Reality Bites

Rewiring Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine

Music Features Fiona Apple
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The tortured artist, unlike this world, is not bullshit. Sleepless nights, internal chaos—these aren’t merely vagaries of the human mind or fanciful notions dreamt up by fanciful people. Just ask Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain. Or even that one friend of yours in junior high who devoured his Nietzsche and Chekhov like you did your Roald Dahl. For these poor, unfortunate souls, the world is a daily reminder that there’s nowhere left to run. Step into the light and you’re galled by the darkness that envelops you. Step into the void and you forget instantly about ice cream sundaes and walks in the park.

Life’s a bitch. And then you… live. Soldiering on, no matter how lethargically.

With one hand on the panic button and the other on full throttle. It’s that sink-or-swim, mad-dog-and-glory navel-gazing that keeps the great ones forever poised on the brink of failure, of madness, absolutely positively yes, but also of genius totally unfuckwitable. Question is, on whose terms will it be? The record industry? The fans? The know-it-all music scribes? Or their own? And if there’s actually such a thing as doing it your way—truth, lies and mistakes included—what the hell is someone like Fiona Apple expected to do about it?

When I ask her this (minus the profanity and with the badass existentialism dialed waaay down) in some drab, dreary studio on a typically drab, dreary New York (in the fall) afternoon, she winces ever-so-slightly, those extraterrestrial eyes boring into no one in particular. Then she speaks in a tone suggesting weary resignation: “At the end of our conversation, the guy from The New Yorker asked me if I had anything to say to people who were my age back when I did the ‘Criminal’ video. I had no idea what I would say,” she offers bluntly. “But then later, I was thinking about it—the reason I wouldn’t say anything was because I didn’t want to give anyone advice.” She pauses, allowing herself a moment of pensive afterthought. “I allowed myself to continue on in a situation that was uncomfortable to me, that I knew wasn’t right because of the wrong reasons—because of vanity. And that’s the part that stings afterwards, that sticks with you.”

“Criminal” was, of course, the centerpiece of Apple’s maiden effort Tidal, the one that planted the husky-voiced, touchy-as-a-toothache chanteuse on everyone’s star maps. The song itself is a ballad of frightening intensity; Apple growls her way through some bludgeoning piano chords, spitting her lyrics with equal parts precision and peroxide: “What I need is a good defense / ’Cause’ I’m feeling like a criminal.” But it’s Mark Romanek’s video that kills the radio star: the image of Apple imploring you with that bad-yet-vulnerable half-sneer singes any illusions you might have about her being the girl next door. Still, one can’t shake the feeling that there was something deeply exploitative about the whole scene—Apple was only 20 at the time and reeling from the reverberations of an industry especially unforgiving toward prodigal sons and daughters. Then again, she’s still reeling.

“I was talking with my dad today and I was saying to him, ‘I feel like a basket case,’” she says, her voice all of a sudden dropping to a whisper. “I had to do this in-store in California just a few weeks ago, and I was hitting a wall. And I was doing TV interviews and I could feel myself being rude and not really answering questions and I could feel myself bursting into tears. I can only take so much of it. I was like, ‘oh god, please don’t do that again.’ Because I always used to be like that. And I was saying to my dad, ‘I don’t know what to do. This isn’t my job, this isn’t what I’m good at. I feel like I’m a baby, I feel like I’m not cut out for this, I feel like I’m gonna start crying in the middle of interviews.’”

For the record, she never cried once during our interview. But the overwhelming anxiety that used to pervade her existence continues to tap her on the shoulder every now and then, as if to remind her that what’s passed can’t always be the past.

“My dad was like, ‘well, you know, if you start crying, then that’s the truth. Why don’t you just say, ‘well, that’s what’s going on,’” she says, exasperation just creeping through her mocking daddy-waddy voice. “And I’m just like, ‘Dad, do you know how much experience I have with crying? Because that’s all they write about me, and that’s all they say, and that’s all they see.”

