a long talk

Allow Fiona Apple to Reintroduce Herself

“Nowadays, I try to remember who I was before all this started.”

Photo: Zelda Hallman
Photo: Zelda Hallman
Photo: Zelda Hallman

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Fiona Apple FaceTimes me on a recent Friday afternoon from a bright-pink futon inside her Venice Beach home, her hair in a long braid, wearing giant headphones, a cozy green sweatshirt, and no makeup. The first thing she says is that she’s nervous. “I’m like, Oh, shit,” she says, laughing.

Her nerves are understandable. Apple, 42, is on the verge of releasing her first album in eight years, which she insisted on pushing up to an April 17 release in the wake of, well, everything (her record label initially wanted to wait until October). She’s spent most of the past decade hanging out at home with her pit-bull–boxer mix, Mercy, and her friend Zelda Hallman; she’s apprehensive about returning to a sort of public life that’s burned her in the past. And according to Apple, her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is her most personal yet, filled with vulnerable confessions stretching back as far as her middle-school years. With it, she’s forced herself out of her hiding places in every sense.

FTBC also marks something of a tonal shift for Apple: The album is less melancholy than her previous works — it’s funny, angry, and at times triumphant. It’s full of wordplay and singular sonic experiments: dogs barking, supermodels meowing, chanting, bells. She sees it as an artistic breakthrough. “Making this album has really helped me get through stuff, and I don’t know if I can say that about my other albums,” says Apple, who recorded and co-produced all 13 songs inside her home, with band members Amy Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg, and Davíd Garza, often using GarageBand and her iPhone. It’s also her first album where she had final say on all production decisions.

Read the story behind every song on Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

Apple’s nerves dissolve as we fall into a long, digressive conversation — our third since last fall — followed by a series of winding, poetic text messages (which appear in footnotes below). Mercy lumbers in and out of the frame, popping into Apple’s lap and licking her face as she speaks about everything from healing her relationships with women to getting sober, finally becoming angry with the man who raped her at age 12, and whether she’s found peace.

When did you officially start working on Fetch the Bolt Cutters?
So little happens with me that’s ever official. I guess we started — Oh, hi, Mercy. [Apple’s dog walks into the frame and sits on her.]

Are you in your recording room?
The whole house is the recording room. We recorded it in the living room, but this is the room I did most of my vocals in and most of the stuff that I did by myself, except for a bunch of percussion tracks. [To Mercy] You can sit here, baby. You want to sit here? You just have to give me a place to be.

We started first trying to be a band and to have me build my confidence up as a musician, because it was really low a few years ago. It’s funny I’ve never been able to jam with people. I wish there was a better word for jamming. I’ve always been too shy to try, which is not a good way to be. If you grow up and you’re praised a lot for being special, rather than for making an effort, you end up later on in life being afraid. I would get into situations — and I have to watch myself still — where I don’t even want to try because if I don’t end up being special, then I don’t value my own effort as much as I should.

I put together the band in February of 2015 so that we could just jam, so I could learn how to feel as free as I do singing when I’m playing stuff. I don’t think I ever got there, but it was good enough for me to start recording with the band. Some of the songs I started writing years ago, [like] “Rack of His.” I did a couple of versions. I almost put it on a couple of albums, but it was a completely different song. I guess we officially started the album when we went to Sonic Ranch in Texas in July of 2015, but it was a false start.

How so?
Well, we did a lot of stuff, but it became more of a wild, “Let’s do mushrooms and put this percussion table together and everybody play a lot of crazy shit.” My best friend Nalini [Narayan, an ER nurse Apple befriended in 1997 at one of her concerts] was there with me, and we just ended up watching movies a lot and running around with the dogs on the Pecan Ranch. Then there were quite a few months where we didn’t record. [Looks at Mercy.] Mercy is having a feast of her own ass right now. That’s nice.

So there wasn’t an official start, but it really started when we started redoing stuff in the house.

And when was that?
A few months later. I moved into this house in 2000, and I’ve always felt like [it] doesn’t want me to go anywhere. So I’m like, “All right, I’m going to give you what you want, house. I know you deserve to be the record. I’m going to make you the record.” This is where I feel comfortable. My boyfriend at the time, Jamie, really pushed for me to get it set up here so I could record by myself. Once he pushed for that to happen and Amy taught me how to do GarageBand, it was like the universe opened up.

