Riding a 'Tidal' Wave

Elysa Gardner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When Fiona Apple was 11, she casually announced to a classmate that she was going to kill herself--and take her older sister with her. She didn't intend to be taken literally, but a teacher who overheard it promptly ordered the girl to see a psychiatrist.

Eight years and more than a few therapy sessions later, Apple still has a penchant for provocative and often disturbing self-expression. These days, however, it seems to be working to her advantage.

On her debut album, "Tidal," the 19-year-old singer-songwriter delivers stark, candid, eerily precocious accounts of romantic obsession and frustration.

"My feel for you, boy, is decaying right in front of me" she sings on the darkly moody "Carrion," in a sultry alto that sounds like that of someone twice her age. On the single "Shadowboxer," she conveys all the tortured lust of an adult woman driven to the brink by a cunning Lothario.

Apple says that all of her writing is inspired by "overwhelming" emotion. And right now, according to industry insiders, she's the hottest neurotic in town.

Even if you haven't heard Apple on the radio yet, chances are you've seen or read about her. Since "Tidal" was released to glowing reviews in July, the doe-eyed newcomer has been featured in Rolling Stone and Time and has hosted MTV's "120 Minutes."

Meanwhile, as the album climbs the national sales charts (it has jumped from No. 113 to No. 83 in the last two weeks), her live shows--she completed a short European tour this summer and will appear on "Saturday Night Live" on Nov. 16--have attracted more positive notices and enthusiastic crowds.

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Wandering into a hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan recently, shortly after taping "120 Minutes," Apple looks a little dazed from the ride. Pale and lovely, her waif-like frame clad entirely in black, she could be one of the aspiring young actresses or ballet students who roam the city's Upper West Side, where she grew up.

As she settles wearily onto a couch, Apple acknowledges that her rather abrupt metamorphosis from local schoolgirl to globe-trotting "it" girl has been a little unsettling.

"My life is completely different now than it was last year," she says quietly. "It's been a lot to adjust to. I haven't been in the same place for more than three days for months now. Sometimes I feel like God just kind of picked me up and spun the globe around and dropped me somewhere, you know?"

It was just before Christmas in 1994 when a friend of Apple's gave a demo tape the singer had recorded to Kathy Schenker, a publicist who represents such clients as Sting, Melissa Etheridge, Janet Jackson and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Schenker, who employed the friend as a baby-sitter, decided to meet Apple and was immediately impressed.

"There was this fierceness about her," says Schenker, who now represents Apple. "She was so determined."

Schenker played the tape for artist manager and record producer Andrew Slater, who signed Apple to the prestigious HK Management firm--the Los Angeles-based company that represents such artists as Lenny Kravitz, Steely Dan and Mick Jagger. He also helped her secure a deal with the Work Group, a new label founded by Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, former Virgin Records co-chairmen, and distributed by Sony Music.

By October 1995, Apple was off to Los Angeles to record the album, with Slater behind the boards.

Apple hasn't been back to Manhattan since, except for promotional trips. She even finished high school in L.A., taking a two-month home study program--though she has yet to receive her certificate, having had no time to complete the driver's ed requirement.

"I remember when I met Andy," Apple says. "He said, 'You're great, and we're gonna get you signed and put you on tour, and you're gonna go to Europe.' I was like, 'Oh, great.' Then I went home and cried."

It turns out that despite her mature voice and sophisticated lyrics, Apple still harbors some adolescent concerns.

"It's not so much that I'm feeling pressure, as in having people expect me to be something or do something," Apple explains. "I mean, I'm basically just being me. . . . But there's all this new responsibility that I have, and all this new stuff to deal with. I'm not with my friends anymore. They all think I'm living this big, glamorous fairy tale. It's not like that. It's like, wake up, work, go to sleep--then wake up and work again.

"I don't know what this is going to sound like, but I never really wanted to do this. It's just the only thing I can do, you know? I write music. You've gotta make a living at something, I guess."

