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Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings

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A few times, she protests that she feels fine. She sinks back into her seat. "You know what?" she says slowly. "I really feel like shit." And we laugh. Though it's hard to guess from many of the words that get quoted, most hours with Fiona Apple are both funny and fun - time spent in the slipstream of a smart, wry 20-year-old who finds her own life, and those that surround her, a source of constant amusement.

When Fiona Apple read her first bad review, she began to scratch her left wrist with the fingernails of her right hand. It was some guy in Boston, saying that she was Sony's answer to Alanis Morissette, that she had a lot to learn and that she was saved by the instrumentation. (He also said she was "precocious." She somehow misunderstood and thought he said "pretentious," which made it worse.)

She scratched and she scratched, all the way up her arm. There are still some dark patches on her wrist, where she dug in the deepest. "I have a little bit of a problem with that," she says, frankly. "It's a common thing."

Yes, but it's not a great idea.

"I know. I have bad, violent dreams and it has a bad effect on my mind. I know, it's bad. But it's not like a hobby of mine." Did it make you feel better when you did it?

"It just makes you feel."

Sometimes, she bites her lip as hard as she possibly can. "And it'll be bleeding, and I can't stop, because it almost feels so good when I bite my lip." Pause. "It was never, like, 'I am going to hurt myself and put myself in the hospital.' . . . It is that I am going to give myself the pain that I need to feel to put the punctuation on this shit that's going on inside."

How do you react when you realize people think you're crazy?

"The first thing that happens is just the frustration and sadness. And urgency, the 'No, no, you didn't get it.'"

Would you like them to know that you're not crazy?

"Sure, but I'd better sane them up first, because there's a lot of them that are crazy and that's why they think that I am. . . . The most annoying thing for me to hear about myself is that I'm trying to make people have a pity party for me. Everything that I've gone through has been dramatized by the people who've written about it, not by me. I'm just saying, 'This happened to me, this happened to a lot of people.' Why should I hide shit? Why does that give people a bad opinion of me? It's a reality. A lot of people do it. Courtney Love pulled me aside at a party and showed me her marks."

Does it ever worry you that you're too young for all of this?

"Well, if I am, it's a good thing that I've got all of this to help me grow up."

I think it worries other people.

"But what's going to happen that they're worried about? They're worried about just the possibility of my ongoing pain, or are they worried about the possibility of a horrible crash ending? That guy, Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker, said something that just sounded cheesy. . . . He said, 'Hey, you know how risky life is? You don't get out alive.' But in a sense, basically, what he's saying is: What the fuck else are you going to do?"

From a quote by Martha Graham, about artistic expression, that Fiona Apple carries around with her: No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

In my hotel room in Las Wegas, I ask her whether she has heard this Janeane Garofalo sketch from Denis Leary's new album, Lock 'N Load.

"No. What did she say? This is really going to make me upset, because I really like Janeane Garofalo, and I knew that she hated me. . . . That girl was at the MTV thing the day after the awards and she was giving me a really weird vibe and really avoiding me."

I play her the track, titled "A Reading From the Book of Apple." It begins by perfectly echoing Apple's MTV speech, then it heads off: You shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool. . . . Even though I have an eating disorder and I have somehow sold out to the patriarchy in this culture that says that lean is better. Even though I have done that, and have done a video wherein I wear underwear so that you young girls out there can covet, and feel bad about what you have, and how thin you're not. The point is, I have done it, I am lean. That's why I did succeed sooner than maybe other musicians that maybe were better songwriters. . . . I don't know . . . better lyricists . . . better vocalists . . . I can't say that. But I do know this: This world is bullsh- . . . did I say this world is bullshit? 'Cause it is. And my boyfriend can make you disappear. He can pull something out of your ear and say things like, "We have not met before, have we?" Go with yourself.

To begin with, after I click off the tape recorder, Apple is composed: "She is absolutely right, about the video and what it says to girls, but she's looking at my message at the beginning, and she's not waiting for the end. Because . . . "

It's then she cracks. Big tears dollop down her face. I feel awful, fetch tissues. She begins talking some more. "Since that video was made, I've gained about 20 pounds on purpose . . . " – Fiona says she is currently 110 pounds, and has varied between 95 pounds and 125 pounds – "so that people can see me like that. I know what I'm doing. Bitch. I'm going to get bigger and bigger, and the girls are going to see that I don't care and that I feel better like that. Of course I have an eating disorder. Every girl in fucking America has an eating disorder. Janeane Garofalo has an eating disorder and that's why she's upset. Every girl has an eating disorder because of videos like that. Exactly. Yes. But that's exactly what the video is about. When I say, 'I've been a bad, bad girl, I've been careless with a delicate man' – well, in a way I've been careless with a delicate audience, and I've gotten success that way, and I've lived in my ego that way, and I feel bad about it. And that's what the song's about, and therefore, that's what the video looks like."

Fiona talks about Courtney Love: "In a way I'm trying to do exactly the opposite of what she's done. Start out being lean and the absolute perfect marketing package, and slowly, as I get more power, becoming more of myself and exhibit the happiness that comes from that. . . . I mean, my plan is to gain enough weight that I can really be considered voluptuous, and do my 'First Taste' video. And I am preparing myself for what is going to happen. Because soon they will be saying that I'm fat. And it will hurt me."

We say goodbye, but Fiona calls me a few hours later. "First of all," she says, "I think it's good that she said that. . . . Because people who may have been wrongly influenced by me can be better influenced by her for her saying that. I guess. But . . . " It's a big but. She's furious that Garofalo didn't say anything to her when they were in the same room. "I wrote this little poem for her," she says. The poem begins as a pastiche of "Shadowboxer": "Once voluptuous, now so lean/What a petty marketing scheme . . . " Then it turns on Garofalo. The final four lines are:

Well, I best be off now to primp and preen
But before I go, here's an end to your mean
I be a paradox of gestures and genes
But you are a cowardly bitch, Janeane

A few days later, I track down Janeane Garofalo. "Oh," she says. "OK. All I can say is, yep, I did it. I have to take full responsibility, but in the end I'm not pleased that a young woman's feelings were hurt by it." She recorded it almost immediately after the awards: "It was one of those deals where you don't think about it." She says that the "lean" stuff was "just my own jealousy and envy," and that she actually likes Apple's record, lyrics included. "That's just me being a dick," she says. But she totally denies that she avoided Apple, or had a problem with her, the day after the awards: She says she was looking after a dog and a 5-year-old kid. "Denis and I were just screwing around," she says. "In 13 years of doing stand-up, I have discovered time and again, people get hurt a lot when you think you're just doing comedy."

Fiona Apple has curious, intense faith in the truth. In her music, she believes that if she is honest, what she creates cannot be without worth. In her life, she believes truth is the safest refuge. These are dangerous, high-risk beliefs.

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