Making my first album, [I would go to the studio] from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day. While everybody else put together the arrangements, [I was] just sitting there being like, “When do I sing? When do I sing?” The difference between [then and now], me being like, “Oh, I think I’d like to play that thing on this. Okay, I can go do that right now.” It makes me feel like I wasn’t ever given a chance to be a musician before. Because you’d have to do everything in the studio, and I’m not good at doing things in front of people under pressure.

What’s funny is that so much of the stuff that I did on the record is stuff that I can’t actually do. Like, I would try to do certain percussion things and I’m not a percussionist. I wouldn’t hire me as a percussionist! But I wanted to be the one to do certain things, or I was the only one that was here. So I’d just do take after take until I’d get something right. For touring and stuff, of course, I’ll have to actually learn how to do the things I did, but wow, it’s just a big, messy making of a record. Messy, messy.

How do you think your voice has changed over the years?
I think I’ve stopped trying to be a singer, actually. I have fun with my voice, but I’m not trying to make it pretty all the time. I’m not trying to convince anybody I’m a singer. It just turned out to be another instrument.

Photo: Zelda Hallman

There’s so much strange stuff going on in the background of this record. Bells and dogs barking, chanting, meowing. Where did these sounds come from?
Honestly, I would press “record” and I would get so nervous and I wouldn’t have planned out what part I was going to do or what I was going to play. I’d just be like, “I’ll add something. I’ll do whatever I feel.” So I’d press “record,” and after, I’d scramble to find drumsticks or to pick a keyboard, and most often I would forget to close the door. So the dogs would hear something and they’d bark, or something outside would happen. But then I’d play it back and I’d feel like those barks kind of worked. It didn’t bother me.

They sound purposeful.
They worked so well, especially when we were doing “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” Cara [Delevingne] came over, and we were in this room. She and I have been text friends for years. But we’ve only hung out twice in person. I wanted her to sing on this one thing, but then she was only in town for a day. And I was in a very sad place. So I was like, “I don’t feel up to anything. I’m sad.” She FaceTimed me and was like, “Answer the phone. You’re okay, everything’s cool.” She was such a good friend to me in that moment that I felt really comfortable, and I was like, “Okay, come on over, let’s do it. There’s one line to sing: [“Fetch the bolt cutters.”]”

She’s got the British accent that went along with the way Gillian Anderson said it, so it was really funny actually when she started doing it. She was like, [affects exaggerated American accent] “Fetch the bolt cutters.” And I said, “Wait, can you just do it with your accent?” I love her voice, and I just knew our voices would go really well together. And she brought her dogs, Leo and Alfie. And so all of our dogs — Maddie [Zelda Hallman’s dog], Mercy, Leo, and Alfie — were in this room with the door closed and they’re totally silent for the whole take of the song. And then at the end of the song they erupted. It was so perfect.

What’s the most random object or sound in the background on this album?
I found a stove top in the alley that’s somewhere around here. Oh, there’s a metal butterfly that I’m playing. It’s the sound on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the higher “clink, clink.” I found it outside of this elementary school in the grass. So that’s kind of random.

Something I love about the album is that every song ends very differently from how it began, with a big shift in tone or timbre or style. Did you do that consciously every time?
Mostly it’s how they evolved. I ended up improvising a lot of things. With “Newspaper” and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” — those were both taken from these big percussion tracks I had done months before. They’re all one-takes, and there are mistakes in them and stuff.

Every song is one take?
Not every song, but the background tracks of percussion in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and “Newspaper” are all one take. And then Amy did some kit drums on top of it. But I would start writing lyrics to those percussion things and not exactly know how they were going to fit, or if there would be empty spaces left over. So when I was doing vocals, I would just fill the empty spaces with things. I’d come up with a line. But a lot of times when the song would end, I would be comfortable at the mic, [not] shaking like I am when I press “record.” I’d think, Maybe something will happen, maybe something will come out of me. I’d start singing, but it wouldn’t turn into a new song — I’d like it as the end of that song I just did. A lot of it is just making a bunch of mistakes and liking a lot of them.

Is that new for you, putting mistakes on the final product?
Yeah. I guess so. Not that there’s so many mistakes — it’s just all unguided. I didn’t come up with parts before I’d press “record.” It’s very spontaneous.

Photo: Zelda Hallman

On your last album, in the song “Left Alone,” you say, “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” But it seems like “I Want You to Love Me” is an evolution of that, because you are asking someone to love you without any kind of —
Yeah. I mean, I’m definitely not always begging to be alone now. I just choose my company better. I’m not so antisocial. I’m not so hell-bent against having a boyfriend. It’s just that my experience with that has taught me I’m more comfortable without it. But it doesn’t mean that that always has to be my experience.

