Sound Off
Fiona Apple
Wall of Sound   
Nov   '99

 by Gary Graff

She's been tagged as a waif, as naive, as a prodigy, a maniac, and a loose cannon. She's also been lauded as a stunning, original artist whose songwriting and vocal skills recall past heroes while standing out as individual and modern. And all for one album albeit a successful one, with more than three million copies sold and a Grammy win to boot. Now, nearly three and a half years after staking her claim for pop importance with Tidal, Fiona Apple has returned. And her new effort, sporting a much-discussed 90-word title that begins When the Pawn , confirms all the good things that its predecessor displayed. More assured and striking than Tidal, When the Pawn is clearly the work of the 22-year-old woman Apple has become, a singer and composer who's not afraid to write frankly about her life and experiences, accepting blame when it's hers and pointing fingers when that's appropriate. In other words, When the Pawn is refreshingly free of angst-filled whining and instead presents a strong point of view from its strong-minded and confident creator. Working with producer and multi-instrumentalist John Brion and percussionist-loop master Matt Chamberlain, Apple makes it sound good, too, with a series of spare but effective soundscapes that frame but never overwhelm her songs. 

You were raised in New York and now live in Los Angeles, where you made the album. Did you have typical East Coaster's culture shock?
Yeah. It's remarkably different. I was out here staying with my dad while I was doing the last album and then didn't live anywhere for two years, until I bought a house here about a year ago. When I was here first, I think I was reacting like most New Yorkers who go to Los Angeles do; everybody hates the other side when they go. I hated it too. And I can't drive. But getting a house makes a difference, because you have somewhere to be that you like, and I'm not really big on going out a lot. 

What was the experience of success like for you with Tidal?
I've always felt lucky that I hadn't been part of a band that had to play, like, forever before it got a break. The downside of being discovered early and having it all happen really fast is that everything that everyone sees is your first time doing something. My first time on television was The Tonight Show, and my second time was Saturday Night Live. There are so many times when you feel like, "I could have been better." And just being in the public and talking to the press and stuff, it takes a long time before you realize you could say something, and then when it comes out a couple of weeks later, you're going to be embarrassed. So you may not be as articulate as you want to be. But it was probably good for me in the long run to go through that.

You also seemed to get taken to task at regular intervals for things you'd say and do.
Oh, yeah, I experienced a lot of f--king backlash that I don't really understand. I feel like a lot of people just didn't like me, but for no real reason. They just didn't like the attitude I was projecting this attitude that came from somebody who doesn't know what the f--k she's doing in the public eye. I got picked on a lot, and it took a toll on me for awhile and just kind of fed itself. I got really upset with the way things were going and that would show in public, because I'm not really good at putting on a game face. I came off like a lonely, sad, confused person. But I really love to be with people, and when I feel joy I feel big joy and I can laugh like nobody's business.

Did you feel much pressure in making the new album?
No. I don't know why I didn't. I'm glad I never worried about that whole second effort thing, because it's probably a terrible worry to have. But I'm so proud of this record. I think it's so much better than the last one. I mean, nobody from the record company was calling me up and telling me to make the next album, so I guess it wasn't in my mind that way. I guess if they had been calling up and saying, "We need the next album. Are you writing? Are you doing this?" then I might have started to feel pressure. But they left me completely alone for six months, which was great. 

What were you after for this album?
My goal was to really enjoy myself this time. Last time I would make myself work as hard as I could, just to prove that I could work hard. I did it so much that I got a certain pride out of it, but I also wasn't having fun at times, and just became addicted to doing everything that everybody wanted me to do. I want to do this for the rest of my life, but I have to be able to enjoy it, and that's the only goal I have. I just want to make that the f--king first priority this time. I want to be more of myself, which is about having fun rather than this self-inflicted workhorse thing. 

There are a lot of very personal-sounding relationship songs on the album. Are they all about yours or do you extrapolate the emotions from other things you see?
I tend to see lots of similarities between the relationships that I have with many different people. So I mold all those people that have one similarity into one persona, and I write a song about that one person. Everything comes from real people and everything comes from real things that happen. All the feelings are things that I feel. But in terms of who I'm talking to in the songs, it's all mixed up. "Limp" is about every single boyfriend I've had and my parents, all my teachers, lots of friends, specific ones. I don't want to name names, but I could. I know exactly who I'm singing about. 

How did you collaborate with John Brion and Matt Chamberlain?
The way I work is this: I've figure my songs out; every song I could go sit down and play at the piano, and it would be a skeleton of what's actually on the album. I'm always set on rhythm and structure, words and melodies, and I have an idea of all the different sounds that I want. But so many things that mean so much to me and that are such a big part of my pride in the album are completely created from, mainly, John and Matt. But John doesn't change structure or ask me to do things. I don't want the world to think I don't come up with the structure of my songs. I want to say how much work John and Matt did; I even wanted to give them writing credit. But I also want to make it clear I'm not just walking in with two chords and my words and they're finishing everything. 

Do you really encounter people who figure it's the men you work with who are really making the music?
Yeah. I was really surprised, because when we were mastering, John had gone over to the mastering place, and I wasn't there yet, and they were listening to "Fast as You Can," and John told me the engineer goes, "That's a great break there. That's a great structure. Did you tell her to do that?" And [Brion's] like, "No. She comes in with it all figured out herself." And I was really happy, but I was also really frustrated, because it all of a sudden made me go, "Wait a second; does everybody think I don't come up with the structures of my songs?" and "Do other people not come up with the structures of their songs? Is that what producers do with other people?" I'm not really sure, but that's why it's so important for me that people know that I do that stuff myself.