- 01 Jun 22
Happy 48th Birthday, Alanis Morissette! To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's classic interview with the iconic singer-songwriter – originally published in Hot Press in 2005.
How do you follow an album that sells 26 million copies? Since Jagged Little Pill, this is the dilemma that has haunted Alanis Morissette. A decade on, she feels able to come to terms with her whirlwind success.
It’s 10 years after, and Alanis Morissette’s got the spiritual auditors in. Hot on the heels of an Unplugged remake of her breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, comes The Collection, ostensibly a greatest hits culled from four albums’ worth of material, plus various rarities and soundtrack selections.
Among other things, the record demonstrates that the Canadian singer has done well to survive the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that was her de facto debut (she’d released two albums in her native Canada as a big-haired teenage dance-pop prodigy before moving to LA and signing to Madonna’s Maverick label). Nevertheless, the Ottawa-born daughter of a French-Canadian father and Hungarian mother will always be best known for that 1995 record, which shifted a mind boggling 26 million plus copies and scooped four Grammies.
Jagged Little Pill was a dialogue between grunge-lite, riot grrrl and sensitive singer-songwriter workshops, from the woman-scorned yowl of ‘You Oughta Know’ to the defiant ‘Hand In My Pocket’ to ‘Ironic’, a song so ubiquitous it became a shop-worn standard target in stand-up comedy clubs (comedians having observed that the lyrics weren’t, in the least, ironic).
Subsequent albums Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Under Rug Swept and So-Called Chaos couldn’t ever hope to equal that initial success, although Morissette, like her peers Sinead O’ Connor and Tori Amos, has remained a viable touring and albums act (a decade later, she can still demand that the record company flies in a full band to mime a cover of Seal’s ‘Crazy’ on the Late Late Show.)
We find her billeted in a room in the Morrison Hotel a couple of hours before show time, a short, sweet and, it must be said, quite stunning woman of 31.
She’s sotto voce but in possession of a robust laugh and reassuringly plain-spoken. I’d seen and read interviews with the singer where her conversation was so peppered with New Age touchy-feely therapy jargon it was hard to comprehend a word she’d said.
Her songwriting often reflects this. The Collection oscillates from the furious and forensic to the woozy and woolly-headed. Sequencing-wise it eschews straight chronology, instead allowing the songs to arrange themselves according to mood and tone – although it seems significant that the whole thing starts off with ‘Thank U’, the first post-Pill single, written after its author took off to India in order recover from sudden celebrity bends.
“It seemed pointed,” Morissette admits. “Sequencing – I don’t actually write it in order. I’ll just get a piece of paper and put a song where it begs to be. They group themselves, and ‘Thank U’ just wanted to be on top.”
Can she recall where her head was at when she wrote it?
“Well, I think that during Jagged Little Pill I’d, quote-unquote, achieved everything I’d been taught by society to achieve, and once I was in the midst of that I thought, ‘Externally so much has changed, but not much has changed internally’. In terms of my aspirations for bliss and peace, I hadn’t gotten that much closer. In fact, some would say that I’d even gotten farther from it, so I just went away to India to just get off the radar and step away from mayhem, and while I was there I just really got back to what was important to me. And so when I came back to the studio after that, I was just overwhelmed with gratitude and that’s where that song came from.”
‘Thank U’ was accompanied by a video clip in which the singer appeared naked but for strategically placed blurry bits – an emancipating move for a woman who’d hitherto been self-conscious about her appearance. The turning point for Morissette came when she began training for a triathlon, a process that helped her regard her own body as a functioning machine rather than eye-candy.
“I’d always been taught from a very young age as a female that there was more importance in the ornamental part of myself rather than the instrumental part,” she admits. “I saw my brothers being encouraged to really physically use their bodies in a way that I wasn’t encouraged to do, not so much my parents but by society.”
