iona Apple FaceTimes me on a recent Friday afternoon from a bright-pink futon inside her Venice Beach home, her hair in a long braid, wearing giant headphones, a cozy green sweatshirt, and no makeup. The first thing she says is that she’s nervous. “I’m like, Oh, shit,” she says, laughing.
Her nerves are understandable. Apple, 42, is on the verge of releasing her first album in eight years, which she insisted on pushing up to an April 17 release in the wake of, well, everything (her record label initially wanted to wait until October). She’s spent most of the past decade hanging out at home with her pit-bull–boxer mix, Mercy, and her friend Zelda Hallman; she’s apprehensive about returning to a sort of public life that’s burned her in the past. And according to Apple, her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is her most personal yet, filled with vulnerable confessions stretching back as far as her middle-school years. With it, she’s forced herself out of her hiding places in every sense.
FTBC also marks something of a tonal shift for Apple: The album is less melancholy than her previous works — it’s funny, angry, and at times triumphant. It’s full of wordplay and singular sonic experiments: dogs barking, supermodels meowing, chanting, bells. She sees it as an artistic breakthrough. “Making this album has really helped me get through stuff, and I don’t know if I can say that about my other albums,” says Apple, who recorded and co-produced all 13 songs inside her home, with band members Amy Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg, and Davíd Garza, often using GarageBand and her iPhone. It’s also her first album where she had final say on all production decisions.
Apple’s nerves dissolve as we fall into a long, digressive conversation — our third since last fall — followed by a series of winding, poetic text messages (which appear in footnotes below). Mercy lumbers in and out of the frame, popping into Apple’s lap and licking her face as she speaks about everything from healing her relationships with women to getting sober, finally becoming angry with the man who raped her at age 12, and whether she’s found peace.
When did you officially start working on Fetch the Bolt Cutters?
So little happens with me that’s ever official. I guess we started — Oh, hi, Mercy.[Apple’s dog walks into the frame and sits on her.]
Are you in your recording room?The whole house is the recording room. We recorded it in the living room, but this is the room I did most of my vocals in and most of the stuff that I did by myself, except for a bunch of percussion tracks. [To Mercy] You can sit here, baby. You want to sit here? You just have to give me a place to be.
We started first trying to be a band and to have me build my confidence up as a musician, because it was really low a few years ago. It’s funny I’ve never been able to jam with people. I wish there was a better word for jamming. I’ve always been too shy to try, which is not a good way to be. If you grow up and you’re praised a lot for being special, rather than for making an effort, you end up later on in life being afraid. I would get into situations — and I have to watch myself still — where I don’t even want to try because if I don’t end up being special, then I don’t value my own effort as much as I should.
I put together the bandText from Apple later on: “One time when I was a kid, an adult told me I had the heart of a scorpion. They said this to describe my selfishness. I looked up what a scorpion’s heart looks like, and I was so delighted to learn that a scorpion’s heart is not just a little crumpled fist, but a whole-body-spanning organ. A “tubular” heart. I see the band, including me, as this kind of heart. Not each to their own chamber. Or maybe we are like frogs (the kind under horses’ hooves), in that the action of us coordinating together to move forward is what combats the gravity that would otherwise slow our horse down. By pumping life back through its body with every step, every strike, every strum, every hug.” in February of 2015 so that we could just jam, so I could learn how to feel as free as I do singing when I’m playing stuff. I don’t think I ever got there, but it was good enough for me to start recording with the band. Some of the songs I started writing years ago, [like] “Rack of His.” I did a couple of versions. I almost put it on a couple of albums, but it was a completely different song. I guess we officially started the album when we went to Sonic Ranch in Texas in July of 2015, but it was a false start.
How so?Well, we did a lot of stuff, but it became more of a wild, “Let’s do mushrooms and put this percussion table together and everybody play a lot of crazy shit.” My best friend Nalini [Narayan, an ER nurse Apple befriended in 1997 at one of her concerts] was there with me, and we just ended up watching movies a lot and running around with the dogs on the Pecan Ranch. Then there were quite a few months where we didn’t record.[Looks at Mercy.] Mercy is having a feast of her own ass right now. That’s nice.
So there wasn’t an official start, but it really started when we started redoing stuff in the house.
And when was that?
A few months later. I moved into this house in 2000, and I’ve always felt like [it] doesn’t want me to go anywhere. So I’m like, “All right, I’m going to give you what you want, house. I know you deserve to be the record. I’m going to make you the record.” This is where I feel comfortable. My boyfriend at the time, Jamie, really pushed for me to get it set up here so I could record by myself. Once he pushed for that to happen and Amy taught me how to do GarageBand, it was like the universe opened up.
