Fiona Apple

From The New York Observer: October 1996

Fiona Apple Is Gonna Be Big Whether She Likes It or Not

“I’m, like, beyond nervous right now,” Fiona Apple told the audience gathered at Fez for her New York debut in mid-September. She had reason to be: Many people have high hopes for Ms. Apple. Her debut album, Tidal, on the Sony label Work Group, and the first single, “Shadowboxer,” have received glowing reviews and enthusiastic radio support. The requisite glam photos of Ms. Apple have appeared in Spin, The Face and Interview. She has been seen on The Tonight Show, MTV and VH1’s Crossroads, and has just embarked on a tour supporting Chris Isaak. None of this would be too unusual, except for the fact that Ms. Apple, who just turned 19, had never performed in public before this year.

Work Group had the downtown supper club decked out for the launch. Fez’s normally bare tables were topped with white tablecloths, blazing candles and glass bowls of bright red flowers. Invited guests included writers from The New York Times, The New Yorker and Us, who sat clustered like grapes next to a gaggle of Ms. Apple’s boisterous teenaged friends. Sony Music executive Michele Anthony and Jeff Ayeroff, co-president of Work Group, sat at a booth with the head of publicity from Columbia Records (yet another Sony label), who worked the room, making sure the rock scribes were taken care of. The only thing the company neglected to do was crack a celebratory bottle of champagne over Ms. Apple’s forehead.

So why all the attention for this Urban Outfit-ted, waiflike girl with the pierced navel? For starters, Ms. Apple does not sound 19. And she is no junior Celine Dion. Unlike 14-year-old country sensation LeAnn Rimes and 17-year-old R&B star Brandy, Ms. Apple writes the lyrics and music to all her own songs, which she sings as though she were channeling the spirit of a middle-aged torch singer with a two-pack-a-day voice. Her world-weary alto has drawn apt comparisons to Nina Simone and Laura Nyro, and lazy ones to Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette. In fact, Ms. Apple makes Ms. Morissette, for all her bellowing about blow jobs, sound like the teenager. Ms. Apple shrugs off the comparison, saying most people assume that because both are long-haired white girls who sing about relationships, they must be the same. “I heard about her for the first time while I was tracking my record,” she said.

Where has Ms. Apple been hiding? The child of divorced parents (Mom’s a singer, Dad’s an actor), young Fiona grew up in Manhattan near 123rd Street feeling shy, ugly and weird. At age 8, she began to play piano, write songs and sing for her family. But when Ms. Apple was 12, she was raped by an intruder in her building. She spent more time alone, teaching herself jazz standards from a book she discovered in her mother’s bookshelf. The only clear thought Ms. Apple recalls having about what she wanted to do with her life was “that I was going to try [music] once and if it didn’t work, I was going to go to Hawaii and become a potter on the beach.” Her parents knew she wrote songs, but nobody mentioned her voice until last year, when she received a call from manager-producer Andy Slater.

Mr. Slater, who has worked with Warren Zevon and the Wallflowers, heard Ms. Apple’s three-song demo tape at a party thrown by music publicist Kathy Schenker, who had gotten the tape from her baby-sitter, who was a friend of Ms. Apple’s. Mr. Slater offered his services as her manager, engineered a deal with Work Group, gathered his musician friends together and brought Ms. Apple, who had never played with a band, into the studio to make Tidal.

It was Mr. Ayeroff who signed Ms. Apple. He’d heard her demo tape, but he’d never met her; essentially, he chalked it up to good vibes. “I knew the drummer who worked on the demos who told us she was beautiful and not to worry,” he said. “I had somebody check it out. I didn’t sign her thinking she weighed 400 pounds.”

Mr. Ayeroff said he’s particularly interested in young artists and just recently signed actor Stephen Dorff’s 19-year-old brother, Andrew. “It’s the same kind of precocious intelligence [as Fiona]. You look for that. Most famous people were signed when they were kids. Steve Winwood was in the Spencer Davis Group when he was 16. It’s not unheard of, it’s just interesting every time it happens.”

“I’m not a creation of Sony,” Ms. Apple said. “They have never tried to coach me on anything, told me what to do on stage, what to say, how to behave in interviews. They just trusted me.”

But Sony also trusted the voracious market for fresh faces, and a new 18-year-old face is going to be more appealing than a 35-year-old one, especially to millions of teenagers with allowances to burn. Success stories like Brandy, Silverchair and Tevin Campbell duke it out on the charts with one-hit (and no-hit) wonders such as the appalling Jennifer Love Hewitt, from the Fox TV show Party of Five, and R&B act Immature, whose name says it all.

Still, Ms. Apple is tired of people talking about her being old beyond her years. “Somebody even wrote that I was the kind of person who had an affair with her English teacher,” she said. “They think I’ve had, like, a million relationships in my life, that I’m some precocious city kid. It’s not true.”

Indeed, Ms. Apple is a fine example of how a record company will pluck a talented but awkward young person out of the privacy of his or her bedroom and shove them blinking into the glare of media and stage spotlights. Forget about giving an artist time to grow and develop; those nurturing days are gone. Soon after completing Tidal, Ms. Apple found herself on tour with the 1996 Sony road show, a traveling troupe of the label’s bright young It-boys and It-girls—Dog’s Eye View, Sponge, Maxwell, etc.—who were trotted out to perform for the company’s European label affiliates. Ms. Apple played her first public performance in Paris in June in front of 700 people. It takes extraordinary presence of mind not to lose one’s cool in that kind of situation. But playing the role of the latest Bambi-fied rock star didn’t seem to scare Ms. Apple.

“I wasn’t that nervous,” she said. “It’s hard to be when you don’t know what you’re actually nervous about. I had no idea what it was going to be like.”

Mr. Ayeroff admits that there is a “certain novelty value” with Ms. Apple, “like when you read about those 14-year-olds who go to college.” And what about the hype?

“It isn’t hype,” he said, a bit disingenuously. “We’re just making it available.”

In any case, Tidal is a sophisticated debut. Though the lyrics often come in the gawky I-love-you/you-don’t-love-me/the- world’s-going-to-hell longhand of a tragic teenager (some were written when Ms. Apple was 15, after all), her piano ballads are varied enough to keep things flowing. Styles range from the Latin-tinged “The First Taste” to the jazzy “Slow Like Honey” to the trip-hop of “Sleep to Dream.” Unlike Mariah Carey, Ms. Apple doesn’t use her immense range much; to her credit, she seems to prefer restraint, realizing that the crowd-pleasing money notes don’t always make the best payoff.

With her album out, her single moving up the charts and her face popping up in all the right places, Ms. Apple thinks she is ready for the blitz that awaits. “I have to do it,” she said. “The only thing that makes this bearable is that I just feel like there’s no choice.”