Fiona Apple: Idling No More

Fiona Apple: Idling No More

Fiona Apple: Idling No More

With feelings of despair behind her and indifferent about being judged, pop's mercurial chanteuse returns from a seven-year-hiatus with her most DIY album yet. Here, she reunites with "Criminal" director Mark Romanek exclusively for V.

With feelings of despair behind her and indifferent about being judged, pop's mercurial chanteuse returns from a seven-year-hiatus with her most DIY album yet. Here, she reunites with "Criminal" director Mark Romanek exclusively for V.

Photography: Mark Romanek

Text: John Norris

At long last, she is back. And of the many reasons to celebrate Fiona Apple’s return to the national stage this year, maybe the most remarkable is that—so far at least—it’s been drama-free. Her March mini-tour, which began at South by Southwest and featured previews of three songs from her fourth album, released in June, was unmarred by sound issues, received almost unanimously positive press, and offered no visible signs of frustration, let alone any onstage meltdowns like the one that infamously occurred in New York in 2000. The only hitch? A nagging cold that Apple couldn’t shake for part of the run and still was battling when I met up with her in a secluded corner of New York’s Soho Grand Hotel.

“I think I did a really smart thing a few months ago,” she says, explaining the tour’s success. “I’m one of those people, one of the many, that has a drink before every show. I just don’t know any different. And I really needed to learn how to not do that.” So for a series of performances last year at the L.A. club Largo—where her frequent collaborator Jon Brion has a long- standing residency—playing in a comfort zone, with plenty of friends, Apple went off the preshow bottle, and discovered something in the process. “I thought that having a drink was what took the edge off or made me feel more confident, less self-conscious or whatever. But it turns out to be the other way around. And now I don’t immediately react to myself or judge things that are going on. It doesn’t even occur to me anymore. I think I’ve grown up in that way. I became less inhibited. I don’t care as much about being judged.”

Not caring about being judged is something that Apple has long preached and also practiced, but with only mixed results. For the legions of fans who from 1996 on have connected with her unsettling, confessional lyrics, her quirky onstage style, and her unwillingness to edit herself—famously proclaiming from the podium at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards that “this world is bullshit”—she did have detractors, who saw her as a churlish, temperamental brat. There was a time when Apple would actively avoid reading any press, but that too has changed—which is notable, considering that in the seven years since her last release, Extraordinary Machine, the opinion megaphones have exploded and the devouring of celebrities has only increased. “For a long time, I was just too afraid to read stuff,” she admits. “Like, I would turn on my computer and I would see my face some place, and it was very uncomfortable, and it would make me go, ‘Oh my God, I have to get rid of my laptop.’ And I started to make this whole plan in my head! But then I thought, that’s just really no way to live. I don’t want to be doing this because I’m afraid. Like what can they really say about me that they haven’t said before?”

What they’ve been saying of late has been nearly all good, including an especially warm embrace from the indie-rock community, a world far more pervasive and influential than when Apple was last on the scene. An especially eloquent appreciation of the singer, published in the spring on, even had Apple contemplating a thank-you note. Still, leave it to Fiona to cite a snarky reaction to her new album’s title, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, which of course brings to mind the 84-word poem that titles her second release, 1999’s When the Pawn…“I read something calling it ‘ridiculous,’” she recalls. “‘Ridiculous’ was the word! And I went, ‘Oh great, welcome back, yeah.’”

Let’s coin a new term: “reverse sabbatical.” It’s when someone hibernates for seven years and then finally reemerges to release a new album and go on tour. Fiona is learning to master it. The last time I interviewed her, in 2005, six years had just passed between her second and third releases, a break made longer by her decision to rerecord Extraordinary Machine and a subsequent standoff with Epic Records over its release. This time it was a seven-year wait, extended by a year beyond her prior hiatus because although Apple had finished The Idler Wheel… in 2010, she waited on a change in regime at the label to insure there would be a “team in place” that supported the album. Six or seven years is an inconceivable gap for any 21st-century artist interested in sustaining what might be considered a viable and visible “career.” And there’s the rub. “I don’t think I have a goal,” she asserts. “I don’t think that I’ve ever had much career ambition. I just want to be happy with my life. I just wanna be proud of the way that I live my life, and I don’t want to make myself sick, you know?” And did the suits at Epic ever hound her for new product during those seven years? “No, they don’t care,” she says, frank as ever, “because they don’t look at me as someone who’s gonna make a lot of money. So they just forget about me.” She says she’s loved those occasions on which she’s had “assignments,” which tend to expedite her creative process, but adds that “with no one to push me along, nature just takes its course. And the garden gets overgrown, and then I deal with it.”

