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Fiona Apple's 'Machine' needed a push to get going

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NEW YORK -- Fiona Apple is curled up on a couch, fighting back tears. But it's not what you think.

When the diminutive, doe-eyed singer/songwriter rose to fame as a teenager in the late '90s, many perceived her as angry, troubled or at least colorfully neurotic. Her precocious lyrics reveled in baiting and scorning lovers, while in interviews, she regaled reporters with accounts of having been raped as a girl.

Apple, now 28, clearly hasn't lost her flair for drama. But these days, she is more likely to attract it than be consumed by it.

Consider the story behind Extraordinary Machine, Apple's first new CD in six years. Recording sessions began in 2002, with Apple and longtime producer Jon Brion working on and off. Apple says both she and her label were less than thrilled with the results.

"Sony didn't think there was a hit," says the singer, who is signed to Epic Records, a division of Sony Music. "And I wanted to redo some songs."

Producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, 50 Cent) came on board, and Apple says the label suggested "that I could maybe hand in one song at a time. But I thought that was an incredibly bad idea, because it implied that if they didn't like what I handed in, they could try to change it. Or they could say, 'You can't have any more money, and we're shelving it.'"

(Epic spokeswoman Lois Najarian says: "Things were definitely miscommunicated during the time when Fiona was switching producers, and unfortunately she was led to believe that the label was only allowing her to record one new version at a time. That was surely not the case.")

Recalls Apple: "At that point I said, 'I quit.'" But an anonymous admirer had other ideas. While on her new computer one day, Apple discovered that some of her early, Brion-produced tracks had been leaked online. "It was the weirdest feeling, like somebody had taken my diary and printed it."

The singer soon learned that fans had started a "Free Fiona" movement and sent letters, apples and drawings of apples to Sony's offices. "I remember thinking it was ridiculous and funny. Here I was, jobless, sitting around in my bathrobe watching TV. But then I started crying, because I thought, 'Oh, my God, these people care so much.' I feel so moved by that."

Apple's gift to the faithful, the finished version of Machine, arrives Tuesday, and the album -- including the biting single Parting Gift --

confirms that she hasn't lost her flair for confessional candor. "I started writing songs and continue to write because it's how I deal with my life. I don't make up stories."

She prefers not to discuss in specific terms how ex-boyfriends such as filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson influenced her lyrics. "I've been in other relationships since Paul. He's been a big part of my life, and he's a very good friend now. But the songs are informed by all my relationships. There are certain lines that are directly about one person or situation, so directly that I'm sure those people recognize it. And that may be why I do this, to get my point across -- though not in a mean way."

The singer won't say whether anyone special is keeping her company these days, other than her dog, Janet, a pit bull mix she took in "because no one claimed her or wanted her." She has resolved to forge ahead with her career for the time being.

"For a while I was looking forward to having to get another job," Apple says. "I had this fantasy about applying to this place in upstate New York, Green Chimneys. They do occupational therapy with kids, using farm animals. I thought that was something I could be passionate about. But music just kept on coming back."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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