🍎 Released on June 19 2012, 7 years after Extraordinary Machine, The Idler Wheel... is Fiona's boldest, and barest album to date. "This is the stuff that I really needed to get out, this is the excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me." Fiona (listed as "Feedy" in the credits) produced the album under the radar along with her touring drummer Charley Drayton ("Seedy"). Her record company found out she had an album done when she handed it to them. This freedom is manifested in her uninhibited approach to its creation. "I just like that feeling of: 'I'm in charge, I can do whatever I want."
"I really let everything just get spit out. I would not second guess anything."
🍎 Piano-driven arrangements and intricate melodies are still at the core, they are however decked with unorthodox percussion and homespun sounds that articulate the tension, and illustrate Fiona's psyche. In addition to creating loops, playing percussion, piano, and keyboards, Fiona's production credits include "field recordist", "truck stomper", "dance partner", and "Daredevil thighs".
"I wanted to make everything as stark as possible, so you could hear everything".
The Idler Wheel... is a journey inside Fiona's mind as she makes sense of her inner-workings, waxes poetically about exorcising her pain, sees herself through others, then reconciles everything with her brain. This post is a content heavy revisit of the record, mostly written in Fiona's own words, featuring her drawings and writings.
"It must have started in 2008. Or 2009. I don't know! I have no idea. It's weird to think that there was 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011. Where've I been? What was I doing? What was that year about? ... It was very casual, and I wasn't fully admitting that I was making an album, I got to use the time in the studio to inspire me to finish other things rather than feel like I was finishing homework to hand in. It wasn't a lot of pressure. And the record company didn't know I was doing it, so nobody was looking over my shoulder". I think the first phrase that I wrote off of for this album was at the beginning of the song "Left Alone". I wanted to use the phrase "moribund slut," which led me to use the phrase "orotund mutt."
"On the first night of recording Charley, we walked by this bottle-making factory. The door was open and you could hear a machine running. We both had our recorders with us and we agreed that the sound would be good for the song "Jonathan". Juan, the guy working the night shift at the factory, let us walk through and record the sound of the machine.That was the moment where I said, "Oh, we're not making demos-- this is going to be it. Me and Charley are going to make a record right now." And then it just got fun.
"On these songs, I really let everything just get spit out. I would not second guess anything. There were songs I would write about breaking up with somebody before I broke up with them, months and months before I broke up with them. And I'd go back to that song, and now it makes sense why I wrote that."
The album was finished in 2011, but Fiona delayed the release until her label found a new president in 2012, because she "didn't want her work to be mishandled amid corporate disarray." When she finally surprised Epic executives with it, they asked if she thought the record was really finished; if there wasn't another song, a hit perhaps, still forthcoming. She told them it was finished.
Apple's camp didn't want bells and whistles for her return.
A small tour was announced in Spring 2012.
Ahead of her first performance, the album and its title were uploaded on her Facebook page on March 8th.
Footage of Fiona performing live from her first tour in 5 years intensified the anticipation.
She premiered "Every Single Night", "Anything We Want", and "Valentine" at SXSW on March 15th.
"Every Single Night" was posted on her Soundcloud page on April 23rd.
The music video was directed by Joseph Cahill in Paris, France and premiered on June 10th.
Fiona appeared on Late Night on June 18th, her first TV appearance since 2006!
She was interviewed by some guy, before performing "Anything We Want" and a cover of "Let Me Roll It" with The Roots.
The album came out the next day and she was off on her 27-city second leg of the tour!
🍎 Meaning of
"I came up with it in a total rush. After having stayed up all night on deadline, it just came to me right after the sun rose. I didn't realize people would be like, "Oh shit, another poem." It just came out to be what it was-- sorry."
"Of course you're going to say ridiculous. Because that's what you do with me, right? I put out another long title because that's what the title's supposed to be."
The Idler Wheel is wiser
"For years now, in many of my notebooks, there would always be something about an idler wheel. I like the idea of the idler wheel—it just sits in between things, but it makes such a big difference in the way that the machine is working.
