VICE UK staffers Hannah Ewens, Emma Garland and Lauren O’Neill discuss Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the singer-songwriter’s first album in eight years, released on Friday the 17th of April, with music critics Sydney Gore and Tara Joshi.
Sydney Gore: Fiona Apple has always been ahead of her time. I was exposed to her earlier works late as a teenager, but even then I recognised her impact as an artist. To me, she had nothing to prove to anybody – her talent was extraordinary. Sometimes it hurts to listen to her sing because you can feel her pain seeping through the speakers. To this day, she remains uncompromising about the messages that she delivers from her platform; I deeply admire that strength and conviction.
Tara Joshi: So, I have to confess: until last week, I had never knowingly listened to Fiona Apple. She was never someone who had really come up on my radar – bar a couple writers I respected rating her, my vague assumption of “singer-songwriter does piano pop” never made her someone I considered especially appealing to explore. Which in itself is probably so telling of the bullshit of “the canon”, the limitations of genre and my own internalised misogyny aka how easy it is to dismiss a woman based on *checks notes* zero knowledge of her art!
But then on Friday morning as I routinely tapped through my Instagram stories, I noticed Fiona’s face peering back at me with a manic smile again and again, and friends were texting me asking if I’d heard it yet – I knew it was time to stop being a dick and actually listen. And I’m glad that this means, implicitly, we are all stripping away the patriarchal gaze that music has been entrenched in, that we have all learned, instead validating women creators who are more than entitled to accolades like “genius”. I love how she gently picks apart the glass ceiling with a little Kate Bush nod on the title track – “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill, shoes that were not made for running up that hill.”
Lauren O’Neill: I love that so much of this record is basically about a lot of the pre-conceptions you describe there. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about all of the injustices Apple has experienced as a woman, and the challenges that other women she knows have faced too. It’s about #MeToo,, and about the fact that music critics have never really given her what she is due, because she is woman who makes work that is not embarrassed in any way to be by a woman, and about Brett fucking Kavanaugh, and about refusing to shut up or be contained by anything that anyone else says you are.
In the last few years, a lot of art has been made about similar themes, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of it, but I’ve not felt as subsumed into someone’s point of view as I do listening to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, maybe ever. You end the record feeling like you have understood everything Fiona Apple wants to tell you, even the unspoken stuff, and I think that’s because it’s so her: a full-throated embrace of herself – including her mistakes – told in a style completely of her own making, in her own way. I can’t think of another musician working now, other than maybe Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar, who displays that type of complete mastery of and over their narrative.
Hannah Ewens: Fittingly, this is an album that sounds like every single outside influence has long fallen away, the result of how isolated she is as a person and musician. I feel like Apple could open her front door on the other side of quarantine, and say, “Did I miss something?” For me, this album provides a space to be fully present. Even when she reminisces about the past, she does so, among bangs and whacks of the pots and pans, with improvised lines, vibrant second-by-second updates and a unique stream-of-consciousness storytelling.
Emma Garland: The first thing that struck me about Fetch The Bolt Cutters is its physicality. Between the percussion and the vocals, there’s practically no space left unoccupied by a beat or breath. Apple literally used her house in Venice Beach to make this album, banging on the walls, the floorboards and allegedly a box containing her dead dog’s bones, making the whole composition feel like a brawl: Fiona Apple vs the haters. Each crash or bang lands with purpose and impact – a blow dealt and another immediately returned – which is a subtle but fitting way to articulate a narrative of violence breeding violence (turned inward against the self as much as it is inflicted on others). Basically the whole album feels like a living organism, and unlike anything I've ever heard before. The only other comparisons I can make in regards to this form of storytelling are Tom Waits and The Slits.
TJ: Playing it loud teems with the everyday. You can sense that she recorded it at home, and not just because of her dogs barking (shout out Mercy). There’s a comfortable warmth to it that makes me feel safe, and it sounds like a film soundtrack that adds a richness to my weird Stay At Home mundanity without feeling completely at odds with this jarring period of time. It’s a blanket that’s not wholly beautiful and soft – there are moments of silky harp, but also parts that are jagged, angular and dissonant; careening noises and raw squeals and screams that feel sort of perfect for my headspace right now. Like, I don’t want to focus too much on The Situation, but I also think it’s a really wonderful thing to have released this album during all this rather than holding out until October like her label wanted.
LO: I’m so happy that when I think back to this weird time in my life, I will associate this record closely with it. On the day it came out, I went on a run in the evening after finishing work, and it was really something to feel like my body was powering itself along, experiencing movement and freedom after being cooped up all day, while also listening to this record. One of the major narratives of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is this concept of emancipation – from sexism, past versions of yourself, the music industry – and while going out for your state sanctioned exercise during a national lockdown is obviously very different to setting fire to the fences that have surrounded you professionally and personally for decades, as Apple does with this music, it was really pleasurable to experience the two things hand in hand at this tough time, and just let go a bit.
SG: If I see one more person throw around the phrase ”strange and uncertain times” to describe the COVID-19 period I am going to explode, but Fetch the Bolt Cutters arrived when it was absolutely needed to help us persevere. While I have always found comfort in Apple's music, Fetch the Bolt Cutters showcases even more depth as she guides us through the layers of inner turmoil that have been buried in the back of her brain for all these decades. You can sense her exhaustion from carrying these burdens for so long on songs like “Heavy Balloon”, but it’s not like we’re being dumped with an emotional overload. Apple has taken so much time to process everything that has ever happened to her and these 13 tracks are a result of that healing work. She has so much to say in the wake of #MeToo and isn’t going to let anyone shut her up like when she was younger (“Under The Table”). Apple is hellbent on breaking the cycles of toxic behaviour that continue to spin (“Relay”). She has learned from the error of her previous ways, particularly with women, and earnestly wants to make amends for the wrongs (“Ladies” and “Newspaper”).
