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.

Follow Nadia Chaudhury on Twitter

New Tunes for the Week: Cat Power, Childish Gambino and More

So it’s only Monday and there’s already an influx of new music for you to get through. Earlier today, we told you about Shia LaBoeuf’s crazy new role in a Sigur Ros video, "rap game Taylor Swift" Kitty Pryde and a stacked-upon-stacked Fleetwood Mac tribute album featuring Best Coast, the New Pornographers and more. Oh, and some dude named Paul McCartney turned 70 today, which is a big deal, or something. 

Cat Power – "Sun"

There was buzz for a while about a new Cat Power album for a while, but Chan Marshall will release Sun, her first album of new material since 2007’s The Greatest, on Sept. 4th on Matador. A video was released today introducing first single "Ruin," a catchy, driving geography lessons (countries all over the globe get name-dropped). There’s not much to the video, but it’s worth it to check out the new song. 

Childish Gambino – "Shoulda Known"

The Rapper Otherwise Known as Donald Glover/Troy Barnes has been leaking collaborations with the likes of Heems and Beck, all with fans speculating the imminent release of a mixtape. Here’s the latest in a long line of hints. Listen over at Complex

Twin Shadow – "Five Seconds" 

George Lewis Jr., the brains behind Twin Shadow, based the video for his new track, "Five Seconds," on a novel he co-wrote called Night of the Silver Sun. And the whole thing has a very cinematic quality to it, from the tough-guy voiceover to the epic motorcycle ride through the woods to a fight with shirtless masked baddies. The Keith Musil-directed clip appeared on a massive billboard in Times Square as part of the Art Takes Times Square project. 

Fiona Apple – "Every Single Night" (NOW WITH VIDEO)

This isn’t new by any means, but now it’s, like, official or something. This has been your weekly reminder that Fiona Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, is now out (as of Friday), and that there’s now a video for the first single, "Every Single Night," as well. Still got it. 

New Fiona Apple Tracks Slowly Trickle Onto the Internet

It’s still a few weeks before Fiona Apple’s new album drops, finally abating those who are eager to listen to the summer’s most anticipated album. (Read all about the new album and what Apple’s been up to for the last seven years here.) So far, three of the album’s ten tracks have made it online to the massive delight of Appleheads across the internet. 

This morning, "Werewolf" was leaked online, a plucky little tune in which Apple sings, "Nothing wrong when a song ends in the minor key." We agree!

Over the weekend saw the debut of "Anything We Want," one of the three new songs Apple premiered at her show at South By Southwest back in March. Sadly, it’s not embeddable (Apple’s SoundCloud account keeps it as such, for some reason), but you can check it out here.

Finally, there’s The Idler Wheel‘s first single, "Every Single Night":

The Long and Winding Road That Leads to Fiona Apple

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So goes the oft-quoted line from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. Time is circular, and our relationship with our own personal histories is ever changing. This is a concept with which the enigmatic Fiona Apple is deeply familiar. The 34-year-old singer-songwriter is about to release her fourth album—the first in seven years—aptly titled The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. The spinning wheel of time cranks back and forth for Apple, who continues to re-examine her past while trying to keep up with the present. Like most artists, however, Apple finds that her fans cherish the past more than she does.

In 2000, a 16-year-old fan named Bill Magee approached Apple after a show in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania with a request: he told her he was a member of his high school’s gay-straight alliance and hoped that Apple could write a few words of support. “[I] was much more interested in interacting with a celebrity than building an alliance between gays and straights,” he admitted on his blog 12 years later where he posted a scanned image of the letter he received less than a week after requesting her response. Apple wrote: “All I know is I want my friends to be good people, and when my friends fall in love, I want them to fall in love with other good people. How can you go wrong with two people in love? If a good boy loves a good girl, good. If a good boy loves another good boy, good. And if a good girl loves the goodness in good boys and good girls, then all you have is more goodness, and goodness has nothing to do with sexual orientation.”

