Heart Core
City Beat [Cincinnati]    Apr  '97

by Kathy T. Wilson

Chanteuse Fiona Apple handles her increasing fame with grace and modesty.

It's the voice that startles.

Fiona Apple sings low.  Hers is a husky, nearly monotone drone.  Already music critics nationwide have compared her to the expatriate chanteuse Nina Simone.

But that is too painfully apparent, and Apple -- a doe eyed woman-child straddling so many genres that her limbs must be cramping -- isn't so obvious in what she does.   Except for when she talks.

That is the voice that jars.

Melancholy and poetic lyrics emerged from her adolescent bedroom and landed on her debut album, Tidal (WORK/Clean Slate).  The expectation was for a voice melded from a diet of pre-dawn conversations and Camels to answer questions during a phone interview before a Milwaukee concert.  But her adolescent-pitched speaking voice, frequent giggles and self-deprecating humor betrayed who she really is -- a 19 year old woman who just got the lights turned on her.

Apple is not so much the veritable deer caught in the headlights as she is a pedestrian surprised by the fact that others are interested in where she's been, what she's seen and what she has to say about it.  Dichotomous and contradictory, that's what she is.   But it's OK, because it's so real it works.

For example, the New York native's album is fraught with references to Blues and Jazz, but she cites poet Maya Angelou as her single influence.  The musical chops she picked up by accident.

"My stuff kind of sounds like I know a lot about Jazz, but I don't," Apple says.  She taught herself standards from The Real Book, a guitar book of Jazz standards her mother had around the house.

She can't name any seminal Jazz or Blues albums but cites Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as favorite singers.  She's a classically trained musician who rarely listens to music but touts Philadelphia-based hip-hoppers The Roots as one of her current favorite bands.

She does not subscribe to an organized religion but prefers to think of herself as "extremely spiritual."  Once, as a young girl, she made up her own religion, constructing a shrine to a clay Mayan statue.  It was one of the many feats, compounded by her somber demeanor, that earned her a stint in therapy.   Perhaps most intriguing about what makes Apple run is her lack of internal dialogue -- musically and personally.  If she has seen or felt it, you will know.

"I'm always paying attention," she says of the reportage songwriting style.  "It's involuntary with me.   I'm always overanalyzing things in my head."

Now she grapples with it all while poised on the cusp of being the Next Big Thing.  She's not even sure if she will embrace being Suddenly Fiona.

"It's more like trying to get through each performance," she says.  "If I kept doing interviews, photo shoots and if I worked my ass off....I could get to a certain place of recognition.  I'm sensing a very devoted fan base.  It may end up being small forever, which is fine with me."

Unlike her peers, who milk a successful debut for two years, tour and then record a sound-alike sophomore album, Apple hasn't given her career track much thought.  "I don't know what's going to happen next.  I kind of don't like making those kind of plans.  I have too much of a problem not living in the moment as it is."

Apple could be viewed as an over-sensitive alien were it not for her typical angst-ridden adolescence. Like most of us, she took refuge in her bedroom.  Only she wrote, sang and played music whose lyrics were introspective, yet mature. She would emerge with homemade tapes to play for her now-divorced parents.

"I can remember I would be so embarrassed to sing in front of people because my voice was so deep," she says. "Like, I'd make these tapes in my bedroom and play them for my parents and I'd hide my face when my voice came in."

After she was raped in November 1989 by an intruder in the Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan where she lived with her mother and sister, she dealt with her mental and emotional repair head-on.  Apple was 12 years old.

Like most everything else, the incident made it into a song. She still talks openly about it, but not in a self-serving manner.

"I think I could become the poster child for rape for awhile but it wouldn't last," she says.  "It's almost my duty to be honest about it because it happened to so many people out there.  Why should you be burdened with it being too icky a subject or a conversation stopper? It's painful and people need to talk about it."

Where does the candor come from?  Apple does not know, but she says it's the only way she knows how to be.

The frightening scenario is if she doesn't have such a powerful outlet for her emotions, would she be walking among us delusional or even insane?

"I don't think I'd be somewhere crazy, crazier than I already am," she says.  "I might be like I am, only by myself.  My life plan was to start some kind of charity or run off somewhere and be a slacker.  I still have these dreams of making pottery on the beach in Hawaii."

There's still time.  After all, don't let the voices fool you.  She's only 19.  fin