Fiona Apple Tidal

The Legendary Waves Behind Fiona Apple’s Grand Debut ‘Tidal’

Using the spirals of poetry and jazz that formed her, Fiona Apple’s Tidal established the 18-year-old as an honest and revolutionary voice in music.

Fiona Apple
Work / Columbia / Clean Slate
23 July 1996

The first track on Fiona Apple‘s debut album Tidal, released in the summer of 1996, opens with a rumbling start. In “Sleep to Dream”, written when Apple was only 14, she comes in tough as any giant, her voice a towering beacon of dignity and self-respect as she rips this unserious lover to bits. “I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care / I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare / You say love is a hell you cannot bear / And I say ‘gimme mine back and then go there for all I care.”

Fiona Apple’s smoldering rage hits a blazing peak: “I have never been so insulted in all my life”, “I could swallow the seas to wash down all this pride”. Like the pounding of a drum, each word hangs heavy in the air, accompanied by the hard-stricken piano keys, which she bangs like a percussive instrument. Apple’s bracing bluntness and unbound sound are a defiant stare back at a world that would expect her to harbor all this pain rather than release it.

It’s beyond any doubt that Fiona Apple and her landmark debut album Tidal, continue to make legendary waves on the pop music landscape today. Following Alanis Morissette‘s album, Jagged Little Pill, Tidal’s release a year later rocked a heavily male-dominated indie and pop scene away and transformed 18-year-old Apple into one of the most famous – and scrutinized – pop icons at the time.

Filled with candid clever songs, the record went platinum within just a year. Its influence and charm would only grow more potent with time. As Apple’s messages of individualism and resilience ultimately redefined the status quo and what it meant to be a confessional female singer-songwriter, ushering in a new wave of outspoken, stunning artists into the spotlight.

The magical story of Tidal plays out almost exactly like a teen movie. When Fiona Apple was 17, her self-made demo tape miraculously found its way from her friend Anna, who was babysitting for a music executive, to Andy Slater, who immediately signed on to be Apple’s producer and manager. Together, Slater helped Fiona devise a sound for Tidal based on Fiona’s most significant musical inspirations: hip-hop and jazz.

“She didn’t have all the songs written, and for a long time, it was just me trying to find out what kind of sound she liked— Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and the hip-hop records. So, we started from there.” Slater said in an interview with Spin.

Although not as experimental and fluid as Apple’s later works, Tidal stands as a cohesive blend of these old and new styles. A strong and palpable ‘rap-like’ cadence cuts through Apple’s plainspokenness and jazzy score across Tidal. A feature that finds its roots in the distinctive influences of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and hip-hop, which have collectively come together to form something unyielding and unclassifiable.

Before recording Tidal, Apple had never entered a music studio or even performed a single show. More impressively, Apple had no formal musical background whatsoever. She had taught herself to play the piano with a compilation of jazz standards called The Real Book. “I would teach myself a song that I’d never heard before.” she shared in a MuchMusic interview, “and then I’d go out and buy the albums to see if I got the song right or had totally screwed it up.” As an intensely introverted child who’d struggled to feel heard by authority figures, she’d been pouring her heart and feelings into words and music to set her side of the story straight. “I would love the way that it felt to have your side of an argument right here in front of you. If I wrote a letter, I didn’t even need to win an argument.” Fiona shared with The Washington Post.

“My mother always said there was a series of noises that followed an argument in our house — a lot of yelling, me stomping down the hall, my door slamming, and then the piano. When you’re young, another language to express yourself in, that people can’t make fun of, is very important.” Apple recounted with MOJO

Above all else, like most teenage girls, Apple longed to feel understood. Undoubtedly, some of the greatest musical works of all time have blossomed into existence out of that same garden as well, an impulse to grow and reach an all-opposing, unaware audience of any number – or in the staggering case of Tidal, three million.

