Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings

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On the other side of the door, Fiona's dog was barking and growling. Maybe the dog saved her life. Otherwise, the two of them would have gone into her apartment, and . . . who knows?

When he had finished – maybe 10 minutes – he said something to her: "Happy Thanksgiving. Next time don't let strangers in." After he left, she opened the third lock and went into the apartment. Her sister and her mother were holiday-season shoe-shopping in midtown. She phoned for help, and waited. All this time she was paranoid that there was also someone in the house. She started checking all the closets. She would continue to check them for years.

When she gave her statement to the police – she had to retell it in all its specific ghastliness, over and over again – she was left in a room. On the table was a notebook detailing past cases. She says that her only true regret of this whole period was opening up that book and looking inside: the most horrible things, beyond imagination, all in a day's work. A baby being molested. Stuff like that.

She still has terrible, violent dreams. The same feelings, but with different people. Sometimes people she knows. For years, older men would make her nervous. Even when she made her album, she refused to sit next to any of the musicians or Andy Slater, her producer and manager. She's honest enough to make other connections: "I had really bad boyfriends for a lot of times that had slight physical resemblances to the man that raped me."

Fiona hadn't thought about whether she was going to talk about her rape in public until the day a journalist in Italy asked her about the song "Sullen Girl." He wanted to know if it was about a guy leaving her. And it is not. Its lyrics – "They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea/But he washed me shore and he took my pearl/ And left an empty shell of me" – are in part about what happened to her. So she said so. "I thought that ultimately, no matter what happens, if I lie about this, I don't like what that says," she explains. From then on, interviewers would agonizingly, circuitously bring up the subject. "I'd be, 'You want to ask about when I was raped?'" she laughs. "I was, 'Please don't act like I have got food in my teeth. It's out in the open. It's not something that I'm embarrassed about, so don't act like it's something that I should be embarrassed about.' Which I think I was sensitive about, because I was embarrassed about it for a long time."

How different do you think what you do now might be if none of this had happened?

"It's funny, because I don't think that I maybe would be here. But then again, I don't think I would need to be here."

Explain what you mean.

"I want everyone to understand me. I want to be friends with everybody. I want everybody to know how I feel, and I want them all to respect it and to think that it's OK. And that's why I'm sitting here. . . . I think it was my desperation that drove me to have the will to do it."

There is a closet in Fiona's bedroom at her mother's apartment. If you look closely, you will see the splits where Fiona has stabbed it repeatedly with her stepfather's Boy Scout knife. That is what she used to do when she got mad. "It's better," she points out, "than stabbing someone." At the bottom is a single word that she carved one time, kneeling down there, crying. The word is strong.

Andy Slater plays me three versions of "Sleep to Dream" to help me understand how Apple's music ended up as it is on Tidal. On the first, mostly piano and voice, she holds the song together with a manic, percussive, awkward left-hand piano rumble: clever, but unlovely. In its second version, the studio musicians turn the song into a silly, New Wave eccentricity, with lots of asymmetrical guitar in the verses and a horrible, choppy rock chorus. Fiona Apple sings over the top like a fake punk rocker trying to catch up with something. The third is the stark, sinuous, final version. That was Slater's job: to try to work out how she needed this music to sound. One day he took her to a record shop to see where she was coming from. She bought the Roots, the Pharcyde, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, which helped him a little.

That is one story of how Fiona Apple's album was made. It is not the only story. Those months in Los Angeles were not good ones for her. She was in a rough way. For one thing, she was anxious around the musicians. "I just assumed he had paid everyone off to be there and that they were all really pissed off to have to be there with me," she says, "because I was a stupid little kid and they were real musicians." Also, things weren't great with her parents. And there were deeper problems. She was getting thinner.

She had strange eating habits. "It was colors," she explains. "I couldn't eat things that looked a certain way, that were a certain color. I mean, there was a time when I couldn't eat things that I felt clashed with what I was wearing. I don't mean 'clash' like 'fashionably clash' – there was just something in my head that if it didn't balance, I couldn't eat it, and I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing. If I ate something, I felt like I was doing it because 'I don't want to be crazy.' 'I'm going to eat that fucking apple right now, even though I'm wearing a yellow dress.' This would go on in my head all the time. And it's exhausting. I would tell my sister, 'I'm just so tired I can't manage myself anymore.' I felt like I was the mother of some retarded child that was throwing fits all the time, and I couldn't help it. It would take me half an hour to pick an apple out of the drawer. I couldn't pick the right one."

So why were you like that?

"Because I felt like I had no control over my life, and that was the only way for me to take control of my life."

She had a problem, but she didn't like it being misunderstood. "I definitely did have an eating disorder. What was really frustrating for me was that everyone thought I was anorexic, and I wasn't. I was just really depressed and self-loathing." The distinction was important to her. "For me, it wasn't about getting thin, it was about getting rid of the bait that was attached to my body. A lot of it came from the self-loathing that came from being raped at the point of developing my voluptuousness," she explains. "I just thought that if you had a body and if you had anything on you that could be grabbed, it would be grabbed. So I did purposely get rid of it."

Slater was worried, and unsure what to do. He felt that, whatever these problems, if she didn't complete the record it would be worse for her in the long run. But, eventually, he pulled the recording to a temporary halt. Steps were taken. She got back into therapy, and some improvement was noted.

As she talks about this, Fiona pauses. She starts a sentence, then stops it. There's something she's not sure about telling me. But Fiona Apple can never withstand the temptation of the truth, so she explains. As much as any professional help, it was a new friend who pulled her out of the darkness. That friend was Lenny Kravitz. "I wasn't his girlfriend or anything like that," she says. But Kravitz and a friend came to the studio one night and told her how good it sounded, and they were the first people she believed. "And," she says, "I ended up talking to Lenny a lot. He was the first person I could sit next to. Literally . . . he'll never understand how much he helped me." When he went off on tour, they would speak all the time. If you look at the video for Lenny Kravitz's "Can't Get You Off My Mind," where he is filmed talking on the phone, it is Fiona Apple on the other end of the line.

Soon she had an album, but not a name. Or, rather, she had too many names. When I sit with Andy Slater, I see one old demo tape marked with the name Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart. Apple, her middle name, was from her father's grandmother. When she met the people from the record company, she had only one stipulation: "I said, 'Not Apple.' " She thought of finding another name altogether; after all, that's what Maya Angelou (real name: Marguerite Johnson) did. Fiona's mother chipped in with a suggestion: "She phoned up and said, 'I've got a great name! You know how you're always alone? You could call yourself Fiona Lone.'" The one idea Fiona considered seriously was Fiona Maria. "Then six months later," she says, "the contract comes – 'Your stage name is Fiona Apple' – and I started laughing." The biblical resonances didn't strike her until much later on. The apple: the thing that starts all the knowledge, but that also starts all the trouble.

We fly to Las Vegas. she is bleary and wearing her tour manager's sunglasses. Perhaps this is because she was up most of the night drinking Surfers on Acid (some malignant combination of Malibu, Jaegermeister and pineapple juice) with Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. We talk a little. She tells me about teenage high jinks. Shoplifting underwear by walking out of stores wearing seven bras. Cutting 253 classes in a year. The time when she nearly got the lead in the fourth Karate Kid movie. "It would have been a disaster," she says.

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