“My brother was the one who told me about it,” Apple tells me just weeks after Magee posted the letter on his Tumblr, which was then picked up by various sites like Jezebel and Pitchfork. “I was like, ‘A letter I wrote to someone when I was 22 has made its way online?’ That’s the scariest thing I could possibly hear in my life. And the subject matter was so important—I know how I’ve always felt so I knew it wasn’t going to be a bad letter, but I was like, ‘What did I say?!’”

The letter’s sudden popularity online is indicative of how much has changed since Apple released her debut album, Tidal, in 1996. For starters, she was then a 19-year-old singer-songwriter signed to a major record label and churning out emotional and dark odes at a time when her contemporaries were singing bubblegum-pop love songs. She made headlines after appearing in the video for “Criminal.” Shot in a seedy apartment, the video featured a scantily clad and emaciated Apple, sparking criticisms of the exploitive quality of the images (and suggesting that she had an eating disorder). In 1997, when accepting her award for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards, Apple infamously shouted into the microphone, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying.” While the speech was replayed and parodied on TV for years following, Apple was lucky enough to have said those words before the days of blogging and YouTube; had she given the speech 15 years later, it may have turned into a career-damaging viral video and sparked a few thousand snarky tweets.

She also has the luxury of being a successful artist who doesn’t need to promote herself online. “They want me to tweet now, but I don’t,” Apple tells me ofher label reps. “It doesn’t feel natural to me. But I do find it actually more interesting to see people posting ridiculously mundane shit. I like to hear about what people had for breakfast or what they did all day. It’s interesting because I don’t know how other people live.”

While Apple is hardly a recluse, she’s made few public appearances in the seven years since the release of her third album, Extraordinary Machine. The excitement following the announcement by Epic Records of the late-June release of The Idler Wheel speaks to the loyalty of her fan base. (And as for that long-winded title, it’s a callback to the much-maligned 90-word title of her acclaimed sophomore effort, universally shortened to When the Pawn…) The Idler Wheel does not deviate from the familiar sounds of Apple’s earlier records; the songs are still layered with complex instrumentation, and her reverberant voice still takes center stage in each tune. The album was produced nearly in secret over the last few years—a surprising move from an established artist with the resources of a major label at her disposal. But Apple explains that her experience with the label system is what allowed her to feel free to work on her own. “It was very casual, and I wasn’t fully admitting that I was making an album,” she says. “I got to use the time in the studio to inspire me to finish other things rather than feel like I was finishing homework to hand in. It wasn’t a lot of pressure. And the record company didn’t know I was doing it, so nobody was looking over my shoulder.”

Most might take that mentality as a reaction to the restrictions of her record label, especially after the drama surrounding the release of Extraordinary Machine. After collaborating with Jon Brion (who produced When the Pawn) to create an early version of the third album in 2002, Apple then decided to rework all but two of the songs with producer Mike Elizondo. The original version of the album leaked online, and Brion suggested in interviews that Apple’s label had rejected the demo and forced her to rerecord the songs (a claim that Apple later denied). Still, it incited an uproar among her fans. An online-based movement called Free Fiona organized demonstrations outside of the Sony headquarters in New York, and protestors sent apples to the label’s executives. The final version of the album was released in 2005 and received positive reviews and earned Apple a Grammy nomination. “I ran into the guy who started Free Fiona after a show in Chicago,” she tells me. “He apologized to me! They didn’t get the story quite right, but they did help me get my album out. I felt so bad that he had spent all this time thinking I was pissed at him—I had a physical urge to get down on the floor and kiss his shoes!”

