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The Story Behind Every Track on Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple reached into the past to confront her rapist, middle-school bullies, and herself.

Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Apple

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is like nothing Fiona Apple has done before, but the album is still recognizable as something only she could create. It’s purposefully unvarnished, a raw export from the inside of her brain: Her voice stretches and loops, morphing into Vipassana chants and spooky, surreal yelps; in the middle of one song, she messes up and mutters, “Ah, fuck, shit”; in another, she laughs as her dog, Mercy, licks her face.

Lyrically, Apple reaches into her past to confront middle-school bullies and looks into her future for an imaginary lover. She directly addresses women who have been abused by the same man who abused her. She gets mad about a missing drum set.

Here, she walked us through the genesis of — and meaning behind — each song on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. (Read our full interview with Apple here.)

“I Want You to Love Me”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

This started as a love song to somebody I hadn’t met yet. Then I got back together with Jonathan [Ames] in 2015, and it became about him for a while. Then we broke up about a year later, so it wasn’t about him anymore. Which is how these things go. The songs change who they’re about a lot.

It came out of the time I’d spent doing a lot of meditation, thinking about the nature of things. That whole thing of, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Yes, it does. Because a vibration happens. Whether or not you’re there to hear it. I exist whether or not you see me. These things about me are true whether or not you acknowledge them. That’s at least the second verse.

The line about the pulse — that was the experience I’d had this one day after six days straight of meditating at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, in a group of about 75 women in 2010. I had this throbbing in my head. Then I remembered this advice someone had given me, which was to just surrender — allow yourself to fall through water, stop trying to do anything. And for some reason, I was able to do that, and the throbbing in my head left. But then everybody was throbbing — everything. I’d never had an experience like that, and it’s hard for me to remember what it felt like now, but it’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.

I knew then what life and death was. It’s this pulse. And we all share it, and it sounds so cheesy. But it wasn’t in my head; it was out of it. It was among us all. It was something we were all in together. It was like this place of home, this pulse we would all be in. I felt like I had found it and everything felt so beautiful. I felt like if I opened my eyes, maybe it would disappear. But I opened my eyes and it was still happening. I left the meditation hall, and it was still happening. I walked down the hill, and there were these horses that never paid attention to me. But I felt there was this understanding between us. I felt all of this. And after a while it went away. But I remember that that was there. It changed everything for me. Just knowing, “Okay, no matter what happens, that’s where home is. That’s what the reality is. I know it’s there.”

“Shameika”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

Shameika is real. When I first wrote the song, I was not entirely convinced she existed. Because I have this one memory and it’s a very big memory for me. But maybe I created this person. My third-grade teacher, Linda Kunhardt, was my favorite teacher. I’ve kept in touch with her over the years. She read the New Yorker article, and the next day, she sent me an email saying, “I heard you wrote about Shameika. I can see her …” She sent me a picture of her.

I don’t remember what grade she was in. I was probably 11 or so. I don’t remember why she was talking to me. I just remember being in the cafeteria, a bunch of girls at one end of the table. I came over to sit with them, and they started laughing at me. So I sat one seat away but still tried to be close to them. Shameika came up, and she was like, “Why are you trying to sit with those girls? You have potential.” That was all she said to me. But I had remembered that maybe she was a bully or something. Then I got sent this picture of her, and she’s so cute — she doesn’t look like a bully at all. She’s just got this big smile on her face. But on the piece of paper that Miss Kunhardt sent me, there’s this short essay Shameika had written on the top. And, man, it is amazing. It’s all about how she got put up to do this thing in church, in the service. And everybody was laughing because she was so cute and she messed up words or something. And she was so pissed. She was like, “They used me to bring the people in there, to think it was cute. They used me.” I was like, This little kid realized what the fuck was going on.

I’m terrified to think — what if she’s not a nice person nowadays? Or maybe she hates me or something. I’d be afraid for her to hear it. But I think about that little picture of her. She’s so sweet. 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 having a friend be with me and then having a more popular girl say to that friend, “Okay, you can be friends with Fiona or you can be friends with me. Choose.” And I never got chosen.

On the line, “Sebastian said, ‘I’m a good man in a storm’”:

[My bassist] Sebastian [Steinberg] said that when we were in Marfa, Texas. We almost got arrested for weed possession. We got pulled over, and Sebastian was smoking from an apple in the back, and I kicked into control mode. I was like, “David has brown skin, so he cannot be the one holding the pot. Sebastian has long hair and a long beard; he cannot be the one holding the pot. I’m the little white girl, I need to be holding the pot.” So I said, “Sebastian, eat the apple now, give me the pot.” And I put it in my sock, and he ate this disgusting apple really fast. And then they got us out of the car.