HE: Her writing at this point in her career is smarter and funnier for its specificity and how personal it is, I think. Even when she’s saying “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you shush me,” on “Under The Table,” it’s like a verbatim real life exchange that she’s repeated to herself furiously in private. My favourite song on this album is “Relay”: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” made me shout. It’s such an incisive spoken word line that immediately works twice: once, to indicate the chain of abuse, and how an abuser often grows up to abuse others (that "bullies bully" sentiment), twice, to show the continuing knock-on effect that trauma has on our own lives. I imagine a girl, a young adult, a grown woman passing on their pain like a baton in their thoughts and actions.
EG: The lyrics are literal without being too on the nose or didactic, but also deal in very physical terms – “Blast the music, bang it, bite it, bruise it” / “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up”. The title refers to releasing yourself from the coat of armour you’ve assembled to survive in a world that’s set up to work against you, but Apple never paints herself into a corner. The long-term emotional impact of high school bullies and throwaway comments made by fellow students are spoken about with a hurt that still feels fresh, while the songs you’d expect to feel more vulnerable – “Newspaper” and “For Her” – feel the most resilient. It’s a kind of storytelling we normally don’t get in such plain terms; that should be intimate and innermost, but has been reworked into something shared and celebratory. This album has occupied my brain to such an extent that I’ve spent all weekend throwing my clothes around and banging on the kitchen countertops (sorry to my boyfriend) along to the parts that are lodged permanently in my head, but at the same time I genuinely can’t imagine what it would feel like to sing a song like “Newspaper” out loud.
SG: The title track chronicles her early experiences in the industry in such vivid detail that you can’t help but cringe remembering all the ways in which she was misrepresented in the press throughout her career. She forgives, but reminds us to never forget. In a recent interview, Apple revealed that the album is about “breaking out of whatever prison you’ve allowed yourself to live in, whether you built that prison for yourself or whether it was built around you and you just accepted it”. For her, this mostly applies to the image that was constructed of her by the outside world. But make no mistake, Apple controls her own narrative now.
LO: One of the most impressive ways she wields that control is at the level of melody, and I feel that most strongly on “For Her”, which is a song she wrote for a woman she once knew who was unable to speak up about her experience of rape. Near the end of the song there’s this melodic change up and a total lyrical hammer blow. It’s Apple’s voice layered over itself again and again, sounding like it’s summoning hell, singing: “Good morning, good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” It makes my entire body go cold because it’s so powerful and bold just as a statement in itself, but the fact that she sets this devastating revelation to the universally familiar melody of “Good Morning” from Singin’ In the Rain – a tune we all know without really thinking about how we know it – forces it to smart even more resoundingly, the inevitability of the melody pushing the inevitability of cycles of misogyny and the cognitive dissonance of patriarchy up to the surface, right up in her listeners’ faces. It’s really an astonishing bit of songwriting, to do so much with what feels like so little.
TJ: I read that back in 2000 she gave an interview saying she didn’t write songs about her experience of having been raped, and I totally get that – it’s messed up how often women are expected to present our traumas as things to be consumed, as things to elevate us in our work – trauma isn’t artful, it’s painful. From what I’ve listened to this weekend, I get the impression her work has always delicately questioned patriarchy – but always in a way that feels a lot more thoughtful that pop culture’s recent shift to an #Empowermentcore, “let’s use mental health as a sell”-era. On this album, Apple’s first post-Me Too, she seems to feel more comfortable being direct, partly following the seething about Brett Kavaunagh – the track "Relay" centres around a lyric she wrote when she was 15, a few years after her assault: “Evil is a relay sport, when the one who's burned turns to pass the torch.” And when she says “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” on "For Her", a track written for a woman unable to tell their story, my hairs stand on end and I get angry and sad but also vindicated that this is being written about in a way that does not cater to a capitalist or male gaze.
HE: I immediately think of another song that was written with the Brett Kavanaugh trial as political stimulus. “Broken”, the final track on Sleater-Kinney’s most recent album, is a deflated ballad with morose lyrics (“She, she, she, stood up for us”), but here, on Apple’s “For Her”, she’s so specific and mocking of the rapist of her song, and by the end, the chorus of women singing “good morning” feel like they’re about to destroy this man, get some kind of real retribution. Although she feels differently towards women who were her enemies or competition – VIPs, Pretty Young Things, wannabes and bullies – she’s wryly realistic about the limitations of modern feminist sisterhood. When she huffs, “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through” on “Ladies”, it’s like: capitalism still exists, human nature still exists. These displays of Fiona Apple’s special brand of honesty are so refreshing. The bolt cutters on this record aren’t just to let her out, they’re also to finally let us in. I’m just happy that music critics and fans seem united over this album.
EG: I'm as guilty of throwing this term around as liberally as every other enthusiastic music writer, but Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the definitive album of the last decade. No question. It's the first album to get a 10.0 on Pitchfork since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and regardless of how much stock you put in a numerical rating system, that feels right. It gives rise to all the systematic ills and micro-details that make up a society and shape an individual, with no issue too big or too small, no feeling too arbitrary. With a balance of weight and wit, this is a masterpiece only Fiona Apple could construct, and I hope this changes her image as an artist in the eyes of those who previously wrote her off as a woman having an orgasm on a piano (although that in itself is extremely cool).
SG: How rewarding is it that we get to witness her moment of vindication? Yes, Apple earned this, but she also fought so hard to get here and that’s a rare occurrence. We don’t deserve any of her art, but she generously gives it to us for the taking anyway.