Fiona Apple was upstairs, alone, stalking the small suite of her boutique hotel in Soho. It was noon, in May, and she had arrived in New York, the city where she grew up, a few days earlier from Paris, where she was shooting a music video. She was at this moment supposed to be sitting in the hotel bar answering questions about her new album and her life in general, a life that, with the exception of sporadic performances — at her hometown club, Largo, in Los Angeles — she keeps almost hermetically sealed. She’d dressed herself in a long black nylon skirt, a tank top, and a thin green hooded sweatshirt; she applied no makeup. She wore her hair tied up. Despite being late, she was consulting her laptop, which she often struggles to operate, typing the words mirror neurons into Google. With a pencil she began scribbling onto a piece of hotel stationery. The morning — which is to say the hours after midnight — had unfolded well, sunrise had come smoothly, she’d felt good, and she’d seriously debated continuing straight through, as she does most often, but with a busy day ahead, she’d figured it best to rest, and, to her surprise, slipped into unconsciousness beneath the coffee table. When she’d awoken at ten, she’d felt different. She’d felt bad. She’d returned to the window she’d spent the morning staring down from, the man clearly on drugs still hobbling along the same block of Grand Street, picking up twigs and moving them. In her head she heard the refrain from the seventies song: “Do it, do it, till you’re satisfied.”
She was, now, exhausted. While she has struggled with sleep since she was a child, it has become in recent years a constant antagonist, to the point where she finds climbing into a normal bed torturous (back home in Venice, California, she and her dog, Janet, often lie down on an air mattress in her backyard). And so it was only natural that sleep, or the lack thereof, would seep into the two other themes — sanity and love — that imbue most of her music, including the first single off her new album, The Idler Wheel … , her fourth in sixteen years and a full seven years since the last. It is called “Every Single Night,” and it is, at least in its simplicity, unlike any single in memory. It begins with a music box striking a ringing C-major chord in slow, plodding four-four time, moving only a few steps up and down from there.
Every single night
I endure the flight
Of little wings of white-flamed
Butterflies in my brain.
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,
Like a second skeleton,
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t fit the feelings in
Every single night’s a fight
With my brain
There is a very strong argument to be made that Fiona Apple, 34, is the greatest popular musician of her generation. This, on its face, might seem like something of a misnomer, since Apple moves paltry numbers of “units” and is the antithesis of prolific. She also happens to be a longtime critic of the record industry, specifically her employer, Sony Records. (Strictly for comparison purposes, in the six-year span between Apple’s second and third albums, Britney Spears released five CDs, including both her debut and “greatest hits.”) Apple wrote the majority of her first album, Tidal, during adolescence; released in 1996, when she was 18, it was nominated for three Grammys. Her next two — When the Pawn … and Extraordinary Machine, released in 1999 and 2005, respectively—were similarly nominated and appeared atop virtually every top critic’s list of the best albums of the year (Kanye West has said Extraordinary Machine made him want to be the “hip-hop Fiona Apple”). But it is her latest—a stripped-down rhythmical and confessional tour de force—which, in its restraint alone, stands as her strongest work yet.
Her unique musical DNA—fusing jazz and the old standards with a dose of post-sixties singer-songwriter — seems inextricable from her biological one, a line of workman American performers steeped in vaudeville, big band, theater, and cable television. So that, in “Every Single Night,” the lines “Little wings of white-flamed / Butterflies in my brain” come with a slight fluttering; there is a quickening, a crescendo through “Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze”; until, by the time “That’s when the pain comes in,” her contralto rings, erupting to accent when in an E-flat that, taken out of context, could be Callas’s, not to mention the almost diabolical use of robato to construct a chorus out of “brain,” stretched into ten notes, ten slurring syllables, in what it occurs to me very early one morning later in her living room in California, the two of us altered to the precipice of poisoning, green stars orbiting above us, her extraordinary voice ricocheting across space: musical onomatopoeia.
First, though, she had to come downstairs and meet me.
“How are you?”
We were at the hotel bar, and Apple said she’d been anticipating that question, simple as it was. It had played some part in precipitating her mood. She told me about her morning so far. She’d chosen the table in the farthest corner of the room, beside a window overlooking Grand Street. For a long time, following her lead, we made almost no eye contact. She was simultaneously shy and outgoing. “I really didn’t know how I am,” she explained. “I couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on with my brain.”
