Fiona Apple was angry. Very angry. “Angry, angry, angry,” as she put it during a long, unguarded conversation on a Friday afternoon in SoHo. About a year and a half ago, after she had completed the album she’ll release on June 19 — a collection of stripped-down, percussive songs that’s as passionate, smart and cutting as anything she’s done — Apple got so angry that she started walking up and down a hill near her home in Venice, California.
The album was in music-business limbo. Apple was delaying it until her label, Epic Records, found a new president. She had not made a new album since 2005 and didn’t want her work to be mishandled amid corporate disarray. And she was in deep personal turmoil. “I just spiraled downward, and everything looked bad,” she said.
She started to climb that hill for eight hours a day, day after day, until she could barely walk, until she was limping, and then until she could not walk at all. Her knees required months of therapy. “Something about that was a rite of passage,” she said. “I think it’s really healthy to lose things or to give things up for a while, to deprive yourself of certain things. It’s always a good learning experience, because I felt like it really was like, ‘I must learn to walk again.’ I had to walk out all that stuff, and I knew it was stupid, and I kept on walking.”
Solitude, mood swings, compulsive actions, catharsis and regeneration: it’s the kind of story Apple often told about herself in conversation. They are also at the core of the songs that have made her pop’s emblem of trauma, neurosis, seething resentment and self-laceration. Apple writes metaphor-laden outpourings set to music that pulls rock, show tunes, classical piano and jazz into her own realm of brooding and bravado.
She has spoken openly about being raped as a 12-year-old, about her obsessive-compulsive disorder, about heavy drinking, about public meltdowns and private insecurities. Now, she insists, she is finding a little perspective. “I’m a very stressed-out person, a lot, because still everything is so important,” she said. “I have to give everything, my everything, and that’s exhausting, and how the hell am I going to do that for the rest of my life? But I’m going to have to figure out how.”
Apple braced herself for mockery when she revealed the title of 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 (It’s far shorter than the 90-word title of her 1999 album, which begins, “When the Pawn.”). Soon enough she was reading online about “‘Fiona Apple’s ridiculous new album title,”’ she said. “Of course you’re going to say ridiculous. Because that’s what you do with me, right?”
She added, “I put out another long title because that’s what the title’s supposed to be.”
Apple had been reading children’s books about how machines work. “All that stuff is so good for metaphors for life,” she said. The album title, she said, refers to the role of the idler wheel in an engine, which does not propel directly but is connected to everything. Whipping cord is used to repair fraying ropes on a ship. “If you’re going to use the rope — if you’re going to live — it’s going to get frayed,” she said.
At the SoHo Grand Hotel the management opened up a bar-lounge that’s usually closed in the afternoons for a private interview with Apple. (It was followed, weeks later, by a two-and-a-half-hour phone call from her home in California.) In SoHo she was colorful, wearing a textured lavender dress and tights with rainbows and flowers. The broad shoulders of a green Steve Madden jacket helped fill out her gaunt figure; she said giving up heavy drinking and adopting a gluten-free diet had made her weight drop sharply. In anticipation of the photo session scheduled after the interview Apple was cradling a painted wooden dog: a portrait by the artist Patrick Bucklew of her 13-year-old pit bull mix, Janet, a stray she rescued.