Fiona Apple re-emerges with new outlook, album


December 2, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

After the similarly idiosyncratic but brilliant Sinead O'Connor, no female artist of the last decade has been branded as "flaky," "troubled" or downright "nuts" as often as 28-year-old chanteuse Fiona Apple.

After scoring a multi-platinum hit and critical raves with her 1996 debut "Tidal," and following that with 1999's ridiculously named "When the Pawn -- etc., etc., etc." and a much-ballyhooed onstage meltdown, Apple disappeared from the spotlight for more than five years.

During that time, the singer-songwriter crafted the first version of "Extraordinary Machine" with producer Jon Brion (the Hollywood film scorer who has also worked with Kanye West), shelved it, then recorded a very different take on the same songs with producers Mike Elizondo (50 Cent, Eminem, Mary J. Blige) and Brian Kehew (the Moog Cookbook).

We spoke by phone the day after opening night of her current tour.

Q. You hinted that you might never return to live performance, but here you are. How did it go the other night?

A. It went really well, surprisingly. I thought I was going to have a hyper heart before, but I was actually pretty calm, and the audience was a perfect audience for a first night -- they were loud, but in a good way.

Q. I read that you hadn't even touched the piano or played any of your old songs for three years. But it all came back?

A. Yeah, it did. I was telling the guys in the band last night that it felt really easy to play all of the songs. We had nine days of rehearsal, and I was like, "I don't remember doing that much work." But I guess we really got a lot accomplished. I didn't feel like, "Oh, s---, the next part's coming up and I don't know what to do." It felt like we knew exactly what we were doing.

Q. Do you think you can get to a place now where you enjoy live performance?

A. I enjoy it, but it's just like anything else: You might have a day where you don't feel like doing it. But most of the time when you get out on the stage, whatever kind of feeling you had before about "I don't want to do it" or "I don't have it in me" usually disappears. Something takes over.

Q. You're probably tired of questions about ""Extraordinary Machine," but I'm struck by the fact that even though you said it was your decision to shelve the first version with Jon Brion, the perception persists that you were pressured by your label.

A. There's been a misconception that I got forced into doing something by the record company. People have told me that there are message boards saying that I got hooked up with Mike Elizondo because Sony wanted a hit, and that makes me furious. It's like, "Don't you know me? Do you really think I would allow that?" So I did get exactly what I wanted [on the album] at the end.

Q. What was the struggle?

A. For a while, I was just trying to figure out what I wanted. I was proud of the stuff I did with Jon, but some of it just wasn't right. As much as I think it's a cool concept that people can compare two different versions [of the album], they're not really comparing a finished version with a finished version. Part of what was going on when I was working with Jon was that he can play so many things and he has so many ideas, and when we had done the last album together, I was really clear about what I wanted, so I could say "I like this, but I don't like that." This time I was really at a loss; my brain wasn't working when we were doing it, so where the songs ended up weren't finished versions. That's why I wanted to start clean and just try it with a new skeleton.

Q. What drew you to Elizondo?

A. At the very beginning, it was really just two things: He was really enthusiastic about it, and he's one of the warmest people you'll ever meet. Then when he went in to make beats and brought them for me to hear, I got really excited.

Q. When did you know a song was finally finished?

A. Once I started working with Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew, everything went so fast and was so easy' it was like I don't even remember working on the record. It was just "snap, snap, snap." But I do remember feeling like all of this was really, really worth the trouble when we were going in one day to do "Red Red Red." Lyrically, I was close to the song and it really mattered to me, and if you listen to the direction that it was going in on the first version and the way it ended up on this version, it's completely different. We ended up just putting down a bass line and having me sing to that, and then we built from there. It was just so easy, and it came out exactly how I wanted it.



One of the silliest of the many controversies swirling around Fiona Apple involved her militant assault on those of us who eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

A committed vegan, Apple recorded a passionate anti-turkey-eating rant in 1997 that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted as a phone message to counter Butterball's famous Turkey Talk-Line. "There's no proper way to kill and cook these beautiful birds," the musician wailed.

Given that we were talking on Thanksgiving eve, 12 hours before most of America would sit down to feast on a roasted gobbler, I had to ask if her objections stood.

"I'm not really up in the activist world right now," Apple said. "I'm not really thinking about it. I'm a vegan, but I don't care if you're eating turkey in front of me. I'm not a preaching vegan."

While Apple dislikes the public scrutiny that comes from stardom (and being mocked for things like her turkey tirade), she maintains that she's never reconsidered baring her soul on album.

"When the annoying parts of this job come up, that's when I'm like, 'I don't need this.' But this is what I happen to do, and I can make a living off it. I don't really think about how personal the songs are. I don't feel like I'm exposing my soul, I don't feel vulnerable, and I don't think the crap that I've gotten from the press has anything to do with what I've revealed about myself. If I was going to retreat, it would be for this reason that I'm afraid of what people are going to say. I can't let myself do that; it almost makes me go forward more."