Ten minutes ago, though, “in the nick of time, upstairs, I found the answer. All of a sudden, I thought, Mirror neurons! And I was like—”
Here she gasped. She said she’d felt like “Sherlock Holmes, finding the clue.”
She pulled out the piece of hotel stationery “that’s gonna make me look crazy.” She hesitated and said she couldn’t understand why she was so nervous. I interrupted to say I was nervous too. For the first time, she looked at me. Her eyes were huge and green, like mint chocolate chip when it melts. “That’s very” — she laughed — “mirror neuronal of you.” I asked what mirror neurons were. She said they’re what “make you feel empathy.” Here, she began reading rapidly, furiously, from the small piece of paper:
Mirror neurons Audrey Hepburn eyes drawing Funny Face empathy blind for a day Andrei’s mom yesterday quote friend naturally then again bad therapy rehash rehash retell details no! distract with laughter —
She explained: She does not typically watch TV at home. As soon as she gets to a hotel, though, she puts it on, usually TCM, with the sound off. This morning, when she woke up, the movie A Nun’s Story was on, which was funny, because yesterday, at the photo shoot for this story, she’d been thinking about Audrey Hepburn, because the photographer kept saying something to her like Big eyes! Big eyes! Huge eyes! and that made her remember that when she was a kid, she’d had this fear that she had unusually tiny eyes, and one day when she was home from school (she’d always pretend she was sick), she’d seen the movie Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn — she was afraid it was beginning to seem like she was obsessed with Audrey Hepburn, which she’s not — and she started drawing Audrey Hepburn’s portrait, over and over again, with insanely, distortedly huge eyes. Anyway, Funny Face was this silly romantic comedy, but she’d remembered this moment in it, she was like 10 years old, and Audrey Hepburn’s character starts talking about empathicism, or something.
It made her start trying to feel what other people were feeling. So if she saw a person burn his finger, her finger burned, and she’d have to run it under cold water to get it to stop. As she was thinking about it now, she wondered if maybe she’d been actually “beefing up” her mirror neurons. When she was in fourth grade, her friend Andrei’s mom died, and she remembered being in the hallway hearing the teachers discussing it before Andrei knew. And as she was standing there, she experienced herself what he was about to experience. She could still remember, too, how pissed off she felt when a nun at school admonished them to not feel bad for him, saying they were really only imagining it happening to them, which was selfish. She hadn’t imagined its being her mom, she’d felt it as him, and anyway, who cares if they were imagining that it was happening to them, that’s what empathy is, and making this string of connections now, she’d been all bored and blank and anxious upstairs, and then around the corner this comes — mirror neurons — it made her heart beat, it made her hot, and now she was so excited that she was “having, like, tics and shit—
“And I decided that I think I don’t agree with the title of my album anymore,” she said. “Or at least I have to amend it.”
Like her second CD, When the Pawn … , the full title of which, at 90 words, appeared, to her pride, in the Guinness Book of World Records, this album’s title is a sort of proverb: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser / Than the Driver of the Screw / And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More / Than Ropes Will Ever Do. For so long she’d identified with the idler wheel, a mechanism that “has a big impact on whatever machine it’s in, but it just looks like it’s doing nothing, sitting and taking in everything,” but now she wasn’t sure. And even though she knows she does not want children, this made her think about some of her hypothetical parenting philosophies (she does not know why she thinks about this often): “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—yeah, okay, sometimes, but you can do everything right in your life, you can know everything, and there are pits and crevices everywhere, and you will fucking fall in one.” Which is to say, she would teach her kid not how to avoid trouble but how to get out of it. She’d had a therapist, she said, who believed in revisiting trauma to destigmatize it, and the more she’s learned about the brain, “that shit is not the thing to do.”
It was like phantom pain. There was that New Yorker story about the woman whose head itched so badly that her fingertips eventually breached her skull. She recalled, from it, the “mirror box,” a simple device that duplicates the reflection of the remaining limb when the other’s been lost, so that the phantom pain goes away, and this made her cry when she read it, she’d had “years and years of pain, and it’s this simple little trick, the brain is so stupid.” Her OCD, still with her, is better now, and she’s realized, over time, that “the brain is just a machine that sometimes gets a little glitch, and this is just something that got into a loop, and it’s getting reinforced.”