Are you single right now?

Was Jonathan Ames your last relationship?
No, I had a boyfriend, Jamie, who helped me set up the recording. He’s still my friend.

It’s pretty cool you’ve stayed friends with some of these exes. How do you manage that?
I am. I just heard from Jamie today, and I heard from Jonathan two days ago. My ex-husband, Lionel Deluy, is a very good friend of mine too. He’s lovely. I was married very briefly to Lionel.

I don’t think I knew that. How old were you?
Twenty-something. I don’t know. It was very brief.

I want to go back to your middle-school years, which the album explores on the song “Shameika.” Why did you want to look back on that experience now?
My middle-school experience is still so important to me. Mainly because that’s where my relationship to women started getting fucked up. It’s awful how many memories I have with a friend where a more popular girl says to that friend, “Okay, you can be friends with Fiona or you can be friends with me. Choose.” And I never got chosen. Boys can be mean but it’s just kind of stupid mean. I’m not traumatized by boys bullying me. I’m more traumatized by girls rolling their eyes at me. I got silenced a lot. I silenced myself because I was afraid of the other girls saying I wasn’t cool. I didn’t try out fashion or anything like that because the other girls would say I look stupid in it. It was all about what other girls thought of me. And knowing that they didn’t think I was cool at that age made me feel like I was never cool to girls after that. Middle school is where my sense of myself started based on what other people thought of me.

Is your relationship to women something you’re just now interrogating? On the album, you address women you’ve burned and who have burned you.
Certainly for the past few years. I made the album, and it helped me. I’m over the hump of a lot of the things I was dealing with on the album. Which means it was successful, you know? Because really, the first reason to do any of this is to help myself to live. I don’t mean with money, although that’s necessary. But to help myself get through things, and to help myself express myself so that I don’t get so confused inside.

You’ve got these stories you’re not telling anybody. Each one of those stories is like this little ball of yarn. If you don’t [express them], they end up getting tangled together inside. Then it’s really hard to sort through them. I got some balls of yarn out in this album and wove them into something I can actually work with, including [my] relationship to women. And mistress kind of stuff. One thing I think I didn’t look at enough, when it comes to myself, is why I ever participated in a flirtation or even started a physical relationship with someone, when I knew they had a girlfriend. I think about it now, and both times I was privately in awe of the other woman — so was I trying to somehow put myself in the same category with her? Was I intimidated by them and I used the easiest avenue to assert my equal worth? Was I really asserting that I am only worth being a secret or that I believed deep down that it is somehow more exciting to be a secret? In both cases, I felt a boost in my ego at first. But I’ve never stopped being disgusted by the memories, and I wonder if that’s because I never apologized to the women. Maybe I tried to, but the women understandably made themselves unavailable to me. I am so sorry for my selfishness, but that’s not enough. I have to understand it, and I don’t yet.

I remember my grandmother used to talk about my grandfather and his mistress. And his mistress actually was his wife for the rest of his life. They were married for 50 years. But to her, she was always mad at this mistress. And it was always like, “Man, she didn’t do it. Our grandfather did it. Your husband cheated on you. She just fell in love with some guy. Then they were together forever afterwards and had a family. Be mad at the right person, don’t feel mad at the wrong person.” Later on in life, I’m with a guy. I found out, he’s seeing some other woman. I meet that other woman — I’m nice to that other woman. She didn’t do it. She didn’t cheat on me. So, this album is a lot of not letting men pit us against each other or keep us separate from each other so they can control the message.

I think a lot of women would say what you’re saying. Like, “Yeah, I’m not mad at the woman.” But you seem to practice it in an authentic way.
A woman once showed up to my house at one in the morning to talk to my boyfriend. I answered the door, I put my arms up, and I was like, “Come on in.” She turned me down.

She didn’t hug you?
No. She did not. And I get it now. It’s not really like she would want to be talking to me. But yeah, that’s how I react to that stuff.

Photo: Zelda Hallman

You started writing “Evil Is a Relay Sport” at 15. Why return to it now?
I just always liked it. [If] you get burned by somebody, when the person who burns you doesn’t acknowledge it — which rarely happens to people, acknowledging when they’ve burned you — it turns into you not knowing what to do with it. Then you just put it on somebody else. The assault when I was 12 made me think about innocence and guilt and forgiveness. It made me think about a lot of big things. Because the first thing I did after it happened was pray for him.

