Strange fruit
(UK) The Times  - METRO·  Jan 29 2000
  by Stephen Dalton

On the morning of my interview with Fiona Apple, a bulbous slab of flesh-coloured plastic plummets past my hotel window and crashes onto the metal balcony below. On closer inspection, this bizarre missile turns out to be, frankly, a sex toy. Anatomically correct, realistically detailed, and slightly grotesque. Welcome to Hollywood. 

It seems a suitably queasy portent for my meeting with the Prozac Princess of self-help rock. Because Fiona Apple is widely held to be the anti-Britney, wise and sad beyond her years, a doe-eyed Maya Angelou fan who seems to be repulsed by her own fame and beauty. 

At 22, Apple describes herself as "very hypersensitive". Even the full 90-word title of her new album, helpfully abbreviated to When the Pawn, is an angry riposte to an unflattering profile in an American rock magazine. Don't mess with Fiona or she'll write a long poem about you.

In person, however, Sensitive Spice proves far less precious and paranoid than her reputation suggests. Sprawled across a sofa in a Hollywood photo studio, the bird-like, tousled-haired singer talks a dry and light-hearted interview. More self-mocking than self absorbed, she is neither the highly strung victim-rocker of media myth, nor the sultry waif with the bee-stung lips who stares vacantly out from early publicity photos.

This healthy new attitude is reflected in the sound of When the Pawn. Behind a sensuous cocktail of slippery jazz-pop rhythms and artfully scrambled verse, Apple proves far more defiant and playful than on her sombre debut album, Tidal, released in 1996. Often inaccurately likened to Alanis Morissette, here she sounds more like leftfield British blues siren Polly Harvey in one of her sunnier moods. 

"The difference between this record and the last one is that now I'm not holding back on any of my opinions," Apple says. "There's a lot less inhibition on this one, and that's just because I'm a lot more confident in my job now. On the first album I went straight from being in high school and playing piano in my room to all of a sudden playing with professional musicians where I just felt unworthy. But since then, I feel much more confident as a singer and songwriter." But, even after three years in the limelight, Apple remains deeply sensitive to media scrutiny. 

Hence that record-breaking album title. "I haven't really developed a thicker skin," she shrugs. "I can't read magazines any more because I'm too afraid of having it ruin my day, even if you know they don't really know you and it's not really about you. Because I'll tell you right now, most of the stuff you know about me probably isn't true. And that's just really frustrating, to have a public image that is not yourself. And I think, goddamn, if I was just a little smarter when I had started all this, maybe it wouldn't be this way right now."

The youngest daughter of actors Brandon and Diane McAfee, Apple's roots were arty and dysfunctional. Her parents met while appearing in a Broadway musical, but split up when she was just four. Apple is her real middle name, while Fiona is a tribute to Cyd Charisse's character in Brigadoon - one of her mother's favourite films. Apple recalls the film taking place in an "old-fashioned Irish community". Not wanting to sound hostile, I gently suggest that Brigadoon is actually set in Scotland. Fiona disagrees. We bet $10 on it.

Raised in New York by her mother and older sister, Amber, Fiona was a solitary child. She spent her schooldays fantasising about suicide, and was pressed into therapy at the age of 11. "I was always a very big magnet for rumours at school," she says. "They thought I was a drug dealer at one point. My school was really small so everybody knew everything about everyone else, and I was just a little pissy kid that didn't want to go to school. I had a really big problem with faking illnesses. I even got myself put on crutches once by saying that my Achilles tendon was pulled. I chose the Achilles tendon because they can't tell for sure." 

At 12, Apple was raped in the corridor outside her family apartment by a stranger who had followed her home. A decade later, she is still suffering the psychological aftershocks. She has admitted to starving herself almost skeletal to avoid feeling like "bait". During periods of self-loathing, she even dated men who reminded her of the rapist. 

Apple wrote a song about the incident, Sullen Girl, but was torn about whether to discuss the subject in interviews. Eventually she opened up, explaining: "I didn't want to lie about it because I didn't know what that would say about that to me. I felt like that would mean I was ashamed of it or trying to hide it." But she is wary of writers presenting her public persona as nothing more than a reaction to being raped. "It certainly contributes to who you are, but so do the good things and the wonderful things in your life," she says. 