Well, it’s not all we see—“we” meaning the dastardly press, of course. Flip through your Rolling Stone, your Entertainment Weekly; people can’t stop spilling ink about Ms. Apple’s newfound Zen-ness, how her latest album, Extraordinary Machine, is not only her best, but her least angst-ridden. So we might as well stick to the script on this one: She is. Fitter. Happier.

“It’s so much less difficult this time around,” she says, and the sense of relief is palpable. “I think it’s probably a gradual maturation process. But also, a couple of other things. In the past, in the state that I was in, I would have anxiety attacks all day. So it wouldn’t have really mattered to me if I started crying in the middle [of an interview], because part of me really wanted people to see that I was in pain over stuff, to see how sad I was. Now… well first of all, I’m not that sad anymore. And when I am sad, I don’t want to open up to people as much. Just because I want to be calmer, for it to be different this time, and the wanting it makes it happen a little bit.” A series of profuse nods followed by a nervous chuckle. “I thought it was totally for real until the last couple days, but I’m letting it slip a little bit.”

As for being thrown into the lion’s den of expectations (when Tidal first swept onto record shelves, names like “Billie Holiday” and “Nina Simone” were being casually tossed around), Apple knows it’s not simply a matter of finding your one true self.

“I never considered what people’s expectations of me were—that’s one thing that’s always been easier because I feel like I’ve been myself all this time,” she says with a shrug. “But the thing that does make it all hard is being thrown into public life. The thing that makes me unhappy—it’s almost embarrassing for me to admit—I cannot look at myself anymore.” Now it’s back to the whisper. “I sit there and get makeup done and look at myself in the mirror and I’m just not someone who wants to do that. And it really makes me have to think about how much I really don’t like myself sometimes.”

Before we get to spouting off about how the rumors of Apple’s newly discovered stability have been greatly exaggerated, let’s allow the smoke to clear.

“The more I have to do this stuff [the whole promotional blitzkrieg ordeal: photo shoots, in-stores, writers looking for that soul-of-the-artist scoop], the more I have to examine myself. And then I start thinking, ‘What am I doing outside of my house?’ I have these private moments with myself in the dressing room, like, ‘What are you doing in this dress?’ Like, ‘This is ridiculous—I just want to be under the covers with the remote control.’” She follows this up with an important disclaimer: “But it’s always been like this—even before the anxiety attacks. That’s what makes it all a struggle for me.”

In other words, the difficulty lies in relinquishing those homey pleasures Fiona once took for granted. Homey because Apple is, well, a bit of a homebody. During her time away from the studio—which, since she’s only released three (official) albums in all, has to be quite a bit—Apple moseys around her home in Venice Beach (though, like most tough customers, Apple’s originally from New York), playing with her dog, watching television, doing anything she can to avoid having to write music. She also takes long walks because that’s what people with a lot on their minds do. And Apple’s definitely someone who’s always had a lot on her mind.

“The only thing that’s really difficult is when I make myself unhappy,” she says with the conviction of a Bible salesman. “In general, I’m a person who makes things more difficult than they need to be.” She might be referring to any number of things—her infamous Maya Angelou-inspired “this world is bullshit” speech at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1997, which elicited cheers and scorn in equal doses; her meltdowns during performances and interviews alike; perhaps her former relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson, who matched Apple’s sullenness with showy eccentricity.

All of which should come as little surprise for those of us who’re champing at the bit to toss Apple into the “tortured artist” bin. Except why is it that when life hands Fiona lemons, she makes, um, apple juice? “I’m a very hopeful person; I think I’m actually an optimist,” she says haltingly, and then waits to see what kind of reaction she’s provoked. “But I think it takes me a long time to get there. Because I dramatize everything. And I don’t like that about myself because I just end up feeling silly about it.”

