“With the songs, the writing, the work in the studio,” Fiona Apple says, “this time it was a lot more me-an uninhibited me, a confident me.”
She’s talking, with justifiable pride, of her new album: When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King What He Knows Throws The Blows When He Goes To The Fight And He’ll Win The Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters The Ring There’s No Body To Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand And Remember That Depth Is The Greatest Of Heights And If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where To Land And If You Fall It Won’t Matter, CuzYou’ll Know That You’re Right
That extraordinary title, however, is only a foretaste of the extraordinary music it pro-claims. When The Pawn is soul music of a remarkably ambitious and highly original kind. Impressionistic string arrangements meet funky hip-hop rhythms and syncopa-tions that hearken the spirit of jazz; lyrics of rare truth-telling set up an intimate con-versation between artist and listener; and singing of sheer, strong beauty inspires and resonates. “Fast As You Can” is the first single and video-the latter directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) who also lensed Fiona’s striking video for “Across The Universe,” the Lennon/McCartney song she interpreted on the Pleasant-ville sound-track.
Out of virtually nowhere, 19-year-old Fiona Apple established herself a visionary singer and songwriter with her 1996 debut album Tidal. With gems like “Shadow-boxer,” “Criminal,” and “Sleep to Dream,” the vocalist/pianist reaped critical and commercial success almost overnight. As aficionados found echoes in her songs of such legends as Nina Simone and Carole King, Apple found herself at the vanguard of contemporary pop. Released in July 1996, Tidal went gold in December and currently is certified triple platinum for sales of more than three million copies.
“The quick success was a bit strange to get used to,” she says today. “But the album was, for me, a great workout of the mind. It pushed me. I realized that I had to live every second, not shut myself off from anything. Deliberately, I didn’t read any reviews when Tidal came out. I didn’t want to gauge myself by anything I was hearing or reading. I didn’t want to get stuck in mirrors-I wanted to carry on.”
With When The Pawn, Fiona does considerably more than “carry on.” She takes her music down deeper avenues, alternately more artful and more real. And she took her time in doing so, first developing ideas for songs while on the road.
“I didn’t really have a piano to work on,” she says, “so in my head, I’d play around with certain rhythms, ideas for drum sounds. Generally, I’d think of writing whenever I was overwhelmed by something in my life.” Finally back home in Los Angeles (“there, I have a piano-a cheap one I’ve rented,” she laughs), she crafted her material.
Everything began to coalesce when Fiona chose to work with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright). “We’re friends.” says the singer. “He’d played all over my first album. And he’s wonderful to work with. Jon has a million ideas in his head and references of almost everything that’s ever been re-corded.”
“We communicated perfectly. I’d hum something or make a gesture with my hand or suggest a mood, and he’d know exactly what I wanted. And with Rich Costey engi-neering, the work could not have gone better.” Fiona laid down piano tracks and sang with greater ease and intensity than she ever had before. The album’s sup-porting cast included keyboardist Patrick Warren, who adds his patented touch on the chamber-lain (a pre-synth sampler, its keys activate 8-track tapes of various instru-ments); vir-tuoso drummer Matt Chamberlain; and other veteran players on woodwinds, bass, guitar and percussion.
Throughout When The Pawn, the playing is elegant, assured. From the shifting rhythms of “Fast As You Can” to the distorted guitar of “Get Gone” to the majestic gospel-like purity of “I Know,” the music approaches a jazz sense of freedom. Fiona’s lyrics match this risk-taking: in the bittersweet tenderness of “On the Bound” (“It’s true, I do imbue my blue into myself”), in the wordplay of “To Your Love” ( “My derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon/Around you”), in the close-up cinematic detail of “Love Ridden” ( With the focus I gave to my birthday candles/I’ve wished on the lidded blue flames/Under your brow”).
Fiona Apple grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and hardly can remember a time when she didn’t sing. “I’d come home from school and hang up my keys on a key-chain that was right beside a mirror. I’d look in the mirror and realize that I was sing-ing. I sang all the time.” Her father a television actor, her mother a former dancer and singer, Fiona listened early to jazz standards-still her music of choice-and began exploring her creativity. She read (John Irving and Maya Angelou remain favorites), dreamed, played piano, and soon began writing songs. Her meteoric rise began with a simple three-song demo tape.
From a first gig (in Paris, no less) to Saturday Night Live guest spots; profiles in Rolling Stone, Time, and The New York Times; and early tour dates with Chris Isaak, Fiona moved on to stellar appearances on the 1997 Lilith Fair tour and sold-out headlining concert hall performances. Her videos for “Criminal” and “Sleep To Dream” became ubiquitous on MTV as Fiona’s music seized the imagination of listeners attuned to a new sound-a sound of naked emotion and profound artistry.
When The Pawn proves that Tidal was no accident, but paved the way for richer music. “For a while, I was really afraid of not being able to write new songs,” Fiona admits. “I’ve never wanted to put out an album I wasn’t proud of.” Trusting herself and her vision, in time Fiona found that new music was emerging.
“Mainly I write to clarify my thoughts and feelings,” she explains, “and when I sing, I just concentrate on getting my point across. I just want to make a statement and make it right.”
With every song on When The Pawn, Fiona Apple “gets it right.” From the yearning of “Paper Bag” to the fury of “Limp” to the lovely resolution of “I Know” (which Fiona, with a laugh, calls “probably the only happy-ending song I’ve done”), she embraces the full range of human emotion. And in that embrace, lies the bravery of Fiona Apple and the beauty of the music she makes.