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Music Interviews

Fiona Apple: 'I Don't Really Have A Plan'

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 6:43 pm

It's been seven years since Fiona Apple has released a new album. The singer-songwriter, who broke out in 1996 with Tidal, says the delay is a quirk of her creative process.

"The only reason that it takes me seven years to do stuff is because I just don't really have a plan," Apple tells NPR's Guy Raz. "I got a lot of problems, but I'm really good at intuiting what I need to do to be happy with whatever I create. I know when to stop myself, I know when to start, I know when to leave something alone. I guess I just kind of indulge that completely, and so I just take my time."

The wait is almost over. On June 19, she's releasing her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Such verbosity is not a surprise from Apple: Her 1999 release, abbreviated as When the Pawn..., was titled with a 90-word poem.

"I didn't know it would be a poem until the last minute," she says. "I wrote it in the three minutes that I had after staying up all night, knowing that I had to have a title for the record by the next day."

Apple says that the first half of the title alludes to the emotional growth she's experienced in her transition to adulthood.

"So, 'The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw.' These two lines represent two places where I am in my life right now — where I've gotten past the place of being somebody who [thinks], 'I'm just going to hit this thing until it's right,'" Apple says. "And turned into this person who feels a lot more powerful and a lot wiser."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRIMINAL")

RAZ: This song, "Criminal," turned Fiona Apple from a 19-year-old piano prodigy into a bona fide star in the late 1990s. With her powerful and dramatic voice, Fiona Apple seemed to fuse jazz with alternative rock effortlessly, and the sexually provocative video received almost as much attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRIMINAL")

FIONA APPLE: (Singing) I've been a bad, bad girl.

RAZ: Now, as quickly as Fiona Apple shot to fame as a sex symbol, she retreated almost deliberately. She turned out three more records, all to critical acclaim, but Fiona Apple still seemed to want to stay out of the spotlight. Well, it's been seven years since her last record, and her new one is called - bear with me - it's called "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING WE WANT")

APPLE: (Singing) And then we can do anything we want.

RAZ: Fiona Apple, welcome to the program.

APPLE: Thank you very much.

RAZ: It has been seven years since you offered fans new songs, new recordings. And as a fan, first of all, thank you for doing this because it was really hard to wait all that time.

APPLE: I'm thinking that you mean that completely sincerely.

RAZ: I do. It's totally sincere.

APPLE: I've finally come to realize and appreciate that there are people who, like, it matters to them that I'm making...

RAZ: Yeah. It matters a lot.

APPLE: And things (unintelligible) like anybody else. It's kind of ridiculous to think of, you know, something that you do, people are waiting for it. I never got the impression that they were. But I'm very, very, very, very grateful that I - that people waited around.

RAZ: Does part of that wait, is it because you're so meticulous in your writing process? I mean, I - any - I mean, anyone listening to your lyrics or looking at them, you get the sense that you really labor over those words really carefully.

APPLE: The only reason that it takes me seven years to do stuff is because I just don't really have a plan and I don't - I just - I got a lot of problems, but I'm really good at intuiting what I need to do to be happy with whatever I create. I know when to stop myself. I know when to start. I know when to leave something alone. And I guess I just kind of indulged that completely. And so I just take my time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEFT ALONE")

APPLE: (Singing) How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?

RAZ: Fiona, can I just get the elephant out of the way here? Let me read the title of this record. It is "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do." This must have driven the person who prints the titles on, you know, on the CD spines absolutely crazy.

And they - and you did, of course, have a record with a 90-word poem as a title a few years ago. But can you give me the back story to the title on this record?

APPLE: Yeah. I did not know that it was going to be a poem until the last minute. It's just how it worked out. And I was like, and I'm going to get made fun of, probably.

RAZ: You wrote this poem.

APPLE: Yeah. I wrote it in the three minutes that I had after staying up all night, knowing that I had to have a title for the record by the next day.

RAZ: Tell me about what you've been up to, or even some of the things you've been through over the past seven years that show up on this record.

APPLE: Well, the funny thing is is that I definitely had, for the first time, real concrete feeling of I'm an adult now, except I got it a year after I finished the album. I have a thing about, like, wanting to learn about parenting myself. I don't want to have kids, but I tend to buy a lot of books about parenting.

