Outside the Spotlight takes a look at what famous musicians work on while outside the bright lights of their most famous gigs.
There is something imprecise about heralding Fetch the Bolt Cutters as the return of Fiona Apple. True, there were eight years between her sensational new album and her previous one, 2012’s The Idler Wheel… Patient fans are familiar with such stretches of time at this point, as Idler came seven years after Extraordinary Machine, which in turn arrived six years after When the Pawn… (Perhaps we can anticipate her next LP in 2029.) But to say she’s “returned” after these lengthy “absences” implies she’s gone away. The connotation insinuates she’d spent the downtime hidden away in a Venice Beach cave, scrawling verbose poetry into stacks of notebooks, sheltering herself from the world.
While it’s likely not terribly improbable she does spend a good deal of her time filling pages with sharp words, she’s also not the recluse she’s often painted as. Yes, she takes her sweet time between records; Apple’s art is the most vulnerable kind, so brazen in its lyrical revelations of her psyche and so doggedly original in its composition that she becomes only synonymous with herself. Each one of her full-lengths are landmarks of their time and yet also timeless. Heaven forbid she take some space to reset between such explosive efforts.
Those rests, however, aren’t spent as a complete shut-in. Apple has a well-documented history battling obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, PTSD, and anxiety, which when considered alongside her unhurried release pattern could give the impression of a secluded misanthrope. Surely she’s had antisocial tendencies in the past, but Apple doesn’t hide from the world between her albums — she branches out into it.
Apple’s landmark debut, 1996’s Tidal, arrived when she was just 18. She won a Grammy, denounced the music industry onstage at the VMAs, and captivated the world. That’s a lot for any teenager, let alone someone with Apple’s level of neurosis. In a recent exposé in The New Yorker, Apple read a diary entry from that time: “I’m insecure about the guys in my band. I want to spend more time with them! But it seems impossible to ever go out and have fun.” It’s a version of herself she barely recognizes these days. “I want to go out and have fun!” she said.
As few can be at such an age, she wasn’t entirely equipped for the fame she’d encountered. At the same time, she’d entered her infamously unhealthy relationship with then-burgeoning filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who’d just hit it big with Boogie Nights. While calling their time together tumultuous may be an understatement, it was creatively potent in its way. Apple penned the “Worm” rap in Magnolia and some of her paintings are even seen in the background.
In 1998, Apple contributed covers of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” and Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love” to the Pleasantville soundtrack. PTA directed the video for the former, which included a cameo from his frequent troupe member John C. Reilly. Over the next two years, Anderson would direct three more videos for his girlfriend — “Fast as You Can”, “Limp”, and “Paper Bag” — all of which came from 1999’s When the Pawn…, Apple’s sophomore album produced by Jon Brion. Brion, it just so happened, had scored every one of PTA’s movies to that point.
That sort of close-knit circle of collaborators is emblematic of Apple’s career, but things changed after When the Pawn… Her mental health deteriorated alongside her relationship with Anderson, culminating in a notorious meltdown on stage at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in 2000. Coupled with her distress being under the scrutinizing eyes of the media, she contemplated retiring altogether.
Despite largely removing herself from performing and recording, she was still a music star living a music star’s life. Sometime around 2002, she was hanging out backstage at a U2 concert when she met Rick Rubin. Apple complimented Rubin for his work on Johnny Cash’s 1994 career-revitalizing American Recordings. “We’re doing another one,” Rubin responded. “You should sing on it.”
Some six months later, Apple laid down backing harmonies for Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Her vocals on the track are some of the most pristine of her entire repertoire, a counterpoint to the country legend’s fragile rasp as well as her own often smokier delivery. She also dueted with The Man in Black on a rendition of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”, which appeared on the 2003 rarities collection Unearthed. The songs marked her first major joint recording effort and aligned with a reactivation of her own work.