She said: “This is why it’s so fun, by the way, to go put the TV in your hotel room on and, like, put on New Jersey Housewives or something.”
I asked if she had seen Mob Wives. She said she hadn’t. I told her I highly recommended it. She laughed an operatic laugh. I said: “This interview has gone totally off the rails.”
“I don’t think it’s gone off the rails at all,” she said very sincerely.
I assumed she wanted to talk about her album; she said she didn’t care. I told her I thought it was her best work; she said it was funny because she’d run into her ex-boyfriend, the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, and “he remembers me as somebody’s who’s been down on themselves from years ago,” and when he’d asked about the album, she told him she felt “really, really happy, I felt like I can die now, I’ve done what I want, this is me.” I told her I especially liked the song “Left Alone,” which is very weird, almost like scatting. She said it was her favorite song, too. I had the lyrics in front of me: “Oh, and I tried to love / And I can love the same man, in the same bed, / In the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity / But oh, it never bothered me before / Not until this guy, what a guy, oh God, / What a good guy, and I / Can’t even enjoy him ’cause I’m / Hard to, hard to know.” I told her hearing this had made me think some things about my own life. I said I did not mean to be weird. She said knowing this was like having the song “consummated.”
Her manager came in to say our time was up. Apple invited me to go with her to a photo shoot, she was doing almost no press and these were things she typically hated but was trying to think about it all differently this time. At the shoot, she introduced me to everyone as Victor Laszlo. A few hours later, back at the hotel, I gave her my card, in case she wanted to get in touch. At 1:41 a.m., my cell phone beeped.
It’s Fiona—holy shit—there’s a group of guys in the adjoining room, and they have no idea how impossible it is not to hear them—they go downstairs and come up for blow, weed, and gossip … fascinating!—but now I feel I have to be really quiet. I’m taking notes. Weed smoke is coming through the door … I’m thinking of waiting till they’re blitzed and going over and asking for some pot, and then listening to them when I’m gone … pretty sure it’s a sports team …
I texted back. At 5:34 a.m., before dawn, when the sky was surreally blue and I was asleep, she sent a photo of her face, shot from below, her green eyes staring straight. “I’m out walking,” she wrote, “it’s nice out.”
When Apple released her first album, people still went to record stores to buy physical copies. They bought those albums after hearing their singles on FM radio. Radio stations, like Z100, for example, were very influential, and they hosted important showcases like the Jingle Ball, in Madison Square Garden, at which record companies jockied to have their artists perform. In 1997, Apple played the Jingle Ball, alongside Celine Dion, Savage Garden, the Backstreet Boys, Lisa Loeb, the Wallflowers, and Chumbawamba, the lead draw (as in “Tubthumping,” as in, “I get knocked down / But I get up again / You’re never gonna keep me down”). She performed, of course, “Criminal,” which she’d written in 45 minutes, after Sony signed her at 17 and requested a more obvious single. It remains, to this day, her most successful song, its first thirteen words, sung in Apple’s preternaturally mature alto, an unforgettable, if not entirely intended, salutation: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man.”
In those days, Apple followed Sony’s strategies, including director Mark Romanek’s vision for the music video. Likened by many to child pornography, it showed Apple in cream-colored silk tank top and panties, electric eyes bulging, and rolling disconsolately around a seventies-era basement amid some indistinguishable male bodies during an apparent all-night, drunken sleepover. This is how she found herself addressing her first worldwide television audience from the stage of the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, after upsetting the heavily favored Hanson brothers to win the prize for Best New Artist.
“I didn’t prepare a speech,” she began, bespectacled and standing behind a podium in an ill-fitting white dress. “But I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m not going to do this like everybody else does it.
“You see, Maya Angelou said that we, we as human beings, at our best can only create opportunities, and I’m going to use this opportunity the way I want to use it. So what I want to say is, everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching, this world … this world is bullshit!”
