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."