In fact, the Cash collabs could be seen as the moment Apple started her journey with Americana music. Mostly associated with jazz-inspired avant-pop for obvious reasons, Apple’s long been steeped in folk, bluegrass, and roots sounds. Close listens to tracks like “Sullen Girl” and “The Way Things Are” suggest as much, and it’s only accentuated in her extracurricular projects. Before traveling down that dustier road, however, she returned to the genre in which she’d staked a market share.
The same year she sang with Cash, Brion convinced her during one of their weekly lunches to write another LP. While the pair worked on what would become 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, they also recorded a plucky, folksy version of “Frosty the Snowman” for the 2003 holiday compilation Christmas Calling. Apple then teamed up with her sister, cabaret singer Maude Maggart, for a pair of a capella standards featured on Maggart’s With Sweet Despair. Wrapped together around her sibling’s cleaner tones, Apple’s voice is almost unrecognizable — though the same could be said for Maggart’s when it serves as harmony on Apple’s albums.
Ultimately, Brion and Apple split on the direction of Extraordinary Machine. The producer was replaced by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew as Apple took the songs back into the studio. Despite rumors of a rift, Apple and Brion remained close. Locals could occasionally find them jamming together at Los Angeles’ Largo — a venue where Apple met two musicians who would become some of her closest friends and collaborators.
Siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, then of the popular progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek, began holding their Watkins Family Hour variety show at Largo in 2002. As another regular, Apple made numerous appearances during the Watkins’ shows. Isunn 2007, she joined Nickel Creek on their “Farewell for Now Tour,” performing her own sets with the trio (also featuring mandolin maestro Chris Thile) as her backing band. The Watkins-Apple alliance would go on to become even more productive in the years to come, especially after the turn of the decade.
Apple had still more collaborative highlights in the year immediately following Extraordinary Machine. Comedian Zach Galifanakis lent his house and lip-syncing talents to the video for “Not About Love”, sparking a friendship that led to the absurd and absurdly explicit comedy single “Come On and Get It (Up in ‘Dem Guts)”. “If you show me your fanny pack/ I’ll show you my fanny,” Apple sings. This is a real thing that really happened, an obscure inkling of Apple’s sense of humor.
2006 also saw her guest on Elvis Costello’s episode of VH1’s Classic Decades Rock Live!, delivering a stunning, passionate rendition of “I Want You” eventually released as a single. (Costello also covered Apple’s “I Know”.) She later dueted with musician Christophe Deluy on his track “Still I” and sang “Sally’s Song” for the special edition of The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack.
Following her Nickel Creek tour, she joined prolific indie artist Davíd Garza on the spilling piano ballad “Loveless” off his 2008 album Dream Delay. Another Largo and Watkins Family Hour regular, Garza joined Apple as opener and guitar player on her Extraordinary Machine tour. It wouldn’t be until Fetch the Bolt Cutters that Garza would perform on one of Apple’s own records — though he would make a sneaky cameo on The Idler Wheel…
Apple next appeared on the 2009 Cy Coleman tribute album The Best Is Yet to Come, singing “I Walk a Little Faster” and “Why Try to Change Me Now”. Sara Watkins, incidentally, sang “Too Many Tomorrows” on the comp, and three years later Apple would join her on “You’re the One I Love” and “Take Up Your Spade”, which also featured Jackson Browne. The songs came from Watkins’ Sun Midnight Sun LP, produced by Blake Mills. It’s possible this is how Apple was first introduced to Mills, whom she’d frequently team with after bringing him on tour in 2012.
That same year, Margaret Cho asked Apple to sing with her on the Patty Griffin-co-written, Ben Lee-produced “Hey Big Dog” off Cho Dependent. A lover of dogs and comedy, Apple was happy to answer the call.