Are you serious?
Yeah. I went to an Episcopalian school. When we were in chapel one morning, they gave us a speech about a little girl — and this is such a different situation — but they were telling us about when schools were first integrated. All these white people were calling her names and throwing things at her. And she said that she prayed for them. They were teaching this to us when I was a kid before the thing happened to me. And it really got to me that she said she prayed for them. Because they were the ones that were in trouble. Because they were the ones that needed help. Not her. They needed to find goodness and they didn’t have it.

That clicked into my head when I got home safe. When I shut the door, I was like, “That’s what you’re supposed to do. You have to pray for the people who hurt you.” But you can’t stop at praying for them. You have to hold them responsible. Because I was not angry at that man for years. Last year is the first time I felt anger towards that guy.

Really? Why last year?
Yeah. And when it came on, it came on so big. I was so happy when it came on, too. It was the weirdest feeling. It did not happen until after I got sober. I wouldn’t allow myself to be angry at him because of shit I assumed had been done to him. I think women do that a lot. We’ll be like, “Oh, but he was hurt when he was a kid. That’s why he did that to me.” Fuck you, I was hurt when I was a kid. I didn’t do it to him. You know? We’re very understanding, women. We want to take care of people. We want to protect people. But, please, not at the expense of ourselves anymore.

Heavy Balloon” is one of the most evocative songs I’ve heard about depression. These days, are you more situationally depressed or is it more constant?
It’s not a constant feeling, and it’s gotten a lot better, again, since I quit drinking — so much better, so much less anxiety. I was really overmedicated. That New Yorker piece is so funny to me — the period of time we were talking was such a horrible group of months, because of all of the withdrawal I ended up being in from getting off of some medications. I was like, “I need to do this now, before I have to go into rehearsals and go on the road, and do all this stuff,” thinking that the world was going to be normal. I was like, “I need to be on the right medications, and in order to do that, I need to get off the wrong ones.”

I had been put on an antipsychotic. Nobody who is not psychotic should be put on an antipsychotic. I’m not psychotic and I don’t have schizophrenia and I’m not bipolar; I’ve only been diagnosed with OCD and complex developmental PTSD. But I was put on one when I was in this mental state where I didn’t even realize what was happening. When you try to come off an antipsychotic, the withdrawal is much different than other medications. I was getting tics, and it was the worst. I woke up one day and I couldn’t see — it was double vision from morning until night, and we found out that was a side effect from withdrawal. This is dangerous stuff.

Anyway, I was on so many different medications. They were all downers, and I was drinking. I cannot believe I was awake for any of the time over the past ten years. Apparently all this stuff was supposed to help me with my anxiety, but my anxiety has been so much better since I tapered way down and got off of all the unnecessary ones. I’m not anti-medication at all — medication can save your life. And not only that, but medication is not something that takes your personality away. It can make you more yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to be dulled down. In my case, however, I was on so many different downers to supposedly suppress all of the overactivity in my mind and my brain it didn’t really help; it just hurt.

That sounds awful. I can’t even imagine the process of coming off something like that.
I was in bed for a couple months.

I remember texting you in November when I was in L.A. to say hi, and you were like, “I’m going through this horrible thing.”
Yeah, I was in a really bad, bad place.

In your New Yorker profile, you said that you “shake” when you have to write about yourself. How do you get there — how do you push past that?
A lot of it is just pressing “record” and seeing what comes out. It’s sitting down before writing a song and writing out lists of memories you have, or writing down things I’ve done that I don’t agree with. Things I’ve done or said that have been disrespectful to myself or other people. Looking at mistakes I’ve made. There’s some footage of me, when I’m 18, of somebody asking me, “What is your motto?” or something like that. And I know that at some point I said, “Always question your motives.” I always questioned my motives. And there are times when I’ve slipped and I haven’t. That’s when I ended up doing and saying things I regret later.

If you’re going to write about yourself, you have to look at [those moments]. Especially for me, I’ve spent so much time writing songs like, [points finger at imaginary person], “You did this, and you did this!” Which I still do, but I’m older now and it’s boring to think that way. It doesn’t do me any good. It’s just going to keep me in the same place. I’ve got to start taking responsibility for some of the things I’ve done.

