You’re Not Here to Be Perfect

Reflections on 25 years of Fiona Apple profiles

Do Rachel Handler and Fiona Apple exchange texts on New Year’s Eve? Does Fiona send Kristin Iversen cute dog photos? Does Jenn Pelly call Fiona sometimes while she’s making dinner?

Fiona Apple’s music means a great deal to me, especially her latest, Fetch the Bolt Cutters.1 (1 Pitchfork's Album of the Year in 2020 and the rare perfect 10.) She’s an enormously successful artist who still works without a net, each album somehow more original and honest than the deeply personal one that preceded it.

But five excellent albums over 25 years doesn’t fully explain how oddly connected I feel to Fiona as a person. I haven’t even seen her perform, though my closest miss came under notorious circumstances. I had tickets for a show in Austin on September 20, 2012. The day before, her tour bus was stopped in West Texas and she was arrested for drug possession. The show was canceled.2 (2 She performed in Houston the next night and it seemded the concert would be rescheduled. Instead, refunds were issued and in the nine years since, she’s performed just 42 times—not once in Austin.

The source of my connection is one of music journalism’s highest art forms—the Fiona Apple profile.

Since 1997, I’ve read 65,000 words about Fiona across just 10 articles. They range from the tidy 2,900 words Kristin Iversen wrote in Elle to Emily Nussbaum’s epic 10,000-word profile in The New Yorker. Dan Lee, Jenn Pelly, Rachel Handler, John Weir, Laura Snapes, Alan Light, and Chris Heath penned the rest. Rachel Handler is the overachiever of the group—she's interviewed Fiona for three pieces so far.

The core of the articles is familiar—a profile of a musician ahead of an album’s release, typically recapping a conversation over lunch or a brief outing. If you're lucky, you'll get a peek into the artist’s life and who they are when they're not on stage.

Fiona’s profiles are the equivalent of having your journal, photos, and text messages appear in a major publication. In fact, many of the pieces include personal photos, text messages, and excerpts from her journals.

What stands out in these interviews is how much time she spends with each writer, how quickly they develop a seemingly personal connection, and, of course, how transparent Fiona is about her past and present.

In starts in 1997, when John Weir hangs out with Fiona at her mom's apartment. She shows him her high school yearbooks and dolls her mom made her, tells painful stories from her childhood, and introduces him to her friends and mom.

The next year, Chris Heath joins Fiona on the floor of her hotel room. They make word collages by cutting out headlines from newspapers and magazines. She tells him in-depth stories from 3rd grade, empties her purse and inventories everything in it, explains how she came to use psychiatric medication, and at his request, reads a random excerpt from her journal. She gives him the phone number of her ex-boyfriend and tells of her struggle with an eating disorder. The meetings span multiple cities.

Fiona and Dan Lee spend nearly 30 hours together in 2012 over multiple days and states. They enjoy wine and pot while hanging out at her house, where he meets her brother, hears about her traumatic birth, and goes for a walk with her dog.

After a long break, the profiles return in 2019. Fiona initiates this one, in fact. Rachel Handler begins by referencing the one with Dan Lee that received so much attention.

She hasn’t done a conventional interview in years; when she was profiled back in 2012, by this very magazine, she smoked hash out of a Champagne flute while musing about human compassion.

When Emily Nussbaum's profile appears in The New Yorker, the past profiles are part of the conversation again.

Today, Apple still bridles at old coverage of her. Yet she remains almost helplessly transparent about her struggles—she’s a blurter who knows that it’s a mistake to treat journalists as shrinks, but does so anyway.

The conversation and visits stretch from July to January. Fiona sends video from her day at the beach and asks for help interpreting texts from friends. They watch an episode of The Affair together at Fiona's house and Emily is there when Fiona has a panic attack. Emily meets Fiona's mother as well, perhaps at the same apartment where Dan and Fiona went through her high school yearbooks.

Rachel Handler and Fiona keep in touch and then Rachel publishes another in-depth profile in 2020. It starts with a FaceTime conversation from Fiona's house on the topic of the New Yorker article.

That New Yorker piece (Emily Nussbaum's) is so funny to me — the period of time we were talking was such a horrible group of months, because of all of the withdrawal I ended up being in from getting off of some medications.

Rachel asks, "What is it like acknowledging things about yourself in public?"

I think I’m used to it. I don’t think I know any different. I can recognize it enough to be a little bit creeped out by it — the fact that I do tend to open up way too much. But I’m okay. I feel weird, obviously.