“I struggled with eating disorders and all kinds of things, and then during the time that I was doing my triathlons I was thinking, ‘I just want to use my body to the best of its ability rather than trying to control it or change it or have it look a certain way or decorate it some way.’ Just use it as a machine in the positive sense of the word. It was very healing to do that. I just started to feel really grateful for what this (body) was actually doing, carrying my spirit or my soul around, doing a lot of work everyday that I was taking for granted before that point. But I don’t need to do any more triathlons!”
What brought about the eating disorders?
“I think it was a combination of (looking at) magazines and people that I worked with when I was quite young. There’s that pivotal age in a young woman’s life when she turns from a pre-pubescent, and her body’s changing, and a few bad comments, or a few challenging comments from people at an ill-opportune time, can be very pivotal. I was working with a lot of older men and spending a lot of time with adults when I was a young person, so there were a lot of comments made that were just confusing.”
I’ve a 14-year-old daughter. The thought of her being entrusted to a bunch of middle-aged male record company executives is pretty horrifying.
“Yeah, it is horrifying. And that’s how old I was when I signed my first contract. And I had a lot of people saying, well, you have to lose some weight, and be careful, and I was ill-equipped.”
Did she view the record industry as inherently patriarchal, an old boys’ network?
“It’s always been that way. And some would say that it’s still that way. It’s changing a little bit. I think in terms of female artists it definitely changed, for the single reason that record companies – and frankly radio stations too – viewed women artists almost as a requisite. Like ‘We’ll play our requisite female this hour.’ They used to literally say things like ‘We already have three females that we play on this radio station.’ But it got to the point where they began to see women artists as more lucrative, and in their business-minded headspace I think that shifted things.”
True enough, Jagged Little Pill, along with the mid ‘90s success of the Lilith Fair Tour, represented a watershed in terms of the record industry waking up to the possibilities of the suffragette vote. Artists like PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco nurtured their own niche constituencies, while Kim Deal, Courtney Love and Kim Gordon infiltrated the indie clubs.
How does Alanis feel now when she hears her younger self wailing away at the powers-that-be on the Jagged tunes?
“I look at that record and that state of wailing against the proverbial machine or whatever as a rite of passage, from having been slightly passive, certainly in my creative environments as a teenager, and encouraged to write about certain subject matters and discouraged to write about others.”
It was, she says, a rite of passage to explode after all that repression and then to almost start from scratch. “After Jagged Little Pill I felt like it was, ‘Okay I’ve gotten that urgent explosive stuff out of my system – now what? What do I care about, who am I, what matters to me now?’”
Although Morissette has written fine tunes since that debut, much of her later work (‘Eight Easy Steps’, ‘That I Would Be Good’, ‘Hands Clean’) takes the form of journal entries set to music, a methodology that can produce mixed results. It’s a thin line between the confessional and the self-obsessed.
“Right. My friends have said that to me before too. (Laughs) It’s such a fine line between horrifying and unique and rare and special so I’m wire-walking all the time. But what are ya gonna do? These songs are basically diary entries and conversational, that’s how it is.”
For my money, the best tunes on The Collection tend to contemplate the divine and the transcendental. ‘Uninvited’ from the City Of Angels soundtrack is one of the best things she’s ever done, and I say that as someone who regards the film – a remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire – as an act of sacrilege.
“You’re not alone!”
Having played God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, does she consider the Almighty to be male, female, or neither?
“Depends on the moment, but in general I just consider it to be a source energy, a compassionate, wise gentle force. Every once in a while I’ll image it into human form, like a goddess of compassion, talk to her for a little bit and that’s my godly moment.”
Was she brought up in any orthodox denomination?
Well, that prepares you for rock ‘n’ roll.
“The ritual’s stunning and that’s something I’ve held true to forever. I love ritual. I missed it when I walked away from Catholicism.”
Why did she walk away from it?
“There’s just so much fear in it, and it’s also so dated to me. I think we’ve been taught that it’s so complicated and so suffering-filled. I love challenging that. I’m an updater. I’m an evolver through and through, and if there’s something that can’t continue to update, I have to move on.”