She went on to urge viewers not to model their lives on “what you think we think is cool,” concluding that “it’s just stupid that I’m in this world. But you’re all very cool to me. So thank you very much.” Her reputation — which is to say her caricature — was sealed.
Fifteen years later, she was sitting on a leather couch in her hotel-room suite, reminiscing. “When I walked backstage, I was proud of myself” — it was the following evening, we’d been talking for a few hours, and we were not sober — “and they gave me the silent treatment! They pretended I wasn’t there!” She said it was “the moment I learned that they needed me more than I need them” and, in hindsight, “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Nearby was a black goldfish in a bowl the hotel offers; she’d named him Desmond; she showed me how he seemed to respond when she put her face close and said hello. She was tired but giddy, wearing clothes similar to the day before. She’d poured me and Charley Drayton, 45, the percussionist and spiritual “brother” she co-produced the album with (who bears a slight resemblance to Lenny Kravitz, especially with glasses), massive goblets of red wine, which we were steadily emptying. She was packing her one-hitter — we were trying each other’s pot — and taking occasional snorts of Ketel One from the minibar bottles. She said she’d been siphoning off bits of liquor from the bottles and replacing them with water, because each was, like, $400. (She was angry with her record company for a variety of reasons, not least of which that they are apparently cheap.)
Perhaps the lowest point of the roughly 30 hours we would spend together came when I asked her about being famous. She was over at the wet bar trying to make Keurig coffee. She looked at me. She wanted to know what “famous” means. Since 1997, she’d gone out of her way to avoid attention. She compared herself to me; she wanted to know the difference. I told her it was straightforward: If I went on the street and polled 100 people, not one would know my name; I guessed half would know hers. She did not like this. “This whole thing is just so far removed from me,” she said.
So we talked about the album. She and Charley met when he’d drummed for Extraordinary Machine, they’d hit it off, and then, a few years ago, when some things started flickering in her mind, she asked him for some beats. She was reading all the time, about things like bombardier beetles—“They shoot this noxious shit out of their asses,” she said—which became, in “Regret,” “But I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the / Hot piss that comes from your mouth every time / You address me.”
I wanted to know about “Hot Knife,” the album’s last track. They both smiled. Though, like all her songs, it had come in a moment of total dissociation, its roots were probably in a Bach concert she’d seen in New York, and the Supremes song “Where Did Our Love Go?,” the place where two lines of music “crack together,” which had always given her “huge satisfaction.” Charley — whose genius as a producer, it seemed, was to fade away — had given her the mallets to softly strike the rhythm on the timpani. He’d said, “You need to say something on the piano,” so she made a waving, malevolent line in the background. And then there were the voices: hers and, later, in an incredible melodic round, her sister Maude’s. There was no looping or Auto-Tune; for hours they’d stood at the same microphone, weaving their voices in what she called “the most intimate moment of our lives together.”
As proud as Fiona and Charley both obviously were, they seemed anxious for the album’s reception, despite the glowing early reviews. I said it seemed certain they’d be nominated for a Grammy. She did not acknowledge this.
I asked whether anyone even wanted a Grammy anymore.
“Who ever did?” she exclaimed.
Charley noted that it was about what happens “the next day”—
“Well, it’s business,” Fiona said.
We’d planned to go out to dinner. Instead, we continued drinking. Charley ordered room service. Fiona and I ate grapes and drank juice and smoked.
It was sometime after 2 a.m. when we went down to Charley’s Honda Accord to listen to the remix for “Hot Knife.” Charley turned it up very loud, and the song moved through its new iterations, her voice filling every crevice of the car — booming — the tiny person out of whom it’d all spilled now slumped in the passenger’s seat, head ever so slightly bobbing:
If I’m butter, if I’m butter
If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife
He makes my heart a CinemaScope screen
Showing a dancing bird of paradise
Afterward, when she and I were alone outside her hotel, I said I felt awful for asking, but I wondered if she’d mind if we met again, in California, for the story. She said yes, come. She said I was her friend now. “We’re friends,” she said. “I mean this.”