That grand debut came out in the wake of the success of unabashed female rockers like Alanis Morisette, Liz Phair, and Tori Amos. When Apple joined the Lilith Fair tour in 1997, it felt inevitable as the popularity of women in mainstream pop and rock grew. However, in a music industry mostly centered around male artists and conventional numbers, no other mainstream musician in the 1990s had been so daring, provocative, and unapologetically sincere in their explorations of female adolescence in the way Apple was. 

It’s called Tidal in honor of those unpredictable highs and lows that run rampant in a universe teeming with monumental extremes, particularly where being a young woman is concerned. Much of Tidal was penned during Apple’s teens, which stumped even her producer Andy Slater. “I was not entirely convinced that this person sitting in front of me, who was clearly 17, had written those words,” he shared with The New York Times.

As though the entire tumultuous experience of being a teenage girl is not, at times, already a spiraling, emotionally complex maze to navigate through. “But as the scenery grows, I see in different lights,” Apple sings on “Never Is a Promise”, the only track that made it onto Tidal from her demo. In this tender and beautiful piano ballad, she confronts the shattered, empty promises a lover once made to her. Apple sounds more forthright and self-aware beyond her years, weighted by decades of experience: “You’ll say you’d never let me fall from hopes so high / But never is a promise, and you can’t afford to lie.” The lovely addition of Van Dyke Parks‘ weeping strings only makes this harrowing confessional all the more heartbreaking. 

This song is emblematic of an album that broadened Apple’s fragility and radically honest depictions of being a young woman just beginning to endure the bitter realities of the world. But often, her ethereal words carry the oceanic strength of a woman raging back against it all. “You made me a Shadowboxer baby / I wanna be ready for what you do.” Apple divulges on “Shadowboxer”, ready to defend herself from anything this lover-turned-foe throws her way. It is no surprise why Tidal’s poetic defiance continues to attract a devoted legion of fans today, many of them teenage girls, who recognize themselves in the depths and weight of Apple’s words.

It wasn’t only teenage girls. Apple’s visceral angst and authenticity have influenced many singer-songwriters and artists across many genres to be as fearlessly articulate as they wish. “She made me want to have something to say.” Sharon Van Etten shared with fans in a heartwarming Instagram post dedicated to Fiona Apple. There is considerable power in how Apple’s fury and eloquence have inspired artists the likes of Solange, who once proclaimed herself as the President of the Fiona Fan Club, and Lady Gaga: “I just reveled in the way that girl is so herself,” she shared with Billboard.

Fiona Apple’s frank depictions of pain and isolation don’t end on the operatic flourishes of “Never Is a Promise”. Years before pop culture started to address depictions of mental illness properly, the second track in the Tidal catalog sees Fiona at her most vulnerable. “Sullen Girl” is a stirring song about trauma. “And there’s too much going on / But it’s calm under the waves / In the blue of my oblivion,” she delves deeper, as though she’s singing from underwater, her powerful voice rising to break through the surface, “They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea / But he washed me ashore / And he took my pearl / And left an empty / Shell of me.” 

The grim reality that “Sullen Girl” seemingly references in this haunting song is Fiona Apple’s sexual assault. Apple was raped outside of her home at age 12. “It humiliates you and makes you feel very powerless,” Fiona spilled to MOJO. With this traumatic incident in mind, one can understand how Apple found the courage to lay her soul bare on paper through the works of her “mother”, Maya Angelou. “Reading this woman’s writing, I could see how she made it through and made it to her advantage [Angelou was raped at the age of eight]. Most things that move me to write are things I’ve struggled with but have given me strength.” 

Angelou’s influence on Apple’s songwriting prowess and artistic expression speaks for itself. On songs like “Sullen Girl”, and “Slow Like Honey”, Apple evokes the cutting assuredness and lush poignancy of Angelou’s writing. “When I’m high like heaven / When I’m strong like music.” Her words in the latter track are shaded in with deeper layers of meaning that find their mark against the dreamy notes of John Brion’s vibraphone: “‘Cuz I’m slow like honey and heavy with mood.” In the latest vinyl reissue of Tidal, Apple thanks Maya Angelou for “everything you’ve ever written.”

