October 04, 2005



I make no grand claims for the interview excerpted below. I spoke to Fiona more as an advance fact-checker, not on some soul-of-the-artist profile ish. I wanted to be not inaccurate, and talking to the person you're writing about sometimes increases the degree of factual accuracy in your piece. (Not always.) There's not much I can do with this material, so posting it here seemed right. (I took out my insanely boring droning bits.)

(This combines interviews done on September 16th at the W Hotel and September 18th at Café Botanica in the Essex Hotel.)

Sasha Frere-Jones: I imagined that you worked on “Extraordinary Machine,” changed your mind, did some more work, and somebody happened to open the door in the middle of it, and got an idea that there was something wrong.

Fiona Apple: That’s a good, simple way of putting it.

SFJ: There’s a quote from one of your interviews that gets re-printed all the time: “If I have something to say, I’ll say it.” I thought, “O.K.—that’s what Fiona does. If she was really pissed, she probably would have said something.”

FA: That’s pretty much that’s what happened. We did a lot of work, and I just felt like I wanted to do more. I wasn’t satisfied yet. It was a situation where—it could have been miscommunication, I’ll never know the exact truth—but in order for me to keep on working and re-do some of the stuff, I was told that I was going to have to hand everything in, one song by one song, before I could get the money to do the next one. I didn’t want to do that. It implied to me that whoever I was going to hand it in to was going to check it, and they were either going to like it or not like it, and if they didn’t like it, then they were just going to own another piece of music that I loved.

For a while after that there was just nothing going on, and I didn’t really think I was going to make the album. I didn’t want to blow my shot at making the record the way I wanted to. I was feeling kind of like the company wasn’t really excited to have me, anyway. I had the thoughts in my head like, “I wonder if I can get out of this place? What if I record something and I love it, and then they own more of my stuff? I’m never going to be able to get out of here, and they’re going to own all this stuff.” I lost track of what I was saying. I just walked away, and nobody really seemed to care until it got leaked. I had been thinking of maybe trying to do something else with my life.

SFJ: Like what?

FA: I filled out an application to go be an intern at this place called Green Chimneys in upstate New York. It’s a place where they do occupational therapy for kids, but they use farm animals. I’d been a volunteer a couple of years before for occupational therapy with kids, and I really enjoyed it. The fact that there were farm animals involved was really cool. So I applied for an internship, which was going to be in the winter in upstate New York, for four to five months. I was really excited about it, and I was really sure that that’s what I was going to do. And then everything started happening again.

SFJ: I assume they accepted your application.

FA: I don’t think I ever sent it in. I’m trying to tell myself that it’s because everything started up again, and not that I chickened out because it was going to be cold.

SFJ: When you handed in the first version of the record, were you happy with it or not?

FA: I’m just as proud of the first version—the one that got leaked—in a different way, as I am of what actually came to be, but it just wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It was my fault that it didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted. I checked out half-way through, and was not around to make decisions. I wrote almost some of the songs while we were recording, and I’m not used to not having enough time to live with the songs. Usually, if I write something, I live with it for a little while, so that if I know that I’m going to record it, I know exactly what I want. I didn’t have that this time, so once it got to be recording time, I was like, “I don’t know the song, I don’t know what I want.”

SFJ: It had been different on the record before?

FA: When I asked Jon to produce “When the Pawn,” I invited him over to where I was living at that time. He hadn’t heard any of the songs. I had him sit down, and I went through every song, gave him the lyric sheets. I was totally prepared for that. But I’m not a control freak. With somebody like Jon Brion, you let him go and do a bunch of stuff. You don’t say “I want something like this.” It’s not taking full advantage of what he can do.

SFJ: Did Epic say they didn’t hear a hit on “Extraordinary Machine”?

FA: They never said they rejected it and they never shelved it. I came here, and I had a meeting with them. They never said directly to me, “We don’t hear a hit.” I said, “I don’t really feel like it’s exactly what I wanted to have.”