Simply put, what Apple wants, in the immortal words of Mary J. Blige, is no more drama. Which, of course, is easier said than done. Apple’s previous efforts—Tidal and the unfortunately 90-word-titled When The Pawn…—were earmarked by her desire to be seen and heard, but with only half the brazenness required for either. Tidal suffered from the familiar “too much style, not enough substance” ailment; only a handful of the songs, such as “Shadowboxer,” “Sleep to Dream” and the aforementioned “Criminal” hint at a songwriter able to sustain the valleys in equal measure with the peaks. When The Pawn…—though leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, thanks to everyone’s favorite mom-and-pop composer Jon Brion—possessed too much substance: the gnarled semantics (“My derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon around you”) always on the verge of sensory overload.

Extraordinary Machine, on the other hand, was built to last. Partly because it’s been, ahem, well-oiled (first, by Jon Brion, then by perennial Dr. Dre sidekick Mike Elizondo), but mostly because Apple—its chief architect—is operating on a whole other plane.

“I think that this album is less of me writing to one person in particular, trying to get my point across to them desperately and more of me writing to myself,” she says, not really caring whether the words “Paul Thomas Anderson” pop off in my head. “I still have songs that I’ve written for specific people to hear, about how I feel, but it’s not so desperate. [An extraordinarily long pause.] All the songs that I’ve written on this album, I’ve spent so much more time by myself. They’re more for my benefit than anybody else’s.”

Her benefit—her way. Say what you will about the merits of the new Extraordinary Machine versus the old one, but there’s no doubt (in the opinion of this writer, at least) Fiona sounds more like the queen of the castle with Mike Elizondo at the helm. God bless Jon Brion—no one conducts chimes, bells, whistles and organs quite like him (see Kanye West’s recent opus)—but on the bootlegged Machine, Brion’s fingerprints are too heavily smeared on. Songs like “Get Him Back” tug and tear at every which direction under Brion’s sweeping, dense musical canopy while Elizondo’s more straight-ahead percussive approach lowers the boom (literally—most of the songs are more bass-heavy), which heightens the tension between wispy and walloping in Fiona’s voice.

Those Billie Holliday associations may not be too far off the mark anymore—Apple sounds bigger, brasher and jazzier all at once, and her breath control is amazing, even by the standards of most rappers. On “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” she shows the Nellys and Chingys of the rap game a thing or two about singsongy ?ow. And the ballads are heartbreaking. “O’ Sailor”—rid of Brion’s end-to-end drumming—sustains its dramatic breadth all the way to the chorus’s cathartic release. “Parting Gift,” the only track without a Brion incarnation, is a quiet storm of relationship hang-ups, delivered retrospectively. Bottom line? This bird—caged or not—can sing and flow. It all seems simple now—two versions of the same extraordinary album, with neither party (Elizondo and Brion) worse for the wear. For her part, Apple remains both buoyed and bemused by the wave of support for Brion’s original. Buoyed because she doesn’t want people to think Brion let her down. Bemused because, to her, Brion’s simply wasn’t done.

“It’s hard to say there is even a Jon Brion version because we didn’t finish it,” she explains, probably for, like, the 50-gazillionth time. “Everything that people heard off the Internet, Jon hadn’t signed off—we hadn’t finished weeding through stuff and editing things out and mixing it.” When I continue to prod her about the differences though, she lets the cat out of the bag. “I think that the Mike Elizondo version is more pared down; it’s closer to what it sounds like when I just play the piano and sing them, rather than having a lot of different instruments around,” she says, and it’s such stone-cold truth that I forget to needle her about the rest. Apple isn’t done though, quickly jumping to the defense of her longtime collaborator: “The only thing I mind is that Jon doesn’t want what everyone heard to be called ‘The Jon Brion version.’ He didn’t sign off on it. Nobody did,” she reiterates. “Me doing other versions of the songs was just to satisfy myself. I don’t need people to like these versions better or anything,” she says pretty convincingly, before finishing on a positive note: “I still think it’s really cool though.”

