A late-1990s overnight sensation, Fiona Apple was cast as the antidote to packaged pop divettes like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Considering her angst-ridden lyrics and her propensity to shock interviewers, some critics classed her among such provocateurs as Alanis Morissette and Sinad O'Connor; others, listening to her jazz-tinged, full-throated, accomplished debut, compared her to Laura Nyro and Nina Simone.
Her parents, actor Brandon Maggart and singer/dancer/chef Diane McAfee, never married and separated when Fiona was four years old. Her father relocated to L.A.; Fiona grew up in Manhattan with her mother and older sister. Teaching herself piano (and starting psychotherapy) at eight, Fiona was drawn to the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Armatrading, and jazz standards. The primary influence she claims was the poet Maya Angelou; Apple herself wrote poetry and journals as a girl, then, at 11, began combining music and lyrics. Moving to L.A. at 16, Apple completed high school through independent study and recorded a three-song demo. She passed a tape along to a friend who baby-sat for Kathryn Schenker, the publicist for Sting and Lenny Kravitz, among others. Impressed by Fiona's precocious talent, Schenker alerted Wallflowers manager Andy Slater, who landed the singer a record contract in early 1996.
Tidal, featuring Apple's melodically and rhythmically intricate songs, strong piano work, and achingly confessional lyrics, along with Slater's inventive production work, drew nearly unalloyed raves. Yet Apple was controversial, speaking openly about her rape at age 12 (the basis for the song "Sullen Girl") and appearing in her underwear for the video for "Criminal" (#21 pop, 1997). The video was interpreted alternately as either self-exploitation or a cryptic denunciation of such exploitation. Accorded Best New Artist in a Video honors at the 1997 MTV Video Awards, Apple, in an obscenity-laced acceptance speech, derided the star-making machinery of show biz and its deleterious effects on adolescents, a maneuver that was mocked by some and praised by others. Musically, with gems like the Modern Rock hit "Shadowboxer" making her case, Apple was unassailable; in media terms, however, she'd become known as a "loose cannon."
In 1999 Apple chose a 90-word "poem" as a title for her followup to the double-platinum-selling Tidal. When the Pawn... (#13, 1999) showed influences ranging from the late Beatles to bossa nova, and yielded the Modern Rock hit "Fast as You Can."
Fionna Apple then entered an extended period of partially productive false-starts, working with producer Jon Brion but remaining artistically apprehensive and confused about the direction of her musical career. After several years and a fresh start, Apple released Extrodinary Machine in late 2005 which was warmly received and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album.