Apple's creative instincts may be partly genetic. Her father, Brandon Maggart, is an actor, and her mother, Diane McAfee, who recently graduated from culinary school, used to sing and dance. The couple, who broke up when Apple was 4 and her sister Amber was 6, never married. Apple's dad has four children from a previous marriage, and her mom eventually married and divorced another man, to whom Apple is close. She grew up primarily with her mother in New York, spending some time in Los Angeles with her father.

At 8, Apple, who uses her given first and middle names, began taking piano lessons. She stopped after a couple of years, though, and insists that her intuitive playing on "Tidal" is hardly the product of disciplined practice.

"Making music is such a little part of my day," she says. "I'm not always playing piano, and I'm not always writing. And singing is totally, like, a side effect! I started writing songs--I wrote my first song with lyrics when I was 11--and so it made sense for me to sing them." (Though her voice has been compared more than once to that of jazz chanteuse Nina Simone, Apple says she's only heard two songs recorded by Simone--"and that was last year.")

In school, Apple pretty much kept to herself, and she says she was teased for being "funny-looking." Still, the singer says she was content enough--before concerned teachers pressured her into seeking therapy.

"Therapy's great if you have a good therapist and if you're willing to go and answer questions," Apple says. "But I really thought I was fine until they put me into therapy. Then I thought, 'Well, maybe something's wrong with me.' It screwed me up. So now I need therapy because they forced it on me before!"

Still greater trauma followed when, she says, she was raped by a stranger when she was 12.

"I don't write about it," she says. "There's only one verse in one song where I mention it, in 'Sullen Girl.' I talk about it, though. I mean, I don't wanna be the poster girl for rape. But I'm not sorry I was raped--it's part of who I am. Ninety percent of the people I know have been raped or molested in some way. I don't think it should be a touchy subject--like, you're damned with this responsibility to protect everybody else from your experience. That's alienating. You have to learn from it and make peace with it."

Oddly enough, Apple seems more comfortable discussing her experience as a child rape victim than addressing the quite prominent role her sexuality as a young woman plays in her public profile.

Though she's clearly no longer the ugly duckling she says she once was, Apple says she's still insecure about her looks. And when she's accused--as attractive female artists frequently are--of flaunting her physical attributes (a recent magazine excerpt described her as a "sexy, frail, childlike post-Alanis [Morissette] . . . presented . . . for mass consumption")--she turns defensive.

"I'm the last person to be egotistical," she says, "but maybe I just have sex appeal and it's coming out, you know? I have not been packaged that way. If I could tell you the amount of micro-minis they've tried to give me, and I've never worn one!"

Granted, Apple is given to posing in midriff-baring shirts--her navel ring is fast becoming a trademark--and admits that she asked an MTV makeup woman who wanted to give her luminous blue eyes a "natural look" to use a heavier hand.

"I live in this world, and I want to look good in pictures," Apple says. "That's how the public sees me, as this pretty little girl, and I'm sure Sony's very happy about that. Because if you're pretty, you're more marketable.

"But that's wrong. And that's what puts pressure on me more than anything. I hate it. When I was younger and ugly, nobody liked me. Now people like me because I'm pretty? That's not the way it should work. I'm aiming toward a time when I'll feel confident enough to not wear makeup."

As Andrew Slater sees it, Apple's frankness in discussing these and other matters is central to her appeal.

"For me, the thing about Fiona is that she's 100% real," Slater says in a separate interview. "Whatever she's feeling at that moment is gonna come across in her words. Her songs all have that, her live performances have that. . . . When I hear 'Shadowboxer' and I hear the intensity in her voice, it just makes me ache. There's no show business artifice in her. She hasn't been in show business long enough to develop it."

Even so, Apple herself realizes how profoundly the events in recent months have affected her young life.

"I feel like I'm almost growing too fast," she says. "Like, there's this distance being created between me and everyone else."

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Hear Fiona Apple

* To hear excerpts from "Tidal," call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5728.

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