Keyboard · Nov '97
|She's 19 and she's sold a
million records, but Fiona Apple seems unimpressed by the accolades. She's been
called a child prodigy, but this singer/songwriter from New York wants no part of
it. She says she writes songs because she has to. ''It's
a way of life. A mechanism for survival.'' and one that keeps her head above
the water in a sea of doubt and uncertainty. Tidal, Fiona's piano-driven
pop debut for Sony Music, hit gold in late '96 and climbed to the platinum mark by the
following summer. But forget the sales figures. The most mind-boggling aspect
of this artist is the maturity of her music -- music that seems penned by a person twice
that why they call me a sullen girl
Dig a bit deeper into Fiona's childhood and the picture starts to come into focus. When she was only 11, a rapist gained entry into the family apartment and stole her innocence. ''For a long time my only choice was to write what I felt,'' she says, "because when you're 11 and you're having very serious thoughts about things, it's hard when everyone dismisses you because you're only 11. No one took me seriously. The only people that really listened to me were shrinks, and they were getting paid. I remember feeling so frustrated all the time. The recurring feeling I had growing up was, 'You just don't understand. I have to explain myself again? Please listen to me. I have this way of thinking, and you just don't get it. You don't know the way I think. Give me a chance to tell you how I think. Give me a chance to describe it. Listen to me as long as it takes.' And I never got that from anybody. So I tended to turn to paper.''
When Fiona had confrontations with her parents she often ''walked out in the middle of it, and wrote a letter in my room because it was just so much easier to express myself and get everything out. You know when you're in the heat of the moment, it's really hard to articulate your emotions, but if you go away and sit down and write, then you have the time and patience to get your thoughts across more clearly. You have all the time in the world to explore your mind and heart and to figure out exactly what it is you feel, and exactly what it is you want to say.''
"Also I had such shame about being the way I was. Because I was sent to therapy, I thought, 'Wow I'm so sensitive and so crazy and so weird and all this stuff. There's something wrong with that. And I felt so ashamed of that for so long it turned into anger.' Why am I spending all my time trying to hide the fact I have deep emotions? What's wrong with that? Why am I letting people tell me there's something wrong with that? Fuck that. If everyone's gonna tell me that's wrong, then I'm gonna do the opposite of what they're telling me to do. I'm not gonna hide anymore. In fact, I'm going to stick it in your face. You think it's bad to be sensitive? Fuck you, I'm sensitive. Here it is, and I'm gonna smash it in your face as much as I can. Once I learned to not ignore it anymore, to stick it in my own face, I think people could relate to that.''
Relate they did. Well over a year after the release of Tidal, Fiona is still on the charts, still on MTV, and still on the road. At press time her third single ''Criminal" was in heavy rotation. Keyboard tracked her down in Atlanta, where she'd just finished a leg on the highly-publicized Lilith fair tour.
You wrote your first song at age 11, correct?
I wrote my first song with lyrics at 11, but I started writing instrumentals when I was eight.
Describe those early songs.
When I wrote instrumentals, I would watch things like National Geographic where a tiger would be chasing an antelope, or something like that and I'd write music to go along with it. All along I was writing words, so I eventually realized that you could put the two together and create something that was very compact and direct -- something that expressed how you felt about the world.
What did the first song at 11 sound like?
It was called ''The truthful night,'' and [laughs] it was one of those general, this is how I see the world at 11-type things.
And your piano playing?
It was a lot more melodic than it is now -- a lot more melodic and elaborate sounding, because back then I didn't think of myself as a singer at all, so everything was concentrated on piano.
Was there a defining moment in your early piano development, a breakthrough that you can point to?
I took classical piano lessons for about three of four years, and it was great because it taught me skill and it taught me how to read music and play a few sonatas and things like that, but I got bored with it. Eventually it turned all of my passion for the instrument into obligation. I felt like all I was doing was homework. So I stopped that, and when I really started playing the piano again -- really loving it and developing my own style -- was when I found a book of my mom's one day called The Real Book, a book of jazz standards. They call it The Real Book because they're used to the jazz books ''fakebooks,'' which just had the basic chord progressions and people would jam out to those particular chords. And that's what I like my songs to be like, really. I don't like to have too strict a plan. I think things come out so much meaningful, moving, honest, and effective as music when you just play what you feel.
