FIONA APPLE was angry. Very angry. “Angry, angry, angry,” as she put it during a long, unguarded conversation on a Friday afternoon in SoHo. About a year and a half ago, after she had completed the album she’ll release on June 19 — a collection of stripped-down, percussive songs that’s as passionate, smart and cutting as anything she’s done — Ms. Apple got so angry that she started walking up and down a hill near her home in Venice, Calif.
The album was in music-business limbo. Ms. Apple was delaying it until her label, Epic Records, found a new president. She had not made a new album since 2005 and didn’t want her work to be mishandled amid corporate disarray. And she was in deep personal turmoil. “I just spiraled downward, and everything looked bad,” she said.
She started to climb that hill for eight hours a day, day after day, until she could barely walk, until she was limping, and then until she could not walk at all. Her knees required months of therapy. “Something about that was a rite of passage,” she said. “I think it’s really healthy to lose things or to give things up for a while, to deprive yourself of certain things. It’s always a good learning experience, because I felt like it really was like, ‘I must learn to walk again.’ I had to walk out all that stuff, and I knew it was stupid, and I kept on walking.”
Solitude, mood swings, compulsive actions, catharsis and regeneration: it’s the kind of story Ms. Apple often told about herself in conversation. They are also at the core of the songs that have made her pop’s emblem of trauma, neurosis, seething resentment and self-laceration. Ms. Apple writes metaphor-laden outpourings set to music that pulls rock, show tunes, classical piano and jazz into her own realm of brooding and bravado.
She has spoken openly about being raped as a 12-year-old, about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, about heavy drinking, about public meltdowns and private insecurities. Now, she insists, she is finding a little perspective. “I’m a very stressed-out person, a lot, because still everything is so important,” she said. “I have to give everything, my everything, and that’s exhausting, and how the hell am I going to do that for the rest of my life? But I’m going to have to figure out how.”
Ms. Apple braced herself for mockery when she revealed the title of her new album: “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.” (It’s far shorter than the 90-word title of her 1999 album, which begins, “When the Pawn.”) Soon enough she was reading online about “ ‘Fiona Apple’s ridiculous new album title,’ ” she said. “Of course you’re going to say ridiculous. Because that’s what you do with me, right?”
She added, “I put out another long title because that’s what the title’s supposed to be.”
Ms. Apple had been reading children’s books about how machines work. “All that stuff is so good for metaphors for life,” she said. The album title, she said, refers to the role of the idler wheel in an engine, which does not propel directly but is connected to everything. Whipping cord is used to repair fraying ropes on a ship. “If you’re going to use the rope — if you’re going to live — it’s going to get frayed,” she said.
At the SoHo Grand Hotel the management opened up a bar-lounge that’s usually closed in the afternoons for a private interview with Ms. Apple. (It was followed, weeks later, by a two-and-a-half-hour phone call from her home in California.) In SoHo she was colorful, wearing a textured lavender dress and tights with rainbows and flowers. The broad shoulders of a green Steve Madden jacket helped fill out her gaunt figure; she said giving up heavy drinking and adopting a gluten-free diet had made her weight drop sharply. In anticipation of the photo session scheduled after the interview Ms. Apple was cradling a painted wooden dog: a portrait by the artist Patrick Bucklew of her 13-year-old pit bull mix, Janet, a stray she rescued.
At 34 Ms. Apple no longer looks like the teenager she was when she released her 1996 debut album, “Tidal.” The video for its hit single “Criminal” presented her as a sulky, troubled vamp with a grown-up’s torchy voice. The song won her a Grammy Award. When she won an MTV Video Music Award for best new artist, she gave a speech earnestly denouncing pop glamour. “Tidal” went on to sell three million copies, and the two albums that followed it, in 1999 and 2005, have each topped half a million in sales.
Ms. Apple has a grown woman’s face now. Her pale blue eyes have grown even more prominent and striking. Yet she speaks with the voluble ups and downs — pensive, breathlessly eager, giggly — of a young girl. While she often looked away or inward, she strove to hide nothing.
Her songs have built Ms. Apple an audience that follows her intently, with both admiration and concern. It is one she often meets with eyes closed. When she’s onstage her way of opening up to fans is to sing as if she were alone. “You’re imaginary! You’re not real!” she told the audience in March at the South by Southwest Music Festival, her first re-emergence with new songs, performing a riveting, raw-nerved set. “Usually I just try to pretend I’m by myself, because I think that gives the best show,” she said in the interview. “I would rather watch somebody actually going through something.”
In 2007, in her previous concerts outside Los Angeles, Ms. Apple joined the bluegrass-rooted band Nickel Creek for part of its farewell tour, mixing her songs and theirs. “She was on a constant emotional roller coaster whenever she was singing her own songs,” said the group’s mandolinist, Chris Thile, who now leads Punch Brothers. “She casts a spell over not just the audience but herself and whoever she’s playing music with. And it’s very difficult to break that spell.”
