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'Fetch Your Tool Of Liberation': Fiona Apple On Setting Herself Free

Above image: Courtesy of the artist

Inspiration can strike at unexpected times. That was the case for Fiona Apple, the celebrated singer and songwriter who released her first album in eight years this month. It's called Fetch the Bolt Cutters and the title comes from a piece of dialogue that struck her while watching a crime drama on Netflix.

In one episode of The Fall, a British show starring Gillian Anderson as a police detective, Anderson and her crew track down and free a girl who had been kidnapped and locked away.

"It's just a throwaway little line," Apple remembers. "She just says, 'Fetch the bolt cutters.' I shot up from the couch and I wrote it on the blackboard immediately, and I said 'That's what my album's called.' "

The line captures much of what Apple articulates on the record. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an album full of demands to be let loose, to be let out of a cage.

NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke to Fiona Apple about getting a push from King Princess to release her album early, the dinner party gone wrong that inspired "Under The Table" and how the reception of Tidal shaped the woman she is today. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for an extended transcript of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Ailsa Chang: I want to talk about the title of your album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Tell me what that means?

Fiona Apple: It came from a TV show, The Fall, that me and Zelda, my housemate, were watching three years ago, I guess. And during this scene, Gillian Anderson is unlocking this door. They're supposed to wait for back-up to come and she wants to save this girl from behind this door, and it's like a throwaway little line that she says. She just says "Fetch the bolt cutters." I shot up from the couch, and I wrote it on the blackboard immediately and I said "That's what my album's called."

So who is fetching the bolt cutters, in your situation?

I am, you are, the listener is. Everybody is. It's sort of "Fetch your tool of liberation. Set yourself free."

What do you see as the thing you need to be liberated from?

The ideas that I had about myself — that on some level I'll always have. Just everything from when you're growing up, everything that everybody says to you about you that you believe, and of course for me that branches out into adulthood, with my career. But I really wasn't thinking about my career and how I've been portrayed in the media or anything about that, I was just thinking about things that have been said to me personally in my life that I took to heart that I shouldn't have; the way that I think that I have internalized a lot of the things that were said to me, believed them and then as a result, hidden myself away or shut myself up. As much as I don't think that I'm known for being someone who keeps quiet about things, I have really kept quiet about a lot of things. There's a lot to say, and I've kept quiet about some of it.

Some of it is about like, how much of me staying home all the time is about how much I like it, and how much of it is about me being afraid of what happens if I go out into the world? I've always had that kind of thing, from when I was a kid. But at a certain point, you start to feel like, well maybe this isn't really who I am. Maybe I'm not really a recluse. Maybe I'm not a hermit. Maybe I just decided that this is the most comfortable place for me to be because I'm too afraid to go out anywhere else, to be something else. Maybe I'm ashamed of who I am, and why am I like that? And when you do lock yourself away at home for years and years and years, you think about things a lot. And so I've really been examining why I've been here so long and why I've been so hesitant to go back out into public life.

For me, personally, it's about that, but it's funny: The first song on the album came from this moment that I was at a meditation retreat. It was after six days of meditation and I had this huge headache inside of my head — and I say it was inside of my head because it ended up not being inside of my head. It sounds crazy, but I had this throbbing in my head, and then at a certain point, it left my head and it became this pulse that everybody shared. And it made me feel connected to everyone — and this is after six days of morning-to-night meditation, so it takes a lot to get into that state.

And the cool thing is this whole album, for me, has turned into the headache that I had inside of my head and now that it's released, it's like this pulse that now we can all share. And I didn't think of that before I did it, but I did think of that when I saw the faces on the YouTube thing [Fiona Apple's housemate watched NPR Music's Fetch the Bolt Cutters live listening party], because I was like "Oh my goodness! It's out of me now, and it's actually making people feel good!"

And we're all feeling the pulse!

It's the best! It's all I ever wanted. It's just amazing.

I think the title, you know Fetch the Bolt Cutters, resonates especially right now in this strange horrible time that we're all in. What does it feel like to release an album right now particularly, during this extraordinary time?

When I decided to release it — I would like to say it's because I thought everyone was really going to love it and that it was going to make people happy, but I got a rollout schedule that had my first song appearing in like June, and then October the album would be released and I felt like, well why wait that long? Because the reasons that we're going to wait all that time would be so we can have a proper rollout, aka have like TV appearances lined up and all this different press lined up, everything ready to go. And I just felt like I'm not going to be aiming for that, anyway. I'm not going to be on the charts, I'm not going to be on the radio, so why should I wait all these months? And also wait all these months and put out this thing that I've been working on all these years, knowing that everyone else is going to be releasing stuff then, and I know I'll just get lost in the mix?

