Here's the thing that Fiona Apple hates about stories about Fiona Apple: they're never about her music. "They don't say bad things about it," says the singer and pianist, 22. "They don't say anything about it. They just say, 'She was really small and she had pale eyes and she almost cried'." It's a Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, and Apple sits on a couch in her manager's office on Sunset Boulevard. It's the slightest bit chilly in the room. Apple has put on a gray hooded sweatshirt, but she's still got goose bumps. She's really small, she has pale eyes--and her new album is amazing.
"When the Pawn" is the follow-up to Apple's triple-platinum debut, "Tidal." It's an intensely felt piece of work shot through with the singer's most primal influences: jazz, the Beatles and Joan Armatrading. In her lyrics, Apple is a young woman who feels so vulnerable that she can't help but warn everybody away. Sex? "It will only make me colder when it's over." Love? "I know I'm a mess he don't want to clean up." For all the self-doubt, Apple's songs are full of humor and feistiness. By the end of "Pawn," you get the feeling her head is mostly on straight. She's met a man she loves--in real life, that would be Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed "Boogie Nights"--and she's told everybody else to get the hell out of her house. The final track, "I Know," is a piano ballad that calls John Lennon's "Imagine" to mind in the opening bars. The tune is hushed and touching--it's like a love song sung to somebody who's sleeping. Apple is fiercely proud of the new album, and knows how much more mature it is than her debut. Early in the interview, I tell her I'm having a hard time listening to "Tidal" now. She smiles and says, "Don't."
When "Tidal" was released in 1996, it was an improbable smash--a jazzy, challenging pop album full of torch songs and torment. As Apple points out, though, her music got overshadowed by her life story. She always related it with an astonishing frankness--even when asked, by virtually every journalist she sat down with, about getting raped at the age of 12. Apple became truly famous because of the queasy-making, Calvin Klein-ish sexuality of her video "Criminal." She became truly infamous because, when she accepted MTV's best-new-artist award in 1997, she irritated a lot of people by saying what everybody knew to be true about the music industry: "This world is bulls--t." Apple went on to tell the audience that people shouldn't model their lives on what pop stars tell them is cool. She was just trying to tell the truth. She annoyed some people to death. "I think the fact that I was always honest and vulnerable seemed like part of a scheme to people," Apple says. "I'm going to be the Honest and Vulnerable Girl!That's what's gonna make you like me!" Needless to say, Apple took sniping and criticism hard. "I mean, it hurts," she says. "I don't know what kind of gene I'm missing--but, goddam, it's cruel."
Apple's parents split up when she was 4, and she grew up mostly in Manhattan with her older sister and her mom. From early on, the piano was a way to get out her frustrations. It was something to bang on. "I know I'm making my life sound like a cable movie," she says, "but my songwriting came from amazing, amazing amounts of household conflict. Lots of yelling and me being in the middle of a lot of stuff and not getting listened to. I resorted to not participating in any fighting. I used to go into my room and write a letter that would make my point. Then I'd go out into the living room and try to read the letters out loud." She could never finish. There was too much shouting. "When I was 10, I used to write classical music as a score to, like, National Geographic animal chases and stuff. It was too hard to write about what I was feeling. And then I wrote a song called 'The Truthful Night,' which was the only one that was actually aimed toward parents." It was about how awful everything was, about how sometimes she just wanted to die. Does she remember any lines from it? She laughs. "I don't want to say, because it was really bad."
Apple snagged a record deal after handing out exactly one demo tape--she gave it to a friend who gave it to a music publicist she baby-sat for. Everything happened too fast. She was enormously fragile, and she had misgivings that came to a head as she walked up to the stage to accept the MTV award. "What was happening for me was... 'Sleep to Dream' and 'Shadowboxer' came out, and I was so happy and proud," says Apple. "But what f---in' bulls--t did I really win that award for? I won because of the video for 'Criminal,' and because it was controversial. I won for being in my underwear on MTV. And that made me so ashamed of myself."
Does she regret making the video? "Yeah, I do," Apple says without hesitation. "Me making that video was me going, I want to be the person that people want to see in her underwear. I rationalized doing it because I didn't want to say no to anybody, and because it fed my ego. You know? To be sitting in a room with people who've done Madonna videos and all these stylists... There were extras on that video that I went to high school with--people who made fun of me. They didn't realize who I was, but I knew who they were. And I wanted to be like, 'F--k you, man. I can do this stuff, too.' I was so, so unsure of myself. But people around me were going, 'You look so beautiful!' And then I just felt stupid afterwards."
These days, Apple seems contented and grounded, though she's still a world-class worrier. (A healthy--or maybe unhealthy--portion of our interview is about our interview: "I feel like I've been too personal in this. I feel like I've been too honest," etc.) After touring for "Tidal," Apple decompressed. She spent her days writing the songs on "When the Pawn"-- the album's full title is a 90-word poem that she's already gotten grief for--and visiting the set of Anderson's forthcoming movie, "Magnolia." "Paul and I are best friends," she says. "I would never have had a best friend had it not been for him. And I'm so much happier in day-to-day life. I have a nice house now. I have a place to sit down and play piano. It actually might make it harder, because now I have a place to miss when I go out on the road."
Apple is more in control of her music and her image this time around. Her latest video, for the galloping, syncopated "Fast as You Can," is playful and inventive--probably because it was directed by her gifted beau and his film crew. The making of "Tidal" may have been fraught, but Apple beams when she talks about the sessions for "Pawn." Jon Brion, who produced the album and played most of the instruments, did an extraordinary job, ornamenting the songs with unexpected, retro-sounding organs, synthesizers and guitars. Apple, meanwhile, has become a more aggressive, resourceful singer. Her arrangements are more intricate, too--shifting keys and tempos, firing up and then quieting down. "I feel really responsible for this album," she says. "I knew what I wanted, and I got what I wanted."
All of a sudden the old note of worry creeps into Apple's voice, and she looks out the window absently. "I will be shocked and appalled if I get s--t after this album, because this is solid to me." There's a part of her that's always steeling herself for the worst. What happens if everyone loves the album? Apple stops short. "I will be really happy," she says. She will? "Yes." She laughs. "I'm not determined to be upset."