Fiona Apple in Beverly Hills. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
Fiona Apple is thinking hard about palm trees. It's a momentary distraction from talking about her new album, "The Idler Wheel ...," and a quick photo session in the backyard of her longtime manager, Andy Slater, in Beverly Hills. But as she wanders the grass with a large fig leaf in her hands, her head tilted skyward, the singer's mind has gone elsewhere, in search of a particular species of palm and definitely not finding it.
"I'm sorry I don't have the right kind of palm tree," says Slater, teasing from the nearby patio.
"Damn it!" shouts Apple, spinning around playfully in a long pink coat, fists clenched. But there is no actual rage in her, just a big smile as she toys with a reputation for emotional outbursts and general turmoil. "There, I was bad! I freaked out!"
The release of the album (with a full 23-word title that is only the second-longest of her career: "The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do") was only days away, her first collection in seven years. Like her three previous albums, it is immune to the pop-music trends of the moment and instead follows her usual path of biting self-examination and eccentric hooks and flourishes.
This time the music is stripped down and intimate, with subtler twists and turns, both melancholy and euphoric, as she asks herself the hardest questions, wailing in "Left Alone": "How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?"
The increasing years between albums may be tough on her most ardent fans, but for Apple there is no other way. She follows a pace that comes on its own schedule, while leaving room for her life and many random obsessions.
"I don't have a plan about it. It's always like, 'Jesus, has it really been that long?'" she says, curled up in a lawn chair, peeling the label off a bottle of Perrier. "It's the one area of my life where I follow my circadian clock, where I'm faithful to the right way of doing things. I don't rush things. I let it happen when it happens. I also just accept that I might never want to write a song again."
Once she sits for an interview, Apple is immediately engaged, laughing at herself and opening up easily about the good and bad, the strange and the deeply moving. The days are getting busier, and she speaks with nervous but charming energy, staring into the distance with eyes strikingly crisp and blue.
The first reviews are largely ecstatic, which is typical for Apple and a good thing when so many years roll past between releases. Times Pop Music Critic Randall Roberts called "The Idler Wheel" an "exquisitely rendered work." And Entertainment Weekly's Melissa Maerz praised it for being "highly confessional and creative and temperamental."
The new album begins with "Every Single Night," which describes, against a delicate keyboard melody, the nocturnal struggles of a restless mind. The voice quivers and swells to a hearty wail as she sings: "These ideas of mine/ percolate the mind/ trickle down the spine/ swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze/ That's when the pain comes in."
The images stretch back through a lifetime of insomnia and busy thoughts and ideas tumbling across her brain, back to when she was a child who needed a light shining directly in her face to get her eyes closed. The song's plea, "I just want to feel everything ..." suggests escaping those endless musings to experience the real world outside.
"You can live your whole life in your brain and not experience what's around you. You go crazy that way," says Apple, 34. "That's why I have to watch myself when I get isolated for too long."
Her songs have been largely autobiographical since she was a teenager, first in New York but spending her last year of high school in Los Angeles. She soon recorded her first demos about being a "sullen girl," of romantic insights well beyond her years, and of being raped at age 12. Those songs ended up on her 1996 multiplatinum debut, "Tidal," a frequently dynamic, sometimes haunting album produced by Slater.
Her sudden fame at age 18 came with a quickly earned reputation for outspokenness; she famously accepted an MTV Music Video Award for new artist with a speech that urged fans to ignore the glamour and self-congratulations onstage and be themselves. She was ridiculed mercilessly, but fans still tell her the speech had a lasting and meaningful impact.
"Fiona's really smart, one of the smartest artists that I've ever worked with," says Slater, Apple's manager since before her debut except for his six years as president of Capitol Records. "There is no showbiz artifice. She's writing what she feels and is powerful. And she's always — whether she was a teenager or not — spoke her mind. She didn't care about the rules. And I think people found that refreshing. Or shocking."