Rachel noted that many of the profiles were by men3 (3 See Kristen Iverson's Men Explain Fiona Apple to Me. The latest profiles have been by women.) and asked:

When I was doing research on your press, it struck me that for most of your career, it was men reviewing and interviewing you. I’m wondering what that was like for you — to always be interpreted through the prism of the male perspective.

Fiona replied:

Well, I’m not as keen to talk to men as I am to women. I don’t mean that overall. But in general, if you’re going to give me a choice to talk to somebody I don’t know, I’d rather it be a woman. Just because our understanding is very different than men’s understanding.
I’m not going to put myself in a position where I’m trusting somebody I have no knowledge about to interpret me for the world. I know you, I trust you, I’ve talked to you before. I know your heart is good. I know you’re a good writer.

Kristen Iversen visits Fiona in June and October of 2020, with many FaceTime calls and texts in-between.

On that bright October day, back when it was possible to go inside someone’s home and hug them hello and hug them goodbye, Fiona Apple walked me back out through her garden, Mercy at our heels, and asked me three more questions that have stayed with me. I try and answer them anew every day. “Who are you trying to impress? Who are you trying to satisfy? Are you going to make yourself happy?”

These profiles primarily focus on Apple's music and craft, of course. She has few peers as a songwriter and singer, and her significance as an artist makes her honesty so compelling. She brings the messiness, pain, and heartbreak of life into the open, and often without immediate resolution. Public figures do share struggles regularly, but usually only after they've been overcome. Fiona's profiles are remarkably of the moment, and those moments are ones most of us hesitate to share with our friends, let alone the press.  

Fiona's unflinching honesty has brought criticism, but her bravery has given others strength and comfort, and made public and private conversations about depression, abuse, anxiety, and OCD easier. And there's so much to be celebrated in these stories, too, because the messiness of life also includes growth, overflowing joy, creativity, best friends and new friends, loyal pets, and understanding ourselves in new ways.

I’ve found many insights within those 65,000 words. One, though, stands out. In honor of naming Fetch the Bolt Cutters their Album of the Year, Jenn Pelly wrote a 9,800-word profile for Pitchfork. It's another piece that grows out of nearly 6 months of conversations about writing and recording, meditation, OCD, and more.

In it, Fiona tells the story of Bob Dylan asking her to play piano on his song, Murder Most Foul. She tells her manager that she’s underqualified for the job, but decides to show up the next day for the recording.

I told Bob I was really insecure about it, and he was really encouraging and nice. He was just like, “You’re not here to be perfect, you’re here to be you.” To have Bob Dylan say that before my record came out was a huge deal for me.

You’re not here to be perfect,
you’re here to be you.

That line has been with me throughout this year. What a kind and generous thing to say to another person. It could be said to a child, partner, friend, collaborator, parent, or even coworker. It’s the rare person who wouldn’t benefit from hearing that.

I know, because I’m one of them. And what's so perfect about Bob Dylan saying that to Fiona Apple is that she's been saying it to us for 25 years through her songs and interviews. I’m grateful to her for spending hour after hour with Jenn Pelly, and for not hesitating to tell another story of vulnerability and doubt.

Maybe one day there will be a 6-episode podcast about these profiles. The host will interview each of the writers and then bring them together in the final episode to compare notes.

The host, of course, will also reach out to Fiona to see if she wants to be part of it. She'll beg off, but offer to meet up for a chat. The conversation will span a few months, bouncing between FaceTime, texts, and photos.

The highlight of the podcast will be the transparent, funny, and unflinchingly self-aware voicemails Fiona left for the host.

10 Fiona Apple Profiles

  1. Girl Trouble by John Weir (1997, 3700 words)
  2. Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings by Chris Heath (1998, 6900 words)
  3. Girl on a Wire by Alan Light (2000, 4500 words)
  4. ‘I Just Want to Feel Everything’: Hiding Out With Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit by Dan P. Lee (2012, 7300 words)
  5. Fiona Apple Is Still Calling Bullshit by Rachel Handler (2019, 5400 words)
  6. Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity by Emily Nussbaum (2020, 10000 words)
  7. Allow Fiona Apple to Reintroduce Herself by Rachel Handler (2020, 8500 words)
  8. Fiona Apple Is Finally Free by Kristin Iversen (2020, 2900 words)
  9. Fiona Apple on How She Broke Free and Made the Album of the Year by Jenn Pelly (2020, 9800 words)
  10. Fiona Apple on the album of the year, Grammys hypocrisy and how #MeToo helped her get sober by Laura Snapes (2020, 4200 words)