December 18, 2020 at 7:15 am #1203929231
Fiona Apple on the album of the year, Grammys hypocrisy and how #MeToo helped her get sober
Over two interviews and more text messages, our artist of the year unpacks her album Fetch the Bolt Cutters – and explains how she finally found compassion for herself after trauma and bullying.
The Guardian’s No 1 album of 2020: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
The album has meant so much to people this year. Did you know you had made something extraordinary? Did finishing it feel different to finishing other records?
Not really. The big feeling I have with records is: it’s there, it feels right. With this record we had a couple of stops in between. I started everything over once and then over again feeling like it wasn’t going in the right direction. There were times when I felt, I love all the work that we’ve been doing and I don’t regret any of the time that we spent, but maybe I just don’t wanna deal with this. Maybe I’m in a good place to call it quits and go live a different kind of life. But then it started feeling right. I didn’t have any idea that it was gonna be loved so much. It’s at this level right now, it’s almost too much attention. I feel like it’s gotten just the right amount of attention and I’m really happy with it.
What convinced you to put it out? Did you think it would help other people?
I hoped that. It’s a hard thing to tell yourself: But people might need me! Any time I put down the songs or put down my writing or my singing, Zelda [Hallman, Apple’s housemate] would say: “There are people out there that this is gonna mean a lot to.” And it would have been a shitty thing to do to the band. You either go forward or you go back, and going back isn’t a choice. It would be so against my nature to make something and say something and then not share it.
It’s a noisy and unconventional record, yet it sounds so welcoming. Was that important to you when you came up with the sound?
I can’t say anything was really important to me. I don’t feel like I came up with the sound, for instance. I used whatever was around me that I liked, and then Sebastian [Steinberg, bass] and David [Garza, percussion] and Amy [Aileen Wood, drums] decided whatever they were gonna play, and so we all designed the sound together but not with any kind of philosophy behind it. I would love it to be welcoming. I feel like some of the songs are pretty accessible. I think that’s why I was worrying about how it was gonna be received: did I really put a lot of effort into this? I didn’t pore over each sentence or every vocal. In the past I’ve wanted that. This time, because it was me by myself a lot, or me and the band by ourselves, there was so little self-consciousness that I wasn’t judging myself or trying to improve certain things. So when it was all done, it seemed as impressive as if I had just belched. But how could that have been if it had all these stops and starts? It’s funny how you forget about the times when you were like, this sucks and I have to stop this and I can’t ever put anything out again and I hate everything I’ve said and I hate how I sound.
When was the last time you slammed the brakes? What brought you back?
It was right before I started [recording] in my house. I [had been] with the band and I could feel myself swallowing my own opinions. I was feeling really unsure of myself and I needed to say that out loud in order to stop swallowing my opinions. When I learned how to do GarageBand everything really opened up. I was able to spend hours doing things by myself. That was the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed recording. Part of me wants to pull the Taylor Swift and re-record old songs to see how I would do them now. I wonder how I would have enjoyed my whole career if I’d been able to do it by myself.
Often when a woman makes uninhibited music, it’s dismissed as a primal scream instead of being credited with any intention. You say you made no effort but it feels so considered. How do you account for where it came from?
The effort I made was mostly in setting up the right environment and getting to a place where – it sounds strange to say – I could believe myself as I was performing. Most of the effort was a motherly kind of effort to myself. Letting myself take the time that I needed to think. There is a lot of effort and thought put into something that may come out as a primal scream ’cause you’re giving yourself the conditions to be able to scream and have it sound welcoming. It’s an effort to get out of my own way. There was no point that I thought about a part I was gonna sing before I sang it. I would put on a song and sing along [recording] to a track, then sing along to another track until I had, like, 10 tracks. Only then would I unmute them all and take out the parts that weren’t working, then notice the parts that were working. The effort comes down to every teeny decision in the production, zeroing in after the fact.
Were you surprised by any of the lyrics that came out?
I really was not sure if I was gonna put For Her on the record. I did so many versions, not even recording. It was really hard to even perform. My heart’s starting to beat really fast just thinking about it. It’s about another woman and in a way it’s about Christine Blasey Ford [who alleged that US supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her, which he denies] – and it’s also about me. I didn’t realise how much I was needing that song. I thought I was really writing it for other people. Then one time I was singing by myself and I happened to be standing on a mini trampoline. I was up at eye level with this picture frame and the sun was shining on it so I could see my reflection rather than the picture. I caught my reflection when I sang the line, “You raped me [in the same bed your daughter was born in]”, and I broke down, fell down on the trampoline. But it felt great. I felt like I finally believed myself! That seems like a strange thing to say but a lot of people go through things they’re convinced didn’t happen, or [think] that they made something happen. In that moment I understood what it was for – it’s really for anybody to have those words and feel validated. Even if no one else believes you, even if you’ve not believed yourself, even if you still don’t believe yourself, let me give you these words to sing and at some point you’re gonna feel it and you’re gonna have compassion for yourself, finally, hopefully.
