Fiona Apple & Blake Mills
I had gotten Fiona Apple’s first album, Tidal, soon after it was released in 1996, and, although I liked it, I didn’t have very strong feelings about it in any way. That was until two years later, when I was working at a salon in downtown Seattle and heard a song through one of the company-approved, AEI mix cds that, on previous listens, I had not paid much attention to. It was winter, and the slow, sultry, Sade-esque sound of “The First Taste” put warmth back into the cold, wet world we were surrounded by. It was from then on that I found myself completely in love with the wispy girl from New York with the big voice. In 2000, after the release of her second album, When the Pawn… (1999), she embarked on a tour to promote the new effort, and I was fortunate enough to see her perform at the Paramount Theater that March. I don’t remember specifics about the concert, like what songs she played or who opened (apparently it was Jurassic 5), but I do remember how it made me feel. I begged my brother, Chris, to go with me, since I had recently broken up with my boyfriend of 5 years and didn’t have many friends. He was a good sport, and I think that he agreed to go along because he felt sorry for me. On the plus side, I also believe that he actually enjoyed himself. We were seated in the very last row of the second balcony, about as far away from the stage as you could get. Luckily, there really isn’t a bad seat in the historical Seattle theater; we still had a good view and the sound was great. Fiona floated onstage. Her voice was angelic and powerful, both expected and surprising, given the size of her stature. I was happy–actually, happy–which was a refreshing change from the gloom that I had become accustomed to, and the irony hasn’t escaped me that the reigning theme of a good number of her songs is a heavy sadness. I smiled and danced and sang along like a fool; the show couldn’t have been any better.
In the 13 years since that performance, Fiona Apple has released two more albums, Extraordinary Machine (2005) and The Idler Wheel… (2012); collaborated on songs with Johnny Cash, and with comedians, Zach Galifianakis and Margaret Cho; appeared on various benefit and film compilations; and toured a handful of times. Though it seems that Miss Apple has been out of the spotlight, she’s kept herself plenty busy.
Apple‘s most recent venture is a joint effort with guitarist Blake Mills. The two traveled together throughout 2012, during her Idler Wheel… tour, with Blake performing as the opening act, as well as playing guitar in her band. He got his start in the band Simon Dawes (now Dawes) with high school friend, Taylor Goldsmith. The group released an EP in 2005 and an LP in 2006, but broke up shortly after, in 2007. Mills moved on to perform as a touring guitarist and a session musician working with several big names, including Norah Jones, The Avett Brothers, and Weezer. He then, put out his first solo album, Break Mirrors, in 2010. In addition to playing and writing music, he is also credited as a producer and composer, gaining him a wealth of respect from fellow musicians for his talent and versatility. Blake‘s songs are simple, and, although his sound contains elements of thoughtful country mixed with singer-songwriter, Freedy Johnston, his voice blends beautifully with Fiona Apple’s jazzy piano croon in a way that is a pleasant surprise. This recent collaborative tour, appropriately titled Anything We Want, was advertised as a “12-date North American tour. Featuring songs from their respective catalogues as well as some original yet-to-be-released material“.
The run kicked off in Portland, Oregon at the Newmark Theatre, where an incident with a fan threatened to place a cloud over the remainder of the three week excursion. Ninety minutes into their set, a woman called from the top of the theater “Get healthy, we want to see you in ten years!” Fiona responded with, “I am healthy,” before tearing into her. Most of the crowd supported her, but a few took the opportunity to yell further insults, including a man who shouted, “You’re a has-been!” Offended and angry, she had the first heckler removed from the venue and, as the woman was escorted out, she added, “I saw you 20 years ago and you were beautiful.” Although the artist tried to continue with the rest of the show, only one last song was performed. After an apology to the crowd, an emotional Apple left the stage in tears. As we headed to the concert hall in Seattle, the following night, we were full of speculation about what her demeanor would be and whether or not she would address the previous night’s hiccup.
This was my first time experiencing the splendor of the BenaRoya Hall, home of the Symphony in Downtown Seattle. There are two concert halls within the site: the larger, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium (seating 2,479 guests), where the show would take place; and the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, which holds 536. After walking through the Samuel and Althea Stroum Grand Lobby that surrounds the main auditorium, I left my handsome fiancé, Christopher, with his fellow photographers and was ushered inside. We were generously given ninth row, center stage seats, allowing us a perfect view of the entire show.