How do you find the line between questioning your motives and being overly self-critical?
I don’t think I do find that line. That’s also probably why it’s so hard, because if I’m going to allow myself to go to the extremes and get angry at other people, then I should allow myself to go to the extremes and get angry at myself. And then I can go, “Wait, that’s too far.” You should forgive yourself. If I’ve got Anti-Fiona talking to Pro-Fiona, I also need the Mediator Fiona to be like, “Okay, that’s too far, Anti-. Let’s look at the truth here.” But I don’t even know if I’ve successfully called myself out on this record enough.

What do you need to be called out for?
I don’t know. I’m finding this question interesting, and I shouldn’t even be wanting to answer it. I think I can hold a grudge. Even though I think I don’t hold a grudge, a lot of times I do. But then again, wait a second — no, I only hold grudges against shit that was really wrong. So no, I guess I don’t really hold grudges. It’s just like, having these conversations with yourself. I’m sorry. I’m doing really terribly at this right now.

You’re doing great. Have you gotten better or worse since you were younger about finding the balance between pro- and anti-Fiona?
I have gotten better. When I was around 18, 19, I was in a pretty good place of feeling like I knew myself, and no matter what other people said about me, I was okay. From the time I was 20, for the next few years, that got broken down. I started to get down on myself. Nowadays, I try to remember who I was before all this started. For the most part, I think I’ve gotten better. I hope.

It seems like you have a lot of clarity about who you are and what you want to say.
I have a lot of clarity. The music is the manifestation of the process of trying to acknowledge things in order to get over them. What angers me about so many people, many of them men, is they will not acknowledge the things they’ve done. There’s no reason to cancel anybody as long as they can own up to the things they’ve done, examine them, and share their wisdom so that other people may not feel so alone in being a bit of an asshole — because everybody is sometimes. Help people understand why they do things and help people find ways to make it right. Part of me wishes I had done something terrible to someone just so that I could be the example of somebody who stands up and says, “Look, you know what? I was really fucked up during this time, and I did some shit I am not proud of. And you know what? I’ve been thinking about it. This is why I was doing that, this is what I was getting out of doing that. And this is why now that wouldn’t work for me, because I have moved beyond that. I have looked at it, I have listened to people, and I have learned, and that wouldn’t satisfy me anymore because I’ve grown. I’m a different person.” But nobody is willing to acknowledge things and just say, “I fucked up really bad, but that’s not who I am.”

That also speaks to the Seeding Sovereignty thing — the reason why the album cover says “This album was made on unceded Tongva and Mescalero Apache and Suma territories.” I know this is jumping subjects, but to me it’s tied together. These are people who are an afterthought. They got $2 billion in the stimulus, which is more than they’ve gotten before, but it’s not going to be enough. They are so dependent on their elders and on each other to maintain their culture. This is a really, really dangerous time for them.

So I wanted to acknowledge the lands. How are we ever going to be able to heal and join communities and be respectful of each other if we can’t acknowledge the simple truth that this is not our land? Not acknowledging things is nothing less than disrespectful.

Photo: Zelda Hallman

This reminds me of how you wrote a letter to Louis C.K. after the accusations came out against him, asking him to be more gracious in his response.
I don’t think I said gracious, and I don’t want to get into always talking about these men, but with Louis C.K., he did say that I can talk about whatever I want to talk about. I know he’s got such a great brain and he understands why he did that shit. I feel robbed that he’s not giving us what he thinks about that. And the fact that he’s complaining about the money he lost, and that tired joke of, “Hey, how’s everybody’s 2020? Did everybody have a great year?” That was a bad joke when it was done the first time, but it’s not even a joke. The one thing I will say about that situation is that the women he harassed continue to be harassed by his little bros. By the little Louis bros. Fuck you, Louis bros. And fuck him for not even just acknowledging that. And for the record, he didn’t apologize.

I wrote a song a long time ago, “Get Gone,” and it says something like, “How am I going to heal from this — he won’t admit to it” — and this is what I mean. I can’t tell you how many men have advised me not to apologize because “it makes you look weak.” [Louis] recently said something like, “Women are really good at seeming like they’re okay when they’re not okay.” And that’s true, but don’t you fucking act like their discomfort and not-okay-ness wasn’t exactly what got you off. I am a very forgiving person. But I cannot forgive someone who cannot acknowledge what needs to be forgiven.