That was one of the most jarring effects of the early days of #MeToo – being confronted with a memory you hadn’t let yourself see for what it was.
I think it’s one of the big reasons why I stopped drinking. With everything that was going on in the news, everything that I’d been burying under drink – and for a time drugs, but mainly drink – for many years, you couldn’t just bury it any more. It was poking through but I was so numbed that I couldn’t really understand what was poking through. I finally felt like, I gotta be clear-eyed now, I have to face this shit. I think of myself all these years as someone who speaks honestly and faces all this stuff but no, no, no, no. Not really. It’ll be a battle for ever for all of us to keep on facing all that stuff.
Was there a moment where you thought: I’ve got to stop?
I submitted to signing something that would silence me and I felt like that was the last way that I was gonna allow myself to be hurt.
When you were improvising vocals, were there any moments where you felt you couldn’t quite break through or find the clarity you were looking for?
“I used to go to the Ferris wheel [every morning / Just to throw my anger out the door].” I was starting something but I never picked up on it. It seems like what I was trying to say is: it’s a lot of work to try to forgive. And I’m really trying. I think I was thinking of all the different ways throughout my life that I’ve tried to not fall into despair and rage – because it’s so scary sometimes to get so angry. Especially if you’re somebody who turns your anger in on yourself, it’s dangerous to be angry sometimes. People lay their shit on you and they walk away and you’re left with mountain after mountain to climb, trying to figure out how to be in the world and manage all this rage. I think I didn’t complete it because there’s something wordless about it, about going to the Ferris wheel, the ritual of going to the water, which I feel like I’ve been doing now for about 20 years. I imagine that in the water, it holds all of the wisdom and all of the sense of the universe, and I’m trying to connect with that and find my place in it. There’s going to be different iterations of that for me for the rest of my life. We’re always forever going through these cycles where we’re getting rid of toxins and unlearning lies and finding a way to come through and be at peace with yourself and at peace with other people.
I wanted to ask about the line: “I thought that being blacklisted would be grist for the mill.”
That was improvised. I didn’t feel like I’d been blacklisted in my career. I want to be completely honest but I can’t because I have to fucking protect people that I don’t even like. I can’t really explain what that means. It was more personal – a group of people deciding that they were going to side with the more powerful one. I got shut out of some friendships. I felt like that would make me stronger and make me find my own people but it actually just made me feel like I couldn’t make friends, or like there was no hope for me to be invited to the parties. It’s impossible to talk about.
Have you often seen powerful people being protected like that?
Some people questioned whether the song Shameika perpetuates “Black saviour” tropes. Had you anticipated that?
I get that, but it didn’t occur to me because that was the truth – Shameika did say I had potential. It was a true sentence and I really like when true things sound pretty. I was pretty sure there was a Shameika at the school and this had happened, but I question my memories – I question my memory even about having been raped. If I had thought of that I probably wouldn’t have put it out because I would have been afraid that that was how it was coming off. The song is also about nice things that other people have said. Sebastian saying I’m “a good man in a storm” was one of the high points in my life. Nobody saw me that way – they thought that I was the storm. So for Sebastian, who knows me really well, to say that, I felt seen. That’s the kind of thing I wanna believe about myself. And then Tony saying: “You’re pissed off, funny and warm” – that’s a really great compliment, I wanna see myself that way. That made me think back to this memory – any time I felt like the girls that I wanted to be friends with didn’t wanna be friends with me and I wanted to feel like there was somebody on my side, this girl leaning on the table and saying this to me would pop up in my head.
I like that you sing “I hadn’t found my own voice yet” about yourself as a kid who believed what mean girls said about you, yet you wrote the chorus to Relay when you were 15. You did have a voice.
You could say, more accurately, I had found my voice but I had forgotten that I found it, or I had found my voice but stopped hearing it for a while. I think that happens throughout life. That is maybe why you can write songs about yourself for ever because you cycle through the same things over and over but you’re seeing it a little more clearly every time.
After you made your famous speech at the MTV awards in 1997, you said you wanted to show girls that it was OK not to have your shit together.