How do you view your relationship with the piano today?
Honestly, I'm not a very skilled pianist. I can play my own stuff, obviously better than anyone else can, but as far as other music goes, I'm really not very good. Everything I play now is more rhythmic. When I write at the piano, the rhythms of the piano, drums, and bass are the most important part to me. So I usually play piano as though I'm all three instruments. It's hard because...when we were making the album, [producer] Andy Slater was always saying, "No we have to take it back to what you wrote it on. Back to the roots, that's the only way it's going to sound real." And the whole time I was saying "But I don't want to play piano on this. I only wrote songs on the piano because it's the only instrument I know. I don't want this to be a fuckin' piano album.'' But Andy kept saying, "No, this is how you sound. This is you."
When you sit down to write, does it tend to be a painless experience more often than not?
I actually don't think that I have enough experience to answer that. Maybe after the next album is done. But what I can tell you is that I was miserable making the album. Absolutely miserable. One of the low points of my life. I hated it. I hated going in there and working for 12 hours and focusing on music, because music was never something that I ever focused on so seriously. It was just this little fun thing that I did, and then all of a sudden it was a really important thing where everything had to sound perfect and I had to prove myself. At one point during the making of the album I had to take one month off and go to New York. I had to get out of it for a while because I started to feeling like I was working in a vacuum. I'm not a big music listener to begin with, but once I started to recording I couldn't listen to anything. Music made me sick -- physically sick. About the only thing I could listen to was classical music, and toward the end not even that. When we were going into the last couple weeks of making the album, Andy and I didn't know if it was a piece of shit or a master piece. We had no clue.
And now that a year has passed, how do you view it?
I have my own way of thinking about it, which is ... first of all, I've only listened to the record a couple of times, and that was right after it came out just to hear how it sounded. I know myself very well, and I know the things that I have to do to make me happy. The thing is, if I start listening to it, I'll find all kinds of things ...obviously, I didn't know how to sing when I made the album. Making the album was how I learned to sing. So if I go back and listen to it, I guarantee I'll find things in it where I'll go, "Man I suck." And to dwell on that would be meaningless. That would be just my insecurity talking. More importantly, if there are people out there who get something out of my music, they get something out of it because they hear that I'm being honest. They hear that I mean what I'm saying, not that I'm technically perfect. That's all that matters to me. Since I know that I gave it all I had, that's all I really need to know to be proud of it. I don't need to bother myself by examining the details.
As you were writing the songs for this record, and as the songs were presumably taking shape as complete arrangements in your head, how important was it to recreate those mental images in the studio, as opposed to just letting the songs evolve into whatever?
There were usually one or two really important things in each song; one key thing about the music that I had to -- absolutely had to -- get across. But everything else wasn't really planned. I didn't really figure everything out down to the last note or sound. When we went in [to the studio], I'd say things like, "I want this kind of sound going on at some point during here." I really think that music comes out so much better when you get musicians who you respect and trust, and you can tell them," This is how I want the song to feel. Go out and play this feeling." Another thing .... When I made the album, I didn't know anything about instruments at all. And I still don't know that much. But it was hard to take what was in my head and translate it to," Oh I need a Chamberlain [vintage tape-based sampling keyboard] for this part." I didn't know the names of any instruments, so I'd have to go up to Andy and say," I'm thinking of something that would sound like this. Kind of a guitar, but not quite ...."
Were the songs on Tidal written during the same approximate period of time, or do some date back to early teens?
It's all over the place. A bunch of them I wrote for the album. Others, like "Never is a Promise," I wrote when I was 15." "Slow like Honey" I wrote when I was 17, but I based it on a short story I wrote when I was 16. "Sleep to Dream" took a few years to write because I wrote a verse everytime I had a boyfriend [laughs]. What'll happen is, I'll write one line of something and leave it alone for years. And then the rest of it may come to me, and I might write the rest of it in five minutes, ten years later, or it may take me ten hours straight. It just depends on how I feel, or what I think will work best for each song. "Criminal" I wrote in 45 minutes at the studio toward the end of the album.
