Hard Core Pawn
Q · Mar 2000
Therapised and raped by the age of 12, famous and alienated by the music industry at 19, Fiona Apple is feeling better, thank you. She’s got the four million sales, the Boogie Nights boyfriend and she’s not going to "betray" her own kind any more. "I’m more stabilised," she assures Phil Sutcliffe.
The first time Fiona Apple played live, she cried. Admittedly, it was a tough gig. In 1996 she was 18, a bedsit ingénue who had never performed for a crowd bigger than the studio band on her just- finished debut album, Tidal. Sony bundled her off to Paris for a showcase in front of 800 critics and record company executives. Head down, saying nothing, she got through it. But, she says, the moment she stepped offstage, "it all came out. I cried hysterically. Lost it".
Some would say (do say) that Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart takes herself too seriously. Another American female singer-songwriter with affectations of misery and self-absorption, they complain. Others - the four million who bought Tidal, for a start - insist her vulnerability is more than just a genre cliché or image accessory. Certainly, Apple takes everything personally - from departing boyfriends to music magazine articles. However, her appeal is that, even as a five-foot-and-a-sliver flyweight. she spends far more of her time hitting back than moping.
Accordingly, the preposterous 90-word title of her second album (official abbreviation: When The Pawn) is a self-justifying "poem" she wrote two years ago, enraged by a Spin magazine article which made her "look like a moron" - "If you know where you stand," it advises, "then you know where to land and if you fall it wont matter, cuz you know that you’re right’’. And so on.
‘Yeah, it came from being made fun of and then, of course, it becomes a thing I’m being made fun of for," she says with a hint of rue.
Fiona Apple gives great put-down. In "Sleep To Dream," from Tidal, she tells her beau to "just go back to the rock from under which you came". In "Limp," from When The Pawn, she sneers, "Get off now, baby/It won’t he long till you ’ll be/Lying limp in your own hand". By which we can only presume she means his cock.
Curled into a couch at a Los Angeles photo studio, she giggles and ponders a bit. She has at least three speaking voices, depending on the moment’s mood. There's an earnest sixth-former and a feisty old lady in her, But this is one of her Goldie Hawn moments, trilling at the kookiness of it all.
"All through my childhood I did a lot of lying in bed thinking up the perfect way to tell somebody off," she laughs, "I mean, what I really say is, Aaaaaaah, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! But that’s not good literature."
Long ago, she named and shamed her Tidal target as a former school boyfriend called Tyson. This time the presumption is that When The Pawn kisses off her more famous between-albums beau David Blaine - rising-star "street magician’’ predecessor to Apple’s present live-in, Paul Thomas Anderson. director of the film Boogie Nights.
"On many of the songs I am actually saying those things to particular people in such a way that, even if they don't realise it’s them, they’ll feel uncomfortable," says the earnest sixth-former. "I'm not religious, but I think I’ve been treated unfairly a lot and I want justice to be done every time. I'm not saying, You have sinned and you’re going to hell. It’s, You’re going to the hell of being exiled from me."
So she feels that men have given her a lot to complain about?
The salty dowager laughs richly. "I swear, that’s funny. My first thought was, No! Paul’s great! But then I thought, Wait, men. And I realised that, God, the people the songs are about, when I knew them they were boys. It was in school! That feels really weird..."
She is 22, but her childhood seems unusually close to her. Inescapably, she is scarred by one big terrible thing. As she disclosed when asked about the Tidal track "Sullen Girl" ("He took my pearl/And left an empty shell of me"), at 12 she was raped by a middle-aged man in the corridor outside her mother's Manhattan apartment.
Now, she seeks to play it down. "It doesn’t get into the writing," she insists. "It's a boring pain, its such a fuckin’ old pain that, you know, there’s nothing poetic about it."
But childhood knocked her about in more ordinary was’s too and she was in therapy even before the rape. Her parents, who met when acting in a musical, broke up when she was four (the Apple is her real middle name handed down from her father’s grandmother). Then, at school - in New York or Los Angeles according to whether she was staying with her mother or father - her bespectacled nerviness tagged her as the "weird" one. They nicknamed her "Dog" and designated her prime cruelty victim.
