11/25/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
AS SHE SINGS HER BALLADS OF rage and sorrow during a concert at the Fez nightclub in Manhattan, Fiona Apple clenches her fist in anger one moment, then appears on the verge of tears the next. But later, asked if she feels overwhelmed onstage by the emotional power of her songs, she seems almost embarrassed. "I must have been acting," she says, laughing self-consciously.
If the singer sounds a bit unsure of herself, it's no surprise. She's just 19 and has been performing professionally only since May. Until then, Apple was a New York City teenager coping with one deeply traumatic memory—and a jumble of more typically adolescent feelings—by composing brooding, introspective songs on the piano in her bedroom. Now several of those songs are on Tidal, Apple's remarkable debut album, which, since its release last summer, has been steadily climbing the Billboard album chart. Suddenly, Apple is seeing the video for her single "Shadowboxer" getting heavy airplay on MTV and VH1, and hearing critics compare her voice to jazz singer Nina Simone's and her writing to Carole King's. That may be a bit hasty, but what everyone says about Apple is that she displays a maturity far beyond her years.
The sense of lost innocence in Apple's songs is no mere pop-diva pose. In November 1989, Apple, then 12 years old, was raped by an intruder in the apartment building where she lived with her mother and sister on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Already a melancholy and withdrawn child, Apple says she had a hard time communicating her feelings of violation and anger. "I got sick and tired of going to my parents, my teachers, my friends and shrinks and telling them how I felt about things and feeling totally misunderstood," she says. "So I thought, 'Well, paper won't do that to me.' "
Apple began pouring her feelings into songs. An apparent product of her do-it-yourself therapy program, "Sullen Girl" is one of Tidal's most powerful ballads. In it, Apple alludes to her assailant, who was never caught: "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."
Apple was always a serious child. The youngest of two children of Diane McAfee, an amateur singer-turned-culinary student, and Brandon Maggart, an actor who starred in the 1984-89 Showtime sitcom Brothers, she and her sister Amber, now 21 and a waitress in Los Angeles, lived mostly with their mother in New York City after their parents separated when Fiona (Apple is her middle name) was 4. Teased by her schoolmates, who called her Dog because of her long, unruly hair, Fiona found solace in music at age 8 when she began playing the piano. "My Mom would always say if something went wrong, you would hear three sounds," she says. "Me stomping down the hallway, the door slamming and the piano. It was my way of getting out aggression, so I just stuck with it."
After leaving high school in 1994, Apple visited her father at his home in Los Angeles and recorded a demo tape of three of the songs that she had been writing. Back in Manhattan, Apple gave a copy of the demo to a schoolmate. The friend, who worked as a babysitter for music publicist Kathryn Schenker, introduced Apple to her boss. "She had a tenacity and a specialness about her," says Schenker of her first impression of Apple. "Even at 17, there was something about her that said, 'Take me seriously.' " After listening to Apple's tape, Schenker passed it along to producer and manager Andrew Slater (Don Henley, Jackson Browne and the Wallflowers), who helped Apple land a recording deal with Sony Music.
On the road almost constantly since Tidal was released last summer, Apple, who doesn't have much time lately to experience firsthand the romantic entanglements she sings about, says she has finally come to terms with the rape. "It becomes part of who you are," she says. "But I have made peace with the whole experience, and I don't have any hate in me because of it."
One thing she hasn't processed yet is all the attention—and adoration—she has been getting. "I spent so much of my life being called Dog," says the waifish singer with the big blue eyes and the pouty, cover-girl mouth. "Now I go to a photo shoot, and they're like, 'Oh, you're lovely!' It's a tremendously heavy emotional experience," she adds with a frown, "but I'm getting better at it."
JEREMY HELLIGAR in New York City