Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings

One minute she was a waif. The next, a killer bitch. But maybe she's just a young girl with talent, problems, and an addiction to telling the truth

January 22, 1998
Fiona Apple on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Fiona Apple on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

When Fiona Apple pulls into a new town – some place where she has never been before but where tonight there is a theater with her name on, and an audience waiting to suck in her pushy, poignant songs of disaffection and self-reliance – she takes a peculiar pleasure in picking up a copy of the local newspaper and reading its short, skewed, action-packed summary of her life and credentials. "Fiona, who said something bad at the MTV awards," she offers, by way of example, "who was in therapy as a child, who was ugly but now is pretty . . . "

Something like that. Maybe more: Fiona, who has sold 2 million copies of her "Tidal" album, whose "Criminal" video shows her flouncing in her underwear, who told the MTV audience, "This world is bullshit," who was raped at the age of 12, who is crazy keen about Maya Angelou, who was discovered when a friend of hers baby-sat for a music publicist and passed on a tape, who told a magazine, "I'm going to do good things, help people, and then I'm going to die," who is too thin, whose parents split up when she was young, who never smiles, who is only 20 and dates magician David Blaine, whose life was ruined when they started calling her "Dog" at school . . .

Much of this is true. Some is sort of true. Some is false. But in the busy, greedy, impatient '90s, we become whatever may be written about us in one or two perky paragraphs, and hers might lead one to believe that Fiona Apple is either a precocious, calculating prodigy or an unbalanced, ungrateful freak. That is the great sucker punch of modern celebrity: It draws in the Fiona Apples of this world with that most wonderful of all promises – to be understood – and yet humans are still to invent a quicker, more-efficient method of being misunderstood by the greatest possible number of people than Becoming Famous in America. Fiona Apple has been discovering this for herself.

We should try to make a collage, OK?" Fiona Apple suggests as she sits on the floor of a New York hotel room. Last night's effort, painted and pasted onto the newspaper sports section, says, IN THE CASE OF A SHORTER GIRL STUDYING THE WORDS THAT FILL LONGER DAYS. We look through magazines for phrases to use, to distort. I half-heartedly offer a New York Times editorial headline: NOVEMBER DARKNESS, NOVEMBER LIGHT. She picks up her scissors and snips free the word ember. After that, I leave her to it. She collects suitable words all the time. She keeps spare words on the tour bus, in the food drawer.

As she collages, she mentions how ludicrous some of the attention she receives is, and for some reason we try to work out the appropriate mathematical equations that explain this.

Me: Uninteresting plus famous equals interesting.

Fiona Apple: [Nodding] Or normal plus famous equals special.

When I arrived, at 4 in the afternoon, Fiona Apple answered the door in a white bathrobe. She had just woken up. Now dressed, she sits on the floor, on the quilt from the bed next door that has been laid out over the carpet, exactly parallel to the walls, neatly folded back where it meets the couch. Two candles have been carefully placed at either end of a diagonal across the room. She is particular about these things. Often she has to change hotel rooms because the rug is the wrong color, or the bed is too close to the door and she'll feel as though someone might come in and suffocate her. "I've been sick for two months," she explains. "There's a lot going on in my head; there's a lot going on in my personal life; there's a lot going on everywhere." And she will do whatever she needs to do to cope: "I am going to fucking put my candles where I want, and I am going to make my dumb collages."

Fiona Apple's Bad, Bad Girl Moments

The radio is tuned to a hip-hop station. She does not travel with music and says that she bought only one new CD in 1997: Wu-Tang Forever. There is no TV. "I decided that TV was evil," she explains with a smile. And she was worried that she was relying on her standard method of getting to sleep in hotels: "Get stoned and watch TV." So she asked the hotel to have the TVs physically removed.

Me: Demanding request plus famous equals It'd be a pleasure.

Fiona Apple: Exactly. [Laughs] Or it could also equal you fucking egotistical patronizing bitch.