A week later, my phone beeped. It was a heavily pixelated video. She was wearing glasses, looking straight at me:
“Hi, Dan. It’s Fiona. [She moves the camera to her dog.] This is Janet. [She moves it back.] Um, are you coming out here tomorrow? Um, I, I, I don’t know—I’m baffled at this thing that I just got, this e-mail shit, I don’t know what these people—are they trying to antagonize me so that I do shit like this, so that I start fights with them? I don’t understand why there are pictures of models on a page about me. Who the fuck are they? What? What?”
The text attached read: “And are you western-bound? And hi there! F”
I had no idea what she was talking about. Two days later, I landed at LAX.
My rental car had broken down, and by the time I got to her house — a small, Craftsman-style bungalow near Venice Boulevard — it was nearing 7 p.m. and the light was very beautiful and pale yellow. Fiona greeted me at her gate with Janet, the 13-year-old pit-bull mix she’d encountered one day in the Valley when she was living with Anderson; it was not so long after, as that relationship was in its long sputter-out, that she bought this house, which she loved, and which was essentially unchanged since she moved in. Pink and white roses were blooming in the yard, and the front doors were flung open, as were all the windows. She told me, as we walked into the living room, that she almost never has company. Her older brother Brandon lives out back in a small cottage — she has never driven and relies on him to drive her—and her older sister Amber (Maude Maggart is her stage name) sometimes stays here when she is in town for work. She spends most of her time alone, even when they’re there.
The house looked simultaneously like she’d lived in it forever and just moved in last weekend. There were some boxes, and curtains made of tapestries and scarves. There was very little furniture: two green couches, a small flat-screen TV near the floor, some small rugs not yet unwrapped, and, in the far corner, a grand old wood table she uses as a desk. On the ledges of the wainscoting she had propped branches and books, her artwork, toy horses from her childhood, coconuts she’d drawn funny faces onto, peacock feathers. She has two pianos, a Steinway upright and a Baldwin grand. With all the windows and doors open, it felt a lot like being outside.
She had not slept. She said we would go out back to say hello to her brother and ask him if he could make us coffee, since she rarely drank it and wasn’t sure she could operate the machine. The backyard was small but green; there were a few tall trees, a small wooden sauna, and a tiny inground Jacuzzi she’d always wanted to get rid of but which Brandon likes.
Brandon is several years older, one of five half-siblings her father had with his first wife; he and baby sister resemble each other only in their piercing eyes. He was sitting with the doors open, watching the movie Bridesmaids. Maya Rudolph, Anderson’s partner, was on the screen of his TV. “Hey, I just heard your song,” he said. “I turned it off.” He was, apparently, joking. He was referring to “Paper Bag,” from her second album. (Like many of her songs, its origin was an image, this one when she was in the car with her father in L.A., driving back from recording Tidal, terribly upset; out the window she saw a dove, which she took to mean something quite beautiful, until “It came down near / So did a weary tear / I thought it was a bird / But it was just a paper bag.”) The film’s producer, Judd Apatow, an acquaintance of Fiona’s (it’s a small world), had proposed using it in a wordless transition scene in which the character played by Kristen Wiig consoles herself by baking and then eating an expertly crafted cupcake. Fiona told me she’d seen the movie and liked it and was “very happy” to have the song in it. (Her attitude about the one-off licensing of her songs has significantly evolved over the years: “Let’s not be too precious,” she’d said, chuckling. “Give me money.”)
Brandon agreed to make us coffee, and while we were back in her house waiting, she cracked open grape-flavored Zevia soda (sweetened with all-natural Stevia) for each of us. She asked about vodka and hash.
Fiona carries with her, among other books, one called Raising Happiness, 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, which was written by a sociologist and resembles a supermarket best seller. She finds it useful to skim and sometimes underlines parts she likes: “Too often we protect our kids from pain and suffering, and in so doing we shelter them from others’ needs. Consider the counterintuitive notion that compassion is a positive emotion strongly correlated with
happiness, and provide them with opportunities to feel compassion.”
She was born on September 13, 1977, via a scheduled Cesarean section. Two weeks earlier, her mother was straining to move furniture in her Harlem apartment, after fighting on the phone with Fiona’s father, who was out of town. She felt a pain, but did not go to the hospital. When the obstetrician made his incision, he found her peritoneum torn, the situation potentially fatal, the infant’s hands and feet pressing against her mother’s abdomen—her world, Fiona figures, prematurely ripped open. “Don’t you think that colors the rest of a person’s life?” she asked me. We were in her kitchen, and in a process I can neither re-create nor adequately explain, she was using a long, narrow instrument to light hash in the bottom of a Champagne flute, which she held as we took turns sucking in the smoke she continued billowing up.