Apple found success almost by accident. One of a handful of her teenage demo tapes fell into the hands of music industry publicist Kathryn Schenker, who passed it on to producer Andrew Slater. Slater became Apple's manager and producer, landing her a deal almost instantly with Epic records. Tidal was released when she was just 19 and sold more than three million copies. But sudden fame only depressed Apple further. Critical write-ups made her slash her arms. "It sounds ridiculous but in some weird way it made sense that if I can cut myself and feel the pain and see that something happens because of it, I can know I'm a real person," she says. "At least I have some kind of control over some of the pain I'm feeling. I'm the one who owns my body." 

In 1996, Apple made a video for her Criminal single dressed in skimpy underwear, only to bitterly regret turning herself into a sexual commodity. "I was just being the quintessential teenage girl, flicking through magazines, wanting people to think I'm sexy," she says. "The fact that they wanted to see me in my underwear was a compliment; it was too much temptation. It was a weak point for me, and I justified it to myself because of the apologetic tone of the song. But in reality that was never going to come across the way I wanted."

After the video became an MTV staple, Courtney Love and Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan cornered Apple at a party and advised her that she was talented but heading down the wrong path. When Apple protested that Love also uses her semi-clad body to promote her music, the older star simply replied: "I'm a grown woman." 

Apple's confusion and guilt over Criminal boiled over at the 1997 MTV Awards, where she collected the Best New Artist award. Feeling like a fraud, Apple gave a drunken speech protesting that "this world is bullshit . . . you shouldn't model your life about what you think we think is cool." Her abrasive, clumsy honesty stood out like a fresh bruise against the scripted inanity all around her. But to many, she only came across as self-righteous and hypocritical. 

"It was a moment of utter confusion and disappointment," she sighs. "Disappointment with myself for needing that, because I was on MTV. But once I got there I started realising that this award didn't mean anything to me. I felt so unresponsible for it and I had no pride in it, and that made me start feeling disgusted with everything." 

Apple's MTV outburst split the public. A much-visited website entitled I Hate Fiona Apple became a focus of animosity. [our note: hardly much visited, and seems to no longer exist] Gothic metal star Marilyn Manson invited the singer on a date and composed lurid sex fantasies about her in his autobiography. Meanwhile, the comedy actress Janeane Garofalo recorded a sketch satirising Apple's double standards in advising teenage girls to think for themselves while conforming to fashionable superwaif looks. Last year, when a journalist played Apple this monologue, she burst into tears. Today she simply laughs it off. 

"Janeane Garofalo had a very good point," Apple shrugs. "That is something I hope is the saving grace of all this: I have made mistakes, and my saving grace is to say she's right. Even if I'm going to have to spend a few months being ridiculed for the mistakes I've made, I will also be able to repair those mistakes." Significantly, while the cover of Tidal resembled a glossy fashion shoot, the sleeve of Apple's new album plays down her striking looks. Has she perhaps convinced herself that being attractive is incompatible with being a serious artist?

"There's no way to answer that without sounding like an asshole," she grimaces. "All I can say is that I am a good artist and at some point that will come through. My honest answer is I sometimes think I look pretty and sometimes I look like a f***ing weird monster. But the relevant thing is not looking beautiful or not beautiful, it's looking like yourself or not yourself. And the things where I really look all airbrushed and done up are where I'm not really looking like myself." 

After all the trials of growing up in public, Apple certainly seems happier now than during her brittle teenage years. After all, she only attends therapy "very occasionally" and no longer relies on mountains of anti-depressants. 

"I'm definitely a happier person now," she nods. "I've finally got my footing in life. I have a house now, and friends, and a life which feels good." Part of this new life is her film-maker boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights, and forthcoming millennial epic Magnolia. They live in Hollywood and she says the relationship with Anderson has improved her songwriting, but "only in the sense that I have somebody in particular now that I want to impress." 

Does she ever worry that, if she becomes too happy, her songwriting inspiration might dry up? "I only write songs to help myself so if I felt so happy that I wouldn't have to write, then I really wouldn't write songs any more. I hope that I'm not ever writing songs just because that's my job." 

As for the future, given her current situation, is acting the next career move? "I don't think so," she frowns. "So many people do it because it's just the next step in their careers. They don't have a talent for it or a passion for it. But I would never want to do anything unless I really felt like I was going to be great at it." 

The day after our meeting, an envelope arrives at my hotel. It contains $10 plus a scribbled note: "Let my ignorance about one film give you passage to another." The anti-Britney has phoned her mother and discovered that Brigadoon is set in Scotland. This is my sweet farewell to Hollywood. I set off for the airport, glancing warily upwards in case of falling sex toys.