With a spare new album showcasing her spectacular musicianship and a long summer tour to back it up, Fiona Apple seems intent on demonstrating the staying power of an enduring star. She opens up about personal demons and talks about her new life.
Singer-songwriter Apple, 34, has always had a style all her own in just about everything she does, including her habit of surfacing with a new album only every five years or so. Apple, who lives in California, has been holed up in her hotel room for a week with the flu.
She came down with it at the end of a seven-stop mini tour of intimate venues that met with rave reviews and lit up the Internet. She says her New York City support system has taken good care of her, especially her ex-boyfriend, the magician David Blaine, who plied her with lots of healthy soups and juices. “I’m getting calls from people who I called when I had a fever and was talking in accents,” she says, rolling her eyes at herself.
“I’m not the type of person who drunk-dials. I must’ve been crazy.” Apple’s fourth album, The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more Than Ropes will ever do, is just out (its first single, “Every Single Night,” was released in April), and she’ll be crisscrossing the country on a 27-city tour this summer.
During her exacting and perfectionistic live performances, Apple intermittently jumps up from her piano and stomps erratically around the stage, throwing her limbs about, blurting out amusing or mystifying comments between numbers; in person, she’s sprightly and delicate. Her features are classic, model-like: a creamy complexion, wide-set crystal-blue eyes, full lips, a slight frame. With her layered rag-doll style of dress and her long hair pinned back from her makeup-free face, she possesses an easy, just-rolled-out-of-bed kind of beauty.
It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since Apple made her loudmouthed entrance at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, where, just 19 years old, she blasted the system that made her a superstar with the release of her multiplatinum debut, Tidal, a year prior. “This world is bullshit,” she told her fans from the podium about her shiny new celebrity bubble. “And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and saying and everything. Go with yourself.”
That tirade stirred up even more trouble than Apple had with the controversial video for her biggest single, “Criminal” (about being a bad girl who feels the need to be redeemed), in which, looking underweight and underage, she writhed around in her underwear. The speech was an emblematic moment for Apple: Music nerd wins popularity contest and deems it all a sham.
Yet she was widely perceived as an unappreciative overnight sensation who’d never had to pay her dues. “I can understand why I was annoying to people,” Apple says now, wrapping her hands around a steaming mug of chamomile tea. “I was never somebody who grew up going, ‘I really want to be a singer in a band,’ and I never had any ambition toward anything, really. And I think I came off as ungrateful because I was."
Apple was born in New York City into a showbiz family; her mother is the singer Diane McAfee, her father the actor Brandon Maggart, and her sister and two half-brothers sing or act or direct professionally. She gave her demos to a music publicist for whom one of her friends babysat. The woman passed the tapes on to Andy Slater, now Apple’s manager, and she was signed to Sony Records at age 17.
“I never fought for it, I just kind of thought, I don’t know what else I’m going to do,” she admits with a shrug. “So when anything happened that I didn’t enjoy, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, well, it’s all for my goal,’ because I didn’t have a goal, you know? I wasn’t able to hide my discomfort with what I was doing.”
Apple went on to release two more albums, 1999’s When the Pawn… (the title wasn’t just a couplet but a whole short poem), which almost went platinum, and 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which only went gold but elicited the same high critical praise and regard for her songwriting and musicianship as her previous efforts.
This time around, she coproduced The Idler Wheel… with multi-instrumentalist and consummate session man Charley Drayton. The duo recorded at various times in 2010 in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, and aside from Sebastian Steinberg on acoustic bass and Apple’s older sister, cabaret singer Maude Maggart, on backing vocals on one track, the two shared all the musical duties.
The new album marks a striking departure from the large-ensemble, often orchestral arrangements that dominated Apple’s previous albums. She and Drayton agreed to stay unplugged for as long as they could in the recording process.
The resulting stark piano ballads with intricate melodies, changing time signatures, and a bluesy or jazzy, even Tom Waits–like feel make an elegant backdrop for Apple’s passionate and committed vocals, which range from cabaret-style formality to what almost sounds like the artist talking to herself. Dodging artfully around each tune are Drayton’s fluttery drumming, nimble-fingered percussion work, and plenty of found sounds of mostly indeterminate origin (one rhythm track is a recording of the two dancing on a truck).
“Fiona’s growing and taking bigger chances, an experience she needed to go through,” says Drayton. “I believe she’s not really aware of the size of her musical gift, which often makes me wonder where she finds her inspiration. Amongst all there is out there these days, we’re not challenged all that much. Fiona does not compromise how she feels, and why should she?”
There are far fewer portions of Angry Young Woman and finger-pointing at Apple’s past lovers—songs like the breakup anthem “Sleep to Dream,” which won her MTV’s Best New Artist award in 1997—on this album than in her earlier work; more songs are about her looking inward and figuring out what makes her tick. “It used to be that everyone else was wrong and I was right,” she says. “Maybe that’s growing up or something, because I absolutely don’t think everyone was so bad to me as I used to think.”
In the loping piano ballad “Left Alone,” she insistently interrogates herself, “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?”
And on “Jonathan,” her tremulously funky tribute to the writer Jonathan Ames, who she says “saved my life” in the course of their five-year relationship, which recently ended, she sings about asking him to take her to Coney Island, adding in the song’s chorus, “I like watching you live.”
Like her music, Apple’s conversation ranges across conflicting emotions, swinging from elation and laugh-out-loud anecdotes to almost tortured confusion. But it seems that she has learned to appreciate her idiosyncrasies, though she says she’s still on medication to make her day-to-day life run more smoothly.
“I had really bad obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Apple recalls. “At its worst, I was compelled to leave my house at three o’clock in the morning and go out in the alley because I just knew that the paper-towel roll I threw in the recycling bin was uncomfortable, like it was lying the wrong way, and I would be down in the garbage.”
She grew increasingly frustrated at wasting valuable time when she could be writing songs, and after the last time she rifled through the trash she wrote a reminder to herself on her vintage 1930s chalkboard: “Don’t waste your crazy!”
Lately, Apple prefers to spend her days alone at home in Venice Beach, mainly staying indoors, opting to walk her dog, Janet, either before sunrise or after sunset. “I have no social life or anything like that,” she says. “I used to be really ashamed of it, but now I can just freely say that I don’t ever go anywhere or have people over.”
The one exception is Apple’s visits to Largo, the L.A. nightclub where she spends time with musicians she’s known for years, though even those excursions can bring on social anxiety.
“I still get psychosomatically ill going to Largo, to see my friends, getting in the car,” she says, “and my brother will take so fucking long—because my brother has to drive me everywhere—and I’ll start freaking out, and it won’t stop until I’m actually there.”
Apple, who’s thinking about moving back to New York City, says she’s newly single and content with it; she doesn’t see herself ever marrying or having children. But nowadays she takes life in stride. She says she even smiles when she reads criticism of herself because it just reminds her not to take the big, bad world of showbiz all that seriously.
“I’ve now lived and seen enough,” she says, “to know that I could go right back on that stage like when I was a kid and say, ‘This world is bullshit, don’t worry about it, just go and do your thing.’ I totally stand by that.”