There was a drug dog. They brought us out of the car, and I had the weed in my sock, and they’re so busy talking to the brown man and the hippie guy that they don’t notice that the drug dog is really into my sock. They’re like, “Oh, she’s a white girl. It doesn’t matter. The dog just likes her.” They just wanted to get the guys in trouble. Anyway, we got through that situation, so that’s why Sebastian said that to me. I was like, “Oh, thank you.”

“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

When I wrote this one, we had enough songs for the album and I wasn’t even going to be writing other songs. Then I ended up being like, “Wait, hold on. We’re not done yet. I have another song coming. I have something else to get out.”

The album was going to be called Fetch the Bolt Cutters before I had a song called “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” When I started writing the song I was like, “Is this cheesy to write a song that’s the title?” And I think “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is probably the theme of it. I know in the New Yorker piece it says something like, “What it’s about is 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. The message in the whole record is just: Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation that you’re in — whatever it is that you don’t like.

On the dogs barking at the end:

Cara [Delevingne] and I have been text friends for years. I wanted her to sing the line [“Fetch the bolt cutters”]. She brought her dogs, Leo and Alfie. And so all of our dogs 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.

“Under the Table”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

This was inspired by a particular dinner where there was lots of expensive wine and lots of bragging about things I wouldn’t brag about. I won’t say too much about it, but somebody said something I thought was offensive. It was not the kind of dinner where you’re supposed to call somebody out. But I didn’t want to be there in the first place. So I called the guy out. And may have messed the dinner up a little bit. But I was right. The hiking-boot line is like, “Hey kid, I know you’re using me. Let me make this easier for you, little baby. Okay?” Like, “Fucker, you don’t think I see what you’re doing right now? You think you’re fucking helping me? I know you’re using me. Let me help you use me. Okay?”

On the hiking imagery in several of these songs:

Walking and hiking and marching have always been very important to me for thinking, and also for making music. Leaves fall and I tap the rhythms. Then the rhythms would continue all day. That’s actually a reason why it takes me a long time to make records. If I hear the same thing or if I do the same thing too many times in a row, I won’t stop hearing it. It’s worse than an earworm. It’s like torture. So I have to not let my own work torture me. Because then I get so sick of it; I hit a wall really fast. And once I hit a wall, I’m no good anymore. I’m not going to do any more good work.

“Relay”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

I wrote the line, “Evil is a relay sport, when the one you burn turns to pass the torch” when I was 15. 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. But you can’t stop at praying for them. You have to hold them responsible.

The Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 brought on a lot of shit to deal with. I don’t know what it is, that guy. There are so many of them out there, but that one guy — the fact that he’s on the Supreme Court really is probably the thing, but his fucking attitude is just like — it was the externalized version of what you know a lot of them are feeling inside. Just this indignant, “How could you be mad at me? Don’t make me suffer. But I’m married, but I have kids, so I can’t be a bad guy. But I was just young, don’t be so mean to me, that girl’s being mean to me.” Oh my God. Thank you, fucking Brett Kavanaugh, for letting my anger see the light of day: Thank you for being so horrible.

It’s funny because the 15-year-old me wrote the deeper lyric, and then the 42-year-old me wrote the “Fuck you” to everybody out there acting like your lives are perfect. Basically dealing with all of the 15-year-old kinds of resentments that I would’ve had. “I resent you for being raised right” is funny to me. “I resent you for being tall” is totally petty, but I’d started writing it because of this really terrible thing that had happened and my feelings about guilt and innocence. [On the line “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure”]: I get so pissed off at the idea of influencers because they seem to end up being exactly the people who should not be influencing anybody. I know if I were to get into social media, I would absolutely fall prey to comparing myself to everybody else. The reason I don’t get into it is because I can see what’s happening: Everybody’s comparing themselves to everybody else. It’s really a terrible way to live. People are just trying to fuck with people over the internet.

“Rack of His”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

This song is about at least two relationships. I hardly ever write a song about just one person, but there was one time that I wrote a song that was not a nice song, and it was about one person, and I felt the need to tell that one person and play them that song before it came out, and it went fine. But that’s the only time I ever told somebody. Once someone asked if a song was about them, but it wasn’t about them, so it ended up being a worse answer: “Oh, no, I wasn’t thinking about you. Sorry about that.”

I started writing it years ago, and I did a couple versions. It was problematic because I just didn’t like it. And so I deconstructed it and put it back together. It was very piano driven, and I had written it on the piano when I was very young. It just didn’t fit how I felt anymore. It was a little too bouncy. It was probably fine, but, as my friend Bella would say, “It was not wearing the dress that I wanted it to go to the party in.” So I needed to redress it.

