Morning in the garden of good and evil

However sad, however real, the facts are old news now: Raped at age 12, shunned as a teenager, Fiona Apple found a certain solitary peace in reading Maya Angelou’s poetry and forging her own melancholy creations on the family’s piano. A sensitive, troubled adolescent, she was in therapy at an age when most girls were thumb-tacking Corey Haim and Corey Feldman posters to their walls.

But Fiona is 20 years old now, and she’s become an artist of extraordinary capabilities: a diva with a sad, smoky voice; a composer and lyricist of remarkable, if occasionally sophomoric, perception. More than anything, however, she’s a mistress of contradictions. By turns self-loathing and narcissistic, naive and old-woman wise, her debut album, Tidal (Clean Slate 1996), is one of the best and most honest releases of recent years. Maybe it’s the echoes of the great jazz divas — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday — that pull you in. Maybe its the Sylvia-Plath-meets-Anne-Sexton confessional notebook poetry. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that remarkable, world-worn-smooth voice all by its bad, bad self.

Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart was raised by unconventional parents, show-biz wannabes (aren’t we all?) who separated when she was 4 to live in New York and L.A. Young Fiona thus had both coasts to stoke the fires of her creative ambitions, and to double her chances at an artistic livelihood. She was shy and sensitive, but she had a shot at a normal adolescent life — until she was raped, of course.

After that, she says, she became more withdrawn, finding solace in such obsessive-compulsive acts as roller skating 88 times around the kitchen table when no one was home (once for every key on the piano). She took the usual abuse from her schoolmates, who branded her “ugly” and “dog.” But that just became more fodder for the talented teen’s notebooks, more reason to retreat to her room and her beloved, brooding world of music. She listened to her parents’ albums — the Beatles, Joan Armitrading, Hendrix — and desperately, almost unconsciously, began formulating a voice of her own.

Ah, that voice: As it moves effortlessly from languid trip-hop and jaded lounge jazz to a wondrously decadent Kurt Weillian cabaret bizarre, Apple’s voice is a marvel, spanning the distance from the trenches of teen loneliness to the gossamer freedom of a real chanteuse newly discovering the spread of her wings.

Before the Tidal sessions, in fact, she had never even played with a band, fueling much speculation of where she came up with such a precocious gift. Certainly, the years of playing piano in the bedroom have paid off — and maybe, as she claims, the fact that her traumatic adolescence left her unafraid of nearly everything has also helped. But more likely, and more simply, the kid’s just a natural.

She’s damn lucky, too. A friend who was baby-sitting for a high-powered New York City publicist passed along Fiona’s three-song demo, catching the publicist’s ear. At a party, the publicist in turn passed the tape along to Andrew Slater, the high-powered producer and manager of such musical luminaries as The Wallflowers and Warren Zevon. Slater liked what he heard, and wanted to hear more. (There are probably hundreds of New York singer/songwriters busy making friends with baby sitters all over the city, even now.)

As her star rises, Fiona seems to be moving into the presently vacant Angriest Rocker seat (after Sinead O’Connor and Kurt Cobain — good company, no?). Her live shows are punctuated with a caustic honesty and outbursts of hostility, often directed at herself. In light of her self-professed mission to “help people,” she’s been criticized for her alluring, slightly demented “Criminal” video, where the outspoken but undeniably beautiful young woman prances in her underwear, doing a striptease to the bump and grind of her own seductive music. But a closer inspection reveals a clever shift in objectification: Much like Madonna and P.J. Harvey before her, Fiona exudes an ironic, post-feminist sexuality. This ever-so-shy misfit is watching us watch her, enjoying the attention and the new-found joy of her own gawky body. And having the last laugh.

They say that, every town she plays in, Fiona makes sure to get the local papers and read the various and sordid takes on her own remarkable life. If that’s true, then you’re reading this, Fiona. And if you are, I want you to listen to this: Life can be long. Life can be good. Enjoy yourself, and get comfortable: You’re gonna be around awhile.

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