Fiona Apple: The Billboard Cover Story
A few days after her Billboard interview, Fiona Apple will leave her home in Venice, Calif., for a month-long tour supporting her fourth album, "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do." This is remarkable not simply because this tour will be her longest stretch of performances since her 2005 album, "Extraordinary Machine," but also because Apple rarely leaves her house. The 34-year-old singer/songwriter has turned into a serious homebody since moving to Los Angeles in 2001-housework, as we'll discuss, is one reason she hasn't made a record in seven years-and her stay-at-home tendencies have only intensified in recent years.
What's drawing Apple outdoors is a remarkable collection of sparsely rendered tunes where her strengths as a vocalist and bruisingly candid lyricist are in sharp focus. Recorded about four years ago (she remains fuzzy about the actual date) with Apple and drummer Charley Drayton co-producing, "The Idler Wheel . . ." sat on the shelf for two years until changes at Epic Records sorted themselves out. Apple introduced a handful of new songs earlier this year at rapturously reviewed shows at South by Southwest and in New York and Los Angeles. And starting June 19 (the day of the album's release), she'll play 28 dates across North America, ending up back home at the Hollywood Palladium.
"Until we leave, I am going to be as boring-lazy-still as possible," she says. "I'm doing nothing. I'm making my brother walk my dog and I'm not even leaving my house." Apple admits she ought to move back to the East Coast so she can break herself of her more reclusive habits, but her dog, Janet, is 13 and Apple wants to "wait until she's in the other world to move." She worries about isolating herself too much, but she also knows that it works for her.
"It's the same when I'm on tour, actually," Apple says. "During the day, I never go out and do anything fun. I stay in the hotel room and I just stay really quiet so then I'm in the mood for being in front of a lot of people a little bit more."
Do you have to psych yourself up for playing or touring?
In a sense it's a lot crazier when you're on the road and it's a lot less stable, but it's actually really healthy for me because it keeps me from isolating, which I tend to do a lot. Also, there's structure to being on tour. I know where I'm supposed to be and I don't have to feel weird about not knowing what to do with myself today or not having anything useful to do.
Do you tend to be critical of your performances?
No. I mean, if I felt like I wasn't singing well, I would be really, really pissed off. Because that's not fun. If you have to sing and you're not able to use your vocal cords well, it's like if you were a guy trying to have sex and not being able to get hard but having to still somehow manage it. "This is supposed to be the nicest thing in the world, and yet it's the worst thing." Fortunately, though, I also tend to go away during the songs. No matter what I do to prepare myself, almost every time I get ready to go onstage I feel like, "Are you fucking kidding me - I'm supposed to go on?" I have to say this to my brother every night out loud and he takes it. I'm like, "I need to make you understand that it's ridiculous that I'm going out there." Like, I have to go back home and sit on the couch. I have to go to the hotel room and turn on the TV. That is what I'm supposed to. That's what I'm equipped to do. That's what I'm in the mood to do, like, every night.
What do you mean you "go away"?
I don't feel like I'm acting or anything. But I also don't feel like I'm actually suffering through the lyrics in the moment. It's almost like somebody else does it for me. Maybe I have a split personality and it comes out when I'm onstage. [laughs] But I do feel like somebody inside my head takes over. Like, "You're going to be fine. Go to sleep. I'm going to sing a few songs."
What's the configuration of your touring band?
It's six people now. I've got two drummers, which is not even enough for the percussion that we need to do. Amy Wood and Charley Drayton play drums and I got Zac Rae playing keyboards, because I love to not have to play piano as much as I can. It's so nice when I get to just sing and not be nervous. Sebastian Steinberg plays bass and Blake Mills is playing guitar. Blake's like a little brother. This is the first time in my life I've been in a band, or anywhere professionally, where I'm not the youngest one. I've been around middle-aged men since I was 17. I was worried about Blake, because I was like, "A 26-year-old guy is about the last person I want to talk to. Men under 40, I don't want to know."
It's been seven years since your last album, and you've said no one was pressuring you to make this one. So why did you decide to start making "The Idler Wheel . . ."?
Seven years wasn't intentional. It's just because I'll finish something and then two years will go by where I don't touch the piano. I might think of a song and then be like, "I don't care if I forget it. I don't want to do that shit. I'm not writing a song." I can make myself do it if I have proper motivation or if I'm doing something for someone else, as an assignment. But when it's just for me, my work ethic is very bad. Half the problem is practical. I am someone who needs to keep my house clean. I, by principle, don't want to have a maid, but how the fuck do people do anything and take care of their house? I don't have a day job. It's just me and an old, slow dog. But laundry and vacuuming and dishes . . . What kind of pig am I? [laughs] So that will take time, and then I'm tired, and I'm like, "I guess my workday is over."
What constitutes proper motivation for you?
I don't know exactly. Probably what happened, now that I'm talking about it, is that I was feeling so terrible about myself and about the way that I was seeing things - like visually, in the world, seeing things - and the way I was interpreting things. I went to New York and took this visual perception class. I knew what I was doing. I'm a really good parent to myself sometimes, and I do things that make me learn and grow. I knew that it would be good for me if I could learn about the science of actual seeing - if I could learn and see proof that maybe I see things shitty, but I could be wrong.
And in fact, I am wrong. In fact, everybody's wrong. You think you're looking at things all the time, but you're not looking at things, you're looking at what your brain is interpreting through light and color. And who knows what everybody else sees? I took this class and I was taking pictures of things like snails for a while. There are many different things I get obsessed with and go around and take pictures of. I'm pretty good, I think, and I enjoy it. And while I'm doing that I'll also be studying and reading about whatever I'm taking pictures of. I make up courses for myself to take. After awhile with these certain rites of passages that I try to go through, I feel that I am a new person and that there's more to me, and that probably spurs me to write it down. Because for whatever reason, even though I want to stay home all the time and be left alone, I want to tell the world who I am now.
After you came back from taking that course, that's when you started working on these songs with Charley Drayton?
First I asked Charley to just bang on the drums and record a couple different beats and send them to me. I knew I wanted it to have percussion and piano. Drums are my favorite things, and I wanted to get something to work with. When I go to the piano, your hands just go to the same spot. But it can bring new things out of me if I can get new things from somebody else. Once I had a few songs done, I asked Charley to come out and do some demos. We'd never done anything like this; we'd just been on the road together. I didn't even know we were starting on the record yet. But the first night of actual work in the studio, we got so much done. And I don't think we had one disagreement the whole time.
When was that, chronologically?
Oh, my God, I'm so fucked up with time. It could have been four years ago. It could have been . . . I don't know. He would come out here for two weeks at a time. I'm jokey about it and I say I'm lazy - and I am sometimes - but with studio work, I really don't like to work. I like to perform, I like to write, but I don't like to have to go in and record. I like writing words, but music is annoying as hell because there's always a point in time when I want to kill a song. I know that it's a good song and stick with it, because if I've made any effort on something, then it's worth it. I don't have a bunch of songs lying around that I don't use.