Strange Fruit: Fiona Apple
With her latest album, The Idler Wheel…, Fiona Apple proves she’s still music’s favorite twisted sister. Tim Murphy listens in.
Fiona Apple’s long anticipated fourth album, The Idler Wheel…, is due out June 19, but her fans are already going nuts for the quirky new tracks she’s been performing at shows all across the U.S. Earlier this spring, during her concert at the Bowery Ballroom in her native New York, the diminutive 34-year-old singer-songwriter could barely pause between songs without someone in the packed crowd screaming, “We love you, Fiona!” or “Welcome back, Fiona!” Notoriously introverted onstage, Apple meekly replied, “Thank you for wanting me back,” provoking another avalanche of applause.
Despite all this fuss and frenzy, Apple’s comeback is being complicated by an unexpected flu. It’s had her holed up for four days in her room at the Soho Grand Hotel, and when she finally comes down to the lounge in combat boots, a floor-length black skirt, and a camisole that reveals sinewy arms, she looks exhausted. But if you’ve ever assumed, based on her past behavior, that Apple is a willful brat, think again. Even when sick, she’s sweet, with the scattershot earnestness of, say, a weirdly intense 8-year-old prodigy. And she’s funny. “Whole stretches of time have passed in a fugue state,” she rasps of her recent viral incarceration. “For a while, my ex-boyfriend [the magician] David Blaine was bringing me soup from Souen,” a nearby macrobiotic restaurant. “But then both he and my brother Brandon, who travels with me, had to leave town. And I don’t take care of myself very well.” She also misses her beloved pit bull, Janet, back home in Venice, California.
Still, the flu’s but a blip in what’s shaping up to be a very good year. Ever since she debuted in 1996, at 19, with Tidal and its smoldering hit single “Criminal,” Apple’s had an adoring fan base of dark-witted girls and the boys who fall for them. She cemented that base further with 1999’s When the Pawn…, one of the most musically daring, critically acclaimed albums of that decade, and again with 2005’s Extraordinary Machine—a record that was delayed due to creative differences between Apple and her label until her fans mounted a “Free Fiona” campaign, which essentially expedited the album’s release. The lengthy intervals between records only seem to stoke her acolytes’ appetites. Apple, however, wouldn’t be Apple if she weren’t freaked out by the new love vibes. “It’s really disconcerting,” she says. “Because all that good stuff is just setting you up to fail. But then I’ll be on a message board and scroll down to the comments, and somebody will write, ‘Ugh, she looks like a meth addict, I wouldn’t fuck her with a 10-foot pole.’ And then,” she adds, laughing, “I’ll be relieved.”
In some ways, her defensive stance is justified. In her youth, she earned, along with the adoration, ample jeers. There she was in the “Criminal” video writhing in her underwear like a malnourished postgrunge Lolita. Then came the infamous 1997 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech, in which she told viewers, “This world”—meaning the music industry—“is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life [around] what you think that we think is cool.” (Some called her courageous; others called her an ingrate.) She capped her rep for being difficult at a Manhattan show in 2000 when, after extensive sound problems, she simply walked off the stage and refused to play. Looking back, she says she isn’t ashamed of her past adolescent behavior. “If I was sullen, it was because I had a hard time putting on that showbiz smile.”
As for the new album, with the exception of the dreamily romantic “Anything We Want,” you won’t find much of a smile—showbiz or otherwise. Recorded with no professional producer, it’s arguably Apple’s most stripped-down, avant-garde work yet, full of harsh, homemade percussion (in one track, she is stomping on the hood of a truck, and in another she plays a kind of triangle she made out of old bathroom pipes); her trademark atonal piano; and familiarly self-recriminating lyrics like “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone.”
“I have this thing where I think I’m writing a love song, but then later I realize it’s kind of twisted,” she says, laughing. One song, “Jonathan,” is about Jonathan Ames, the novelist and creator of the late HBO series Bored to Death, whom she dated from 2007 until about a year and a half ago. Why’d they break up? “Because we’re both weirdos?” is all she’ll offer, though she mentions they’re still good friends. But Apple, currently single, says that, despite her lyrics, she doesn’t believe she’s hopelessly unlovable. “I have moments of supreme confidence,” she insists. “If I’m in a romantic relationship, whatever hate I have for myself goes out the window. I beat up on myself, but I’m not somebody who’s uptight in bed.”
For now, though, she seems semi-comfortable as the oddball loner she’s grown up to be. On most days, she doesn’t talk to anyone but Brandon—and her pit bull. “I have a lot of one-way conversations with her in strange accents while she follows me around the house,” she says, then suddenly slips into a Russian accent. “Like, Vhen you going to get a degree, make yourself useful? You can’t keep bringing boys back here, okay? You’re a slut.” In other words, Apple may be having a comeback, but she’s as bracingly weird as ever. “One of the younger guys in my band said to me the other day, totally sincerely, ‘You’re going to be one of those cat ladies,’ which I’d be fine with. But, hey, next year could look completely different. I have no expectations of anything but change.”