I don’t even think I really meant that. I was being told that I didn’t have my shit together and so I took that on, like: oh, I’m a mess. It’s like when I wrote Fast As You Can and Paper Bag, “I’m a mess he doesn’t wanna clean up” – I’m just reiterating things that guys have told me and I frown at that now. Even though I knew what I meant [at the MTV awards] and I knew that the people who needed to hear it understood it – and fuck the rest of them – there were people around me saying: “That made you look really stupid.” And so then I had to go: “Oh yeah, that was me showing everybody you don’t have to have your shit together, ha ha.”
That [speech] was a huge moment in my life that I will never, ever regret, and that I have never regretted, no matter how embarrassed I might have been by it at a certain point. I knew it was one of those moments where you have to be a really good parent to yourself and go: “This is a time you can get out there and just say it, you have to because if you don’t do it now you set a precedent for yourself at these things. You shut up your entire life at school, you took all this shit and you were quiet, look how it made you feel. You’re at this thing right now, this magnified high school class and now you got a chance to go up and say something? Don’t be shy. No matter how it comes out, just let it come out.” So I’m really glad that I did that and I think that that set me on a good path.
Did people telling you that you didn’t have your shit together change how you saw yourself or acted?
Yeah. There was one person that was telling me how stupid I looked all the time and how they used to think I was cool, but then when they saw [the speech] they thought I was stupid. This person would tell me that people called him up to tell him how stupid I looked when I was dancing at a party that I went to with him. I was really internalising that: the whole world thinks I’m stupid. That was the word: stupid. It wasn’t even a creative thing to say. But for a while, I felt embarrassed about everything. I’m still kind of fighting that.
Was it someone you worked with? Someone you dated?
I don’t feel I can answer that.
Now people see you standing for something totally different – having perspective and answers on life, being centred. Do you have to adapt how you see yourself? Are you comfortable being seen that way?
Thank you for asking that. No! I feel really silly doing these interviews and when it seems like I’ve got this philosophy about things and I’ve got answers. I like myself but I don’t think that I’m smarter or more evolved than anybody else.
[Later, by text] I feel like all of my answers are just possible answers. There’s often so much more – or less – to it. Something that has become clear in talking so much recently is that I really don’t think I thought about any of this or thought it through. It’s like trying to make prose out of poetry and you end up messing up the meaning by adding too much around it, by explaining it.
For years you have talked about being a good parent to yourself, which must have been a response to being surrounded by people who did not have your best interests at heart. When did you start thinking that way?
It probably started when I volunteered at UCLA. [In 2000 Apple assisted on the children’s occupational therapy ward as part of her own treatment for OCD.] We weren’t allowed to know if the kids had autism or OCD or came from an at-risk home. But I could recognise some of their rituals – I remember a little girl methodically taking out all the bugs from the pool and putting them in one little spot under a tree. We would do outdoor trips and I would get paired up with this little girl. She didn’t use words. She would just stare at me, looking in my eyes. I remember sitting on the bus with her and pretending she was my daughter. Being in the sort of motherly role made me feel like I was mothering myself, in a way. Which I was – I was there to help myself. I was not a nurse volunteer, I was a patient volunteer. I took it really seriously, I really loved being there. That was nine months, the perfect gestation period for me to become my own mother!
After that, what’s something you would do for yourself that you hadn’t done before?
Just take myself out of the situation that I was in and pretend that I was my parent and see what I would say about it then. I once heard that the way you want to feel about the world is like how a grandparent feels about everybody. You’re a little bit removed. You see things with love. Maybe it was more like trying to be like a grandmother to myself.
‘I know more than anybody how hard this stuff is for me.’
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is your first record since you were a teenager that explicitly considers your childhood. Had you previously thought much about how experiences you had as a kid affected you?
I’ve always thought about it. I may have felt a little silly writing about it. There’s a part of you that makes you feel like you should get over it. That’s another thing in my mind that was put in there: “You should be over this stuff by now, it’s so boring to be in pain about that stuff.” I thought for a while that if I were to talk about anything that got to me when I was a kid, it would make me seem like I was not growing. But I think it may take getting to that grandparent stage to see your early life in a way that helps you actually grow or that makes you feel compassion for yourself as a kid – or for yourself now.
Are you still on the contract that you signed as a teenager?
I think so. I think I have one more record. I’d like to do a record of cover songs soon. It would be fun, though I don’t think it would count for my contract. I had those feelings after I’d been on tour with the Watkins Family Hour. I love playing with them. And we always play covers. I was thinking about wanting to do more of that kind of thing. I would be really open to suggestions and then I’d just pick and choose what I liked.
In the mid-2000s, your fans launched the Free Fiona campaign to get Epic to release your delayed album Extraordinary Machine. There’s echoes of Free Fiona in the Free Britney movement and in Taylor Swift’s battle to control her music. Are you surprised to see artists still having to fight for autonomy? Do you feel a kinship with them?