As the band entered the stage from a side door, the audience applauded excitedly, yet politely, exploding into a wave of woots and whistles, once the slight frame of the woman they came to see emerged. Fiona was awkward and she seemed nervous, but excited, to be on stage with a fresh sea of loyal fans in front of her. With a supportive Blake Mills beside her, she was backed by a strong rhythm section, consisting of stand-up bassist, Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Marc Ribot) and Barbara Gruska (The Belle Brigade) on drums. The band started off the night with a new song that was co-written by the pair, a plucky, twangy tune titled “Don’t Get Rid of It (You’d Look Good In It).” It was a playful way to warm up the crowd while allowing the two to shake off some nerves. Continuing with the slow, sexy build of “The First Taste” sent shivers through me and actually brought me to tears. I didn’t realize that I had been waiting to hear her sing this rare gem for 15 years and, listening to the song that snagged me so long ago, brought me full circle. It gave me some sort of release that I hadn’t expected, but welcomed gladly. I am now the girl that cries at shows.
While Fiona only took to the piano a few times, redoing her older songs with guitar in its place, she did play plenty of other random “instruments,” including a giant bass drum, some shakers, and what looked like broken stool legs held in pairs and clapped against her neck. She even tested her teacups, a statuette, and the stool that they sat on, by giddily tapping them with a stick. If it was on stage, she tried to play it. The next two hours were filled with new songs written by Apple and Mills (separately and together), a few from The Idler Wheel…, a Conway Twitty cover (“It’s Only Make Believe“), and only a single track from each of her first three albums. Blake and Fiona‘s styles complement each other: his cautious optimism comes together with her emotional fragility, creating a forgiving and reassuring cocoon; he protects her. Her songs have an honesty that gives one the sense that they are, essentially, listening to her diary, yet with him there, she has the courage to tell all her secrets without worry of judgement. You can see that they are close, when they perform, and it comes through in the music. The duo is comfortable experimenting and working out the kinks of their new partnership, while letting the audience witness the process. You feel as if you are part of the show, in on the joke, and one of the few that they trust to see them in this imperfect but sparkling state. The selections took the crowd on a roller coaster of emotion, while intermittent commentary brought us back to the center.
Appreciative and affectionate “we love you“‘s came out of the dark, and were welcomed with, “I love you, too, and not in the stage-answering way. If I say it, I’m sincere.” Any negative effect that the night before may have had on Apple seemed to have melted away, leaving her open and talkative. When someone complimented her new haircut, she smiled, explaining that she cut it herself and that she figured that no one would care what she looked like, when she was back “in the public eye.” She continued with, “There’s scissors everywhere!” flashing us a pair that sat on the tray of instruments next to her. Then she “snip-snipped” them, as if to use them musically, too. “That’ll work.” Then someone shouted, “Anything we want!” “Yeah!” she responded excitedly. The artist was at home and comfortable onstage, even joking with the gentleman who brought out some coconut water for her, explaining that she thought that he had said that there was “coke in that water” and asking, “Where’s my heroin?” She conversed easily with us, addressing each comment individually. The singer actually talked quite a bit throughout the show, but only toward the very end, did she touch on the previous night’s incident by claiming that she wanted to thank the lady who interrupted her for being an “asshole,” and providing that hurdle to work through. Although she was concerned that the setback would stick with her throughout the entire tour, Fiona surmised that the “asshole lady” must have just been some sort of “secret agent” sent with the message of, “you better be ready“. She did not, however, elaborate on what was actually said.
Fittingly, Apple and Mills settled us down with the song that was cut from the previous night’s set due to the woman’s disruption, a beautiful acoustic version of her heartbreaking song “I Know” from When the Pawn… Simply vocals and guitar, it left us silent and frozen for a long moment of consideration; how could someone who has endured so much criticism and heartache throughout her career, still have the ability to shower us with love? The answer is that, although Fiona Apple appears fragile and broken, about to crack at any given moment, she has a strength that comes through her music–that’s when she shines. The band returned for the final song, bringing the night to a close with “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” from Extraordinary Machine. After that, she informed us that she didn’t believe in encores and that, when a show was done, it was done. She had given us closure by not dragging things out, which some might believe is anticlimactic, but is actually a clean break. We were able to leave without wondering about if we had stayed just a little bit longer, would they come back out and give us some more. They gave us all that we could’ve asked for; to beg for more would’ve been greedy.
Before leaving for good, she paused to take a picture of the audience, breaking her own rule of no photography, capturing a joyous moment in time and earning a precious kiss on the head from Mills. They walked away cuing the rest of us to do the same. As we filed out into the auditorium, we decided to see what the merchandise table held, joining the crowd huddled around the booth. There were cds, tapes, shirts and posters, one of which was actually a lithograph of original artwork by Fiona, signed by both herself and Mills.. There were only 50 available for each show, so we felt lucky that we were able to get one for ourselves. Walking away, I once again felt the elation that comes with seeing a truly amazing show, and that feeling radiated from every person leaving the music hall. If you ever have the opportunity to see Fiona Apple perform, I strongly recommend it. You won’t be sorry that you went, but you will be sorry if you miss it.