i-D magazine (UK) ∑ March 2000
by Susan Corrigan
Molded into an MTV icon at the age of 19, Fiona Apple was a blueprint for
tortured teenage angst. She spilt the beans on her tricky childhood, then disappeared for two years. Now she's back, a little older, a little wiser.
But will the world give her a second chance?
The girl on the phone has a nice life. Thatís what people donít know about Fiona Apple. In America, especially, they seem to think they know everything about this reedy Manhattanite, like they know everything about their stars - but in reality they know as much about Fiona Apple as we know across the Atlantic: big eyes, long legs and skinned knees, but somehow the source of a voice of depth and experience. Maybe instead of dwelling on image, on the Fiona Apple brand, people should start looking at Fiona Apple for who she really is: a 22-year-old who no longer looks like the physical embodiment of a Rita Ackermann painting. To connect that fabulous, rich voice back to the person who pours it out. This is going to get much easier for the public now itís become so easy for Fiona. Sheís spent two years Ďawayí - in wherever it is celebrities Ďgoí - and returns from that place brandishing more songs, an LP. This isnít a difficult sophomore effort, despite an arduous title. Deep breath: When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King What He Knows Throws The Blows When He Goes To The Fight And Heíll Win The Whole ĎFore He Enters The Ring Thereís No Body To Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo You Hold Your Own Hand And Remember That Depth Is The Greatest Of Heights And If You Know Where To Stand You Know Where To Land And If You Fall It Wonít Matter Cuz Youíll Know That Youíre Right.
Phew. Donít call it a comeback.
Where did you go, Fiona, and why are you here? The girl laughing down the phone line (sheís in LA) is light-years away from a description as a basket-case and thankfully also free from the Iím-doing-it-for-the-music attitude shared by media-burned pop stars. Sheís more like a writer who can sing; indeed, she never used to cite anything but Maya Angelou when she talked about inspiration. Something sheís learned to take from herself now, each time she turns the page in her journal or opens her eyes in another city. Sheís been shooting a video in an old house in Pasadena to match "Fast As You Can," the single from When The Pawn insistently snaking its way across the airwaves. Luckily for someone who hates videos, her director is boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson: sheís been with the film-maker for about two years now and his colleagues are her friends too. Theyíve just come back from the premiere of Magnolia which is getting even better reviews than his previous film, Boogie Nights. Sheís comfortable with him; itís a good environment to discover and receive a welcome to. Maybe sheís stronger because of it.
"For the first LP, I felt like I handed decision-making to a lot of people who didnít really know me. Going into the second album I didnít think it would be difficult to write - instead I was glad to know exactly the way I wanted to do it this time. Now there are guys I play with and I feel like Ií m in a band, even though it says ĎFiona Appleí on the stage." People expecting a big choke under pressure because of the scared-looking girl in the spotlight should look for something - or somebody - else. "As far as having your whole lifetime for a first album and months to do a second, I donít really believe in that. Iím writing about things Iím feeling in a moment. So when I write songs. Iím not writing about things learned over the course of one year, Iím writing about how Iím feeling at that moment. Itís easy; those moments still exist. It would be different if I was writing about what Iíve learned. Iím just writing about confusion I have and those confusions will always be there. Before, it was hard to talk about anything else. I wanted to redeem myself from all that bad stuff - and now I want to redeem myself from all the things I said and did because of that!"
Maybe itís because America has a tradition of female singer-songwriters dating back to the early Ď70s - when British heroines of this nature stayed in the margins rather than be Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon - that Fiona Apple was put through her paces this way. Maybe itís the British capacity for promoting Youth as a concept, rather than affixing this talisman or curse to any specific individual.., who isnít a supermodel. And just maybe America almost swallowed Fiona Apple whole, and like the Alpha male in a pride of lions, left the rest of the world to pick her bones. Or brain.
In 1996, at the tender but marketable age of 19, Fiona Appleís first LP Tidal hit the racks. In America - looking from the safety of the shopping mall, as usual, for someone to symbolise a paranoid vision of urban youth - Fiona Apple appeared made to order. Her country had run out of male angst to dissect and had settled on young women from big cities for the next post-mortem. Young women with A Past - and this nation of middle-class Puritans trapped in a cult of Psych 101 didnít know whether to love or hate Fiona Apple. Long and thin, she looked interesting, but vulnerable: those big bruise-blue, Iíve-just-stopped-crying eyes were windows to pain, a lifetime of school bullying and self-cutting sheíd be forced to highlight for every single reporter who shook her strong, bony hand.
Three million albums later, it still wasnít enough. Fiona herself never forgot who she was - the shy one in class, who hailed from so far north on the Upper West Side you couldnít call her an Uptown Girl, holding a secret inside her. This was her voice - a honey-thick, low rumble suggesting Billie Holiday, cigarettes and the excesses of Janis Joplin. You donít hear it when she talks to you, but itís how she speaks. "The most frustrating thing for me is that I started this whole thing wanting to make that first album because I was so shy. Of meeting people, of being misunderstood. I thought if I made an album itíd be like a little calling card, an introduction, so everyone would know who I was and I wouldnít have to explain myself anymore," Fiona sighs. "But it completely backfired. If anything, I was more misunderstood because everything happened so fast, I started saying things in the wrong way and being represented in the wrong way. So now Iím misunderstood all over again."
She has no need to be ashamed, but anyone with a sizeable conscience who is handed fame on a platter at such a young age canít help but find it circumspect. Also, she was still close to the people her record company wanted to reach, close enough to explain that every high school in America contained 20 potential new Alanis Morrissettes scrawling away in notebooks, keeping themselves to themselves. "Thereís at least 20 of me in every American high-school too," she laughs. "I was really by myself in my room playing piano into a tape recorder, and got signed that way, so it was all about me writing the songs - so it made more sense to be just me. It was more like a writer, wanting attention for the things I was writing, my songs."