So the long inactive stretch may have been necessary to simply live life and create new music, or to “fill up the tank again,” as Apple puts it. One listen to the songs on The Idler Wheel… will tell you it wasn’t always a walk in the park. Fiona has created her most moving album to date by cutting closer to the emotional bone than ever—and for this artist, that’s saying something. Tales of anguished breakups buttress others about unrequited, obsessive love. “You let me down,” she sings on the bluesy “Periphery,” “I got bored trying to figure you out.” Her spitfire vocal over tom-toms on “Left Alone” declares “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore”; on the numbed, heartbreaking “Valentine” she’s a resigned “tulip in a cup”; and in the record’s most primal moment, on “Regret,” Apple fairly screams, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers/To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth/Every time you address me.” Tough stuff, and she says that it all comes from very specific relationships. “These are songs that I needed to write, they are my diary, disguised in, for lack of a better word, poetry,” she explains, though she is loathe to name names. “Mainly I wouldn’t want to reveal that kind of stuff because I want people to be able to apply their own lives to the songs.”

But things aren’t as bad with her exes as the record might suggest. “I talk about this with my shrink a lot,” Apple confesses. “I have this weird thing where I’m friends with my ex-boyfriends, and I really care about them. I care about their lives with their girlfriends. I feel like maybe an annoying mother or something.” Among these exes are illusionist David Blaine, in whose office/apartment Apple crashes when in New York, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who started to make a video for Apple’s new song “Hot Knife” before having to work on a movie, and most notably writer Jonathan Ames, the subject of one of the album’s sweeter tracks, “Jonathan.” Drawn to Ames’s transgressive, überpersonal work, Fiona actually sought him out to date in the mid-aughts, an especially tough period for the singer. “I was really going through a terrible, terrible time around the time that I met him,” she admits. “It was like the first time in my life that I felt actually maybe suicidal. Not that I was gonna kill myself, I never felt like that. But that I could let myself die, you know, that slow suicide. I don’t know how, but just give up.” Although they’ve been apart for “a while” now, she says, “I thought, That guy does deserve a song, ’cause he did kind of save my life. Just by being so kind. He was just simply so kind to me.”

Forever marching to her own drummer, Fiona is one now as well. Part of what makes The Idler Wheel… so stunning is the utter simplicity of its arrangements: most tracks feature little more than that powerful, smoky voice, piano, and a collection of found sounds as percussion, all devised and played by Apple and her coproducer, drummer Charley Drayton. “I knew that I wanted to make a record that didn’t have anything unnecessary in it and that used things around me that were available,” she recalls. “I just really wanted to make exactly what I wanted to make, to have it be really stark, just basically piano and percussion.” In addition to actual drums and timpani, the album features banging on cups and pans, footsteps in sand, the squishing of a popcorn bag, and stomping on the hood of Apple’s brother’s truck. “The credits are gonna be very interesting,” she says, “Charley’s written them down. He kept all of the notes, and he would write down, like, ‘truck stomper’ or ‘dance partner.’ I have a credit that’s gonna be ‘thigh slapper!’ I can’t even remember which song it’s on, but I’m like doing something on my thighs.”

In the lead single from the record, “Every Single Night,” Fiona engages in a daily “battle with my brain,” and indeed she can be a lovely mass of contradictions. The woman who bares her soul in song has no interest, for instance, in sharing the minutiae of her life on Twitter, although she likes “seeing what someone else had for breakfast.” While on some fronts she still seems beset by insecurities, she confidently says, “I can write a hit. I know how that shit works.” But maybe the most telling lyric is in the hook of the album’s brightest track. “We can do anything we want,” Apple sings. And she is proof of it. Her fourth album in sixteen years, The Idler Wheel… is the most DIY work of her career, released on her own timetable and packed with pain, loss, desperation, a tinge of hope, and the unmitigated authenticity that so many love about her. “My manager, Andy [Slater], tells me that too,” she says. “He says, ‘People like you because you’re real.’ But—and I’m not trying to be modest or anything—am I really that much more authentic? Is it really that bad out there?” On a mainstream pop level, I assure her, it is. Which brings us back to that ’97 VMA speech. The part of her remarks not as often remembered are the words “Go with yourself.” Fiona Apple goes with herself. And as for her 2012 comeback—which continues this summer with an extended tour—so far, so good. “It’s great when I notice, Hey! That didn’t bother me so much! I’m doing better now,” she says. “Because I feel like I can handle things. Now I know it’s gonna be okay.”

Credits: FASHION ZARA ZACHRISSON  Makeup Wendy Rowe (Tim Howard Management)  Hair David Von Cannon (Streeters)  Photo assistants Alex Muccilli and Ithai Schori  Stylist assistant Sara Tavas  Production assistant Lorena Campillo  Location van Superior  Location Vans Equipment rental ROOT [EQ, Capture+Studios]  Retouching View Imaging  Special thanks Tyler Ford, Maria Rojas, Yara Nomia, Anthony Asaro (11th St. Workshop)


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