Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings
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.”
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.”
Fiona Apple fetches some food from her hotel minibar. Her favorite: un-turkey sandwiches. “I have, like, 17,000 of them,” she says. Apple is a vegan. On tour, she eats the same thing every day before a show: split-pea soup.
She empties the contents of her bag (“What my friend Michele calls the Black Hole”) onto the quilt. I request an inventory. “A bag of jewels and ribbons . . . makeup . . . lighters . . . matches . . . rolling papers . . . a photo album . . . ” – this she picked up from home: faded pictures of her and her sister playing as kids – “lots of empty card packets from when David was around . . . lots of hotel bills . . . the Jenny McCarthy book – I like her . . . a tin of makeup someone got me . . . a book of poetry about death . . .” – a friend suffered a loss and she wanted to understand – “my psychiatric medication . . .”
“My psychiatric problem,” she answers succinctly.
Have you been on something for a long time?
“A few years. I don’t get depressed and stay depressed for a long time. What would happen to me is the most exhausting thing. I wanted to die before. I truly did want to die before. I remember I would be sitting in my shrink’s office, looking at his computer with one of those screen savers on, and they have all these cubes in different colors, and I swear my mood would change. . . . A purple square would come up and I’d feel, ‘Everything’s OK,’ then a green one would come up and I’d be, ‘Everything’s terrible.’ It would make no sense to me. I still don’t understand it.”
Finally, there’s her journal. I ask her to open it at random and read me something. It’s a few lines of verse. Maybe a lyric-to-be.
People don’t like you, honey, that’s a good sign
Most people don’t know nothing but opinions
Very few find the facts
You keep trying to make them all side with you
You’re gonna waste all your time
Because you can’t get ’em, shouldn’t want ’em, don’t need ’em, so move on, be righteous and relax
“That’s me writing to myself,” she says. “I’m very thrilled that other people can get something out of my songs, but I write them for myself.”
As we speak, she contorts her body into a little ball, or sticks limbs out at the unusual angles available only to the double-jointed. When she talks, she talks boldly, but sometimes she goes silent. She stares ahead, or down, and for a while she just doesn’t say anything.
I watch her perform in Boston. She plays her entire album and three covers – Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” Bill Withers’ “Use Me” and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Angel.” She talks to the audience in a manic, cheery manner – like a slightly nervous ringleader pupil trying to tell the class something important before the teacher walks in. She’s funny, too. A long-haired woman rushes up to the stage and hands her a gift. Fiona holds it up for the rest of the audience to see. It’s an apple. She pretends to ponder this offering for a moment, then says, deadpan, “I don’t get it.”
One of the subjects she keeps referring to onstage tonight is the boyfriend about whom she wrote some of Tidal‘s more barbed songs. She tells the audience that she recently spoke with him for the first time since they broke up, and how good she feels because she doesn’t hate him anymore. His name is Tyson. She tracked him down at his college one morning after she’d been up all night and had ended up drunk and alone and wanting someone to talk to. They told her he was sleeping. “Tell him it’s Fiona,” she said. They talked for three hours.
Still, I am a little surprised a few days later when she passes on his number for me to call him at college in Atlanta, where he studies bio and moonlights as an acid-jazz DJ. He tells me about how they got together, a year after they first met, when he was out rollerblading on the Columbia University campus. “After that day,” he says, “we hung out with each other for 10 days straight without going home.” They went out for two and a half years, on and off. He was her first real boyfriend. Then it ended. “I remember it being all my fault,” he says. “Well, 95 percent my fault. I started seeing this other girl and liking her a little bit. And she said one day, ‘I never want to see you again.’ And then a year later an album’s out.” (Later, Fiona tells me that afterward she became friends with the other girl. One night they tried ecstasy together and were kissing. They were going to take a photo and send it to Tyson. “We thought, ‘This’ll be the greatest,'” she laughs. ” ‘The two girls that he fucked over. Let’s make him think that we’re together now.'”)
Tyson remembers listening to Tidal for the first time. He knew he was in there, and he would go through the songs, over and over, figuring it out. “‘Sleep to Dream,’ pretty much it felt like that’s what she was saying to me the last time I talked to her,” he says. “And the video was set up in a way so it looks like her bedroom – a futon on the floor, a TV.” The first time he saw that video, he was on his bed at college, lying on his back, with a girl on top of him, kissing his neck. And suddenly he saw Fiona. “Kneeling on the ground, looking through the TV, looking straight at me,” he says. Saying those words. This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways/So don’t forget what I told you, don’t come round, I got my own hell to raise.
He had to ask that girl to get off him. He couldn’t carry on.
