Music 'Extraordinary' response

How Fiona Apple's unreleased third CD became a cause celebre

"I don't believe in the wasting of time, but I don't believe I'm wasting mine."

So sings Fiona Apple near the end of Extraordinary Machine, her long-awaited, unreleased third album. Unfortunately for Apple, she and the bean counters at Sony/Epic Records appear to have radically different concepts of wasted time.

In 2003, Sony brass reportedly heard the wild string flourishes, tempo shifts and dissonant piano chords of Extraordinary Machine and concluded that the album lacked a single. Nearly two years later, the album remains indefinitely shelved, with neither Sony nor Apple willing to publicly explain the impasse.

For Apple fans, it's felt like the most maddening waste of time imaginable. So late last year, they began to mobilize. An Internet movement called launched a drive to pressure Sony to release her and allow her to shop the album elsewhere. In January, they staged a protest outside the offices of Sony/BMG Music and they've urged followers to send something with an apple theme (fake apples, apple pie, etc.) to Andrew Lack, Sony's CEO.

In late February, a DJ at Seattle alt-rock radio station 107.7 The End obtained a copy of the disc and began playing selected tracks. Nadja Dee Tanaka, a dedicated fan of both Apple and her producer Jon Brion, recorded the tracks and converted them to MP3s. When she began posting them on her Brion website, she got nearly 20,000 hits by the fourth day, but she also received a note from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) threatening to shut down her website if she didn't remove the tracks.

"I was surprised because I felt that I was just the messenger," Tanaka says. "I felt they would have been extremely justified had I been the one who snuck into Sony and took the record from the vault. But all I did was turn on my radio, and to me, all I was doing was broadcasting to a larger listening audience than what The End was doing."

Tanaka reluctantly complied with the RIAA's demand, but by that time, Machine had exploded into a full-blown phenomenon. According to BigChampagne, a file-sharing tracker, 38,000 people are downloading songs from the album at any given time.

And what are they hearing? An idiosyncratic, kaleidoscopic mix of carnival waltzes ("Waltz"), show-tune pastiches ("Extraordinary Machine"), sweeping pop balladry ("Oh Sailor"), and at least one hint of New Orleans R&B turned sideways ("Get Him Back"). Even more than Apple's exceptional 1999 sophomore release, When The Pawn, Machine eschews standard pop-song notions of hooks and verse-chorus-bridge structures. Apple's odd, but thoroughly original, sense of harmonic intervals might not be radio friendly, but between her take-no-prisoners vocals, flights of high-strung poetry, and the imaginative arrangements, the songs wind up lodging themselves in your synapses.

For Chris Benjamin, a home-schooled 17-year-old San Antonian, Machine represents the kind of breakthrough that rock fans used to expect from major artists. "I think with each album she gets better lyrically, vocally, just everything," Benjamin says. "She reminds me a lot of Joni Mitchell in that she doesn't really conform to anything and there's always tremendous growth, even if it won't be commercial. That doesn't seem to be in her mind at all. It's just about the music, which you don't see a lot these days."

"She reminds me a lot of Joni Mitchell in that she doesn't really conform to anything and there's always tremendous growth."

- Chris Benjamin, Fiona Apple fan

But Apple must contend with contemporary record-company thinking. It's hard to recall, but in the 1970s, artists such as Van Morrison and Randy Newman were allowed to slowly build audiences over the course of several albums, with or without Top 40 singles. But in the post-MTV era, with artists encouraged to take three or four years between releases, the stakes are raised with each album. As a result, labels demand surefire singles and artists with video appeal.

Apple met both of these demands with her 1996 debut album, Tidal, which ultimately sold 2.7 million copies. When The Pawn moved a perfectly respectable 913,000 units, but inflated industry expectations for her caused the album to be perceived as a flop.

"I tend to like the debut version of an artist, because that's what turned me on to them," Tanaka says. "But there's a natural progression that happens, and she didn't want to repeat herself.

"`Machine` wouldn't be my favorite album. I still love the first album, but I don't think the songs on the first album are as mature as those on Extraordinary Machine. And because of the way I got to know this album - I felt like I was fed it in little baby-food bites - I loved every single song. I felt like I was looking into some tomb that we may have never had a chance to glimpse."

The fascination stirred up by Machine recalls an old Robyn Hitchcock observation that the secret music you can't just buy at a store is always the coolest. It's also somewhat surprising, given that no modern artist has created a greater gulf between their artistic merits and their public image than Apple. At times, her perversity - if not downright self-destructiveness - has approached Sinead O'Connor standards: She appeared in a 1997 youth orgy video for "Criminal" that propelled the song to MTV success, but did little for her credibility; clumsily denounced her own celebrity status ("This world is bullshit!") at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, arousing much media ridicule; gave her second album a ridiculous 90-word title (routinely shortened to When The Pawn); experienced a tearful stage meltdown in 2000 at New York's Roseland Ballroom.

The most puzzling piece of the ongoing Sony flap is Apple's conspicuous silence. Unlike Wilco, who immediately fought back when Warner/Reprise rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001, Apple has kept a low profile, causing some to speculate that she has reservations of her own about the album. That theory is contradicted by an interview Apple gave in late 2003 on the University of Southern California's television show CU @ USC. Coming across as witty, self-deprecating and thoroughly comfortable in her own skin, Apple spoke with enthusiasm about Machine, calling the sessions "the most fun" of her career. But she also described herself as someone who can go months without playing the piano and who's "dispassionate" about the way her music is received.

Apple reserves her barbs for "Please Please Please," the final song on Machine. Revealing the emotional toll of the process ("I'm so tired of crying/you'd think I was a siren"), she also makes the leap of implicating herself, as part of the "sad same team" demanding "something familiar, something similar to what we know already/something to keep us steady/steady/steady going nowhere."

"She probably makes the songs, puts them out there, and then that's it," Tanaka says. "To me, she's a very private person with a very fragile quality. For an artist to put her work out there and have to fight for it to be released publicly, just isn't in her personality."

By Gilbert Garcia

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.