David [Garza, a member of Apple’s band] said something like, “Oh, I did terrible things to that rack of his,” and we were like, “Oh, that’s what the song will be called, ‘I Did Terrible Things to That Rack of His.’” It just made me laugh so much. I was trying to do something with it for over a decade — certain lines would peek out from a notebook, and I’ll be like, Whoa, I know what the next thing to do is, all of the sudden, that I didn’t know ten years ago. I hadn’t been thinking about it for ten years, but if I’m sitting at the piano and I’m like, “Oh, right, there was that thing I played. Oh, I never finished that. Oh, I know what line could come after that.” Sometimes I’ll start something and I just know I don’t know enough to add onto it, so I have to wait until I know enough.

“Newspaper”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

This is also about two specific people. I don’t think they will even be aware of it. This stuff comes out of feeling myself suppressing the urge to reach out to them and be friends. A lot of times when I write songs, it’s because I can’t get through to the person in real life. That’s how it all started, the writing. I would write letters to my parents because they wouldn’t listen to me. I would write letters so they’d have to be quiet until the letter was over, so they wouldn’t interrupt me. If I try to get in touch with somebody and talk through things, and they won’t talk to me, then, sorry, I got to write a song.

When I say, “I don’t think that they’ll be aware of it,” that’s me not getting my hopes up. I don’t expect anything to come from it. I have to express it somehow. I don’t think they’ll hear it, but I have to say it anyway. The tree has to fall, even if no one’s around.

I don’t know why I’d called it “Newspaper,” but that’s what it was named on the file of the percussion orchestra I made. I probably didn’t know what to call the file, and so I probably had a newspaper next to me and just wrote “Newspaper.”

My sister Maude’s vocals are on this, and during her vocals, she was breastfeeding.

“Ladies”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

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 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.

Maude is on “Ladies,” too. She’s singing harmonies, and she wrote one of the background parts. I like the word ladies, and then it just got to be really fun to say it in different ways, being like, “Ladies, ladies, ladies,” and then like, “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” just all these different ways of talking to girls. Like, “Ladies, we better get into it,” and like, “Ladies are so nice.”

On the line “I’m a fruit bat”:

I like fruit bats. I was thinking of like, “Oh, that lady’s bats,” you know? “She’s bats, she’s batty.” When David sent me the written out lyrics, it looked so funny to come in out of nowhere: “Fruit bat!” I had to write a line about myself that was endearing, and that was my version of that: a fruit bat.

“Heavy Balloon”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

The imagery of that one came to me years ago, because a boyfriend of mine was talking to me about his father and his depression. The way he was describing his father moving around the house being weighed down by something made me think, We’re just always trying to keep it up; oh my God, this is not staying off me long enough, I just can’t really move around. It’s this hindrance, this obligation, this constant thing to be taken care of.

On the line “I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans”:

I got that out of a children’s gardening book. Because strawberries are rhizomes, and so they grow in this network sideways, and peas and beans, they climb up, you can put them on trellises and stuff. I’m sure they probably grow other ways too, but that was just a little fact I thought was very, very cute. And uplifting, and like, “I’m all right, it’s okay, don’t worry about me. I’m like strawberries, I’m going to spread myself out and take over this whole garden.”

“Cosmonauts”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

“Cosmonauts” I wrote for Judd Apatow’s 2012 movie, This Is 40. I had recorded it with Jon Brion for the movie, but then he didn’t use it. Then we rerecorded it for this album, and I put a bunch of different vocals on it.

It was a challenge, because he wanted me to write a song about two people who were going to be together forever, and that’s not really a song I’m equipped to write because I don’t know if I want to be together with anybody forever. I guess that’s why I interpreted it as like, “It’s going to be you and me in this little vessel by ourselves in space, except it’s going to weigh a lot more, and you’re going to really get on my nerves.” It’s supposed to be a song about being together forever, and so of course my first line is, “Your face ignites a fuse to my patience.” Like whatever you do, it’s going to be wrong.

I don’t think long-term monogamy is impossible, just because you see it happen. It just depends. Some people are made for it and some people aren’t, and then some people think they aren’t made for it, but then they meet exactly the right person. It’s almost a matter of luck, if your chemistry happens to bump into the chemistry of somebody else, then it might just work, because you react to each other in different ways. I did have hope when I was writing that song, and honestly, there’s absolutely hope that I could find a relationship. But I don’t really want to. I really just don’t want to. I like my life how it is, and I don’t feel very romantic these days.

“For Her”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

“For Her” was a very difficult one to get done because it went through so many changes and it contains so many stories that are not even mine. It’s partly inspired by conversations I had with this woman I knew years ago, when she had been an intern for a film-production company, and she gave me permission to write a song about this. It’s really a song for her. To, in a roundabout way, tell her story that she’s not able to tell. It’s relevant that she started as an intern because that’s why the lyrics are, “It’s a ward’s season, the season of the ward.” She said he always talked about her like she was his “ward,” like he was there to protect her from all of Hollywood’s creeps.