So it really just felt logical to me to be like "Look. My record is ready. I have no qualms about putting it out and not having a rollout and not being on the charts, or whatever. I'm not worried about that, so let's just push the button and let it go." Also my friend Mikaela [Strauss], aka King Princess, she had texted me one day and she just was like "You have to release your album now. People need new music to listen to. We need new music to listen to." And so that made me go "You know what? I actually could do that, because my record's done." I really decided because I thought it would give me the best chance to be heard.

Now, I'm hesitant to say that I'm helping because it sounds like I'm giving myself too much credit, but I really do hope that I'm helping people and I really do hope that the experiences that I had and lived through that you can hear on the album, that somehow it's cathartic. If I can be like a surrogate of the catharsis, if maybe you can get that feeling from listening to it happen, that's just the highest goal of any art that I can think of.

Well I can tell you, that you have helped me. There is a lot on this album that hit me hard. What I hear on a lot of these songs is this insistence to be heard. One example is the song "Under The Table." The lyrics here: "Kick me under the table all you wan't / I won't shut up" and "Don't you, don't you, don't you shush me." Who are you talking to in this song?

This is actually about a real dinner that I went to — and I can't say who was at the dinner, but I will say that there was a prominent figure of a streaming service at that dinner. And I attended the dinner with a few people, but I didn't want to go.

And was someone actually kicking you under the table, or you felt it emotionally?

No it wasn't actually kicking me under the table. They were kicking me under the table with their eyes. And then afterwards it's like "Why did you accost two people at a nice dinner?" I didn't accost anybody. Everybody was saying things, and a couple people said some things that I had some things to say back to.

I feel like the songs on this album, they're not just about seizing the chance to speak, they're also about wanting people to really hear you. For the past couple years, there's been this more honest conversation in this country about believing women when they do speak up, and I'm wondering if that's also what you're getting at in this album?

Well, I mean, it's hopefully what I'm getting at with everything that I do. The fact is — and it's a fact — if a woman, or a man, goes public with some kind of abuse, they're not doing it for attention. There's no reason that people will lie about that. They know what they're getting into. We know, as much as we've given women more of a space to speak and be believed, there's still all the trolls and all the little bros that come back and beat them down as much as they can. As much as we know that when we speak, more people will be afraid to say "Screw you, you're a liar," people aren't so keen to do that right now; there still is a huge backlash and there's a lot of risk in speaking up. And anybody who would think that a woman would get up and put herself in that position for attention is just insane and I would like to punch them in their head 43 times.

43 exactly.

Yes. It's for my next year's birthday, I guess.

Well, you know on this thread of speaking up, your album is a form of speaking up. I know that you have had a kind of uncomfortable relationship with fame, with being the focus of public attention, and I'm curious: As you're doing interviews for this new album, putting yourself out there again, does it feel any easier these days?

Well, after this interview, I'm not going to be doing any more interviews about me and the album for a while, for two reasons that are equally important. First, because I just don't want to do a lot of interviews anymore and I don't think I have to, and so I'm not going to. And then the second reason, which is equally important, is that I don't think that I really should go out and talk too much anymore. I think I've said a bunch in the interviews that I've done. And at this point, I just would like people to be able to live with it and everybody who has the record, it can be their own record, and they can interpret it and apply it to their own lives.

Well can I ask you, how are you feeling about this interview right now? How am I making you feel?

I feel fine right now. I mean, right before an interview, before this thing, I'm sitting there going "I don't wanna do this!" And Zelda's saying "It's okay. You just listen to the questions and you answer the questions." And then I sat here by myself for a minute and I did a little meditation, just like "Let me please try to be honest and answer questions and not be too worried."

It's interesting hearing you talk about this, because the woman that I hear in these songs is an unapologetic woman. These songs are about "Look I have something to say, so listen to me." So it's interesting to hear you almost have to psych yourself up to speak up. What's that about?

Because I'm sure that I'll ruin everything with something that I say. People are texting me saying "Wow this is amazing" and "Oh goodness, everything's great!" So of course, I've been sleepless for the past few nights. I stay awake just combing through everything, going "Where did I make a really bad mistake? Where did I say something awful?" It relates to the thing in "Heavy Balloon," about the bottom being the only safe place. It's like I'm looking for something to be embarrassed about, because that's almost my comfort zone.

This is a learning experience right now for me, to try not to knock it down in some way, because that makes me comfortable. To try to just be like "Nope, something is going good, take it. Accept it, Fiona. Don't be looking for the fault in it."

There's this percussive pulse throughout this album. In the song "Newspaper," you hear layers and layers of percussion on all kind of drums, even a barking dog. What made you want percussion to play such a prominent role in the album?

It goes back to the song "Shameika." At the beginning of that song, I'm referencing something that started when I was a little kid. I have OCD and it became an obsession with me, where I would go on these long walks and I would have to walk on beat. I still do that, like if I go on a hike, I have to not break tempo. But I would go on these walks to school and leaves would be falling from trees and I would be leaping so that I could step on it on the beat. And I'd literally be grinding my teeth to a little beat and it would go on all day long.