Her parents – Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee – met when they performed together in the same musical. They had two children, but never married. They split up when Fiona was 4. For a while, mother and children ended up in a basement on 162nd Street in Manhattan. It was weird there. When they arrived, in the kitchen was a Kermit doll crucified on the wall. Underneath Kermit were the words Fuck Jesus.

Third grade was the best, because of Miss Kunhardt, who had been to the Galapagos Islands. "She was like Indiana Jones as a woman," says Fiona. "I remember just being so excited in the morning." Things got bad in fifth grade. Fiona was leaving chapel one morning, walking down this staircase with her friend, and she said, "I am going to kill myself, and I'm going to bring my sister with me." She was taken to the principal's office, and sent for psychiatric evaluation. She had also been refusing to go to school. They said she was showing signs of depression. The therapist did ink-blot tests and they told Fiona that she thought too much. (Hardly, one would suspect, a diagnosis that would do anything but exacerbate the very problem it identified.)

There was already music. There is a video of Fiona at 7 or 8 playing at a piano recital. You can hear a voice say, "Fiona's coming up next . . . and this is not a typo! She did write this herself!" It was a piece called "The Velvet Waltz." ("Oh, my God," she now says. "It sounds like some kind of gay porn.") She would spend each summer in California with her father. He remembers suggesting, when she was about 9, that they write a song together. She wasn't interested. "I guess," he says, "she wanted to do it on her own. The next summer she came back – she had trouble sleeping at night – and she had written these inaccessible lyrics about darkness. It kind of scared me in the beginning." She was just another talented, slightly messed-up young girl, one who liked socks that didn't match, clothes without seams and her glass-animal collection.

There is a moment that has always stuck in her father's mind, when Fiona was maybe around 8. His friends were round the house for fight night, and they were reminiscing about terrible things that had happened to each of them. And they were laughing about it all, as adults do when they look back over the canyon of their past tragedies. Fiona was listening. And – how many reasons would Mr. Maggart have to remember these next words - Fiona said, with disappointment, "Nothing's ever happened to me."

It would.

From a letter to her fans, posted on her official Web site, explaining her MTV Video Music Awards Best New Artist acceptance speech: When I won, I felt like a sellout. I felt that I deserved recognition but that the recognition I was getting was for the wrong reasons. I felt that now, in the blink of an eye, all of those people who didn't give a fuck who I was, or what I thought, were now all at once just humoring, appeasing me, and not because of my talent, but instead because of the fact that somehow, with the help of my record company, and my makeup artist, my stylist and my press, I had successfully created the illusion that I was perfect and pretty and rich, and therefore living a higher quality of life. . . . I'd saved myself from misfit status, but I'd betrayed my own kind by becoming a paper doll in order to be accepted.

She really hadn't expected to win. She thought it would be Hanson. When they read out her name, it all began to percolate in her head . . . she was a little bit drunk . . . she had just been having an argument . . . and it felt like she was becoming head cheerleader after years watching the cheerleaders from a distance . . . and suddenly she was onstage and actually saying what was on her mind. . . . I didn't prepare a speech and I'm sorry, but I'm glad that I didn't, because I'm not going to do this like everybody else does it. . . . You see, Maya Angelou said that we, we as human beings at our best can only create opportunities and I'm going to use this opportunity the way that I wanna use it. . . . So what I wanna say is, everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world, this world is bullshit and you shouldn't model your life - wait a second! - you shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we're wearing and what we're saying and everything. Go with yourself. . . . And it's just stupid that I'm in this world, but you're all very cool to me. . .

It was a defining moment. "I went," she later commented, "from being 'tragic waif ethereal victim' to being 'brat bitch loose cannon.' " These things happen. "To anyone that knows me," she says, "I just had something on my mind and I just said it. And that's really the foreshadowing of my entire career and my entire life. When I have something to say, I'll say it."

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