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Rebuilding Fiona

She's been branded everything from tortured and bruised to moody and difficult, but right now, Fiona Apple just has a case of the sniffles.

Talking on the phone from her Venice, California, home, the much-praised, much-embattled singer/songwriter/pianist is lying low, preparing to embark on the biggest concert tour of her career. While Apple has traditionally favored theaters and small venues, she recently completed a swing of dates as the opening act for arena rockers Coldplay. Her headlining tour, which launches from SunFest's main stage this weekend, is a 40-date blowout of sheds and amphitheaters across America.

"Ten years ago, I hated opening for other acts," she says. "I didn't like the disrespect you got because people were there to see someone else, so they would be talking through the show. Now I make myself do things. Everything I'm doing right now is like a science experiment on myself. Now it's cool to be in a place that's less intimate."

It's an important development for Apple; as her fans know, the stage has often been fraught with danger for the singer.

Not too long ago, Apple was known as a flighty and volatile stage presence. Her infamous meltdown at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City left more than 3,000 concertgoers holding the bag after she ranted about poor sound quality, attacked rock critics in the audience, interrupted a song by yelling "Just stop it! This is a nightmare!" — and walked off stage, declaring a five-minute break that "is still in progress," in the words of one attendee's account.

It's easy to see why Apple earned a drama-queen reputation. The album she was touring behind at the time had a 90-word title — it became known by its first three words, When the Pawn... — which was a poem written in reaction to what the singer deemed a personal attack in Spin magazine. In fact, the waifish 28-year-old has attracted a fuss ever since breaking through in 1997, when the video for her song "Criminal," from her triple-platinum debut,Tidal, showed her slinking around in her underwear, looking like a washed-out Calvin Klein model. The same year, accepting an MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, she said, "Everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world — this world is bullshit, and you shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool."

Maybe it's the head cold, but as Apple talks about learning to deal with the ups and downs of showbiz in the years since, it seems maybe the husky-voiced alto has lightened up.

"Most of the time, I am really hard on myself," she says. "But my dwelling time has gone down a lot."

She's had a lot to dwell on. In late 2003, news broke about Sony's rejection of an early version of Extraordinary Machine, the album Apple finally released last year to wide acclaim and a slot on several year-end best-of lists. Eventually, Apple admitted that she was the one responsible for the delay, which included a search for a new production team. But the two-year wait for the long-anticipated third Fiona Apple album was too much for many of her fans. Early last year, a website called was launched, collecting 36,908 signatures on a petition drive to get Sony to release the material. Still, the album was shelved until further notice.

There were times during the making and remaking of Extraordinary Machine when Apple contemplated leaving the music business entirely. "'Free Fiona'" — she emphasizes the words with a strain of bemused disbelief — "came during a time when I had given up. They had a lot to do with me coming back. At first, I didn't know what to make of it. You know, it's like... do I need freeing? But after a couple of minutes laughing about it, it really touched me." True to form, however, Apple says she would never look at the site or the petition. "I'm too sensitive," she admits. "I don't read about myself online. At that time, I didn't even have a computer."

In October 2005, after Apple had re-recorded ten of its 12 songs with a new producer, Extraordinary Machine was released to raves. Critics and fans lauded the album for the crystalline purity of Apple's rage, coupled with her facility as a lyricist and her idiosyncratic-yet-accessible compositions. Given the album's resounding success, it's a wonder she ever contemplated giving up on it or her career.

"I fell into this business so fast and easy, I never had an opportunity to figure out if I was good at anything else," she says. "Without music, I really don't know what else I would've done."

One of two daughters of divorced parents, Apple grew up in Manhattan and California. She bears the psychic wound of a rape that occurred when she was 12, a trauma that seems to inform the intensity of her fiercest songs. She's been lumped in with other articulate, independent female singers who also emerged in the 1990s, including Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLaughlin, but Apple's songs are far from the weepy confessionals associated with Lilith Fair divas. Full of frank ferocity, many are penned, as she says, "to get revenge on whoever I was angry with at the time."

Throughout her auspicious career, Apple has been lauded by the music industry while standing defiantly outside it. At 20, she struck back at 33-year-old Courtney Love, who had criticized Apple for appearing in her "Criminal" video wearing only her skivvies. "I told her, 'Bitch, you're out there wearing your underwear too,'" Apple once recounted. And she's still circumspect about her quick trajectory. "With my first album, like a lot of people, I was trying to find my place in the world, to prove myself... and to get revenge," she says, laughing. "With the second album, I started having more self-confidence. I knew where I wanted to go with things, with the songs."

And now that she has finally completed her third and most successful effort to date? Now can she step on stage in front of a thousand expectant fans and actually enjoy herself?

"Everything for me right now," she says, "is about enjoying myself."

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Frank Houston