It’s one of those situations where she didn’t consider it rape because of the relationship she had with this person. On top of that, this person was so fucked up that they didn’t know who she was. And so she assumed they didn’t know they had done this to her. She spent years protecting him from the knowledge of that, and in so doing, really hurt herself. She was like, “Did it really happen?” And I was like, “That sounds like it really fucking happened. What you’re describing. Yeah, that’s rape.”

That song was a very difficult one to do, because you don’t want to be too literal, but you also want to put some things in there for this woman so the guy knows she knows. Even though it’s an awkward thing to say in a song — “You raped me” — some people need to say it out loud in order to understand that’s what happened to them. And my hope is that maybe some women and men will be able to sing along with that line and allow it to tell the truth for them. Because sometimes it’s just really hard to say, especially if you don’t want to hurt the person who did it to you. It’s hard to say something that harsh about it. So even though I felt like, Wow, it’s just a clunky thing to put in the middle of a song, I also feel it’ll be important to the people it matters to.

And of course it brings up stuff of my own. It started out me wanting to write something about my own feelings, but it was just too hard. I wanted to make it about not just me but about other people. And this woman really got to me. I spent so much time recording it in different ways until I realized that I needed to have a bunch of other women singing with me on it.

“Drumset”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

Jonathan had broken up with me, and I think I was expecting everybody to break up with me. If he didn’t want to work on things with me, and I know he loves me, then you guys aren’t going to work on things with me either. Because [the band and I] had this little argument and then they took some of their instruments away. I misinterpreted it as that they were pissed at me and that they weren’t going to come back. That was me sitting there going, “Aw, nobody loves me.” Amy didn’t actually take the drums from my house. She took them out, but it’s because she had a gig. I took it to mean everybody was mad at me.

I picked up my phone after my band left, and I sang into it, “The drum set is gone, and the rug it was on is still here, screaming at me.” It’s the same thing I used to do when I was a kid. When I would walk home from school, there was a mirror when I walked in the door where we would hang our keys. I would open up the front door and just sing whatever came to my mind. I often found that would reveal what I was really thinking to myself and it would start me creating things.

Nothing changed in the lyrics from what I sang into the phone, which is why the lyrics are not very poetic. Then we recorded it in one take. I was playing a chair, and we were all sitting in this one corner of my house. There’s a certain part where you can sort of hear me laughing because I’m playing the chair and Mercy comes up to me and starts kissing me while we’re recording. No one else would be able to hear it, but whenever I hear that song, I’ll be able to remember that moment.

Fiona Apple, Amy Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg, and David Garza. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Apple

I really like how that song feels. If I didn’t hear the recording of the song and I just looked at those lyrics, I’d be like, “Oh, I’m not going to put this on my record, this is stupid,” because it was basically belched out. It really was. If I found the voice-mail I sang it into, there would be absolutely no changes in the lyrics. I may have sent a voice-mail to the band right away. I don’t even know if they addressed it because they know me, they kind of were like, “Yeah.”

“On I Go”

Photo: Artwork by David Garza

This was my version of the Vipassana chant that I sang in jail. I sang it during the night just to calm myself down. When we were all in the waiting room, there was a camera and I was stupidly, defiantly, singing towards the camera. It’s not a good idea to have any sarcasm or personality at all when you’re dealing with cops. Just politeness and, “Okay, sir.” As much as it fucking hurts to do it, that’s the lesson.

I don’t remember exactly the meaning of the chant, but it’s fun to sing, and it means that feelings arise and fall away again, and it’s all impermanent. To be at peace with this concept is to be happy. That’s what that song means, but I would start to just sing it while I was hiking. When I walk, I walk on rhythm, and I have to keep that rhythm going for the whole time that I’m walking. It usually means that I end up singing along, at least in my head. Then when I was walking, I started doing that chant, but then … it just stopped meaning so much to me, and I started to make up my own little chant to tell myself what I believed about my life going forward.

What I really wanted it to be about was, there doesn’t have to be any specific meaning or reward or consequence of the things I’m doing. I do them because I enjoy doing them. I do them for the doing of them, not for the results. I’m going to make music for myself, to get myself through things, and not think about what other people think about it. I don’t want to prove anything anymore. That can happen in the long run, but for now I do things because I want to do them, because I like to do them. I don’t do them for any other reason.

There’s no past, there’s no present. It’s not like, “Oh, stay in the present” — it’s just basically, “I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and I’m going to have fun, and I’m going to decide when I’m going to stop doing it, and I’m going to decide when I start doing it.” I’m just going to move to move, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, it doesn’t matter what you think it looks like, it doesn’t matter what you think it means or what I think it means. It’s just happening; it just is. And that’s all right.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.