I know what my part of the job is: I know that I write the songs, I know that I sing them, I know that I play them on the piano, I know that I have a feeling in my head—I have an intention with how they’re supposed to come out—but I don’t know how to articulate it, musically, with other instruments. On the “When the Pawn . . .” album, Jon and I had a perfect working relationship because I would go in, do my stuff for three or four hours and leave. He would go and do everything on anything he wanted, and then I would come back. I would listen to stuff and say, “Oh, I like that, and, oh, I like that, and I like this with this.” I would know what I wanted, and then that would be that. On “Extraordinary Machine,” I didn’t know what I wanted, and I didn’t help him at all. Maybe I’m just making up this memory, but I’m pretty sure he told me how frustrated he was with me. I imagine that he must have been because here we are, we’re recording, and I was like “I don’t know what I like; I don’t know what I hate,” and it was a really scary place for me to be in. As a result of that, it came off more as a Jon Brion record, you know? I love it. I do.I delicate because I’m saying, “Well, it turned out to be a Jon Brion record, so I wanted to do it again.” It’s hard to say that without saying “Jon took over,” like Jon threw up all over it. It’s not that at all.

SFJ: Since you guys are playing all together, I am guessing your decision to re-do it didn’t bother him that much.

FA: I don’t know. I haven’t asked him. We never really had a conversation about it. It was assumed that I was going to be trying other things and he had moved on to other things, and I know he loves Mike, and he knew about me starting to do stuff with Mike. I’m sure that he just wants me to be happy with my songs. It would be more important for him to see me finally being able to make decisions. I don’t think that I’m a perfectionist at all; I think that I’m sloppy. In my head, I’m always wearing sweatpants.

SFJ: Is there any currently popular music you like?

FA: I have no sense of what gets on radio or MTV. I have not listened to those kinds of radio stations, or I have not watched any MTV or anything in years, except yesterday, when I got up at four because I was in aches and pains and stuff and I couldn’t sleep—I flipped channels. I just went from channel number one to channel number sixty, over and over and over again, just through them. Whatever it was on MTV, I had stopped. That early in the morning, they do play videos, it seems like, because I know that they don’t play videos. But they do, I guess, in the early morning. I didn’t know who anybody was.

SFJ: Did you see anything you liked?

FA: No.

SFJ: Where’d you go to school?

FA: From second grade until ninth grade I went to this place St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School, which is on 114th and Riverside. I have really good memories of that school; I think it was a great place. Really small, and really a diverse group of kids—lots of exchange students went there for some reason. It’s an Episcopalian school, but nobody even knew what Episcopalian meant. I still don’t know what Episcopalian means. We went to chapel every morning and had Eucharist every Wednesday. There were nuns that taught there, but, strangely, it didn’t feel like it was a religious school.

SFJ: So what happened in ninth grade?

FA: My dad lived in Venice, and I went out to spend a year to live with him, and I went to Hamilton High for one year, in California. That was an awful year. St. Hilda’s goes from nursery to twelfth grade, and there were three hundred kids in the whole school. Hamilton had five thousand kids for high school. At St. Hilda’s, that small amount of kids, from all over the world, all different religious, and it wasn’t ever an issue. Going out to L.A., it was like five thousand kids. The quad was the most segregated place I had ever seen. I didn’t know where to go. It was a terrible year. I couldn’t really find any friends that stuck.

SFJ: And that was tenth grade?

FA: Yeah, that was tenth grade. Then, I came back to New York and went to this place called Rhodes, which was a night school, and they used the building of the Dwight School, on 89th. I was a receptionist at the Dwight School during the day, and then, when they shut down, then Rhodes was at night. Rhodes was ridiculous. There was maybe twenty kids that went there. It was the only place I could go to because by the time I realized I was miserable in California—I didn’t have very good grades to begin with—it was hard to get into a school, and it was like, “Oh, Rhodes’ll take me.” Everybody that was at Rhodes was those kids that like no one else would take them. And all the teachers that worked there—it wasn’t like they were bad teachers, but everybody that worked there they were doing it to get extra money. They were teaching a class at night, because they needed the money. Nobody was really invested in it at all; everybody kind of had to be there. It was ridiculous. It was like, “Do your homework? What?” The classes were an hour and a half, and you’d have forty-five minutes, and then a fifteen-minute break, and then another forty-five minutes. On fifteen-minute break, everybody would go outside and smoke pot. There was no second forty-five minutes ever, and you’d be sitting out on the stoop and the teachers would be like, “Come back into class.” and you’d be like, “Why?” It was that kind of place. And then they closed down.