Her father, Brandon Maggart, was born in Carthage, Tennessee, in 1933, and moved to New York in the fifties. As described in his recently self-published autobiography — commencing 4 million years ago and told via a composite character mentored by the goddess Athena who “lives in the attic behind his eyes” — he managed an exceedingly varied, four-decade acting career (including appearing in the original cast of Sesame Street and the eighties Showtime sitcom Brothers). Her mother, Diane McAfee, a New Yorker born to a “George White Scandals” dancer and the singer for Harry James’s big band, met Maggart while the two were appearing on Broadway in Applause. He was married with children. She became pregnant first with Amber, then, two years later, Fiona. The situation was unusual; Maggart and his wife remained married in Connecticut, and McAfee and the girls lived in the Maggarts’s old apartment on 125th Street. By the time Fiona was 4, though, her parents were broken up for good.
Her mother worked various jobs, including as an aerobics instructor and diet counselor. For a time they lived in a friend’s basement apartment replete with a crucified Kermit the Frog, cockroaches, and stray dogs in the hallway. When they moved back to 125th Street, they were joined by the 24-year-old accountant–guitar player who would become her mother’s long-term boyfriend and a sort of older brother to Fiona. She had a speech impediment and was odd-looking in the way most beautiful people are as children, and was made fun of at school. Her gifts emerged early, as did her OCD — she would run around the kitchen table 88 times, for each key of the piano, and friends were taken aback, sleeping over, when she put a fan directly to her face to force her eyes closed. As an 8-year-old one night, she walked into her mother’s bedroom to ask for piano lessons because she wanted “to make people happy.” Not long after, she was instead sequestered at the piano in her bedroom, schooling herself in old Tin Pan Alley song-playing and -writing. When she was 16, she told me, after hearing the boy to whom she’d recently lost her virginity express interest in another girl, she wrote “Never Is a Promise.” That song would appear, virtually unchanged, on her first album, after one of the few dozen copies of the demo tape her father had urged her to make ended up in her future manager’s hands at a Christmas party hosted by a woman whose babysitter was Fiona’s friend.
The Los Angeles Times compared her to Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver; The New Yorker wrote that she “looked like an underfed Calvin Klein model”; the New York Times said she was “thinspirational” to teenage girls with eating disorders. That she was still a teenager was the perverse, circular logic by which she could be harshly judged. Sitting in a corner beside her then-boyfriend David Blaine at a 1997 industry party for her, she told a reporter: “I’m trying to be my own parent and minimally corrupted by all of this.” As her publicist attempted to pull her away, she said that she, like a lot of kids her age, had been “babysat by television, and they learn everything from the media,” so she was “hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s okay.” By the end of the night, the reporter cracked, she was “crumpled in a chair, tears streaming down her mascara-smeared face, an MTV Ophelia.”
She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better. It did not. When reporters asked if the lyrics to the song “Sullen Girl”—Is that why they call me a sullen girl / Sullen girl / They don’t know / I used to sail / The deep and tranquil sea / But he washed me ashore / And he took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me—were about a boy leaving her, she did not want to be ashamed. She told them the truth. She told them she had been raped.
It had happened when she was 12, when she was walking home from school, he had followed her into her building. Going up in the elevator, she could hear him, in the stairs, stopping on each floor. She was unlocking the locks as he was coming down the hallway. He had a knife or screwdriver in his hand and said he’d kill her if she screamed. On the other side of the door, she could hear her dog bark.
“Then your life bifurcated?” I asked in her kitchen. I was referring, specifically, to the release of her first album, but I meant more generally. She did not know “bifurcate,” and now I wasn’t sure it was right, so I went into the living room and got one of her dictionaries: “to divide into two branches or forks.” She said yes, this was what happened. Her OCD exploded. She could not be alone. New York, as a place, terrified her. Suicide became her central preoccupation.