Really, 45 minutes?
Yeah. It was just an experiment for myself. Everything I write is from my heart, but in this case I locked myself in the studio one night when everyone else went out for dinner. They were gone for 45 minutes, and I said, "I'm not gonna get up till I've written this song." And I wrote "Criminal." I mean, I had an idea in my head for it, so it wasn't like I just said all of a sudden, "Okay I'm going to write a song called "Criminal."
know, there's always one thing that comes to you without having to search for it. There's
always a phrase or an emotion. Or I might go through a situation where I have to
fight with somebody, or I'll find myself completely overwhelmed by something, and I'll
plop down on the bed and start writing. And that's where a song begins.
Oftentimes, the material on an artist's first record is a result of many years of songwriting, whereas the second time around the artist is forced to write an entire album in a much shorter period of time. Are you feeling that pressure now as you look ahead to your follow-up?
No, 'cause I've got it all for my next record. But back when the album was first released, people used to ask me about the next record, and it was amazing to me. They'd ask, "When is the next one coming out?" And I'd go, "What the fuck? I just spent everything I have, and everything that I am making on this, and now you want more?" And I pissed some people off over in France, because when they asked me that, I'd say "You know what, I don't think I'm going to do another one." And I'd say it just to piss people off. It was a situation where I felt like, "You want something from me that I'm not ready to give? Fuck you." Because it's ridiculous when people pull songs out of their asses just so they can have a follow-up. And if there's anybody out there who appreciates what I do, it's my honesty they appreciate. So if I'm gonna go and pull songs out of my ass, then people who are my fans now aren't going to be my fans again. And the people who aren't my fans now won't be either. I can't write on demand. They can put as much pressure on you as they want, but it's not gonna change anything. You can't pressure somebody into having an orgasm, basically. Writing a song is something natural within you. You have to feel it.
Was there ever a moment of panic as you set out to write the new batch of songs?
There was a time when I was truly afraid that I wasn't going to be able to write anymore for the next album. But I finally realized that if you're a writer, then you're gonna write no matter what. You're gonna write on the bottom of your shoe if you have to. When there's no one to talk to, there's paper, and that's all. And now, I'm not even worried. If it turns out that I don't have enough for the next album I don't care, because I figure I'm going to go into the studio with what I have, and whatever happens when I get there is what happens.
Describe the typical steps you take conceiving and creating a song. Does it often start at home, alone at the piano?
That was the typical method a while ago, but for the past year and a half I haven't had a piano. So my methods of songwriting have changed. Because I'm on the road, it comes mainly from lyrics. It used to come from sitting at the piano and playing improv, and as I was playing there would be one thing that I would play, maybe one little phrase of music that would catch my ear in a particular way, and I would think, "That says something to me. I like that. I'll build a song on that." But in general I think it does start with lyrics with me. At the beginning of the tour I was really afraid that I wasn't going to have the same situations and same conditions under which I wrote songs. I was really afraid of that, and that's why I forced myself to write a song in 45 minutes, just to prove to myself that I could write no matter what was happening around me. And not for the purpose of turning out more songs to make more money or make another album, but really just because... this is not a career. It's really a mechanism for survival and for staying sane. Not to sound flaky, but I'd go crazy if I didn't write.
Are lyrics ever inspired by what you're creating on the piano?
Sometimes you hear music, and in music you hear words. You might go, That's a really nice piece of music out there. That's a nice three notes. The only words that could possibly go with that are, 'In the blue of my oblivion,' or whatever.
How do you save your musical ideas -- do you keep a tape recorder or pad of manuscript paper by the piano?
I've got seven notebooks that I write stuff down in. And it's something that you have to force yourself to do sometimes. I might be in the middle of something and, "Oh I've got an idea," and then you have to run off and write it down. Just the way you run to go to the bathroom, you run and go to the notebook and let it all out.
When you say "notebook," is that for notating music in addition to lyrics?