SFJ: So things kind of went downhill after ninth grade.

FA: And then after that, for my senior year, I went back to California, to this place called Poseidon, which was a home school. It was actually a school for people with emotional problems, and I was really lucky to get in. I didn’t graduate, though, because they require you to take driver’s ed, and I hadn’t done that.

SFJ: You’re a New Yorker.

FA: It was frustrating, though, because I got all my work done to graduate in two months and then they were like, I’m sorry, you have to take driver’s ed.

SFJ: And you refused?

FA: I just kind of went, “Oh, forget it”. At that point I had already made a demo tape, I was going to be signed to Sony, and I was like, “Whatever.” Like my diploma from Poseidon was going to really get me in the door. I would really like to go back to school. I would love it now.

SFJ: So you were signed to Sony by the time you were—

FA: Seventeen. I had made demo tapes. I was out in LA., and then I came here for Christmas, and I brought a demo tape to give to my friend Anna. I didn’t even know she was going to do it—she gave it to Kathy Schenker. Then Kathy had some Christmas party, and Andy Slater was at the Christmas party.

SFJ: Who contacted you?

FA: I think Andy did, and my dad and I went in to meet him. It was really ridiculously easy. We had made up all these demo tapes; we made up seventy-seven or seventy-six. I can’t remember. It was the smallest amount that you could order. We were going to pass them around, and I gave one to my friend and that was it.

SFJ: So you never actually really shopped it?

FA: Never.

SFJ: Do you remember what was on the demo?

FA: “Never Is a Promise” was on the demo. Then there was a song called “Sometimes I’m . . .” And then there’s a song called, I think it was called “Not One of Those Times.” If I were to hear it again now, I think I would really hate it. I had been writing songs and they were all kind of sad, and so I wanted to write a happy song, and the only way that I could figure out how to write lyrics that were happy was that I could write about feeling really bad and then say, “This is not one of those times.” That was my only way of making it happy, because I didn’t know how to say a happy thing at the time.

SFJ: Did you do it with a full band? Did you do it in the studio?

FA: No, my dad and I went to this place that at the time was called Mad Dog Studios. It’s in Venice. It’s Stanley Studios now, and now it’s closing down. We went there, and we rented the room, and the guy, and I just went in and played the piano and sang.

SFJ: Do you still have it somewhere?

FA: I have seventy-six copies of it. Bright green tapes. They were cassettes.

SFJ: The second record—I’m curious if you actually can say the whole title.

FA: I could: “When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight And He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest Of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand Then You Know Where to Land And if You Fall It Won't Matter Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.”

SFJ: Apparently you can also play Schubert.

FA: I can play one Schubert thing. I’m so happy with myself. I can read music, but really slowly, but I find it really relaxing and really great. It’s like you’re doing a long crossword puzzle, when you can work it out on the piano for a classical piece. I like being able to play them, and I actually did that. A year ago, I got a book of Schubert, and I found the one that was easiest, and I spent a few days, and I actually got it down.

SFJ: Which piece is it?

FA: “An Die Musik.”

SFJ: If you could say to somebody why you aren’t happy with the “Criminal” video, if you were talking to a kid, what would you say to them? What makes you unhappy about it?

FA: The problem that I have with it is not even that I think it’s an offensive video; it’s that I know how I felt at the time, and I know that I caved in to what people wanted me to do. I thought that they weren’t going to like me if I didn’t. Nothing that you do will ever feel good if you let people convince you that you have no choice. When I think of the video, I just think of me being weak and I don’t like that. I think that [director] Mark Romanek’s whole approach was that it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. That’s a really convenient thing to say when you want the girl in her underwear. But it doesn’t come off that way, because I was miserable. I was thinking about this: Why do I have this reputation for being so sullen and sad? I was thinking about when I started doing photo shoots again. I was so miserable in all the photo shoots that when everybody was taking a picture of me, I was miserable.