It’s an intense reaction (she admits she didn’t bow to her fan because “it would be weird if I did that”), but Apple is still a very intense person. Dressed in a flowing skirt paired with several layers of spaghetti-strapped tank tops that reveal her slender frame (which seems healthier than in her early days, giving the impression that she must spend most of her downtime on a yoga mat), Apple fidgets in her seat during our conversation, often giving off an infectious giggle. But she is surprisingly comfortable to talk to, not much like the somber young woman who sang of heartbreak and disappointment. “I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” she replies when I ask if she ever worries that her lyrics, which are sometimes in stark contrast to the up-tempo, progressive sounds of her songs’ instrumentations, give off the wrong impression of her personality. “It’s all your own perception. I could easily be concerned with how I’m taken and then have all the good stuff filtered through to me and choose to believe that. For the rest of my life it’d be the truth for me, but not the whole truth.”

Born Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart in New York City to Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee, Apple’s musical destiny was settled at birth. The McAfee-Maggarts are, while not reaching Barrymore-level name recognition, an entertainment family; Apple’s father was nominated for a Tony for his performance in the Broadway musical Applause, both her mother and sister are singers, and her half-brothers work in the film industry—one an actor and the other a director. She’s a third-generation performer, as her grandmother was a dancer in musical revues and her grandfather a Big Band-era musician. While Apple’s auspicious introduction to the pop world had critics calling her a prodigy, she crafted her early songs as a cathartic necessity. (“Sullen Girl” from Tidal, in particular, is about her rape at the age of 12.) “Over the years it’s transferred more into a craft,” she says. “I use myself as material because that’s what I’ve got. But these days I write less than half of my songs to get myself through things. I have to find other things to be meaningful— otherwise I’d just be miserable all the time.”

Her songs are still extremely autobiographical, which is perhaps their charm. Following in the footsteps of other singer-songwriters, especially women who emerged in the early ’90s and expressed their emotions in particularly vulnerable ways, Apple’s openness has always had an empowering appeal. Her songs seem to suggest that feeling a variety of emotions—sadness, glee, despair, insanity—is not only normal, but, like those self-reflective musicians before her, she also gives permission to her listeners to feel the same way.

Even for Apple, her older songs are relics of another time, and she now makes them applicable to her life in the present. “They all kind of become poems after a while,” she says. “You can take your own meaning out of them. It’s been a very long time [since my first albums], and I can apply those songs to other situations that are more current in my life.” She admits she has changed greatly since she started writing songs in her late teenage years, especially when it comes to how she portrays herself. “I don’t feel comfortable singing the songs that I wrote. I used to blame other people and not take responsibility. I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong.”

And she is much harder on herself in the songs on The Idler Wheel than she ever was before. Sure, she admitted to being “careless with a delicate man” in “Criminal,” arguably her most famous song, and in When the Pawn’s “Mistake” she sang, “Do I wanna do right, of course but / Do I really wanna feel I’m forced to / Answer you, hell no.” On The Idler Wheel, Apple examines her own solitude and neuroses as well as their effect on her relationships with others. “I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city,” she sings on “Left Alone,” “But not in the same room, it’s a pity.” On “Jonathan,” a somber love song layered with robotic, mechanical sounds that’s presumably about her ex-boyfriend, author and Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, she urges, “Don’t make me explain / Just tolerate my little fist / Tugging at your forest-chest / I don’t want to talk about anything.”

But performing, as a central requirement of her career, still takes precedence. “Some nights I’m very, very nervous, and some nights I’m not at all,” she tells me. “I think, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not a person who does a show, I’m a person who should be on a couch watching TV.’ But then it’s like I get knocked into another state of consciousness, and then I’m left behind, and the person that’s doing the show is there and there’s nothing else in the world existing other than the note she’s singing. It’s such a joy to do, but I forget about it until I’m on the stage.”

Apple has lived in los Angeles since Tidal’s release in 1996, although she admits that she’s “not an L.A. girl.” “I was supposed to stay in New York,” she tells me. “I remember being 17 and asking if I could record in New York. How did I end up here? It’s 15 years later… How did that happen?” Apple doesn’t seem to process time like other people. When I ask when she began recording The Idler Wheel and when she knew it was ready, she has a complicated answer. “It must have started in 2008. Or 2009. I don’t know! I have no idea. It’s weird to think that there was 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.” Her big blue eyes suddenly look to her right as she furrows her brow. “Where’ve I been? What was I doing? What was that year about?”