The middle, medium-sized gear is an idler gear. That concept has always been something that has interested me, but I didn’t really know why. Now I feel like it connects with feeling everything because I’ve gone through a lot of attacking things in my life—like, “There’s a problem here, I have to do something about this,” or “I’m not useful unless I’m doing some kind of job.” It’s to the point where I feel like I’m not really a full human. I used to feel like, “I’m not a functional person because I don’t go on lunch dates with friends. I hear about people having dinner parties but I never do that. I’m not really human.” But if I were to imagine myself as an idler wheel inside some big mix of gears, then I would be connected to everything. It’s not like there’s just me and then nothing. This is going to make me sound kind of flaky, but I’m like “Hands Across America” with the moon right now. I feel like I am connected to even the farthest-reaching part of the universe—as is everybody."
than the Driver of the Screw
"If you think about it, the driver of the screw has one job and he is always trying to change things. But the idler wheel is there and has this great effect on what the gears do; the idler wheel knows the machine much better than just this one thing that's performing this one task."
And Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do
"This relates to me having a problem with the whole "do unto others" thing, and also to the "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" concept. I don't plan on having kids, but I somehow tend to read a lot about parenting and think a lot about parenting. For some reason it’s very interesting to me-I think because I’m just big on self-parenting. But I had read about whipping cords in a nautical book that when ropes get frayed at sea, you can repair the ends with whipping cords that are very strong. This goes right back to parenting- if I had a kid, and I had a choice between teaching somebody how to avoid trouble, or teaching them how to get out of it, I'd teach them how to get out of it. Because no matter how well prepared you are in life, you’re gonna fall down a hole, and if you can fix the frayed ends of things, then you’re better off. What’s valuable is to know how to make something out of that.”
Fiona had some great interviews this era, I recommend checking the first 4 later for further reading.
The Idler Wheel... was critically acclaimed, and debuted at number 3 (her highest debut yet), selling 72,000 copies in its first week. It received a 2013 Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album (not that she cares).
"Hot Knife" was the second and final visual released in July 2013. It was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who was also responsible for "Paper Bag", "Limp", "Fast As You Can", and "Across The Universe".
🍎 The songs
"Jonathan" was named after Jonathan Ames whom she was dating at the time.
"I named it that because-- and I'm saying this in the most affectionate way-- he loves attention. I felt like he deserves to have a song with his name in it. I was staying in an apartment in New York and he was just starting up his show [the HBO series Bored to Death]. I was writing this instrumental thing that I'd started after he had taken me to Coney Island, he takes all of his girlfriends to Coney Island. I was bitchy about it later on, but at the time he gave me this really wonderful day of simple joy and kindness. I was at the piano and I started writing a musical piece that reminded me of Jonathan because he is so extreme in some ways. So I was like, "Hey, I'm writing this music and the music switching between doomy and happy reminded me of you" and he was like, "Does it have my name in it?" I thought, "I'll do that for him." But then we broke up. I was like, "Am I gonna put this song on the album?" You know, this is going to sound awful, but it's also about practicality. If I ever get a boyfriend again, do I really need to be explaining for the rest of my life why they don't have a song but Jonathan does? I honestly felt like it’s just going to be the fight that breaks up my next relationship, and it’s not worth it. But then I was like, "Ah, fuck it."
Anything We Want
"I've been playing this stupid pipe thing live, but that sound was actually me at my desk with a pair of scissors, a tin full of burnt-cedar sashays, and a plastic cup. I was hitting everything with scissors and the cedar was flying all over the place. I've been in the business for so long, and my favorite thing is drums. I have a very, very big memory-- and I don't have many big memories-- of going to see the movie Tap, with Gregory Hines. During one scene, he's in jail, and there's some water dripping down, and he starts tap dancing. I just like that feeling of: "I'm in charge, I can do whatever I want."
Fiona first played this song at Largo on Valentine's Day, 2007. She said at the time that the song was about a woman she admired and would like to be more like. In her Vulture profile, the lady is mentioned among some of Fiona's relationships: "There was a younger girl a few months ago, a beautiful dancer with whom she climbed onto her roof to watch the sky at various times of day and night."
"While you were watching someone else / I stared at you and cut myself."