SFJ: You looked pretty miserable in the video.

FA: I was miserable. That’s why it doesn’t come off as tongue-in-cheek. But do I have any advice? No, I really don’t want to give any advice to a nineteen-year-old, because I want a nineteen-year-old to make mistakes and to learn from them. Make mistakes, make mistakes, make mistakes, make mistakes, make mistakes—just make sure that they’re your mistakes. Because they just feel a lot less crappy, and they’re just easier to get past.

SFJ: So you saying, with something like that video, you felt like that wasn’t your mistake, but it was somebody else’s mistake?

FA: Not like it was somebody else’s mistake, but it was icky in a way to me where it just didn’t feel like something that I would do. I can remember asking myself why I was doing that, when I was doing that video, and the truth of it is, I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a girl that they want to be in her underwear. That’s so flattering; I can’t believe I’m that girl.” It was a kind of shallow reason for giving in.

SFJ: I like that you kind of play piano like a guitar player. There’s some people out now who play piano with a lot of those flourishes.

FA: I used to learn chords off of guitar chords. Like, in songbooks they have the little guitar things.

SFJ: Guitar tabs. How would that help you on the piano?

FA: Because I learned what notes they were on the guitar, even though I can’t play the guitar, and then I would work it out from, you know, the little dots on it.

SFJ: But don’t they usually come right above the staff music?

FA: But on the piano music they don’t do the chords they have all the stuff, which takes so long to try to get through.

SFJ: If you had a choice between having a martial artist on stage with you or a sword swallower, who would you have?

FA: On the stage with me?

SFJ: Yes. While you were playing.

FA: It’s tough. It would depend on the song. What I’m thinking is that I would rather have the sword swallower.

SFJ: Or, if you want, you could have a tiger.

FA: I don’t think I want to tiger on stage with me. But if I picture myself seeing somebody singing on stage, I would be able to turn my attention away from the singer and watch the person swallowing the sword. It would create some kind of hypnotism there. I would watching something happen, very slowly. It would be very dramatic and it would be happening, but I would still be able to hear the music. But with the martial artist, I don’t know what they’d be doing. They be, like, all around.

SFJ: Do you play a very specific piano?

FA: One kind of piano? No. I don’t really know that much about pianos. Jon Brion, we went piano shopping together, and I have a great one—it’s the piano in my house, and it’s an upright and it’s a Steinway, I think. It’s a Steinway—and I’m not one hundred per cent sure that it’s a Steinway—but I’m not real picky. My own piano, it’s got a note that won’t play now. I know I could get it fixed, and the pedal’s all fucked up. I just haven’t had anybody come in and do something to it, so there’s just some things that are getting a little rickety in it. I seem to have, time and time again, really liked Baldwins, but I haven’t played that many pianos. When I was a kid, I used to play piano every day, not every day, like every night. I used to go and sit at a piano, and it would be something that I loved to do, and I would play piano all the time. I hardly ever play piano anymore. For the past ten years I didn’t play piano. And when I’m writing a song I’ll play piano for ten minutes at a time. Some days I have a piano day, and some nights I have a piano night. I’ll just love it again, and I’ll do it for a while, but it’s very, very rare.

SFJ: You don’t have that much to do when you’re a kid. You don’t have that many responsibilities.

SFJ: But there wasn’t much to do in your room, either. I used to write stories and stuff when I was in my room. I constantly think about this time. This makes me so sad in a certain way. I don’t know why I always reference this moment. I can remember sitting at my desk in my room, up at my mom’s house. And I remember my mom calling me for dinner over and over and over again, and me saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” because I was writing a story. I made up a story, and I was writing this twenty-page story. It was great, and I was finishing it up and I wasn’t going to leave until I was finished because I was really enjoying writing the story. I always remember that: I wasn’t going to go and eat dinner because I was finishing writing a story.

SFJ: Why is that sad?

FA: Because I wouldn’t do that now. Because I wouldn’t even start a story, let alone not go to dinner because I was finishing it.

SFJ: I think you’re being a little hard on yourself.

FA: That’s my job. Jesus.

Posted by Sasha at October 4, 2005 02:11 PM | TrackBack