What is it like acknowledging things about yourself in public?
I think I’m used to it. I don’t think I know any different. I can recognize it enough to be a little bit creeped out by it — the fact that I do tend to open up way too much. But I’m okay. I feel weird, obviously. Nowadays, it’s totally different because of the internet. The last time I put out a record, I wasn’t even aware that people were talking on the internet about things. Now, I’m aware that people are talking on the internet and aware enough so that I actively do not look. Knowing there will be people talking about me at all — it’s very uncomfortable. So it seems stupid I would put out an album. But this is what I know how to do.

When I was doing research on your press, it struck me that for most of your career, it was men reviewing and interviewing you. I’m wondering what that was like for you — to always be interpreted through the prism of the male perspective.
Well, I’m not as keen to talk to men as I am to women. I don’t mean that overall. But in general, if you’re going to give me a choice to talk to somebody I don’t know, I’d rather it be a woman. Just because our understanding is very different than men’s understanding. The point of putting albums out for me is to measure my progress against these things I’ve done before. Right now, I’m going to see how I can take care of myself in these early days — [measure] how I do press, even. That’s a way for me to take care of myself: what I say yes to and what I say no to.

I think about the situations I was put in [back then]. You’re talking to somebody, and you know they don’t get what you’re talking about, and you know they’re going to misinterpret it, but you’re still in this interview and you’ve got to act like you’re in the conversation. Then you walk away knowing that guy is going to interpret me to the world in a way I’m not going to agree with. I don’t feel like I need to put myself in that position at all anymore. I don’t need to run around and hustle. I’m angry, for me, for that time. If I had had more female friends, I would’ve been a lot better off. I would’ve been able to defend and express myself better. But I didn’t. I was pretty isolated. And not isolated with the right kind of people. So I took it all to heart and I took everything those people said to heart. That fucked me up for a long time and still fucks me up.

It does seem like you’ve healed your relationships with women because you have so many close female friends now. And you live with your friend Zelda.
I know. Once I opened up the door to that, it just exploded, and now I’ve got a lot of women friends. I was never closed off to relationships with women. Once I got signed, I was on a bus with 11 men for two years. It was just me and 11 men, who were all, like, 15 years older than me, for two years. And you hear 11 men talking about women around you all the time, it starts to feel weird to talk to women yourself. Because you start seeing them in the ways that the guys are describing them. You want to be one of the guys. So, if they start talking about a girl, you maybe start talking about her in the same way. But I was never closed off to talking to women; I just didn’t meet a lot of them.

It really is infuriating to think of the way you were perceived and written about at that time.
There’s an example, I don’t know exactly what magazine it was. I think it might’ve been The Face. There’s a picture of me, and I’ve got all this black makeup on, and I’ve got short hair for some reason, and I’m going like this [makes angry face] in the camera. The reality of that situation was when I saw that picture, I was like, “What the fuck?” Because I had no idea I had that makeup on my eyes. They chopped off my hair in post for some weird reason, and then somebody came up to me to touch up my eyes, but I didn’t know that they were blotting me with all this black stuff.

Photo: sauliusst/ebay and The Face

It’s not such a big deal, it’s not a terrible look, but it’s just an example of how things went then. I can sit there and take a picture and then they’ll Photoshop me later so I don’t even look like myself, or they’ll put something on me to make me look like I’m mad and crying, and I don’t understand that there’s something in my eyes.

How do you balance those feelings with the ability to remain open, to have a conversation like this?
I’m not going to put myself in a position where I’m trusting somebody I have no knowledge about to interpret me for the world. I know you, I trust you, I’ve talked to you before. I know your heart is good. I know you’re a good writer. This early-release thing was great because I thought, I’m not going to have to do all the press that I don’t want to do, all this stuff that was making me drag my feet. TV appearances, radio stuff, photo shoots. I don’t have to do all that stuff. And the record’s done. There are people who are alone at home or people who are not alone, who are at home with abusive partners or with people they just can’t stand. Maybe they need to put on some headphones as an excuse to get away from those people, and maybe the music can help them get out their feelings inside that they want to scream at these people. So it just seemed very logical to me to put it [the album] out early.

Once we decided to release it early, it was like, “We’re going to need the art and the lyrics really fast.” David Garza did [the cover art]. I just sent him that one little center picture, which I had taken two or three years ago and put in a little file in my phone, as the cover photo. That happened for Extraordinary Machine, too, with the picture of the flower on the front. That face is very much me. I just wanted to be like, “Hey, guess what? I’m back! Here are some songs. Want to listen to the music, huh? Hi, hi, hi, hi.” It just seemed like me.

