A talk, like, with Fiona Apple
Sun Sentinel    Oct 4  '97

by Sean Piccoli

Never mind what she sings, people are still talking about what Fiona Apple said.

After a quotable appearance on MTV's Music Video Awards telecast last month, the young, fragile-looking pop star rolled out of bed the very next morning to brave Howard Stern's radio shock zone.

Apple, who headlines Sunrise Musical Theatre tonight, fenced to a draw with the fast-talking Stern -- and on his home turf.  She also got back at video awards host Chris Rock, who had dubbed her ''Fiona X'' for a blistering acceptance speech she delivered on receipt of the Best New Artist award.

''This world is [expletive),'' Apple said that night, clutching her statuette and dumping on the pop life that MTV reveres before a live television audience. ''You shouldn't model your life after what we think is cool. . . . And it's just stupid that I'm in this world.'' ''But,'' she added, maybe not wanting to alienate her entire peer group, ''you're all very cool to me.''
Some of that ambivalence shows up in the video for Apple's latest single, Criminal, a skin parade of high-life cliches, starring Apple herself, and directed by another 1997 video award winner, Mark Romanek -- who serves up the clip's erotica with clammy detachment, like it's a plate of cold cheese.

''It was really kind of like a whole tongue-in-cheek thing about sexy video,'' Apple, who turned 20 last month, says in a telephone interview.  ''But for me, it was like -- the song itself was about kind of, I guess in a phrase, cheap thrills. Because the song was written about a guy I didn't like that much, but who really liked me.''

In the song -- and in conversation -- Apple admits that she treated this fellow less than sensitively.  She then wrote "Criminal" ''to make myself feel better, to give myself an ego boost.  ''There's certain kinds of pleasure,'' she says reflectively.  ''There's pleasure with pride, and there's guilty pleasure.''  "Criminal," obviously, addresses the latter.

Apple -- a New Yorker whose million-selling debut album, Tidal (Work/Sony), has spawned three hit singles -- deals often in the torture of one-sided love. Apple comes at her subject on ethereal, piano-based meditations like "Shadowboxer," "Sleep to Dream" and "Criminal" with a dark voice that startles, coming from this almost waifish, wide-eyed figurine of a woman.

Signed to a Sony Music affiliate on the strength of a demo tape, Apple had never performed publicly until after Tidal's release.

She swirls in contradictions -- some of her own making, others manufactured.  Worldly but young, she is alternately held up as teen-age spacey and smart beyond her years -- ''wizened yet clueless,'' in the words of writer Bret Easton Ellis, who used the phrase to describe his own post-Baby Boom generation.

Touring with Counting Crows earlier this year -- an inaugural road trip that also brought her to Sunrise in February -- Apple's performance at Boston's Orpheum attracted the attention of one reviewer.  Said critic called her ''tongue-tied'' and ''the personification of 'teenspeak', '' then skewered her with her own mincing words: ''[H)er introduction to one song went something like this,'' the critic wrote.  '' 'People say, like, all my songs are about pain and stuff, and I guess that's true.  This song is about, you know, the pain you feel when you like a cool guy, but he doesn't want to ask you out or whatever.' ''  Whatever.
Lyrically, Apple writes with a piercing eloquence informed by difficult experience.  On "Sleep to Dream," she regards an ambivalent other with contempt: ''You say love is a hell you cannot bear/And I say give me mine back and then go there.''

Her parents -- performing artists who never married -- separated when Apple was 4.   Her young life on New York's Upper West Side was a panoply of broken-home misfortune: anger, depression, visits to the psychiatrist, school for the learning-disabled, and, at age 12, rape.  Apple addresses the trauma and aftermath of the attack in an unflinching song called "Sullen Girl."

She also speaks thoughtfully and directly about her own role models, including writer Maya Angelou, whose poetry Apple used to sing aloud when she was younger.  ''Even more than an influence, [Angelou) was just kind of inspirational,'' Apple says. ''She was just very honest. . . . I figured that that's what writing was really all about.  There's a lot of [expletive) being written, especially in music now.''

Occasionally, Apple's age shows:  A questioner's reference to Nico, the broken-doll singer of Andy Warhol's 1960s New York rock collective, the Velvet Underground, sails right by -- ''I have no idea what that is,'' Apple says.  But her musical influences reach well beyond her own lifespan.

''I was influenced by John Lennon, Joan Armatrading and even with piano because I used to write, like, classical things -- well, not really classical, but instrumental -- Debussy,'' she says.

Then there's the poise and maturity it takes to release a serious, studied pop album that spends a year on the Billboard album sales chart. Released late last summer, Tidal peaked at No. 15 and still hovers in the top 30.   Sales got a boost from the MTV awards appearance.

In short, Apple is growing up -- in public.  Like fiery Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, Apple is finding herself and sometimes fighting internal battles onstage.  At Sunrise in February, she wore a pair of white wings onstage but seemed to find no humor in the flourish.  Her occasional outbursts, as on MTV, could pass for tantrums, performance or pure expression.

''Even people that are coached and stuff, there's no way to prepare for this,'' she says of life in the fishbowl. ''You can't learn it.'' You just have to live it.

''I don't really listen to the album now, because I feel like it frustrates me,'' she says, ''because I don't think I knew how to sing when I was making the album.  That's when I was learning how to sing.  And I wasn't ready for any of this stuff, and I'm still not ready for it.''

Touring for nine months has helped, Apple says.  She promises a difference between the retreating performer who opened for Counting Crows and the singer who returns as the headliner.

''I've definitely kind of gotten off the training wheels,'' she says of her live singing.  

As for the other challenges, she's arguably as ready as anybody who became a star at 19.   ''It depends on what goes into the years you've lived,'' Apple says. ''Some people have lived 80 years and haven't seen half the stuff I've seen.''  fin