"I was a little afraid of putting that line in because I didn't want to make it sound cool, because I don't cut myself. I used to be somebody that would cut themselves, and it is about wanting to feel something. But something that I do. I mean, this is totally from an actual situation of me watching someone watching someone else being really alive-not quite in the way it seems in the song-but after a while I realize that I've dug holes in my palm with my fingernails. I just tend to do things to myself that I don't realize I'm doing. Sometimes I bite my lip so that it splits and hurts, and yet I can't stop. And sometimes I'd play shows on the last run, I'd scratch my neck while I was singing, and I'd horrified to see these red streaks of blood after. I'd go back after meet-and-greets, and I would look in the mirror and be horrified because there would be, like, just streaks, like I'd gone like this. [mimes scratching her neck] There was a lot of pain going on there, so I think I was really abusing myself. I didn't realize that I was doing it, but I think it was coming from a painful place, and it was very embarrassing when I would go backstage after a meet-and-greet and realize that no one told me that I had, like, these red stripes down my neck. It was like, [in jokey voice] "I wonder why they all think I'm so sad?" [laughs]
I wrote that song while staying at my mother's apartment up in Harlem. Whenever there's a TV, I put on [Turner Classic Movies]-- I always have it on, while I sleep, whatever. I was recording myself doing the song for the first time, and a battle broke out in the movie that was playing. People were shooting and screaming. I liked it, but I couldn't use it from the movie, so I spent literally the next year trying to recreate that sound. I went to San Francisco for Halloween and I was hanging out in trollies recording people screaming. I would walk past a bunch of drunk people and be like: "Hey, scream!" But it would always sound wrong and stupid. But on the first morning we were planning to record, I had just gotten out of the shower and I heard all these kids screaming-- there's an elementary school across from my house in L.A. I was like, "Oh shit, that's it." I threw on whatever was right there-- which I didn't realize at the time was a pair of pants that I was going to throw away because the ass was split-- and I ran out, half-clothed, carrying my recording thing. I was standing there looking like a crazy person, watching these kids. They were jumping with balloons between their legs, trying to make them pop. In the actual song, we had to take out all the balloon pops because they sounded like gunshots. But it was so perfect.
"I realized I was trying to be friends with somebody who I used to be with but who I didn't get along with. I'm really big on that. I need to be friends with everyone that I've ever had a relationship with. A lot of my earlier songs are blaming other people and never thinking that I ever did anything wrong, because I was always trying to be completely loyal and honest and pure. It's so nice to come to a place where you can see how you absolutely enabled all these things to happen. It makes you stop being angry at people. It makes you start being more empathetic. At least now they know I'm not just completely blaming the other person. "Werewolf" was really an important song for me because it was admitting, "Yeah, all the anger that I had toward you was justified, and you are an asshole, but I was a great dance partner, and I brought a lot of that out of you."
The text below is lifted from the writer who hung out and got high with her in her Vulture profile.
Its roots were probably in a Bach concert she’d seen in New York, and the Supremes song “Where Did Our Love Go?,” the place where two lines of music “crack together,” which had always given her “huge satisfaction.” Charley — whose genius as a producer, it seemed, was to fade away — had given her the mallets to softly strike the rhythm on the timpani. He’d said, “You need to say something on the piano,” so she made a waving, malevolent line in the background. And then there were the voices: hers and, later, in an incredible melodic round, her sister Maude’s. There was no looping or Auto-Tune; for hours they’d stood at the same microphone, weaving their voices in what she called “the most intimate moment of our lives together.”
I noticed an odd piece of paper. There was an insignia at the top, and it began “On January 28, 2009, Americans of all backgrounds will join together in unity and shared …”—it was part of an invitation to Barack Obama’s inauguration. On it Fiona had scrawled many words, including the name “Attenborough,” and what appeared to be notes from a nature documentary. There was writing on both sides, including, on a back corner: If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife. He makes my life a CinemaScope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise … The documentary was apparently discussing natural life, in high and low altitudes. She noted:
High: male looks alike; no need for plumes; has to gather food = only one wife
Low: more food; females raise young alone; males concentrate on—
I could not make out the last word. I asked her if she could come help. She looked for a long time. It was, she agreed, tough to figure out. Then she smiled. I could hear the word ever so slightly crackling in her dry, dry mouth. It said dancing.
"I was told so many times when I was a kid, 'I can't be friends with you, you're too intense, you're too sad all the time.' I really thought that when I made the first album that everyone would understand me, all the people who weren't my friends would become my friends. It didn't turn out that way then, but now I do feel like those people [at my shows] are my friends. And so when they say, 'I love you,' I don't care who they are. I love them back." If I have one success in my relationship history it's with the people who listen to my music. I think that they'll be there with me forever, and I'll be there with them forever. And I'm totally satisfied with that"
Similar reads: When The Pawn... turns 18! - Tidal in 5 minutes
Sources: How Can I Ask Anyone To Love Me?
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ONTD, how do you feel about The Idler Wheel...?