When did you make the decision to change the release date from October to this week?
When they sent me the rollout and it said October, I was like, “Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I’m not sitting on that until October.” It seems stupid to be like, “We’re going to wait until October so that I can have the chance to do TV shows and somehow ensure that I’m going to be on the charts.” That’s not going to fucking happen. They’re not going to play me on the radio anyway. I’m not going to go and ask for it. I don’t want to go and ask anybody to put me on their show. I don’t want to ask anybody to put me on the radio. I don’t want to ask anybody anything. If they want me, they can have me if they ask. But I don’t want to ask anybody if I can have the pleasure of being invited.

I’m glad I [argued to change the release date] on a text chain — I had no phone conversations — because now I can just look back forever and see all the arguments I made. Just knocking down all of the arguments that were made against me, like, “But you can’t do this, figure it out.” [I’d reply], “Fuck that. This is why that doesn’t matter, this is why that doesn’t happen.” I was so proud of myself.

“I did this makeup because of The Face photoshoot, where they smudged by eyes without my knowing — I did it to myself!” Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Apple

How long was that text chain? Was that argument going on for days or was it quick?
It was two days of light argument. But it was like how they do those fake debates for politicians to prepare. My manager was telling me all the things the record company would have a problem with. And I was trying to help him make the case. It was great. I like playing lawyer sometimes. But then, because of the way things are, I got invited on all these TV shows and all these radio shows and to do all these other articles and stuff. At first I was like, Oh, I should say yes to all this stuff, because it’s just burned in my head from early on: “I should say yes because otherwise bad stuff will happen and no one will listen to your record and everyone will say bad things about you.” But then it felt really good to be like, You know what? No. First of all, with the TV shows, how am I supposed to perform? I don’t have my band together, and I don’t want to do some dinky version of it after all these years. If it’s still around when everything’s over and they invite me back, I’d like to go on with my band. But for now, it’s not really safe to do any rehearsals, so I don’t want to do any of that. But it feels really good to be like, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.

You’ve earned that.
Yeah, I feel like I have. And I like honoring the 18-to-20-year-old me by not doing the things she didn’t want to do. I like honoring her by saying the shit she was told not to say.

If there is a cohesive statement you’re trying to make with this album, what is it?
“Fetch the bolt cutters” is probably the theme of it. I know in The New Yorker piece it says something like, “It’s about not being afraid to speak,” but it’s more than that. It’s about breaking out of whatever prison you’ve allowed yourself to live in, whether you built that prison for yourself or whether it was built around you and you just accepted it. For me, it could be many things — including breaking out of this image that the world told me I was and that I actually believed. That’s the sad part.

The image they painted of me is actually part of my belief about myself, and I can’t help that. But I’m going to kick it in the face as much as I can going forward. And also for me personally, I’ve been scared of what people think of me, I’ve been afraid of trying to make an effort because people will say I look stupid doing it. I love being in my house, but I’m not going to stay here out of fear anymore.

When this social distancing is over, are you planning on changing that specific part of your life?
It’s not like I’m going to go out and have a party. That’s not really me, but a little more, yeah. When I was a kid, all I wanted was to go out and do things and be with my friends. And since I wasn’t invited or because I was told I was too intense to be friends with, I learned to make that my comfort place. Sometimes that goes for depression too, like in my song “Heavy Balloon.” You get dragged down to the bottom so many times that it just seems like that’s the safest place to be. Otherwise, people are kicking you down there. You might as well just stay down there and make a home because it’s safer here. At least this way, I don’t have to feel the way down all the time. It’s no way to live. So I guess the message in the whole record is just: Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you’re in, whatever it is that you don’t like. Even if you can’t do it physically.

How did you arrive at this mental space?
I know a lot of it has to do with stopping drinking. I was keeping myself in a stupor so I wouldn’t have to deal with things and keeping myself drunk so I could be able to pretend certain things. That’s a big thing that happens if you’re a heavy drinker. If it’s an everyday thing and then you stop, so many memories come back. You didn’t even realize what you were trying to push down until you stop pushing it down. It all comes out and then you’re like, “Oh fuck, give me the vodka again.” It’s hard, but I feel so much more sure of myself because I’m sober.

How long have you been sober for?
Is it two or three years? I don’t know. Two years maybe.