‘‘Once kids say those things, you get pinned and there’s nothing you can do about it," she sighs. So I refused to go to school. My mother would send me out of the house and I'd turn around and ring the doorbell until she let me back in. I went into evaluation and they said, She has sonic kind of mood disorder. The kids heard about that and made fun of me even more - 'Go on, I dare you, ask her if she’s crazy!'"
Throughout this emotional battering her piano, which she started playing when she was eight, proved her saving grace. She even took to roller-skating round the living-room a talismanic 88 times for safety, once for each key.
"The piano is percussive, you hit it," she says. "It was a huge release for me just banging on it."
She actually composed her first tune by hammering away silent-movie style to animal chase scenes on the National Geographic Explorer TV channel, but toned it down when she began to write lyrics - her first was " Sleep To Dream," Tidal's opening track, penned when she was 14. In her new private worId she sang her secrets and, more mundanely, became absorbed in burrowing through "phrase origin" reference books for striking words: words like "derring-do", "rigadoon" and "desideratum".
"I love language and the stories behind words," she chortles. "It means something to know that a rigadoon is a dance where people stay a certain distance from one another. It’s cool that a kid might hear some word or phrase from my songs, look it up and start using it. Oh I’d love it.’’
Although, at 17, her songs remained secluded in her bedroom, the improbable journey from there to Paris and the American charts, in a little over a year proved absurdly easy. Defensively enclosed and unworldly, she got her wake-up call when a glitch in LA’s education system left her temporarily stranded between schools. She says, "For the first time I realised, Oh wow I ’m going to be in trouble, I’d better flgure out what l’m going to do with my life. So what am I good at? Music was it."
And sheer, wild luck poured down on her. She recorded a demo at home and, via a friend, it reached manager-producer Andy Slater. She trusted him, they recorded Tidal and in no time it was licensed through Sony.
Lifetime rock’n ‘roll strugglers and journeymen may spit now. But, at least, she wasn’t ready and it didn’t make her happy.
Famous, money flooding in, at the 1997 MTV Awards she scandalised the music business when, accepting the award for Best New Artist, she replaced the obligatory gush of thanks and industry gung-ho with an unrehearsed address which began, "This world is bullshit!" and went on to denounce all the gimcrack glitter of the occasion with some relish. Later, via her internet site, she explained to fans that the ceremony made her feel like "a sell-out" because "I had successfully created the illusion that I was perfect and pretty and rich... I'd saved myself from misfit status, but I’d betrayed my own kind by becoming a paper doll in order to be accepted."
She was especially repentant about stripping to her underwear for the video of her first hit, Criminal, and vowed, at least, never to do anything like that again. But, in some inconsolable part of her soul, what she felt was "an awful burden, confusion, fear, anxiety about the future, about how am I gonna function because I don’t know how. It was overwhelming."
Rows of gift horses line up. Fiona Apple kicks their teeth in. So it seemed. This is the side of her that provoked one American interviewer to warn Q venomously, "She's a ****. She knows the game and she won't play it."
****y or just true to herself? Significantly, she was adamant about bringing her own clothes for the Q photo session. When The Pawn’s key line may be "I’ ve acquired quite a taste/For a well-made mistake" (A Mistake).
By her own account, she is ready for her second "campaign". Ready even to take on the British who, in the mid-’90s, embraced the rowdily vengeful confessions of Alanis Morissette rather than Apple’s more stealthy slash and burn (Tidal sold only 25,000 in UK - commercially the reverse of her Clean Slate labelmate Macy Gray, also managed by Andy Slater).
While not a natural public artist, Fiona Apple has finally decided that this is her life. The eager sixth-former blurts: "When I did Tidal it was more for the sake of proving myself, telling people from my past something - and to also try to get friends for the future. What makes all the difference in the world is that now I’m much freer to enjoy things, I’m settled within myself, I'm more stabilised with a house and friends and a boyfriend, you know I’m not looking for any more friends, I’m just able to enjoy my job for itself which I wasn’t before because I was using it to get something else and I wasn’t getting it so I resented it, but I love to with words and I love to play with music and now I know that’s why I’m doing it."
And with that, she goes for a wee.
huge thank yous to sallytbyml!