When Fiona Apple was young, and she felt like wallowing, the song she put on was Madonna‘s “Live to Tell.” As it played, she would do what she calls floor-dancing: dancing while lying on the floor. She never really felt that she could dance standing up. When she felt happier, she would play Bob Dylan‘s “Like a Rolling Stone.” She would put on her roller skates. She had this ritual that she was convinced would make her safe. She would roller-skate around the dining-room table 88 times, 88 being the number of keys on the piano. After she’d done that, she knew she’d be safe until everyone got home.
Fiona Apple is on the 34th floor of MTV’s New York offices, talking to a camera about her year. “You feel like it’s been a second,” she says, sitting down, “and you feel like it’s been 12 years.”
She’s frank to a fault. “Alanis broke the ceiling, and then I walked into an office and they said, ‘Girl . . . young . . . songwriter . . . sign here.'” And she’s nicely sarcastic. After talking about her acquaintance with Marilyn Manson, she says, “Oh, it’s just an act, I like to act angry. . . . Me and Manson got together, he said, ‘I’m going to act like a Satanist and you act like a brat, and everyone will pay attention to us and then we’ll both say we’re misunderstood and then we’ll run off the edge of the earth.’ “
After about an hour, she is done. “One thing,” the MTV interviewer asks, “before you go. Do you have any favorite or worst Thanksgiving experiences?”
Fiona’s brow furrows, and then she looks up at her sister, Amber, who is sitting just off-camera, and the two of them start laughing.
“You can’t answer that,” says Amber. “That’s not a good question.”
“We don’t want to . . .” says Fiona, and the two of them laugh some more, the almost hysterical merriment of a sisterly secret.
“When they find out,” Fiona says to Amber, “it’s going to be really bad that we’re sitting here giggling. . . . “
When she was 12, on the day before Thanksgiving, Fiona Apple was raped in the corridor outside her mother’s apartment. She had walked home from school, and she figures the man must have followed her. At her building she was looking for her keys and she saw this man buzzing the buzzer, then walking outside. It seemed suspicious, so she waited until he was outside again, then ran in. He caught the door behind her. But he didn’t do anything. Not yet. When she caught the elevator, she could hear him going up the stairs, stopping at each floor. That worried her.
There were three locks to open to get into the apartment. She was on the third lock when he started down the hallway toward her. Later she would remember, somewhere in her head, a weird, off-kilter thought: It’s Jimi Hendrix. Maybe she was trying to imagine she was off in some strange fantasyland. The man who was not Jimi Hendrix came closer. She said she didn’t have any money. He said he didn’t want money. He had some kind of screwdriver or tool knife, and he told her that if she screamed, he’d kill her. She remembers letting out a sigh, and her muscles falling.
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.
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.
“I have problems,” she says, “but everybody’s got problems, and I sometimes honestly have felt in my life that people have used me as a way to make themselves feel better, because I’m a very good subject to save. And sometimes I think: ‘I’m not that bad off; it’s really you that’s making me feel like shit.’ “
She’s been thinking about this stuff. The first new lyric she wrote since finishing her album – for a song called “Limp” – begins:
You want to make me sick, you want to lick my wounds, don’t you baby?
You want the badge of honor when you save my hide
But you’re the one in the way of the day of doom, baby
If you need my shame to reclaim your pride
It’s another wise, high-risk warning, as applicable to the world as to those around her. If she shares her troubles, it is to normalize them, not to offer them up as public melodrama. There is a long way to go in the Fiona Apple story. She will make more mistakes and suffer more woes. She will make strange and brave records, though they will not always seem to be the right kind of brave or the right kind of strange. Maybe she’ll be thin, and maybe she’ll be fat, and maybe neither of these will help make her be what she wants to be. Maybe she’ll realize that it’s easier just to cut her hair off . . . and then she’ll see that doesn’t work either.
And she’ll be glad, in a way, of your attention. But, if you feel anything for Fiona Apple, think twice before adopting her as the person you worry about.
There is a rectangular tattoo at the center of Fiona Apple’s lower back. The upper half says kin, the word David Blaine and she use to describe their relationship. Below, it says FHW. There were two phrases that Fiona would write everywhere at school. One was To Be Free. The other – FHW – was Fiona Has Wings.
Fiona Apple used to have this daydream fantasy. She will walk into school chapel and there will be these lumps beneath her clothes, just beginning to show. She’ll stride down the center aisle and kneel in front of the altar, and all of her clothes will peel off. Her wings will show themselves. She will look at everybody – all those people who had teased her, or laughed at her, or talked behind her back about how weird she was – and then she will rise up and fly out of the building. And as she sweeps into the sky, free and triumphant, she will hear them all whispering. Many voices, but all saying the same three words; at last acknowledging, with their amazed chatter, what she always knew, and they never believed.
Fiona has wings. . . . Fiona has wings. . . . Fiona has . . .
This story is from the January 22nd, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.