Further proving there was no bad blood between her and Brion, the two re-teamed twice in the new decade. First came “So Sleepy” with The Punch Brothers from the 2010 child-penned benefit compilation Chickens in Love in support of creative writing non-profit 826LA. Ever the activist, Apple was on the advisory board at the time. Then in 2011, Brion produced her interpretation of “Everyday” for the Rave on Buddy Holly tribute LP, and the two performed their “first official show together” at Largo.
With the release of The Idler Wheel… in 2012, Apple demonstrated how even her most complicated relationships could persist. Though her romance with Paul Thomas Anderson had been more than rocky, they were able to reconnect for the “Hot Knife” video. The visual marked PTA’s first time directing a music video in a decade (prior to that, his last video was for Brion’s “Here We Go”). Another of Apple’s ex-lovers also has an Idler Wheel… connection, as the song “Jonathan” is named for author Jonathan Ames. The two were involved from 2006 until 2010 and briefly linked again in 2015. Ames actually shows up in the New Yorker piece, providing an interesting picture of how Apple keeps her exes close.
The Idler Wheel… years proved to be some of Apple’s most collaborative. The same year the album came out, Brion produced “Dull Tool” for the This Is 40 soundtrack, Apple’s first track penned specifically for a film.
As the partnership with Brion was continuing, the one with Blake Mills was blossoming. In 2013, he and Apple created a cover of the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory classic “Pure Imagination” for the Chipotle-sponsored animated short film The Scarecrow. Another famously reclusive musician, Frank Ocean, had originally been tapped for the rendition, but pulled out after demanding Chipotle remove their branding from the film.
A dystopian balance of eerie and splendid, Apple’s take on “Pure Imagination” is purely wondrous. Although a devout vegan teaming with a major mass-produced food corporation seems counterintuitive, there was some sense to it. The Scarecrow aimed at promoting sustainable, humane animal cultivation and processing; if ever a vegan animal-rights activist were to champion a meat-related cause, it’d be this. Regardless of any ideological tensions between artist and corporation, the ad was a huge success, winning two Daytime Emmy Awards and the prestigious Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Lions.
Apples and Mills’ fellowship continued its fruitful yield in 2014. They teamed with Maggart on a cover of Anton Karas’ “I’m in the Middle of a Riddle” for Starbucks’ Sweetheart 2014 Valentine’s Day compilation. They revamped Apple’s unreleased “Container” to become the theme song for Showtime’s The Affair. (Apple would later update Waterboys’ “Whole of the Moon” for the 2019 series finale.) Perhaps to return the favor for all his work on her music, Apple next added her jazzy voice to two tracks from Mills’ acclaimed 2014 LP Heigh Ho: “Seven” and “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”. The latter remains Mills’ biggest solo hit, and Apple has been known to drop in on his sets to perform it.
It was in 2015 that Apple got to live out a personal collaborative dream, a desire she’d hinted at on Idler Wheel… An ode to her favorite LA haunt, the album’s closing song, “Largo”, includes the lines, “I love watching the Watkins when they’re rocking with Garza/ I want to be part of the band though/ And when Mr. Tench is on the bench, I want to be the piano.” Garza is, of course, Davíd Garza, whom Apple toured with behind Extraordinary Machine, the same album that featured Mr. Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on “Waltz (Better Than Fine)”.
Having checked those two boxes, there was still one item on Apple’s bucket list: Be an official part of the Watkins’ band. She played with Sean on “Banks of the Ohio”, but truly got her wish when he and Sara decided to record their first Watkins Family Hour album. For the self-titled effort, the siblings rallied a number of their Largo compatriots, including Tench, Lone Justice’s Don Heffington, Greg Leisz, Soul Coughing’s Sebastian Steinberg, and yes, Fiona Apple. The LP saw the group recording covers of songs as varied as Fleetwood Mac’s “Steal Your Heart Away” and “Not in Nottingham” from Disney’s animated Robin Hood, all redone in folk and bluegrass traditions.