RAZ: Do you, really?

APPLE: Yeah.

RAZ: You buy books about just how to parent out of interest.

APPLE: Yeah, because I think that you can always parent yourself. So I think that if there's something like, I have a problem with a work ethic, say, and maybe if I read a book about the new way to teach your kid about how to form a good work ethic, maybe I can do that to myself and maybe it'll work, you know?

RAZ: Is it - does it work?

APPLE: Well, you know, I'm a little bit behind on my homework.

(LAUGHTER)

APPLE: I've carried the book around for the past two months. I skim it, I underline things. And...

RAZ: So you're the parent and the child.

APPLE: Well, I mean, you always have to be.

RAZ: Yeah.

APPLE: Everybody has to be for themselves, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VALENTINE")

APPLE: (Singing) I'm a tulip in a cup. I stand no chance of growing up. I've made my peace. I'm dead, I'm done. I watch you live to have my fun. I root for you...

RAZ: I'm speaking with the singer-songwriter Fiona Apple. A shortened version of her new album's title is "The Idler Wheel." You had this spectacular debut in 1996. You were - you really were a kid. I mean, you were a teenager.

APPLE: Yeah.

RAZ: And almost immediately, you were sort of thrown into the spotlight. You must have almost wished that maybe you had more time to figure things out before you were thrown into that world.

APPLE: I'd been around my family and so many show business people all my life that, you know, I didn't need anybody to tell me like, hey, you know, kid, you only get once chance or something. And I think, like, people have come up to me when I was like 11 to try to do something with MTV, and I had said, no, I'm not ready yet.

RAZ: Wow.

APPLE: And this time, I thought I don't think it's going to happen again.

RAZ: Let me ask you about family while we're on the topic. And it's quite amazing. Your dad is an actor, your mom a singer. Your brother - you have a brother who's an actor. You have another brother who's a director. Your grandparents wrote musical reviews in the '20s and '30s, I think.

I mean, pretty amazing lineage. It's almost like family reunions must be, you know, like these competitive talent shows or something. Oh, and I forget. I forget, of course, your sister is a cabaret singer who's even on this record.

APPLE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, she's in the "Hot Knife." And that was the most amazing experience that I wasn't expecting it to be. I knew it was going to be great, because I knew that I love when we sing harmony together. But on that song, we sing the same line over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. It's not looped at all. It's totally live the whole time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT KNIFE")

FIONA AND AMBER APPLE: (Singing) I'm a hot knife. I'm a hot knife. I'm a hot knife and he's a side of butter. If I get a chance I'm going to show him that he's never going to need another, never need another. I'm a hot knife. I'm a hot knife.

APPLE: And we're singing into the same mic and looking into each other's eyes, and you have to be so, so in tune with each other, it was like the most intimate sister time I'd ever had ever with her. And, like, I love this song besides that, and I love the remix that we made of the song. But even if I didn't like the song, I'd love the song because it was like the soul picnic with my sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT KNIFE")

APPLE: (Singing) I'm a hot knife. I'm a hot knife. I'm a hot knife and he's a side of butter. If I get a chance I'm going to show him that he's never going to need another, never need another.

RAZ: Now that this record is out, earlier, you'd mentioned that this was the first time you sort of started to feel like you were an adult.

APPLE: Mm.

RAZ: But it sounds like you do feel that way, that it's not that you're starting to feel that way, that you are there.

APPLE: Yeah. I mean, I'm there in the sense that I must say that it's not like I figured things out. I think I figured out the most important thing. And I don't want me to sound negative at all, but in the best way possible, I freaking give up. I give up.

You can't try to make your life perfect. Just - I'm just trying to have a good time, and I'm just trying to appreciate the things that I have around me. I give up on the dream, dream. I think that - it's all a dream. I think it's all wonderful and terrible. And I give up in the nicest way.

RAZ: Well, Fiona Apple, thank you so much for joining us.

APPLE: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: That's Fiona Apple. Her new record is called "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do." And if you go to our website, nprmusic.org right now, you can check out her performance at South by Southwest. And if you go there tomorrow, you can hear every track from her new record for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

APPLE: (Singing) Remember when we argued all the (unintelligible.) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.