This song is an account of Apple's life after becoming a victim of rape. The incident occurred the day before Thanksgiving, 1989, when she was 12 years old. The man followed her into the Manhattan apartment complex where Apple was living with her mother, and caught her just as she was trying to unlock her apartment door. Fiona thought she was going to die during the assault; she remembers hearing her dog barking on the other side of the door, and picturing in her mind that the attacker was Jimi Hendrix.
Understandably, it changed the course of Apple's life. She spent more time with her father in Los Angeles because she felt safer there. She also poured herself into her music, using it as a kind of therapy. Her first album, Tidal, was released when she was just 18. The songs are very personal and confessional, as they are essentially outcroppings of her journal entries. She credits "Sullen Girl" with giving her strength to move forward.
When Apple did interviews after releasing Tidal, she learned that many listeners thought the song was about a breakup, which is a plausible interpretation:
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
She ended up explaining the song by telling her rape story over and over, often bringing it up to get it out of the way. This was her way of becoming desensitized to it, and also getting her story out there.
Apple came off as sullen and reserved in high school, which explains the title. She didn't fit in, and often pretended to be sick so she could stay home. Music was always her means of expression, but she didn't perform publicly to most people had no idea she had these talents.
The poet Maya Angelou is a huge influence on Apple, who credits her work for helping her get through her traumatic ordeal - Angelou was raped when she was 8. "It humiliates you and makes you feel very powerless," Apple told Mojo. "And reading this woman's writing, I could see how she made it through and made it to her advantage."