Piano-hammering, shrink-frequenting "child savant" with levitating boyfriend channels girlhood trauma into debut album of impressively funky darkness.
And it was going so well. In a baroque Brooklyn theatre, singer/songwriter Fiona Apple completes her hour-long set for MTV Unplugged. Backed by a five-piece band, she performs some of her brooding, bluesy songs at the grand piano, some standing up, dancing with a willowy elegance. She's nervous, and you can almost hear the sigh of relief when it's over. Then the producer wants the first song, Sullen Girl, again. And again. Three bars in, her rich voice breaks into a cough. She stops and smashes the keys.
"Fuck! it's so frustrating!" she shouts.
The next day Apple sits in her boyfriend's flat in downtown Manhattan, nursing a migraine. "It was stressful," she says, rubbing the back of her neck.
"I'm concerned about the audience. I want to reach them, and to do the same song again adds a bullshit quality to the show."
Since the release last year of her debut album, Tidal, 19-year-old Apple has received a Grammy nomination, heavy rotation on MTV, and been styled as the definitive late-'90s post-grunge queen - Kate Moss with songs. Not surprisingly, for a High School loner who throughout her teens quietly wrote her caustic pop blues at home, this is bewildering.
"It's weird to be living this life at this age. Sometimes when I'm in a dressing room, I look in the mirror and see a little girl, like I should be running around a playground. My shrink says I need four weeks off or I'll go insane," she says, wide-eyed.
Less than two years ago, Apple recorded four songs on a cheap demo tape which reached manager/producer Andy Slater via a friend. Before long she was snapped up by Sony's Work label, recording an album.
"In the beginning I was so scared. I'd got Sony sitting on my shoulders, I was seventeen and meeting managers and lawyers."
Described by Work Co-President Jeff Ayeroff as a "child savant", Apple composes with astonishing maturity. She has been compared to everyone from Joni Mitchell to Alanis Morissette, but her approach - dark, full and funky with a hint of Broadway - is more like an early Laura Nyro. Apple has been writing songs since the age of 11. She grew up in Manhattan, the child of parents who met at music college and divorced when she was four. Her father, she says, is a Zen-like figure of calm, while her mother . . .
"I get crazy from my mom. She is the most highly strung person in the world, an extremely intelligent, creative woman who has a desire to learn like no-one I've ever seen. She's been everything from an opera singer to a pastry chef."
A withdrawn child, Apple retreated further when, at the age of 12, she was raped by a stranger.
"The rape is part of my music, but there's a million other things that my music's about." It's also about being the ugly ducking at school with glasses, a bad haircut and "a nose that grew before the rest of my face".
Sent to a series of therapists and teased by her peers, like a young Janis Ian, Apple found solace in music. She listened incessantly to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and jazz, and took inspiration from the writer Maya Angelou.
"I couldn't find anybody to listen to me or take me seriously except for shrinks, and they were being paid," recalls Apple, "Music became my only way of connecting with anyone."
This is the woman who confesses to a "sick enjoyment of pain", who once said she liked getting her heart broken because it felt like a muscle was being used. Surely, by the age of 29, her poor heart'll be crocked; wouldn't working out be healthier?
"I got that analogy from my mom. She was also an aerobics instructor," says Apple. "There's a burning pain when you're working a muscle, that's a good sign. But having your heart broken is one thing, being abused is something else."
Her hit song Sleep To Dream is about this love pattern. She started writing it at 14 when her first boyfriend, the "Mack Daddy" of the school, treated her like shit. The same thing kept happening with other boyfriends, and it wasn't until she had finished the song for the album that she met her current beau, the charismatic street magician, David Blaine. "I'm totally in love now," she says, exhaling.
"This is my first relationship based on actual true love and appreciation rather than coming from some kind of sick neurosis."
As if on cue, Blaine enters, a tall guy with a goatee. He leads Q up to the roof for the photos, and while Apple is posing above Gramercy Park, he actually levitates, hovering four inches above the ground for a full five seconds.
"On our first date he levitated in the street," Apple giggles. The next album should be very interesting . . .
By: Lucy O'Brien