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Riding a 'Tidal' Wave

Fiona Apple's starkly cool debut album has brought her a flood of attention. So much for being just a plain-old teenager.

November 03, 1996|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — 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.


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."

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