In a then less open and more reserved pop world, the emotional intimacy and maturity of Apple’s work were unruly, fierce, and uncompromising. Yet, it was refreshing. Tidal was met with glowing reviews for the most part and propelled a young Apple into stardom almost instantly. The 18-year-old’s first live performances were on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live

However, if the track “Criminal” hadn’t already boosted Apple’s reputation among critics and listeners of Tidal who had written her off as the “bad, bad, girl” – a line that Apple delivers in the song with a seductively cool sway – the music video certainly didn’t help correct it. Written in less than an hour after her label pressed Apple for a hit single, the song’s vivid exploration of power dynamics and sensuality would ironically become Apple’s highest-charting hit of all time. 

“Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done.” Fiona Apple sings on “Criminal”. Her approach to sexuality was aggressive, to the point where in classic fashion, she didn’t care to make anyone comfortable with her words. Directed by Mark Romanek, the music video starred a lingerie-clad Fiona Apple lounging around the chaotic aftermath of a teenage party gone wild. Rows of empty beer cans litter the floor, and other teenagers barely clothed themselves can be spotted sleeping amongst the wreckage. Although its imagery is not particularly unusual to find popping up in today’s music world, it became a subject of significant controversy in 1997. 

Things soured more when she won against pop trio Hanson for Best New Artist at the 1997 MTV VMAs. In her infamous acceptance speech, she fired shots at the deceivingly squeaky-clean world that pop music belonged to: “This world is bull—.” The persona of the “angry woman” in which Apple was boxed in, overshadowed her unconventional genius and candor. “She approaches things from a very raw state,” said Apple’s Lilith Fair colleague Joan Osborne to Spin, “and that’s hard to sustain while being a pop phenomenon.”

The review that dragged Apple’s public image further, which notoriously haunted Apple in the following years, appeared in Spin’s November 1997 “Girl Issue”. With photos by Terry Richardson to boot, the cover story sadistically painted the teenager as an attention-seeking and dramatic diva, “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.” it proclaimed. Utterly humiliated, Apple, who was at the party thrown in celebration of the Spin story in question, broke down. “She crumpled into a chair, tears streaming down her mascara-smeared face, an MTV Ophelia,” Phoebe Hoban recorded in the New York Times

Channeling the waves of colossal resilience which permeate throughout much of Tidal, Apple was able to fight off and reshape her public image with her debut’s 1999 follow-up, When the Pawn…. Tidal soon went triple platinum, and Apple’s potential and singularity in the pop music landscape only calcified over time. As Entertainment Weekly put it, in a review for Apple’s sophomore album, “the seemingly nonstop blur of young acts swamping the charts and MTV’s ‘Total Request Live’ does make one occasionally yearn for performers with—how to put it delicately?—longevity and substance.”

So much of Tidal seems to roar in defiance of a world intent on burying it. “Your presence dominates the judgments made on you.” She sings on “Never Is a Promise”, an accurate and spirited account of both Apple’s sense of self and Tidal. It would take three more spectacular albums (Her most recent two-time Grammy-winning work, Fetch the Boltcutters, in particular) to convince critics and the music industry of what teenage girls had admired in Apple all along.

It’s fascinating to consider the consequences of releasing such an intimate, confessional debut in 2023. While Apple undoubtedly remains one of the most considerable talents in indulging in raw emotion and eclectic melodies today, her bravery and vulnerability have set the stage for a new generation of bold artists – particularly women. Without Tidal, there is no Sharon Van Etten or St. Vincent, who once told the BBC, “That brain of hers is really something.” 

“I’m just hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s OK,” the 19-year-old Apple spilled to a New York Times reporter, in the wake of the Spin cover story fiasco. Twenty-six years later, Tidal prevails as a timeless testament to why unguarded honesty will never fall out of style.