Absolutely. I am so on board for Taylor Swift re-recording her songs and I want them to outperform those old recordings. It’s nice to know that the Swifties [her fans] will make that happen. As much as the Swifties terrify me, I respect their power for doing good for her! I was so terrified that I was going to be nominated for [Grammys] album of the year along with Taylor Swift, I’m so relieved [I’m not] because I didn’t wanna get bullied! Britney Spears, I don’t know too much about. Also, I’m bringing up the Grammys and that’s really something that I shouldn’t be doing, but really, Dr Luke is nominated [under pseudonym Tyson Trax]? They had [Kesha] up there singing Praying [a song about her alleged experiences of abuse by Dr Luke, which he denies; Kesha’s case was dismissed in 2016 and the producer is suing her for defamation and breach of contract] and now they’re gonna go: “Oh but it’s Tyson Trax!” I’m waiting to hear more about what Deborah Dugan [former Recording Academy president] has to say [about the culture at the Recording Academy] because that all reeks to me. When you hire somebody and they raise questions and then they get fired? There’s a lot of things that she brought up that make it so that I can’t vet that situation and I don’t really wanna go there and support it.
You’re up for best rock performance, and all the nominees in that category are women for the first time. That feels like an easy PR win.
I immediately had this feeling: I wish I was in a room with these ladies and we could celebrate. I felt really nice for a second. Every week I send a selfie to Simon, who runs the Tumblr site on me. I thought, for that week’s selfie, I’m gonna make a T-shirt with everybody’s names in little hearts: Phoebe [Bridgers], Brittany [Howard], Danielle, Este, Alana [Haim], Adrienne [Lenker, Big Thief], Grace [Potter]. But then I threw it away. I felt like this is exactly what they want me to do: It’s better now! I got nominated! And it’s all women this year and the Grammys are great! I keep going back to them putting Kesha on stage like, “We believe you” – and I believe her – then two years later, fucking Tyson Trax. Not to go back to that word, but it’s bullshit. The feeling of wanting to celebrate with these women was genuine. But I should have that feeling anyway. I don’t know if anybody who’s nominated can help having the thought: what would I do If I won? My vision was that I would just get up there with a sledgehammer and I wouldn’t say anything, I would take the Grammy and smash it into enough pieces to share and I would invite all the ladies up. My second thought was I wonder if I can get all these ladies to boycott this shit because of Dr Luke.
You recently said the album was making you feel much better about yourself. How has it done that?
It shouldn’t be like this but I think it’s feeling recognised and appreciated and not being trashed or misunderstood. I feel proud of myself – I’m taking care of myself, I’m taking care of my career and I’m managing things well. I know more than anybody how hard this stuff is for me. There’s been a lot of anxiety and seriously feeling like I cannot do this job but then a lot of outright joy and relief that I actually did put out the album. Something I think about is: if it hadn’t been well received, it would have been the same album, and would I still have felt joy and freedom and satisfaction? I don’t know that I would, and that troubles me. I’m happy that I feel respected in a way that I wasn’t before but it also messes with your idea of yourself.
It’s hard to disconnect from validation.
It is, and I don’t know how we get out of letting other people tell us who we are.December 18, 2020 at 9:49 am #1203929773
Bravo! I’m glad someone is speaking out about the hypocrisy of the Grammys nominating Dr. Luke this year.
Sad that this pretty much confirms she will not be performing though.December 18, 2020 at 11:31 am #1203930238
Did no one else mention that Dr. Luke thing? They weren’t supposed to discuss anything but the music under the new policy, so that could be it. But it still sticks out to me.December 18, 2020 at 11:40 am #1203930255
Swifties developed quite a reputation lol.
She said she’s relieved she’s not in AOTY because she doesn’t wanna be bullied by them.December 18, 2020 at 2:54 pm #1203930886
I don’t agree on Dr. Luke. He’s a terrible person, but I don’t think “Say So”‘s Grammy chances should depend on something not related to the music directly. The BRP wasn’t allowed to speak on anything that wasn’t the music as well, so it makes sense.December 18, 2020 at 8:30 pm #1203931562
She’s scared of Taylor Swift fans? I can’t.December 18, 2020 at 9:51 pm #1203931705
I mean she’s not entirely wrong concerning the Swifties. There definitely would have been a percentage of them coming at her rack. Some were attacking her just for because ‘Fetch’ is more acclaimed and got a higher MC score.December 19, 2020 at 3:04 am #1203932077
#SwiftiesLoveFionaApple trended yesterday.
Swifties are very supportive of other artists. Fiona Apple doesn’t have Social Media, but she could see the posts.
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