No. First of all, I don't have the patience to write music down, and second of all, if I did have the patience to write it down, I wouldn't have the patience to read it again. So the most that I'll ever do is write down a couple of chords, like a chord progression that I'm basing something on. But I hardly do that, even. I mean, normally things happen so gradually. I don't sit down and try to think up a song. It'll happen through improvisation, and because it happens that way, and because it happens so gradually, I don't need to memorize it or even think about it because it's already ingrained. If I'm going through a creative process where it's developing bit by bit, then I'm going to remember it involuntarily.
Have you ever been tempted to use a synth and/or a computer to sequence your new song ideas?
It has interested me, and actually right before I made the album I got myself a keyboard with all these different sounds on it. It had all these recording mechanisms and everything, and... I never used it. Ever. Maybe someday I will, but really I'm not the kind of writer who sits down to write. I really just write whenever I feel like it, and not any other time.
You mentioned earlier about how rhythmic your piano playing has become, but how does melody factor into you songwriting process?
I'm really about chords, first and foremost, and it usually all starts with improvisation. Like, I'll just start playing chords, and riffing off the top of my mind. And then the melody comes, but I really don't know how it develops. It just does. Like I can't remember writing any of the stuff I wrote. I know I wrote it, but I don't remember coming up with it, and going, "Oh I'll put a D there."
Do you ever have those magical moments when you'll jump up from the piano bench, elated over what you've just written?
[Laughs.] No. It's really weird. I don't get like that. I mean, I would jump up if I did something I hated, or wasn't getting it, but it's not easy for me to get positively excited about things. And it goes that way with everything. I tell people around me not to say numbers. "Don't tell me how many tickets we've sold. Don't tell me what number the record is on the charts." And if they were to tell me, "You're number One all across the board," I'd probably be like, "Oh, okay." But if they said, "Everybody hates you," then I'd probably get excited. Fuck!" But I never sit down and go, 'Damn I'm good."
From the sound of it, you try hard not to over analyze the process, whatever the process is.
Exactly. The way I see it is, if you try for it, it won't happen. It's like trying to get a wild animal to eat out of your hand. If you're gonna chase after it, it's never going to come to you. But if you sit there openly, and you do your own thing, the whole muse will approach you. And I don't see any reason to look for it anyway. I mean, I don't see the point in people writing just for writing's sake. I'm not going to write songs forever if that's not what happens naturally. A song is supposed to to be a true expression-an uninhibited expression of your emotions and perspective. And if your gonna force something like that, the truth will never come out.
What books or writers have inspired you as a songwriter?
I haven't been reading that much lately, but the author who really influenced me the most is Maya Angelou. She's just...I've never had that experience like I have with her books, where she'll describe the pain of a certain experience, and I'll actually feel it. Like, she'll say what it was like having you're ribs beaten on, and I'll feel it. And that's only happened to me when reading her writing. It frustrates me to see so many "writers" out there who just aren't really writers. Because I think that when you're a true writer, the thing you need to do is make somebody see what you're describing. And Maya Angelou does that. It's really amazing -- like alchemy in a way. Putting together words and making them into something incredible. For me, the two most influential things about writing that I've encountered are Maya Angelou's poetry and especially her books. Her book Gather Together in My Name was a huge book for me. But I think the most important book I've ever read in my life is actually not by Maya Angelou, it's The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. I loved it because he created his own language of life. He didn't conform to anyone's idea of what a book should be about or in what setting you should place your morals. He created these situations and characters that had nothing to do with anyone I'd ever met or heard about before. The combinations of those two courages -- the courage and the gall to create an insane world as John Irving did, and the courage of Maya Angelou to express weakness and vulnerability in such direct, simple beauty -- have changed me and made me.
Considering the deeply personal nature of your lyrics, the release of your album must have felt like a symbolic diary reading to the world.
Oh yeah. I was almost nervous when the album came out because I knew there would be people who would be seeing me on MTV or whatever, and I'd have to explain myself.
A final thought you'd like to share with our readers?
Just that everything I've said and everything that you're gonna write that I've said is total Bullshit when not applied to me. Like, everybody out there who's gonna read this and read about how I write songs and stuff should read it and then disregard it and figure out their own way to do it. Workshops are fine if you take what you want out of them, but everyone's got to find their own path to do things. Everyone's got to create their own realities. That's what I learned from The Hotel New Hampshire: You've got to create your own reality, and fuck what everyone else thinks. fin