Janet needed to go for a walk. It took us twenty minutes to find her leash and gather supplies, including a camera, flashlight, lighter, and water. In the process, we stumbled across an old autographed photo of her grandfather smoking: “Best Chesterfield Wishes—Johnny McAfee.” She’d bought it for $20 on eBay. We drank marijuana-laced lemonade and left.
We stepped through a portal into a Venice, California, behind Venice, California, from which it was possible to imagine the entire rest of the country rising eastward. It was like a village of bungalows, windows glowing, and across the horizon, like staggered towers, stood the giant Mexican palms. There was a half-moon. The three of us made our way up a sidewalk that became engulfed in a swirling flock of branches that made a perfect tunnel, impervious to light. Most of the time it was just Janet sniffing, her nails clicking on the concrete. We went to the “walk streets,” the tiny pedestrian pathways through the gardens of hundreds of closely packed Craftsman-style bungalows. It was dark green, there were little fountains, she showed me her favorite tree. She took out her digital SLR camera to record a short video of music spilling out of one of the bungalows; she said she loved hearing people’s lives, especially their music, from the outside.
Without having planned it, each of us had made a mix for the other, and when we got back, I asked her to play the one she’d made. We drank more vodka as the Pharcydes rapped, “She keeps on passing me by.” I sat in a chair near her desk, and then, as the night wore on, on the floor. She stayed put mostly at her desk. There was a giant John Wayne–dressed–in–rodeo–regalia lamp on the corner of it. Very long spans of time passed with neither of us speaking. Mildred Bailey sang that “it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.”
The following afternoon, when I woke up at the apartment in Hollywood where I was staying, I Googled “mirror neurons.” I found the Times article she’d been referencing when we first met:
“ ‘When you see me perform an action—such as picking up a baseball—you automatically simulate the action in your own brain,’ said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. ‘… Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next.’ He continued: ‘And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain stimulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.’ ”
At 2:11, almost 24 hours later, my phone beeped.
“Laszlo,” Fiona wrote, “I am half asleep but in my 4th hour of mobwives … wwooooooww…”
I texted back a photo of the mobwife Big Ang and her toy dog Louie, perched in her arm like a parrot, that I’d taken of the TV screen.
We agreed to meet one last time later in the day.
We were back at her house, the front door was open, and outside the sky had completely drained of color. It was chilly inside. I played the opening and into the second theme of Philip Glass’s Mad Rush on the Steinway upright. I asked her not to watch while I was doing it and stopped abruptly because I felt foolish.
We got very stoned. We talked about a man who wore upside-down glasses and whose brain, within a few days, adjusted to perceive them as right-side up. She showed me a sample of the secret language she’s been speaking — and sometimes singing — since she was a child, a cross between scatting and talking in tongues. We sat next to each other at her desk and watched YouTube videos — of the pianist Valentina Lisitsa, of Usher, and, after I asked to hear one of her songs, of Elvis Costello in a lovely cover of her ballad “I Know.” Finally, we watched the rough cut of the video for “Every Single Night”: her with an octopus on her head; her lying in a bed of soil, covered in snails; her fondling the neon-colored disembodied brain of a cow; her, at the end, staring at us staring back at her, pleading, four times: I just want to feel everything …
At one point, she got up. Janet jumped down off the couch. The two of them began spontaneously dancing in the middle of the room, Janet jumping and barking, Fiona laughing and singing and tap dancing. Janet, she’d told me, is sick with cancer. She’d begun imagining Janet dead, to prepare herself. When she’s gone, she will leave her house and Los Angeles, perhaps returning to New York, or maybe somewhere rural and wooded.
She’d lived on Broome Street a few years ago for a few months, enrolling in a sign-language class (which she dropped out of when the instructor arranged to have them all sign “The Wind Beneath My Wings” for one of the morning shows), as well as a visual-perception course at the New School, which explored the science behind how the eyes interact with the brain. She’d wanted, she said, “scientific proof that I could be wrong about what I was seeing about myself.” This had been a lifelong, inherited struggle, she said, exacerbated recently by cystic acne she attributed to an undiagnosed gluten allergy.