Making my first album, [I would go to the studio] from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. every day. While everybody else put together the arrangements, [I was] just sitting there being like, “When do I sing? When do I sing?” The difference between [then and now], me being like, “Oh, I think I’d like to play that thing on this. Okay, I can go do that right now.” It makes me feel like I wasn’t ever given a chance to be a musician before. Because you’d have to do everything in the studio, and I’m not good at doing things in front of people under pressure.
What’s funny is that so much of the stuff that I did on the record is stuff that I can’t actually do. Like, I would try to do certain percussion things and I’m not a percussionist. I wouldn’t hire me as a percussionist! But I wanted to be the one to do certain things, or I was the only one that was here. So I’d just do take after take until I’d get something right. For touring and stuff, of course, I’ll have to actually learn how to do the things I did, but wow, it’s just a big, messy making of a record. Messy, messy.
How do you think your voice has changed over the years?I think I’ve stopped trying to be a singer, actually. I have fun with my voice, but I’m not trying to make it pretty all the time. I’m not trying to convince anybody I’m a singer. It just turned out to be another instrument.
Photo: Zelda Hallman
There’s so much strange stuff going on in the background of this record. Bells and dogs barking, chanting, meowing. Where did these sounds come from?
Honestly, I would press “record” and I would get so nervous and I wouldn’t have planned out what part I was going to do or what I was going to play. I’d just be like, “I’ll add something. I’ll do whatever I feel.” So I’d press “record,” and after, I’d scramble to find drumsticks or to pick a keyboard, and most often I would forget to close the door. So the dogs would hear something and they’d bark, or something outside would happen. But then I’d play it back and I’d feel like those barks kind of worked. It didn’t bother me.
They sound purposeful.
They worked so well, especially when we were doing “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.”Fiona named the song and the album after a line spoken by Gillian Anderson in the Belfast detective series The Fall. Cara [Delevingne] came over, and we were in this room. She and I have been text friends for years. But we’ve only hung out twice in person. I wanted her to sing on this one thing, but then she was only in town for a day. And I was in a very sad place. So I was like, “I don’t feel up to anything. I’m sad.” She FaceTimed me and was like, “Answer the phone. You’re okay, everything’s cool.” She was such a good friend to me in that moment that I felt really comfortable, and I was like, “Okay, come on over, let’s do it. There’s one line to sing: [“Fetch the bolt cutters.”]”
She’s got the British accent that went along with the way Gillian Anderson said it, so it was really funny actually when she started doing it. She was like, [affects exaggerated American accent] “Fetch the bolt cutters.” And I said, “Wait, can you just do it with your accent?” I love her voice, and I just knew our voices would go really well together. And she brought her dogs, Leo and Alfie. And so all of our dogs — Maddie [Zelda Hallman’s dog], Mercy, Leo, and Alfie — were in this room with the door closed and they’re totally silent for the whole take of the song. And then at the end of the song they erupted. It was so perfect.
What’s the most random object or sound in the background on this album?
I found a stove top in the alley that’s somewhere around here. Oh, there’s a metal butterfly that I’m playing. It’s the sound on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the higher “clink, clink.” I found it outside of this elementary school in the grass. So that’s kind of random.
Something I love about the album is that every song ends very differently from how it began, with a big shift in tone or timbre or style. Did you do that consciously every time?Mostly it’s how they evolved. I ended up improvising a lot of things. With “Newspaper” and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” — those were both taken from these big percussion tracks I had done months before. They’re all one-takes, and there are mistakes in them and stuff.
Every song is one take?Not every song, but the background tracks of percussion in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and “Newspaper” are all one take. And then Amy did some kit drums on top of it. But I would start writing lyrics to those percussion things and not exactly know how they were going to fit, or if there would be empty spaces left over. So when I was doing vocals, I would just fill the empty spaces with things. I’d come up with a line. But a lot of times when the song would end, I would be comfortable at the mic, [not] shaking like I am when I press “record.” I’d think, Maybe something will happen, maybe something will come out of me. I’d start singing, but it wouldn’t turn into a new song — I’d like it as the end of that song I just did. A lot of it is just making a bunch of mistakes and liking a lot of them.
Is that new for you, putting mistakes on the final product?Yeah. I guess so. Not that there’s so many mistakes — it’s just all unguided. I didn’t come up with parts before I’d press “record.” It’s very spontaneous.