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A Song Is a Catalyst
My Future Gleamed Through an Act of Defiance
Long before I decided to become a performing musician, I found myself in a moment in time in which a whisper of my future called to me. A dear friend of mine kept raving about a song she heard from an artist named Fiona Apple, whom I had not yet heard at the time, but a recommendation from a trusted friend is not something I take lightly.
On a leisurely afternoon, I went by myself to a record store to see if I could find this song on a CD and maybe even give it a listen. It just so happened that the album was available at a kiosk. I snapped on a pair of headphones and hastily clicked through each track. The song I sought was number seven on Apple’s debut album Tidal.
It starts with a piano and violins playing a cascading melody. The instruments diverge when a voice gently settles into the fold. Apple sounds meek and plaintive at first, but I discover as the song progresses that the seemingly little and defenseless lamb in this song’s narrative is actually a lioness.
This little masterpiece of a piano ballad is called Never Is a Promise. You can feel the layers of hurt and betrayal in the timbre of her voice—lilting cadences that gather steam and ferocity. By the end of the song, she is towering and defiant against someone who kept feeding her false hopes and empty lies for a long time.
I stood in that record store completely immobile and transfixed. Every sonic millimeter of this song moved me to my core. It gave me something I did not know I needed to hear. This song was the anguished face of someone who finally saw the pattern of abuse inflicted upon her for what it was.
Not long after this discovery, I purchased that album’s songbook in hopes of learning how to play the song on the piano. It was not an easy piece to play, but it taught me an immensely important lesson. I learned how I could be emotional and vulnerable through a piece of music. It became the template upon which I grew as an artist and musician.
This song—this brazen act of defiance—inspired me to write music as an extension of my emotions and inner life. Now, years later, I still play the song a lot, but my interpretation of it carries my own hurt and willfulness. The arrangement of the song has shaped itself around my voice and the battles I have fought.
For this issue of WPR, I wanted to share my version of Never Is a Promise with you. I sat at my piano. I hit a record button and let its swelling and seething emotions flow through me. If you have a quiet moment, press play:
This song is a majestic piece of work, and if you have never heard the original, you can do so HERE.
Fiona Apple is known for her rich and insightful songwriting. It is not surprising that it was a cassette demo of Never Is a Promise that got her signed to a major record label. For reasons unexplained, she has refused to perform it at all over the last few years, even though it is arguably the most beloved song in her catalog—one that she wrote at the tender age of fifteen no less.
Here are its lyrics in case you might want to sing along.
Never Is a Promise Lyrics and Music by Fiona Apple You'll never see the courage I know Its colors' richness won't appear within your view I'll never glow the way that you glow Your presence dominates the judgments made on you But as the scenery grows, I see in different lights The shades and shadows undulate in my perception My feelings swell and stretch I see from greater heights I understand what I am still too proud to mention to you You'll say you understand, but you don't understand You'll say you'd never give up seeing eye to eye But "never" is a promise and you can't afford to lie You'll never touch these things that I hold The skin of my emotions lies beneath my own You'll never feel the heat of this soul My fever burns me deeper than I've ever shown to you You'll say, "Don't fear your dreams, it's easier than it seems." 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 You'll never live this life that I live I'll never live the life that wakes me in the night You'll never hear the message I give You'll say it looks as though I might give up this fight But as the scenery grows, I see in different lights The shades and shadows undulate in my perception My feelings swell and stretch, I see from greater heights I realize what I am now too smart to mention to you You'll say you understand, you'll never understand I'll say I'll never wake up knowing how or why I don't know what to believe in, you don't know who I am You'll say I need appeasing when I start to cry But "never" is a promise and I'll never need a lie
If I had not found this song, I do not know if I would have become the artist and person I am now. It was the catalyst that carried me into my future and showed me how so much raw beauty and power could live inside the tempest of a song.
This piece of art helped me to perceive much more than I allowed myself to see. I began to understand that a plaintive cry could also be a mighty roar and that I could become someone I would not have imagined.
Illustrations by Roqué Marcelo
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