She said she’d dated a fat man specifically to see what that would feel like. She’d briefly married a French photographer several years ago, for complicated reasons. She sought out Jonathan Ames after a friend kept talking about him and she’d read some of his work; forces, including distance, conspired against the relationship (he lives in Brooklyn). There was a younger girl a few months ago, a beautiful dancer with whom she climbed onto her roof to watch the sky at various times of day and night. She is currently single. She’d thought a lot, she said, about this. In “Left Alone,” she is direct: “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?”
As it happened, she and Ames broke up the day she finished the last track of her album, initiating a period, almost two years ago now, of terrible unspooling. Sony Records was between presidents, and her manager felt it would be dangerous to submit an album when the label was in such flux, and the time of year was not conducive to touring or an album release anyway; there was no way around the fact that it would all have to wait. It was like putting out a forest fire, years in the making.
This is how, at least partially, she’d come about a year ago to some dense California woods, to a cabin beside a very tall hill. She’d planned to spend a week in total silence among strangers, mostly meditating, which she does from time to time, she told me, “to become myself as a child.” Soon, however, she found herself drawn to the hill, which she began climbing and did not stop, eight hours every day. In her head, she heard: Do it, do it, till you’re satisfied. She also heard the rhythm, of the bones and cartilage and sinews of her knee, clicking and rubbing against itself, and though she knew she was injuring herself, she kept going, the rhythm — the click, click, whoosh from her knee — bringing inexplicable satisfaction.
We drank and smoked more. Coming back from the bathroom, she had turned off the lights and turned on a little machine that projected a million green stars orbiting across the whole space of the ceiling. I lay on the floor, spinning, watching them spin. She sat at her desk, not moving much, mostly staring into the screen that bounced a pale glow across her face.
There is no one she keeps in touch with every day. She’d said when we first met that she sometimes thinks of herself as the tramp, in Lady & the Tramp; that her mother had suggested “Fiona Lone” when they were brainstorming stage names. She’d told me, “You’re my friend, and it’s better for me to think of it that way.” Not long after, she’d insisted that she’d come to believe this. Something important had happened to her the morning we met, she was certain, beginning upstairs in her hotel room.
It was late. The music had stopped. I asked her, I don’t entirely know why, to ask me something. She asked me about one of the most intimate experiences of my life. I told her the truth.
I was now standing in the middle of the room; I felt very stupid. Despite my protests, she came over and put her arms around me. We stood there for a while, hugging. She said, and I could hear her tongue clicking in her mouth:
Dan. I’m so sorry.
Janet sighed on the couch behind us. The green galaxies of the universe spun above us. Inside our brains it was easy to imagine them imagining each other, our mirror neurons, like sparks at the start of an electrocution.
On that last night, far into the morning, the John Wayne lamp was on again, and I was again lying on the living-room floor, leafing through her artwork. She was in the kitchen, where she was scrubbing lemon juice off the countertops that had temporarily discolored.
They were mostly drawings, pens and ink and charcoal, quite a bit of them portraits, realistic but exaggerated, some imagined, some from old photos, deeply shadowed, the features dark and stormy. All of it had been stuffed haphazardly into a giant portfolio that had been shipped to New York months ago and just returned, so that Sony designers could go through it for album artwork (the cover, an abstracted, swirling, geometrical, multicolored hybrid female head, is hers). The pens and charcoal were bleeding.
I noticed an odd piece of paper. There was an insignia at the top, and it began “On January 28, 2009, Americans of all backgrounds will join together in unity and shared …”—it was part of an invitation to Barack Obama’s inauguration.
On it Fiona had scrawled many words, including the name “Attenborough,” and what appeared to be notes from a nature documentary. There was writing on both sides, including, on a back corner: If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife. He makes my life a CinemaScope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise … The documentary was apparently discussing natural life, in high and low altitudes. She noted:
High: male looks alike; no need for plumes; has to gather food = only one wife
Low: more food; females raise young alone; males concentrate on—
I could not make out the last word. I asked her if she could come help. She looked for a long time. It was, she agreed, tough to figure out. Then she smiled. I could hear the word ever so slightly crackling in her dry, dry mouth. It said dancing.
* This article has been corrected to show that Britney Spears released four CDs, not five, between Apple’s second and third albums and that Barack Obama’s inauguration took place on January 20, 2009, not January 28th.
This story appeared in the June 25, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.