Fiona Apple knows how to take care of herself. She has to go for a long walk every day or she gets a little crazy. So on a recent morning in New York City, she woke up at 4:30, put on sneakers and a navy blue trench coat, and left her midtown hotel. She moved slowly with her hands stuffed in her pockets, listening to her new iPod on shuffle, and the music in her ears made her feel like she was wandering through a movie.
She walked through Central Park just before sunrise, the light soft and gauzy, with Elliott Smith singing ''In the Lost and Found.'' She walked to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where as a child she sang in Christmas pageants. She walked all the way up by Columbia University to her mother's apartment building, where Apple was raped in a hallway by a stranger when she was 12 years old. She kept walking and eventually found herself in front of the Dwight School on 89th Street, where she once worked as a receptionist while attending night school. Here her iPod randomly settled on ''Pale September,'' a ballad from Apple's first CD, 1996's aggressively confessional Tidal. Normally she freaks out and skips her own songs. But today, looking at the place where as a teen she jotted down some exquisite lyrics that jump-started a multiplatinum career, she forced herself to listen.
All these years later, and back to the beginning. Which is really the only place to start a story about the mercurial artist, who vanished from the music scene after the critically adored 1999 album When the Pawn... and told herself she'd never return. Six years later, her new record, Extraordinary Machine, which was supposedly shelved by her label, which in its early stages was mysteriously leaked to the Web, which inspired elaborate conspiracy theories and a fan-driven campaign to ''Free Fiona,'' is coming out. And Fiona Apple is finally ready to set the record straight about why she went away, and why it was such a battle coming back.
A few hours after her morning stroll, Apple, 28, sits in the lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, her long hair damp from a shower and curled into a loose bun. Her eyes are so startlingly big and blue that a direct gaze almost feels accusatory. She's still in her trench coat, which she wears over a turquoise T-shirt and long black skirt. She made the mistake of having some coffee earlier and is a little shaky from the caffeine. She used to take medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder, but over the years, she's gotten better at handling stress. ''As frazzled and tired and kind of jittery as I am right now,'' she says with a smile, looking down at a trembling hand, ''I'm actually doing great and I'm very happy.''
She knows what people assume about her: ''That I'm crazy. Annoying. Bratty. Sullen. All the things that I definitely am sometimes.'' (During a two-hour conversation, she's also funny, frank, and self-aware.) She blames these perceptions on the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, where she was named Best New Artist. Fresh off her breakthrough ''Criminal'' video, in which she crawled moodily around in her underwear, Apple delivered an acceptance speech full of regret and disgust, telling the stunned room that ''this world is bulls---!''