Which brings us back, once again, to the genesis of Extraordinary Machine. Forget, for a moment, that this monumental screw-up yielded this curious phenomenon for music geeks and conspiracy theorists to slobber over. Forget that all’s well that ends well. Because the question to end all questions must be asked: if neither Jon nor the industry is to blame for the drama, then who is?

The answer is actually quite simple: Fiona Apple, of course. “I’m so bad at articulating music, which is also why I need people like Jon or Mike to help me figure out what I even want,” she says, totally un-self-consciously. “I think that when I have written something on the piano, I go in to play it for whomever’s producing the album—whether it be Mike or Jon. It’s pretty cool; I play piano pretty much how I want the drums to be, a lot of the times,” she says, referring to her unconventional playing style. “Pretty much, I think I play the songs on the piano for whoever’s there and I let them come up with a whole slew of ideas and then I pick through them,” she says. And why not? Apple’s instincts as a musician have become shrewder over the years—along with her songwriting savoir-faire.

Indeed, with Extraordinary Machine, Apple curbs her appetite for Byzantine prose, which makes for lyrics more fluent in Fiona-nese—shoveling the shit to find the gold beneath—rather than pumping out some hoity-toity facsimile.

In short, she no longer has the derring-do to dance the rigadoon around you—trotting out only the cold, hard, incontrovertible facts: “So I had to break the window / It just had to be / Better that I break the window / Than him, or her or me,” she barks on the self-affirming “Window.”

Well, at least they’re her facts. Thankfully, Apple doesn’t suffer from the illusion that artists are the last bastion of everyman (everywoman?) sensitivity. She’ll speak her piece, but no one else’s.

“I think it’s still ego-driven for me, but I’m not worrying about people thinking I can write a really good song; I’m worried about people listening to me and knowing how I feel.” Seeing the (hopefully) momentary befuddlement that flashes across my face, she adjusts. “And that doesn’t even make sense to me, a lot of the time,” she muses, before really tightening the screws. “It’s definitely ego-driven. I don’t think I’m a selfish person, but I’m very, very self-centered,” she adds. “I’ve thought a bunch of times, what kind of thing is this that I’ve made my life revolve around—writing about myself?” She closes by painting a rather interesting portrait: “You look at the facts of it—I write about myself and how I feel about things, and then I get a bunch of people to sit in the dark while I stand in the light, and they quietly listen. That’s gotta be really ego-driven.”

Wanna know what’s even more ego-driven? The enduring belief she can do all this—sing, play, write about herself, for herself—in a realm that worships at the altar of uniformity and homogeny. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, pop music means never having to say you’re broke, which, interestingly enough, is one of the last things on Apple’s mind.

“It’s not,” she intones, when I give her that whole end-of-the-day, how-important-is-success spiel. “It’s one of those things that… [pauses, searches for longest-possible sustainable metaphor] I kinda feel about commercial success the same way I feel about a nice dress,” she finally decides. “I appreciate it; it might be really fun to wear it, and I’ll like it, but before you give it to me, I’m not thinking that I need a dress—I’m not gonna make the effort to go out and buy a new dress.” That’s because Apple gets her kicks elsewhere. “Really, the satisfaction that matters the most is right after I’ve written the song, before I even play it for somebody—not after I make the album,” an air of delayed assuredness finding its way into her testimonial.

Hubris sometimes works in mysterious ways—for an artist like Apple, it’s simultaneously mystifying and galvanizing. She likens the process of identifying a song that’s “how it’s supposed to be” to the “sculpture inside the stone,” but has deeply conflicted views about the masturbatory quality of songwriting. Sure, marching to the beat of your own drummer is fine and dandy, but what happens when things begin to sound cluttered? Or worse… inaudible?