On record, Apple only appears on a version of Skeeter Davis’ “Where I Ought to Be” with Sara. When the Watkins Family Hour took the show on the road, Apple performed many more tunes as a featured guest. Popping up off the floor during the group’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she and Sean howled on the bluegrass standard “In the Pines”, and she added her voice to “Hop High”. She took lead on a captivatingly unhinged rendition of Ella Fitzgerald’s “When I Get Low, I Get High” at the Newport Folk Festival (a throwback to the Nickel Creek tour), and added her quavering emotion to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” at Fayetteville Roots Festival.
Her folky aspirations didn’t stop there. In 2016, she featured on Andrew Bird’s Are You Serious single “Left Handed Kisses”. Easily one of Apple’s best studio collaborations, her scratchy snarl is a perfect foil for Bird’s sturdier timber on the resentful love song. Apple’s visit to Bird’s Live from the Great Room series further gave us incredible renditions of the former’s “Werewolf” and the latter’s Swimming Hour cut “Why?”, as well as covers of the pop traditional “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” and Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister”. They also debuted a charming tune Bird wrote with his five-year-old son Sam, “Railroad Sam and Slingshot Sue”.
The next three years were sprinkled with more joint and one-off moments as Apple continued to stir her energies for Fetch the Bolt Cutters. She sang a mother’s lullaby, “I Can’t Wait to Meet You”, on Carnegie Hall’s Hopes & Dreams: The Lullaby Project, and penned the cheeky, anti-Trump protest chant “Tiny Hands” with composer Michael Whalen. There were live guest spots with Eddie Vedder and St. Vincent, and an appearance at the Chris Cornell tribute show. In 2018, Apple joined Garbage’s Shirley Manson for a cover of “You Don’t Own Me” at the 2018 Girlschool benefit festival. She took the stage in a shirt that read “KNEEL, PORTNOW”, a swipe at then-Recording Academy chairman and CEO Neil Portnow for his comments about women needing to “step up” to win more Grammys.
She further got to indulge her fondness for folk by taking part in Andrew Slater’s 2018 documentary Echo in the Canyon, exploring the mid-’60s rise of the Laurel Canyon sound. She took part in the tribute concert portion of the film, singing The Byrds’ “It Won’t Be Wrong” and The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” alongside Jakob Dylan.
2019 brought collaborations with Jeff Goldblum (“Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” off I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This), King Princess (a remake of Apple’s own “I Know”), and Phoebe Bridgers and The National’s Matt Berninger (an update of Simon & Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”). She also showed off her playful side by contributing the title track to the Bob’s Burgers episode “Pig Trouble in Little Tina”, a Halloween special that saw the character Gene dress as Fiona Applesauce, “Fiona Apple’s saucy aunt.” There’s more animated tunes to come, as Apple’s has reportedly recorded songs for the Apple TV+ sitcom Central Park starring co-creator Josh Gad, Kristen Bello, Titus Burgess, Kathryn Han, and others.
As all this was going on, Apple had renewed her idiosyncratic, experimental, often anxiously chaotic album process. She first convened her Fetch the Bolt Cutters band in 2015, calling upon guitarist Garza, bassist Steinberg (of Watkins Family Hour), and indie drummer Amy Aileen Wood (whose father, John Would, engineered the effort). Together, they followed Apple’s creative whims, banging her house like a modular drum, attempting to record in an abandoned water tower. Actress Cara Delevingne came along to meow on the title track. “We played the way kids play or the way birds sing,” Steinberg told The New Yorker.
Whenever the idea of perfecting the songs or putting herself back in the public spotlight overwhelmed her, she’d shift to other projects or lean on friends like her roommate, Zelda Hallman. Her collaborators not only helped her realize the new compositions, but centered her when she lost equilibrium. The result is the sound of someone freeing themselves from confinements, including those built in solitude. Perhaps right now is the perfect time for a new Fiona Apple record, especially one called Fetch the Bolt Cutters; you can be sure that even in isolation, the elusive artist won’t be keeping herself completely alone.