I noticed this album feels less heavy and melancholy than your earlier work.
That is the sound of somebody who has broken out a little bit. Who’s breaking the windows and the doors in order to get some air. Instead of the person who’s just walking into their own fog of their own perfume, smelling the same thing over and over again. I had been texting with Mark Romanek actually about maybe doing a video again, and he wanted to know what my slowest, saddest song was. And I was like, “Wow, actually there’s nothing.” Maybe the first song is the slowest. Other than that, there are not really any soft songs. Most of them are pretty uptempo.

It’s also your funniest album.
Wordplay is fun and funny, so I think I’ve probably gotten more adventurous with wordplay maybe. My mom is big on wordplay. We had a game where you’d take a big word and make a false dictionary entry for it. I remember my two I was proud of as a teenager: “Catastrophe.” It was an award that you got for your feline’s ass, for a feline’s posterior. “Scarlet” was a diminutive wound with Hollywood aspirations. Like a starlet. That’s the kind of shit my mom and I would play.

I don’t really think of myself as funny, but I laugh a lot. I laugh a fucking lot. I’ve been having laughing fits like I haven’t had in my life, ever, in the past couple of weeks. Zelda and I are just like, Oh my God. I started cracking myself up, because we play this older, younger sibling thing — she’s an older sibling, and I’m a younger sibling. And so she’s always trying to be mean to me in funny ways, and I’m always trying to poke the bear and I’ll crack myself up. I’ll be in tears, just thinking about annoying her in some way.

We’re all a little slap-happy in quarantine.
I guess so, except that it’s no different than normal life for us.

I was going to ask! Does it feel any different?
We’re always quarantined together.

Obviously, no one knows what’s going to happen down the line, but do you think you’ll still tour if you can?
Yeah, if I can, I definitely will. But it’s going to be crazy once everybody’s allowed to tour. There’s not going to be much room. Us theater performers are going to be fighting for that space.

How have you been spending your time during quarantine?
I’m taking Hindi on Duolingo. And Spanish because I feel like everybody should probably learn Spanish. And Hindi because my friend Nalini speaks Hindi with her family. So I thought maybe I’ll start doing that. Learning a new alphabet makes my brain so happy. I’m actually able to read in Hindi.

How long have you been doing it?
Just a couple weeks. But I’m doing really well at it.

Okay, this is a weird question, but do you think you’re a genius? Who learns to read Hindi in a few weeks?
[Laughs loudly] Not like I can read all of it. But I can read, “Julia and Peter are coming from India. And Niha and her father are going to America tomorrow … Niha’s cow is bigger than my cow.” I didn’t know how my brain was going to handle a new alphabet until I tried it. But I feel like I could study languages for the rest of my life and be really happy, honestly.

You seem at peace in a lot of ways. Would you say you’re happy?
I’m happy right now. Although it’s not so important to me what happens because of this album, it is important to me the way I handle how I’m presented. In the past, so much stuff would happen that just wasn’t me. Which is excruciating, if the whole reason you were doing anything was to be understood in the first place, you know?

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Text from Apple later on: “One time when I was a kid, an adult told me I had the heart of a scorpion. They said this to describe my selfishness. I looked up what a scorpion’s heart looks like, and I was so delighted to learn that a scorpion’s heart is not just a little crumpled fist, but a whole-body-spanning organ. A “tubular” heart. I see the band, including me, as this kind of heart. Not each to their own chamber. Or maybe we are like frogs (the kind under horses’ hooves), in that the action of us coordinating together to move forward is what combats the gravity that would otherwise slow our horse down. By pumping life back through its body with every step, every strike, every strum, every hug.” Fiona named the song and the album after a line spoken by Gillian Anderson in the Belfast detective series The Fall. Read the full story behind the song “Shameika.” Text from Fiona later on: “Elementary-school girls… are my only recurring dream, and usually in my dreams, they are all angry with me, but lately, I’ve been dreaming about them and they’re all just sitting with me, not saying anything, and it’s peaceful.” In her New Yorker profile, Apple explained that she “doesn’t consider herself an alcoholic, but for years she drank vodka alone, every night, until she passed out.” Apple told the New Yorker she began experiencing serious mood swings in December 2019, and had been prescribed an antipsychotic for her night terrors; the dosage was “way too high,” she said. CK and Apple dated briefly; in the New Yorker profile, she says that after she heard about the accusations of sexual assault against him, she sent him a note encouraging him to “dig deeper,” but ultimately found his response “weak.” Mark directed Fiona’s iconic and long-debated “Criminal” video.
Allow Fiona Apple to Reintroduce Herself