Fiona Apple is thinking hard about palm trees. It's a momentary distraction from talking about her new album, "The Idler Wheel ...," and a quick photo session in the backyard of her longtime manager, Andy Slater, in Beverly Hills. But as she wanders the grass with a large fig leaf in her hands, her head tilted skyward, the singer's mind has gone elsewhere, in search of a particular species of palm and definitely not finding it.
"I'm sorry I don't have the right kind of palm tree," says Slater, teasing from the nearby patio.
"Damn it!" shouts Apple, spinning around playfully in a long pink coat, fists clenched. But there is no actual rage in her, just a big smile as she toys with a reputation for emotional outbursts and general turmoil. "There, I was bad! I freaked out!"
The release of the album (with a full 23-word title that is only the second-longest of her career: "The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do") was only days away, her first collection in seven years. Like her three previous albums, it is immune to the pop-music trends of the moment and instead follows her usual path of biting self-examination and eccentric hooks and flourishes.
This time the music is stripped down and intimate, with subtler twists and turns, both melancholy and euphoric, as she asks herself the hardest questions, wailing in "Left Alone": "How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?"
The increasing years between albums may be tough on her most ardent fans, but for Apple there is no other way. She follows a pace that comes on its own schedule, while leaving room for her life and many random obsessions.
"I don't have a plan about it. It's always like, 'Jesus, has it really been that long?'" she says, curled up in a lawn chair, peeling the label off a bottle of Perrier. "It's the one area of my life where I follow my circadian clock, where I'm faithful to the right way of doing things. I don't rush things. I let it happen when it happens. I also just accept that I might never want to write a song again."
Once she sits for an interview, Apple is immediately engaged, laughing at herself and opening up easily about the good and bad, the strange and the deeply moving. The days are getting busier, and she speaks with nervous but charming energy, staring into the distance with eyes strikingly crisp and blue.
The first reviews are largely ecstatic, which is typical for Apple and a good thing when so many years roll past between releases. Times Pop Music Critic Randall Roberts called "The Idler Wheel" an "exquisitely rendered work." And Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz praised it for being "highly confessional and creative and temperamental."
The new album begins with "Every Single Night," which describes, against a delicate keyboard melody, the nocturnal struggles of a restless mind. The voice quivers and swells to a hearty wail as she sings: "These ideas of mine/ percolate the mind/ trickle down the spine/ swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze/ That's when the pain comes in."
The images stretch back through a lifetime of insomnia and busy thoughts and ideas tumbling across her brain, back to when she was a child who needed a light shining directly in her face to get her eyes closed. The song's plea, "I just want to feel everything ..." suggests escaping those endless musings to experience the real world outside.
"You can live your whole life in your brain and not experience what's around you. You go crazy that way," says Apple, 34. "That's why I have to watch myself when I get isolated for too long."
Her songs have been largely autobiographical since she was a teenager, first in New York but spending her last year of high school in Los Angeles. She soon recorded her first demos about being a "sullen girl," of romantic insights well beyond her years, and of being raped at age 12. Those songs ended up on her 1996 multiplatinum debut, "Tidal," a frequently dynamic, sometimes haunting album produced by Slater.
Her sudden fame at age 18 came with a quickly earned reputation for outspokenness; she famously accepted an MTV Music Video Award for new artist with a speech that urged fans to ignore the glamour and self-congratulations onstage and be themselves. She was ridiculed mercilessly, but fans still tell her the speech had a lasting and meaningful impact.
"Fiona's really smart, one of the smartest artists that I've ever worked with," says Slater, Apple's manager since before her debut except for his six years as president of Capitol Records. "There is no showbiz artifice. She's writing what she feels and is powerful. And she's always — whether she was a teenager or not — spoke her mind. She didn't care about the rules. And I think people found that refreshing. Or shocking."
Her last album, 2005's lush "Extraordinary Machine," is often interpreted as a passionate, multilayered document of her breakup with movie director Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood"). On the new album is "Jonathan," a song for another ex-boyfriend, the author Jonathan Ames ("Bored to Death"). Songs about her relationships are nothing new.
"They're all about my boyfriends," she says with a laugh. "Men are my bread and butter. It's what I live for! I have no shame about that. Being in nature and the unspoken language between people and dogs and sex and relationships is what life is all about. Everything goes back to that."
The time in between is spent writing, and there were occasional performances at Largo at the Coronet theater on La Cienega, but the years were also crowded with myriad other obsessions that come and go, from painting and photography to watching "Columbo" to personally investigating a long-abandoned house in Los Angeles. There was a nest of hummingbirds outside her house in Venice, which she studied and photographed until the hatchlings were grown and flew away when she drunkenly came too close one day.
"I was in a habit — more of an OCD habit — where I was compulsively drinking vodka every day, even if I didn't want it," she explains. "So when I felt guilty about the hummingbirds going away, I thought I needed to make use of their supposed demise and do something good. So I quit drinking."
Her collaborator on "Idler Wheel" is percussionist Charley Drayton, whose drumming is a key sonic element on the album. It was recorded at Stanley Studios, then in Santa Monica, and near an animal shelter and a plastic bottle-making factory, both of which provided some of the found sounds used on the album.
The album was finished nearly two years ago, but uncertainty in the executive offices at her label, Epic Records, kept her from delivering "The Idler Wheel" until new Chief Executive L.A. Reid and his team were in place. "She is a major priority for us," says Mark Shimmel, Epic's new chief operating officer. "Fiona is a wonderful and a real artist. When you've been doing this a long time, you sort of accept that real artists have their own clock."
Frustrated by the delay, at one point she found a hill in Northern California that so captured her attention that she spent days and days walking up and down the incline until she had injured her knees enough to require physical therapy.
When some early feedback on the recording suggested the album sounded unfinished, it was Largo owner Mark Flanagan who urged her to ignore all that. "You know, I really owe Flanny," Apple says, admitting that she was shaken by the early, uninvited feedback. "He really stepped in and gave me a pep talk: 'No, you can't let them change it.' Flanny is a cornucopia of goodness in my life."
The album release is putting her back on the road for a least 50 dates in the U.S. alone, returning her to Los Angeles at the Hollywood Palladium on July 29 and the Greek Theatre on Sept. 14. Live performing has sometimes been an unhappy experience for her, with the singer openly disgusted with the sound, the room, the media.
Other than one especially difficult show at New York's Roseland in 2000, when she walked off the stage, Apple tends to work through these difficulties in the spotlight. "I've never been embarrassed of being upset in front of people," she says. "In a strange way, I'm way more comfortable onstage than anywhere else."
Her visits to Largo also helped Apple become comfortable again onstage. And a 2007 tour with the bluegrass-flavored Nickel Creek taught her to love performing live in a new way. But if anything goes wrong on her U.S. tour, fans will likely know about as it happens.
"I certainly picked the right job for myself for the kind of person that I am. I probably have one of the few jobs where crying at work is not necessarily disallowed! Or having a tantrum," she says with a laugh.
"I have this weird, contradictory relationship with the audience when I'm onstage where I'm totally doing everything for them and there's that great relationship that happens with everybody in the room. But I also totally pretend that they don't exist, during the songs at least. The more voyeuristic it can be, the better it will be."