“The Idler Wheel” is counting on the devotion of Ms. Apple’s fans. Before she appeared at South by Southwest her manager, Andy Slater, said he told Epic Records: “ ‘I want you to do nothing.’ I said: ‘Don’t make any posters. Don’t make any cards. Don’t put out a single. Just don’t say anything. Let her play the show. It’s been a few years. Let kids go to the show, film the thing, put it on their blogs, and you don’t need to do anything.’ ” Almost immediately after her set amateur video clips were on YouTube.
Ms. Apple’s new songs are proudly skeletal. “I wanted to make everything as stark as possible, so you could hear everything,” she said. While her previous albums have relied on studio bands and orchestral arrangements, “The Idler Wheel” is almost entirely a collaboration between Ms. Apple and the percussionist Charley Drayton. “I felt we could take the same risk with sound as the songs were taking,” Mr. Drayton said by e-mail.
The album’s minimal personnel reflects Ms. Apple’s isolation. By her account, she spends nearly all of her time alone. Her occasional hangout has been the Los Angeles club Largo, where many collaborators — including her past producer Jon Brion and members of Nickel Creek — perform regularly, and she has sometimes been coaxed to sit in. “The only place I go is Largo, and I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “I walk my dog at dawn because I don’t like people to be around.”
Ms. Apple and Mr. Drayton produced the new album together, making music largely from her piano and other keyboards, his drums and sounds they collected. At the apartment of one of Ms. Apple’s ex-boyfriends, the magician David Blaine, “we threw pebbles down his garbage chute,” she said. “We threw a big huge water bottle down the spiral staircase. We hit the big water tank he uses to drown in.” Elsewhere Ms. Apple recorded the machinery at a plastic bottle factory and the screams of children playing.
Yet the whimsicality of the recording belies songs in which Ms. Apple wars with her lovers and, often, herself. “Every Single Night” starts the album with the plink of a celeste and a lilting vocal, but Ms. Apple soon declares, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain” and makes a proclamation: “I just want to feel everything.” In “Daredevil,” after percussive thigh slapping introduces a track full of brisk cross-rhythms, she sings, “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” adding, “Don’t let me ruin me.” She wrote that song, she said, when “I was crying out to somebody who didn’t quite get the message.”
On these songs, she said: “I really let everything just get spit out. I would not second guess anything.” At times her lyrics anticipated her life. “There were songs I would write about breaking up with somebody before I broke up with them, months and months before I broke up with them,” she said. “And I’d go back to that song, and now it makes sense why I wrote that.” A restlessly dissonant new song, “Jonathan,” was named for the author Jonathan Ames, from whom she only recently parted ways; she calls him “a great, great guy.” When she wrote the piano part, she said, she told him the music — switching between “doomy” and “happy” — was like his personality, and he immediately asked, “Is my name in it?”
In Ms. Apple’s new songs she is no longer a self-righteous victim. “A lot of my earlier songs are blaming other people and never thinking that I ever did anything wrong, because I was always trying to be completely loyal and honest and pure,” she said. “It’s so nice to come to a place where you can see how you absolutely enabled all these things to happen. It makes you stop being angry at people. It makes you start being more empathetic.”
Ms. Apple has been reading about neural pathways in the brain. “What fires together wires together. If you keep on having these negative thoughts or being angry all the time, then that area of your brain is going to get stronger,” she said.
So she’s trying to “feel everything” from a different angle. “Even when now there have been times that I’ve just felt so, so bad,” she said, “I can take myself out of it for a moment and go: ‘You watch, you’ve felt this way before, you’re going to feel great again. And then you’re going to feel terrible again, and then you’re going to feel great again.’ And when you’re feeling this way, at least know that there’s value in it — just as much value in your suffering as in your pleasure.”
And onstage lately she has been opening her eyes now and then to let her brain take in the upturned faces, the singalongs and the shouts of “I love you!” “I used to never want to say ‘I love you’ back, because I don’t want to say that unless I mean it,” she said.
But her reaction has been changing. “I was told so many times when I was a kid, ‘I can’t be friends with you, you’re too intense, you’re too sad all the time.’ I really thought that when I made the first album that everyone would understand me, all the people who weren’t my friends would become my friends. It didn’t turn out that way then, but now I do feel like those people are my friends. And so when they say, ‘I love you,’ I don’t care who they are. I love them back.”
She smiled. “If I have one success in my relationship history it’s with the people who listen to my music,” she said. “I think that they’ll be there with me forever, and I’ll be there with them forever. And I’m totally satisfied with that.”