd been going to high school and progressively getting worse at everything," Apple recalls. "I started out in private school as a freshman, spent my sophomore year in public school, and my junior year in night school. I had never taken my PSAT and all of a sudden my night school closed two weeks before we were to start up again and I couldn't get into any other schools around New York.

"So that started me to going, 'What am I going to do?' Well, the thing that I can do is music. I called up my dad in California, finished home school there in two months, and decided to make another demo tape. I literally made up 78 copies and handed out one."

Thanks to a baby-sitting pal, that three-song demo ended up in the hands of New York power publicist Kathryn Schenker, who counts many big-name music people as clients. Schenker, impressed by the maturity of the material and the sophistication evident in the teenager's vocals, passed it along to producer-manager Andrew Slater, then riding high with the Wallflowers. Soon after, Apple was signed to the Work label and, with Slater at the helm, began work on "Tidal," which includes one track, "Never Is a Promise," direct from the demo.

"Tidal" was well received, a surprisingly mature work in the confessional tradition of Laura Nyro (another Upper West Side native who recorded her first album at 19), fired up by the wounded, postmodern angst of Tori Amos and the teeming anger of Alanis Morrisette. Apple, who'd never performed in public, stepped into the spotlight in a high-pressure fashion: The 18-year-old's first performances were on the "Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live."

The album's first two singles, "Shadowboxer" and "Sleep to Dream," and their videos established Apple as an artist deserving wider recognition. A third video, for "Criminal," won more attention than she wanted.

Directed by Mark Romanek, it addresses a young woman's guilt after taking advantage of a love-struck boy simply to offset her own low self-esteem: "I've been a bad bad girl/ I've been careless with a delicate man," Apple sings. But in Romanek's vision, she repents as a sulking, scantily clad nymphette crawling over the human wreckage of an all-night party. It was a kiddie-porn-style peep show in the manner of Larry Clark's "Kids," and Apple is still dealing with damage control.

"I had qualms when it was being made but I could not admit it to myself," she says now. "I'd done two videos and it wasn't satisfying, everybody knew they could get a lot more from me. And it came to me as 'Everything could be so great if you did this with Mark Romanek, he gets his videos played on MTV.' And I thought, yeah, I'll get my video played."

Apple, on the road at the time, was faxed a treatment--"Okay, it's about sexual guilt, fine." When she showed up for the two-day shoot, she found her wardrobe consisted of "a bed full of underwear! And all I can think is: I'm a teenage girl. If I'm in my underwear and everybody sees it and tells me it looks great, it makes me feel good and I'm not going to argue.

"Then the video comes out and I just felt like an ass. Forget the fact that I was in my underwear, I thought that it was cheesy. I didn't look like myself. It's kind of ruined the song for me. No offense to Mark Romanek--well, I guess offense--I have total qualms about it now."

Not just about "Criminal," either. The music press seemed seduced by Apple's "pouty bee-stung lips and honey-brown hair" (Spin), and compared her woman-child sexuality to that of Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll" and Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver" (The Los Angeles Times).

Apple quickly soured on the entire experience. "I'd talk to someone for an hour--and then there'd be one quote in the piece--but I'd be at a photo shoot for nine hours, where the hairdresser, the makeup person and the photographer could all work on their portfolios. I got tired of hearing 'Okay, put one hand in your mouth and one hand in your pants!'

"But you can't ever say no the first time around. . . . So I never said no and I ended up never looking like myself. If you are a new artist, you are fair game for everybody and you're not going to gain any power until the second time around. I can now look back on it and learn from the experience--I have yet to do a nine-hour photo shoot this time around."

These days, Apple's comfortable with her videos. After all, they are being helmed by her beau, Paul Thomas Anderson, acclaimed director of "Boogie Nights" and the upcoming "Magnolia." After first teaming up for Apple's cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" (from the "Pleasantville" soundtrack), they recently collaborated on the new album's first single, "Fast as You Can."

"Paul's going to do all my videos from now on," Apple enthuses. "We used all the people from his movie crew, and it's all really fun. I don't have to wear any makeup or anybody else's clothes--no negligees!"

And where "Tidal" was a tsunami of adolescent feelings in which Apple revealed far too much of herself, "When the Pawn" is a decidedly more mature work that trades in youthful melodrama for somber ruminations on shattered relationships and romantic obsession delivered in Apple's husky alto. The album offers cycles of struggle and surrender, optimism and cynicism, hope and hopelessness.

"When I was sequencing the album, I was thinking about the amount of hope in each song," Apple admits. She also recalls cataloguing the album's ever-shifting perspective on relationships: "Don't try it . . . Okay, try it, please . . . Okay, we tried it, it failed . . . Please, one more chance . . . I'm not going to give you one more chance . . . I'm going to go [expletive] something up on purpose."

In "On the Bound," the singer concedes, "It's true/ I do imbue my blue unto myself/ I make it bitter," and there's plenty of residual rage in tracks like "Limp" and "Get Gone." But there's also vulnerability to songs like "The Way Things Are," "To Your Love" and "I Know."

In "Love Ridden," the singer dismisses a former lover when she realizes she's the one in control. "I want your warm, but it will only make me colder when it's over/ So I can't tonight, baby. . . . Only kisses on the cheek from now on/ And in a little while/ We'll only have to wave."

That kind of emotional resilience permeates the album, and Apple insists there's a corollary in her rekindled optimism.

"I lost it for a while because I was so intimidated by the whole situation I was in, and so disappointed by it also," Apple explains. "But I've got it again. For a while I kind of followed what anybody said about me--followed that and was that because that's what I thought they wanted me to be. Now I know what I know."