Which should never have made her into Joni of Arc, some teen- angst martyr. But her interviews became even more frank, she told awards-show audiences they were being sold a bill of goods while standing at the podium in a designer dress - and her mainstream calling card was a single called Sullen Girl. "Just like your reaction to your 12-year-old wardrobe when youíre 16, anything you do, in a couple of years youíll look at it and say Ďhow stupid, ughí. In the last two years letís say Iíve known that feeling again," she reasons. And it feels good, maybe even normal. Now 22, Fionaís still trying to figure out what that is. "Normal would just mean Ďstableí to me, normal would mean being in a place where you didnít regret things youíd said two years ago and I guess Iím not that yet. Maybe normal means stabilised: knowing how you feel about things and remaining that way would be normal to me."
When the opposite of Ďnormalí is famous, especially that sort of iconic fame that transcends who you really are in such a way that your pain becomes everyoneís and your joy is 2D, itís hard to be the person in focus. Fiona says things got blurred for her. "Fame makes you feel distanced from yourself in a certain way, because people are never famous for who they really are - itís always someone elseís impression of who that is. And that impression is made by other peopleís impressions of you. Itís a weird, isolating feeling - everyone Ďknowsí you, but nobody does. If everyone thinks they know you then it makes you think they know you even less."
ĎYou make me sick/You wanna lick my wounds" is the opening couplet on Fast As You Can. With an initial gulp of embarrassment, weíre covering familiar territory. The dislocation made Fiona cut herself like those young women in The Bright Red Scream by Marilee Strong, just to convince herself that yes, it was all really happening. Most of us just pinch ourselves, but itís the same thing. "Itís come into my consciousness that so many people do that, on so many different levels, for lots of different reasons. The few times I did it, everything about being in the public eye seemed so unreal. If you can feel pain youíve caused yourself, itís real. It was an easy lesson to learn: this didnít work, except in the moment. And it makes you feel like a freak when you do it."
The next thing you know, youíre at parties which are really an inflation of every prom night that ever happened, up all night with people twice your age who still want to rule the school. You donít stop being a wallflower, you donít renounce your dissident status just because youíre holding a gilt-edged invitation. Just ask Courtney Love - Fiona did. "Sheís a very smart businesswoman. Iíve spoken to her a few times, which doesnít make us friends, but sheís got this knowledge. The first time we met, she pulled me aside and told me I didnít have to be doing this, that, you know. And sheís right. She would say that because I was the one who had what they wanted, I had the product, the thing they wanted to sell. A lot of people in this business donít want you to know that. It protects and controls their investment. If they can tell you exactly what to do, they know exactly what theyíre marketing. So Iíve learned to trust my own instincts more and realise when people are trying to assume control."
Luckily, Fiona never stopped speaking her mind - regardless of how scattershot it may have looked at the time, or how mad. "Iím not the type of person who likes to hide day-to-day feelings, so I always let anything fly and it comes back in my face. I cope by not reading about myself anymore, and I was totally the type who would - glossy magazines are guilty pleasures, right? I had to make an agreement with myself that I wonít read anything. Iím afraid of running into the kind of stuff that ruins a day."
Fiona giggles in a gasping way when she hears the one about Cassandra - a piece of Greek mythology about a female clairvoyant cursed by Zeus, whose words of truth would never be believed by her chosen audience. Fionaís laughing because she felt like that. "Probably yesterday! And always. When I made a speech about it a lot of people heard curse-words and me telling them their free world was bullshit. But the music world and being in front of people is pure delusion," she explains, finally beginning to unwind around the topic. "In one sense Iím lucky because I didnít have to go through years of paying my dues, but you find out that youíre gonna pay those dues one way or another, and maybe itís better to pay them before gaining the public eye so at least you can get used to the world and get a feel for yourself."
Which is exactly what Fiona did next. Meanwhile, the things that were used to make her feel like a weirdo were found to be normal. Depression is just another medical condition now, and Fiona wisely and sagely says people who realise this might look again and ask themselves why so many people in society need to be regulated. What compels people who apply for the opportunity to be controlled, who think themselves diseased before a diagnosis? "Weíve come to a good place where depression is considered a disease, but way too many people run to medication for it much too quickly. Iíve been on medication before and Iím not now - mainly because the side effects were so awful."
When Fiona discovered sheíd been made into an MTV icon, she realised she was carrying all the baggage of a society anxious for its teenage girls. A mainstream that continually undermines adolescents who donít fall into a conformist formation with a bombast of accusations: youíre on drugs, youíre not eating, youíre fucking, youíre a loudmouth, you hate everyone, you have a disease - and none of these things are more deviant to conformists than your incorrigible attitude. She didnít like it and she still doesnít know if she wants to be a part of any group. But she isnít even the type to compete against herself - in that Ďmomentí she so carefully documents with the intuition of a real writer, there is only what she sees and feels. "Young women feel like theyíre always being pitted against one another. And after youíve gone through feeling resentment for other women, you think itís ridiculous and probably the fault of some guy and you donít want an enemy or someone to resent. I donít know how feminist I am or what that means anymore. So itís hard to be feminist..., you just kind of have to be yourself-ist."
Thankfully, Fiona Apple knows who and what she is: herself. Thatís hard enough for anyone. And in an age where we really should know better than to tell people who they should be, especially if theyíre onstage coping with the role we wish them to play, itís more than good enough. Itís extraordinary, this girl on the phone with her nice life and a nice laugh. Maybe sheís even smiling.
Fiona Appleís single " Fast As You Can" is out now on Sony, followed on February 21 by the album When The Pawn.(as always, huge thank yous to sallytbyml :)