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Weekend Intermission – Greatest live performances ever – Fiona Apple: Never is a Promise and I Know

Weekend Intermission is our regular feature where we look at an artist or band not from the Nordic countries, just to mix things up a bit.

I have two such ‘Greatest Live’ performances for you tonight, both of them mercifully captured live for posterity.

I don’t know where to start or stop with Fiona Apple. I mention her a lot; to date there are 10 review articles in which she is mentioned by name, but then she is the #1 female singer songwriter of the last 30 years in my opinion and if I make any reference to her you can be sure that is a huge endorsement of the artist I’m comparing to her.

But I’ll wager there are some folk reading this article that have never heard of her, owing to her latter day isolation. A semi-recluse in her Venice Beach home, she hasn’t toured for years that I know of, once cancelled a tour of Latin America because her dog was sick and didn’t reinstate the tour later, and hasn’t been to Europe for close to 20 years. (I did read that she has a fear of flying, which might count as an excuse).

I know of several organisations that have tried consistently to attract her, the Manchester International Festival being just one of them, but without any success.

And her track record at releasing studio albums isn’t great either. On average one every 4.8 years from 1996 to 2020 or every 5.6 years until now. And the gap is getting bigger. The one between albums three and four was seven years and between four and five it was eight.

Apple argues that she writes only when she feels like it, which isn’t very often but when she does she becomes obsessed with the project and wholly driven until it is completed to perfection… She doesn’t do anything to order, by record labels or anyone else. And you might well feel that’s the way it should be

That degree of obsession possibly dates back to her third album, ‘Extraordinary Machine’ (2005), the first she recorded, as a New Yorker, in her new Los Angeles home and the one that introduced her to me. It was famously delayed because her label, Epic, held it back for two years, seemingly because they were concerned about a lack of ‘commercial appeal’.

That led to a highly publicised fan-led ‘Free Fiona’ campaign and the re-recording of the album which was eventually released more than three years after the original recording sessions began.

There is a lot about Apple that I could talk about, such as her Melungeon ancestry (descendants from northern or central Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans, who mainly live in the Appalachian mountains – she gets her given name Apple from her grandmother), the Broadway showbiz background of her parents, her cabaret singer sister Amber, aka Maude Maggart, her Grammy Awards (she’s a three-time winner), her remarkable and career defining “the world is bullshit” outburst at the MTV Awards in 1997, her various physical and mental ailments that have troubled her for years (but which now seem to be under control) and what at the very least probably contributed to them; the brutal rape she experienced as a 12-year girl right outside her apartment door on her way home from school.

I’m astonished there is no biography of Apple but then again I don’t think she is the type that would want one anyway.

Her songs are invariably about relationships that failed and often (but not always) written vengefully, belittling the ex-partner. If Los Angeles is ‘100 suburbs in search of a city’ as it was once described then its most lovelorn inhabitant is ‘100 dates in search of a love affair.’

The first video is of a performance of ‘Never is a promise’, from her debut album ‘Tidal’ in 1996. She long ago gave up on performing this song live; it clearly has an extremely emotional effect on her.

This is taken from the West 54th Street Sessions, a popular TV show at the time.

I have never seen a more genuinely emotional and passionate delivery of a song by ANY musician that can top this performance. It is breathtaking from start to finish and Apple lives it rather than sings it. Pass the tissues please.

Watch for the way she uses facial expressions.

(And there is an even more dramatic and impassioned live performance than this on YouTube but I declined to post it in case it frightened the kids).

She bares her soul like no-one else I know. And almost chokes on the emotion.

Bear in mind that Apple was 14 or 15 when she wrote it and is 18 or 19 here. In fact it is one of three songs on a demo tape passed on by a babysitter friend to the child’s mother, a music publicist, who ensured it was passed on to Sony. That’s how she got her break.

And tell me how a 14-year old writes lyrics like,

“You’ll never see the courage I know/Its colours’ richness won’t appear within your view

I’ll never glow the way that you glow/Your presence dominates the judgments made on you.”

And that’s just the opening verse. Later,

“But as the scenery grows, I see in different lights/The shades and shadows undulate in my perception

My feelings swell and stretch I see from greater heights/I understand what I am still too proud to mention…

to you”

What?? 14?

One aspect of Apple’s talent that is rarely mentioned strangely is her piano playing. He began learning aged six and by the time she was eight was composing her own songs and transposing guitar tablature into piano notation. Just think about that.

The weird instrument being played in support by the way is a Chamberlin, a sort of early mellotron which you rarely hear these days but which remains one of her favourites.

For the second performance we move on to circa 2014. I said earlier that she doesn’t perform live much these days, the exception being in some of her favourite Los Angeles clubs including this one, Largo.

Once again the lyrics, this time in the song ‘I know’, the final track on her second album, ‘When the pawn…’ are awesome. I can’t think of anyone who can surpass her. In this case Apple is in her rare gentler, forgiving mode, at least until the end.

Try this:

“And you can use my skin to bury secrets in

And I will settle you down

And at my own suggestion

I will ask no questions

While I do my thing in the background”

And the coup de grâce:

“While you try to find

The lines to speak your mind

And pry it open, hoping for an encore

And if it gets too late, for me to wait

For you to find you love me, and tell me so

It’s okay, don’t need to say it…”

She spits out the “for you to find you love me” like a woman scorned a thousand times by indecision in the face of her obvious love for him, then immediately collapses into the heartrending pathos of “and tell me so”.

And for all the complexity of those lines, “And if it gets too late, for me to wait, For you to find you love me, and tell me so” it trips off the tongue.

And the brilliance of those lyrics is capped by the two words that everyone is expecting to be delivered right at the end but which never are, the title line, “I know”. She doesn’t have to say it because she knows so many women hanging on every word she says know it, too. That’s pure genius.

There’s more drama in this five minute video than in most of the movies made today but that is what Apple is all about, the impromptu live performance from an unpredictable artist. She’s left audiences begging for more but she’s also just walked off stage two songs in, because she didn’t ‘feel right.’

To any younger performers and especially female singer-songwriters reading this, Fiona Apple is the Gold Standard, and this is the level you should aspire to.

The passion Apple brings to just about any song she performs is off the scale. I would pay whatever it took to see one of her mesmeric performances live, anywhere.

And she is still very much a contemporary artist, aged only 47, even if she rarely gets out of first gear these days.

Find her on:


(She doesn’t really do social media).

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