But then what happened is I turned to piano, which is also percussion: You hit it, it's got hammers. But on this album, I had everything set up for GarageBand and the band had been coming over to play. There were all these percussion instruments around, just left in my house. With "Newspaper" and "Fetch the Bolt Cutters," those were two of the first things I did on GarageBand. And I didn't even know how to edit it and make a take shorter, so each track is just this one long take, and if I made a mistake in it, well, I better just play over it and let that mistake work itself into it.

"Fetch the Bolt Cutters" and "Newspaper" were these two long percussion orchestras that were just really for fun. But then I listened back to them and I was like "I really like how these sound. These sound like me!" It is me banging around and like really finding myself. So I was like "I really have to write words for this."

I read this album was almost entirely recorded in your house, and this is a house, as you've mentioned, that you barely left over the past several years. So I was just wondering: Does quarantine life feel all that different from life before?

No, it doesn't. Well actually, it does feel a little bit different because everything is always different when you're told that you can't leave. I was always able to leave before, and I chose not to. And funny enough, right when I'm like "I'm fetching the bolt cutters! I'm gonna leave this house!" It's like "Nope! No you're not!"

Which goes back to another reason why I did the album in this house — and this is another point where I'm going to sound a little bit nuts. This house is alive to me. The fact is, this house was here when I needed a place to go. When I moved here, I needed a place to go and I needed a place to go so that I could bring my dog, Janet, where she would have some place to run around and I needed a place fast. And this place just opened up like right when I needed it.

It brought you in and embraced you.

Yeah. It was like "Look, I've got a home for you and Janet, and you're going to be good here, and I'm going to take care of you, and you're going to have friends here and all these great things are going to happen here." And it was true. And so there's this way that I feel like I want to repay this house by making it the music. Because it has been my mother, really; it's been the home of all the music. It's been the womb of everything, for all these years. It's been the womb of where I've developed into an adult. And so I really felt like it's an instrument in itself, it's the microphone: The house is the microphone, the house is the ambiance, the house is a member of the band. There was this part of me — I wanted to move out of this house and sell this house, and I felt like I'm not going to be able to do that, because it's not going to let me leave. I tried to move out of this house a couple of times before, and for some reason it keeps pulling me back in.

That's amazing. What a beautiful way to feel about a home. That's the ultimate thing anybody would want to feel inside their house or their home. This feeling of "I'm in my womb." You're lucky.

I am lucky. I'm really lucky, thank you for saying that. It's true.

Your first album, Tidal, came out in 1996 when you were still a teenager. Everyone knows that, everyone talks about that. What do you wish you could tell your teenage self now, as a woman in her 40s?

Well that teenager that started, I would tell her: "You are on the right track, and there's going to be a lot of people who are going to tell you that what you're doing is stupid. And they're going to be people of authority, and they're going to be the people that you love and they're going to be the people that you trust. Please do not believe them. As genius, or as wonderful, or as loving, or as smart, as worldly, as experienced as they may be, they don't know you. You know you. You're doing great. Don't let them stop you."

I would tell her that. But I'm glad that I don't have the chance to tell her that, because I think the experience that I did have is worth it. It's not a totally happy thing, it's just like I wouldn't have it any other way because I like what I did with my life. That's how I've always wanted to live. I've always wanted to live facing the truth, taking the truth and turning it into something beautiful. That's a wonderful way for anybody to live. And so I like that the truth of all my life isn't all happy and perfect and no obstacles anywhere, because it's what I did with all of that that makes something that now can maybe help other people.

That brings me to something else too, which is that I have all this happiness. This happiness that I haven't had access to in so long, because of that feeling of "Oh my goodness, maybe I'm not just something that represents depression and sadness and dwelling and bad feelings." I feel understood finally and I feel so happy. And immediately I get this guarded feeling about all of the sadness that I've felt. Like I don't want to forget how that felt. This goes to something, too, about how my years of not being sober, of drinking so much — you go through these times where you feel like "I am at the bottom, I want to die." And then you drink a bunch and then somehow you make it through and further along the line you get sad again and you're like "Yeah, I made it through before though, right?" But you don't really remember making it through before, because you were drunk, so you didn't really feel the sadness, you didn't really make it through.

So I want to keep all of the bad feelings that I've ever had close to me, just so that I can recognize them and so that I can not lose touch with empathy, for one thing. Being empathetic I think is the most important thing in being a human. And I think you need to know your own pain and remember it in order to do that. So I don't want to get lost in all of the happiness. That's another reason why I don't want to do too many interviews, because I don't want to talk myself into thinking "I'm a queen now, and everything is great because everyone understands me! So everything is perfect now!" I want to be able to stay true to who I am and I want to take in the joy, but I just think it's really important to not forget how bad it felt before. Because it also, in contrast, makes the joy so much more beautiful.

NPR's Jonaki Mehta, Lauren Hodges and Jolie Myers produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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