Start by quitting the day job. While fists were being clenched and teeth gnashed over the bootlegged version of Extraordinary Machine (the good folks who started the rallying cry now known as free? were raising hell about the album’s indefinite “suspension”), Apple had already begun to search for a higher calling—one which would hopefully pack the same kind of punch as writing for oneself. “The thing with the ‘Free Fiona’ people is that they didn’t really make me feel less apathetic,” she drawls, before dropping a minor revelation: “I kinda still do feel that way. The way that my life and my work have gone is that I seem to follow whichever doors are open. I wasn’t doing anything because I felt I couldn’t get the album done the way I wanted to, with complete autonomy. And because of them, I was able to do that, I was able to do it the way I wanted to do it and how could I pass up the opportunity to do that?” But ambivalence remains. “I can’t promise to anyone or myself that I’m going to be putting out albums for the rest of my life; I don’t know if I’ll always be inspired to write songs. I used to write short stories; maybe someday I won’t be writing songs anymore. It’s too much an important part of me to bastardize by being like, ‘Oh my god, I have to make another album.’ I’ve gotta mean it,” she says fiercely.

“I would like to say what I will do when I’m not a professional musician,” she elaborates, neatly steering the question away from its hypothetical origins (what would you do if you weren’t a popular artist?). “I mean, I love what I do, most, uh, some of the time,” she blurts out, not quite knowing if I’m about to take enormous liberties with her words by carving out an image of the artist with delusions of grandeur. “Because I came into this so easily and so early I wonder a lot—what would I have done and what could I do, [and] that there’s gotta be something else that I’m good at,” she quips. “I don’t know exactly what it would be, but I wanna be doing something that I know is helpful and tangible, and that I can go to work everyday and get a little more done. Rather than this, which is a lifestyle,” she says. “I don’t ever feel like I’ve accomplished something—music is an ongoing thing that you constantly have to feed, and there’s so much anxiety involved in it. I kinda wish I could go to work sometimes, go to the same place every day, go home every night, be able to say what I had accomplished that day, and have it be something that doesn’t revolve around me.”

If it sounds like Apple is suggesting nine-to-five humdrum existence has its perks, too, maybe it’s worth considering that 10, five, maybe even one year from now, the record industry will be looking for a new Billie Holiday to hitch its wagons to. Contrary to the swarms of ingénues and starlets who look to music for security, both financial and emotional, Apple treats it as what it really is—a means to another means. In the midst of all that will-they/won’t-they industry nonsense, she applied for an internship with a place called Green Chimneys—some sort of occupational-therapy center where she could do for others what had been done to her—and feel fabulous about it.

Of course, Apple doesn’t exactly remember whether she submitted the application. “I don’t think I sent it in because things started to happen with the music again,” she declares rather foggily. “I was supposed to go for five months—I filled it out because I thought that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. It was perfect for me. Just perfect for me.”

Which is not to say she doesn’t know a good thing ’til it’s gone. As frustrating and eviscerating music-as-enterprise is for Apple—and most other artists—it’s always good for rattling the cage, to prove that what doesn’t kill you indeed makes you stronger, even as your wounds get fresher.

Fresher, but not necessarily deeper. “I don’t see myself as a tortured artist or person. But it makes sense that I’m seen that way,” she admits. “Because the reason why I write is because it’s what makes me feel better when I feel bad. When I feel like I’m not being listened to or I want somebody to hear what I’m saying and I want to convince myself of something. But it’s also possible for me to put the effort in to create something just for the sake of creating it, kind of like writing stories.”

Stories that aren’t tortured or timeless, but just so. Because ours is a world where real women have curves, and where making mistakes isn’t so much part of the process as it is the process—brick after brick, hit after hit, we slog on, waiting for the next round of punishment. Or reward. In “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” Apple’s closing volley on Extraordinary Machine (the only song besides the title track not revamped by Elizondo), Apple takes the apparition of the tortured artist and twists it until it more closely resembles someone she, you or I might know. “If you don’t have a point to make / Don’t sweat it / You’ll make a sharp one being so kind,” she sings, and somewhere outside, the frost is melting. “Why should I follow that beat / Being that I’m better than fine?” Maybe, just maybe, this world isn’t bullshit after all.