Maybe the solitary nature of living in L.A. contributes to her aloof tendencies. “I’m not a social creature,” she says, “I don’t go to parties all the time because I’d probably just wonder why I’m there in the first place.” Her preference for being alone may also stem from the kind of personal criticisms that people tend to throw at female musicians. “I’ve gotten so used to being misunderstood. Nobody’s ever really said anything bad about my music, but when I’ve had albums come out there are always people making fun of me. ‘Oh, she’s back?’” She didn’t even expect the comments (mostly online) when the full title of The Idler Wheel was announced. “I didn’t stop to think that anyone would call it ridiculous, but people did. I thought, ‘Ahhh. My old friends.’ I’m not sure what’s ridiculous about it, but that’s what they’ve got to say.”

I cautiously mention the infamous acceptance speech from the VMAs, a moment early in her career that defined the public persona of Fiona Apple as an angry, ungracious woman. “I’ve never been ashamed of that,” she replies immediately. It was the first moment, she says, in which she felt like she could speak up—to break free from the shyness that defined her childhood and early teenage years. “I genuinely, naïvely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends. I expected to give it to people and they would understand me; no one would say to me, ‘We don’t want to be your friend because you’re too intense or too sad all the time.’” It wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Do you still think the world is bullshit?” I ask when we talk about the VMAs. She laughs. “It’s not the world!” she exclaims. “Of course people think that ‘the world’ is the whole world. I felt that I had finally gotten into the popular crowd, and I thought, ‘Is this what I’ve been doing this for?’ I felt like I was back in the cafeteria in high school and still couldn’t speak up for myself.”

These days, Apple spends more time focusing on her own art rather than the reactions to it. With age has come calm and decreasing desire to pay attention to her detractors. “I’ve decided it takes too much energy to try to avoid it,” she tells me, brushing aside her freshly dyed crimson hair. “I’m not going to hide from the world.”

Photography by Dan Monick
Styling by Djuna Bel

Fiona Apple on Her New Album, Lana Del Rey, and Reading Blogs

In our upcoming June/July issue, Fiona Apple opens up about her career and her new album The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do, which drops June 19. We can barely wait to share with you our profile of the enigmatic singer-songwriter, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the full piece. In the meantime, check out some of the interesting bits that didn’t make it into the issue! 

On writing the songs that make up The Idler Wheel:
I’ve never been a big re-writer or eraser. I don’t tend to write things down until they are what is in my head. With this album, I didn’t question that came out of my brain or mouth. I just decided to spit everything out and accept as it was and not go back and change anything. I don’t really remember writing the songs. I don’t remember them being at an in-between stage. I remember the beginning and I remember them being done.

On keeping up with the blogosphere:
There’s one person’s LiveJournal that I’ve read for the past few years. It’s really two people—they’re a couple and they live in Boston and they foster pit bulls. For some reason I clung onto them five or six years ago. I don’t know how I found them, but I check in on both of them all the time. I sent the guy a book he was saying he wanted. I hoped he’d write on his blog, "A mysterious stranger sent me the book I wanted," but he never did.

On Lana Del Rey and "trollgaze":
How can you live like that though? I don’t know anything about Lana Del Rey except that she’s been slammed a lot, and I feel bad for anyone who has that happen to them. Is she was sitting in a room and saying, "As long as I make money, you can make me out to be this way?" I can’t see that happening, but if it does I don’t understand it. I mean, yeah, I don’t think it matters much to the people that are making the money behind the artists if they’re liked or remembered or anything as long as it’s their terms as the president of such-and-such record company. They want [their artists] to have a lot of attention. If it’s bad attention, it’s bad attention, but as long as they make money, it’s good attention.