A Field Guide to Female Singers: Fiona Apple

You know when you’ve had a falling out with a friend and it feels like you’re experiencing every possible manifestation of anger and sadness? Fiona Apple sure does. Her music covers a grand variety of reactions to people who make your life difficult, channeling her emotional turmoil with authenticity and nuance. Apple goes from indignance to wistfulness and right back to devil-may-care defiance, using her musical intensity to get listeners fired up on her behalf.

Apple’s typical sound is characterized by piano that stands out, bassy and percussive, against a haze of organ, strings, and muffled drums. Her voice is honeyed, but make no mistake—Apple herself is not out to please, and her independence comes through in the tremendous strength of her timbre. Surprisingly, though, Apple’s locution is indifferent, almost lazy. It’s almost as though she’s so upset with whomever her songs address that she can’t be bothered to move her lips—she’s trying to get from her bottomless reserve of heartbreak to retribution and catharsis, and her mouth is just in the way.

From her 1996 debut album Tidal to last summer’s The Idler Wheel…, Fiona Apple has created art that is artless, letting her angst ride on raw talent and vampy instrumentation. That’s not to say that her writing is purely straightforward, rather that Apple speaks her truth both frankly and poetically. The end product is often darkly beautiful, but that isn’t because of trickery: Apple uses language primarily to capture, not to embellish or obscure. That in itself is a service to the universe—come on, don’t tell me that you really craved intricacy the last time you were fuming mad. But for all of Apple’s candor, she’s certainly got a penchant for covering the old-fashioned and borderline hokey.

Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” Conway Twitty’s “Only Make Believe,” Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” All of these songs are built on sentiments that strike modern sensibilities as shopworn and saccharine, yet Apple somehow brings an incredible new dimension of soulfulness to them. Perhaps it’s her emphasis on the angsty undertones that are already there, or maybe it’s just the surprise of hearing a woman—a deep-voiced woman, at that—sing them. But whatever it is, and whatever draws her to these selections, I’m grateful for it: I’ll never forget how enchanting it was to watch Apple shift from her Idler Wheel…-fueled paroxysms into a captivatingly smooth performance of “Only Make Believe” at her concert last July.

Fiona Apple isn’t afraid of calling herself dysfunctional. She certainly doesn’t care if the world sees her more unstable moments—she polishes and displays them for a living. And perhaps that’s why we keep coming back to her emotional rollercoaster. Through her, we see that it’s okay to be on one ourselves. Maybe we even learn to find something beautiful in the worst part of it.

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