Personal Faves: The Return of Fiona Apple—Live!

Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Nadia Chaudhury writes about fulfilling her dream of seeing Fiona Apple perform live.

Seeing Fiona Apple live won the year for me. Murmurings of her new album in January, after seven years spent doing whatever she does when not making new music (I’ve always imagined her frolicking through the woods), and to-be-expected tour excited so many people, like myself, were the musical highlights of the year before they even happened. Then, in in April, she officially announced the album, with an epic poem of a title (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do) that ought to be pretentious but instead comes across as more endearing than anything else.

I had to see her (I never did while in high school; No Doubt was all the female empowerment I needed). I tried desperately to get tickets to what were pegged as her intimate one-off shows smaller venues in New York in March, to the point where, on the day tickets were for sale, I had my browser open up to Ticketmaster five minutes before they were released, and roped a group of friends and my fiancé to help me in my plight. As soon as the clock hit noon, we clicked, typed those ridiculous captcha words (if only it had read “pawn conflicts” that day…), and failed. Miserably.

So I waited.

Soon after my failed purchases, it was announced that she would be playing Governors Ball on Randalls Island in June, the same week that Idler Wheel had been officially released (though it had been streaming for weeks before and I already had it memorized). It was a music festival (that’s bad), so there were other bands (that’s good), but the main draw was Fiona (that’s great). My fiancé and I got there at noon, right when the gates opened, to stake out a spot at the front of the stage, center right (the money spot). Unlike the ticket fiasco, we succeeded in our goal, and we stood there for six hours, trading off who got to walk around the grounds of Randalls before it got too crowded to come back to our spot.

Band after band played, some better than others (Built to Spill, timeless as always). Then, it was Fiona Time, right at the beginning of dusk. While earlier in the day, the sun had been blazing hot, now the skies had since darkened a bit, turning into a soft hazy gray.

She walked onto the stage, settling in the center at the microphone stand. The blurred sun was right behind the stage, illuminating Fiona from behind. Then, without a 1-2-3 prelude, she begins, diving straight into the jaunty “Fast As You Can.”

Her performance is just mesmerizing. There’s the way she sways and bends her body to the music as if she’s a willow. She shakes her hips, stomps her feet, her one bent leg tapping her foot to the beat of her music. She grips the mic stand with one clutched hand, while the other hand rests on her hip, bracing herself from herself, or with two hands on the mic, like she’s trying to coax affection or approval or everything that she’s been searching for (and apparently couldn’t find from Jonathan Ames, if "Jonathan" is to be believed).

While singing, she widens her mouth to its fullest extent to squeeze every single ounce of sound out of her throat, and just look at the way she opens her eyes, drinking everything in front of her into her mind. There’s the way she waves her too-thin arms around, to emphasize her many points, as if in some poetic tantrum. There’s the way she grasps her own hands, or clutches at the edge of her skirt. There’s the way she pulls back from the microphone stand when she’s not singing. She slinks around the stage during extended musical breaks. She dances in a jerky sort of motion that is in sync with the music, as if she’s in a room by herself and no one else can see her. When she sits at her piano, she shakes her head, and whips her hair, she uses her entire body to push down and pound the notes out on the keyboard. It’s unknown whether the physical performance is for her, for us, or whether she even has any control over what she’s doing.

She sings with longing and at times is sweet, and other times, sounds purely guttural or emotes with a such a precisely controlled quiver as she wavers her voice. She exudes childish wonder in the best way (just look at the music video for “Every Single Night”), while at the same time, true earnest pain, all through her voice. There’s the intensity behind her words that extends deep into her voice, which moves throughout her body. Her vocal power is even amplified by her full backing band. “I just want to feel everything,” she sings. Every verse, every single thing she sings, is cathartic for her. The entire time, I just want to hug her, and tell her that everything is going to be okay, while at the same time, remaining several feet away from her.

Her stage banter isn’t much, but that’s not the point of seeing her. She rambles quickly, stumbling over her words, like an over-energetic child, which could be heard during her WTF interview with Marc Maron in July.

Her smile seems sheepish at times. At one point, she slumps behind the piano, only to wave hello to the crowd from underneath the piano. She’s unsure of how to respond to the multitudes of “I love you, Fiona”s that the audiences cries out; she handles them better than she used to, but there’s still a certain level of embarrassment she clearly feels when heaped with praise. And yet, when she thanks the crowd, she’s genuine. She cares, she really does.

Then she sits down on the stage floor during the musical end of “Criminal,” looking at the audience with a slight smile on her face. And then she waves and her face breaks into a huge smile. She gets up, waves more, and then hugs herself. As she walks offstage, a man, likely her manager, puts his hand on her shoulder as if to say, good job. 

Modest Mouse was set to play after Fiona, but they didn’t matter. We walked away. I wanted to remember what just happened for as long as I could. Some eight months later, I still haven’t forgotten even a single second. Good job.

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