NEW YORK — When Fiona Apple first heard about the Web site freefiona.com, she remembers feeling flattered, overwhelmed — and guilty.
That’s because while fans were mounting an ambitious Internet campaign on her behalf, accusing Apple’s record company of squashing a brilliant album because it wasn’t commercial enough, she didn’t want to see “Extraordinary Machine” released either — at least not the version widely circulating on the Web.
“I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted,” she says of “Extraordinary Machine,” which was finally released Tuesday after a months-long saga that cast Apple as an artist being subjugated by her powerful record label, Epic Records, a division of Sony Music.
The truth was murkier.
Though Apple claims Sony didn’t like the original version of the album because they didn’t hear any hits on it, she was dissatisfied with it, too, for other reasons.
“I kind of checked out, I wasn’t there to be the captain of the ship and say how I wanted things to be musically,” she says.
The album initially was produced by longtime friend and producer Jon Brion, who had worked on her best-selling, groundbreaking debut album, 1996’s “Tidal,” and its follow-up, 1999’s “When the Pawn.”
“In this case, I don’t know what was going on in my head so much — trepidation about what was ahead of me, a lack of confidence, I don’t know what it was,” she says.
Shy of the media spotlight
Apple hadn’t even been pushing to record an album. The singer-songwriter, who lives in Venice, Calif., was happily living out of the spotlight, burned by her previous brush with celebrity.
“Tidal” made her one of the most heralded voices to emerge during the ’90s boom of strong female singer-songwriters: Her poignant lyrics and frankness about past pain (including a childhood rape) made her a critics’ darling. But she was also depicted as vitriolic and disturbed. Her very public struggles over her newfound celebrity, including occasional outbursts and crying fits on stage, made her an object of ridicule and gossip.
So she pulled away from the media’s glare. She barely promoted “When the Pawn” — and to date, it has sold a little more than 920,000 copies, about a third of her first album’s 2.7 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
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“I tried to leave my own little bubble as little as possible,” says the still waifish 28-year-old Apple, her wide eyes reflecting the hurt.
“It was a tough time, and I don’t think that I ever want to revisit that kind of popularity,” she says quietly. “It hurts your feelings. It hurt my feelings, to be misunderstood, to be talked about.”
After that album, she would perform occasionally with Brion, and write a little bit, but for the most part, she was living a “very easy, workless life.”
Troubled recording process
Brion was the one who nudged her out of her bubble. After she confided to him that she had been writing songs, he pushed for her to go into the studio.
“He wanted to get to work, and I could understand that and I knew that I kind of needed a kick ... and didn’t know what else I was going to do,” she admits.
But then she sat back and let Brion take over, unable to come up with a grand artistic plan all her own. As the pair came to the end of the recording sessions, she knew one thing — she wasn’t happy.
“As great as they are,” she says of the songs, “as proud of them as I am, they kind of lean toward more being a Jon Brion record because I wasn’t able to pick out things.”
So she reached out to Mike Elizondo, perhaps best known for his hip-hop production with 50 Cent and other top acts. Elizondo previously was approached by both Brion and Apple to work on the project, and Apple thought Elizondo could give her the direction she badly needed.
But according to Apple, Sony was hesitant to bankroll that new direction. She was told her she would have to work on one song at a time and let the company hear each one before it would go further, she says.
(Epic spokeswoman Lois Najarian denies this: “Things were definitely miscommunicated to her during the time period when Fiona was switching producers, and unfortunately she was led to believe that the label was only allowing one song at a time. That surely was not the case.”)
In any case, Apple felt powerless and confused.
“I really did want to redo the songs,” she remembers. “(But) I thought that it was at the cost of my integrity.”
So she quit. She called her manager and told him to inform Sony, unplugged her phone and retreated to Venice.
Who leaked the CD?
Then, a few months later, she got word that someone had posted an early Brion version of the record on the Internet; freefiona.com emerged, decrying Sony for not releasing it.
Elizondo says the leak was “disconcerting at first. I had spent a lot of time working with Fiona on something that she was excited about ... but at the same token, I’m assuming that the motive of the fans or whoever leaked it was trying to help her.”
“I was freaked out about it,” Apple says. “I felt guilty; I felt really moved that people cared about me that much, but I’m still kind of paralyzed because I can’t do it the way I want to do it, and I opted not to talk to anybody because I thought it might [mess] up my chances of getting things to go right.”
After the issue caught the mainstream media’s attention and became a rallying cry on the Internet, Apple says Sony told her that she could do whatever she wanted with the album (though Sony maintains they would have released the album anyway).
Now, with the Elizondo version finally released, Apple is excited again — ready to embrace life outside her bubble, and excited to be back at work with her music again.
And she credits freefiona.com for helping her get to that point.
“I’m totally in awe of them. I’m in awe of a small group of people that organizes to get something done,” she says. “Look at me — I can’t even tell you what I’ve been doing for the past six years, and it’s my album!”
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