FEATURE: A Brief History of Fiona Apple

Written for DIY

From a critically-acclaimed debut, to a Guinness World Record for the length of her second album’s title, to the third being completely re-recorded after leaking to the internet, to disappearing for nigh on seven years: Fiona Apple’s career thus far has been been suitably tumultuous and bizarre for such a brazen and eccentric musician.

On the eve of the release of her fourth album, The Idler Wheel…, DIY offers up a brief introduction to this sad lady at a piano who’s got everyone in a tizzy. If you’re a fan of Grizzly Bear or Regina Spektor, we could have your favourite new artist right here.

The Basics

Like a disproportionate amount of female musicians in the pop world today, Fiona Apple’s music is loosely based around strong, soulful singing and Nina Simone-like piano. We’re not trying to suggest she’s the same as those flavour-of-the-month retro-chic singers that Jools Holland praises at least once a series on Later…, no, no. Apple has more in common with the likes of Regina Spektor than Rumer. Or, Regina Spektor has a lot in common with Fiona Apple.

What with the intimate relationship between instrument and performer, Apple’s piano-led songs are often unflinchingly, unabashedly personal. “Everything that happens to me, I experience it really intensely. I feel it very deeply,” she once said in an interview. It can make for uncomfortable listening at times; but it’s certainly never dull.

The Albums

Tidal (1996)
On its release, Tidal heralded a wave of fawning reviews, places on best-of year/decade/eternity lists, and, eventually, triple-platinum status. It’s the most “accessible” Fiona Apple album, the best place for newbies to get on board. Whilst opener “Sleep To Dream” strays from the album’s basic blueprint, with its trip-hop beat, the remainder of the record is brimming with arrangements which build on existing musical styles – the aforementioned smooth jazz, piano rock, baroque pop – with more out-there instruments like the marimba, the vibraphone, and moody strings from Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks.

All this serves to give Apple’s songs an otherworldly, David Lynchian air. Apple remains the central draw, however, and the centrepiece of the album, “Never Is A Promise”, is (ironically) perhaps the most stripped-back and emotionally intense. “You’ll say you understand,” she croons, “But you don’t understand / You’ll say you’ll never give up seeing eye to eye / But never is a promise and you can’t afford to lie.”

When The Pawn… (1999)
Or, to give it its full title, (deep breath) 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’ll Know Where to Land And If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You Know That You’re Right (exhale).

Jon Brion, responsible for playing many of the “weirder” instruments on Tidal, graduated to the producer’s seat on Apple’s second album. Brion, now known for his work scoring pretty varied films – from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Step Brothers – ditches the conscious quirkiness in favour of a widescreen, soundtrack-alike sound, much like he did for Kanye West’s second album. In doing so, When The Pawn… takes on a dark vaudeville quality. Without the affectation of Amanda Palmer or, say, a Tim Burton film, this feeling instead heightens the queasy, gut-punch feeling of Apple’s songs. “I let the beast in,” she sings as explanation on “Fast As You Can”.

The most heartbreaking song on the album, naturally, is the one about heartbreak. Avoiding bombast or melodrama, though, Apple sings about a fading relationship in its small details on “Love Ridden”: “No, not “baby” anymore, if I need you / I’ll just use your simple name / Only kisses on the cheek from now on / And in a little while, we’ll only have to wave”.

Extraordinary Machine (2005)

After a first pass at the album with Brion producing again, an unsatisfied Apple scrapped the entire album and set about re-doing it with Mike Elizondo, at the time known for his work with Dr Dre (he co-wrote 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”). In between, fans campaigned for Apple’s record label to release the “shelved” album (not knowing it was the singer herself who delayed its street date), before it eventually leaked online in its original form. The official version of Extraordinary Machine, as you might expect, is very different from the first two Fiona Apple records.

With songs that sound like numbers from Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, Extraordinary Machine finds Apple in good voice and increasing confidence. That confidence does make for slightly less invention than before, though, as the songwriting is left to speak for itself, without need for inventive, weird musical backings.

The Idler Wheel… (2012) and beyond
Initial reports suggest Apple’s new album, with another unwieldy title (in full: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do), shifts gears once more. Older, wiser, and with sparser, more “organic” instrumentation, it suggests a more mellow atmosphere. “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore,” she sings on new song “Left Alone”. While she may be happier, it seems, she is no less talented, with reviewers raving about the confidence evident in the meticulous construction of songs.

A new album to be released, a whole bunch of material to get into already (we didn’t even mention her soundtrack work), and live shows on the horizon. It’s a good time to leap aboard the Fiona Apple bandwagon; if you can find space, that is.

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