For a generation of women, Jagged Little Pill was the album that spoke to them like no other. This year marks its 25th anniversary – but Alanis Morissette isn't stopping any time soon. As she releases her ninth album, the original queen of angst talks to Charlotte Edwardes about young stardom, lessons learnt and new motherhood at 45.
So in one respect the old Alanis Morissette is back: the Alanis in the red woollen hat and check scarf who, in the video for Ironic, ducked into her snow-capped car to belt out one of the seminal pop anthems of the 1990s: "It's like raiiii-ain on your wedding day."
She's back because Morissette dresses up as Old Alanis in the video for Reasons I Drink, the lead single from her ninth studio album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road. She's a participant in a recovery circle along with various other Alanises through the ages — a famous one, heavily made-up, blinking in flashbulbs, signing CDs; an officious one, specs-on-a-string, nylon polo under an open-neck shirt; a knackered one, in a dressing gown, breastfeeding — all played by Morissette. It's a neat trick, this resurrection of the Alanis of 25 years ago. It shows how the grown-up Alanis, now 45, is mellower, deeper, woodier. Still audible are the Canadian singer-songwriter's hallmarks: the quivering uplifts mid-word, the raw, urgent honesty.
Here are some reasons she gives for mellowing: medication, hormone supplements, motherhood, a nutritarian diet, therapy. (A lot of therapy: one-on-one, couples, group, intensive, whatever it takes — more on that later.) But where's her female rage?
"Oh, it's still there," she assures me. "I live for it. Female rage gets such a bad rap, but it's part of being human. Not punching someone in the face, but anger channelled into activism or — heaven forbid — raising your voice, or saying no, or protecting your kids, or being a feminist."
Her rage tore through the 1990s like a rampaging bull through a wedding marquee, goring male tyranny, upturning traditional femininity. Her album Jagged Little Pill (which celebrates its 25th anniversary this June and has sold more than 33 million copies) gave strength to the hopeless, agonised adolescents of gen X. Women, it said, feel free to scream, be jealous, messed up, confused. Her influence reverberated through the 2000s, audible in the work of skate punk's Avril Lavigne and of Pink, and arguably artists from Katy Perry to Beyoncé (who covered You Oughta Know in a 2010 Grammys performance). Long before Taylor Swift was shaming exes, the 21-year-old Morissette was singing in You Oughta Know: "Is she perverted like me? /Would she go down on you in a theatre?"
I meet Morissette in London just before lockdown: the city already thinning, no bumper-to-bumper traffic, just a strange tension in the spring air. During breakfast her entourage are madly scrolling through the news on their phones. There's a manager, a publicist, assistants, security, an "archivist" called EJ who trails her videoing everything, as well as hair and make-up people. Also here is her entire family: her husband, the rapper Souleye; her son Ever, 9; her daughter, Onyx, 3; and her seven-month-old son, Winter.
Morissette arrives generous with smiles and apologies: she has been breastfeeding Winter and is blissed out on oxytocin. Is she okay? "I am out of my mind right now, that's the honest answer." Someone pours Evian and she sits, feet planted hip-width apart, and inhales as if to deliver a long om. ("I'm high, but I'm grounded … baa-byyy.") Right now she's "in the trenches": parenting, work, travel, all spinning on the edge of a global crisis. She had been looking forward to the release of the album, a tour in the autumn, a Broadway musical of Jagged Little Pill, written by Diablo Cody. Today, obviously, the world's plans are suspended.
At least she has a head start in the new world order, in that she already home-schools — "unschool" as she terms it. Morissette is famously an advocate of attachment parenting (hence the children with her), which attracted controversy when she spoke about it in 2012. She tells critics: "Talk to me when our kids are in their fifties and see how they're all doing." Right now her hormones are in flux. She's in "lacto-menopause". What's that? "It's a f****** shit storm." She blames her hormone specialist for getting her pregnant at 45 (in a good way). "If my hormones are great I'm … " she slaps her thigh. "When they're not, my head spins around. I'll say to my family, 'If Mummy doesn't have six minutes alone right now, you'll get Cranky Mummy.' " What does she do in six minutes? "Any f****** thing. Just silence. I'll hide in a bathroom stall. I'll walk out into the hallway. Last night I went into the bedroom and sat. I mean, I'd love six hours, but …"
Morissette was raised in Ottawa, in a devout Catholic family; her parents were both teachers and she has an older brother and a twin brother, Wade. For those unfamiliar with her rise to fame, before she became the queen of angst rock, she was a child star. She appeared on a children's TV show when she was in junior high school, and was writing songs from the age of nine. At 14, MCA Records signed her up to a two-album deal, which led to a couple of successful dance-pop records in Canada — hard to believe now. She was moulded into a cringey permed princess, even opening once for Vanilla Ice.
After high school she changed course musically; learnt to play the guitar, and put to verse the troubled interior monologue of her diaries. At 21 she released her international debut, Jagged Little Pill, through Maverick (Madonna's label). In one week it sold nearly half a million copies, and it went on to win two Grammys and be certified 10x platinum in the UK alone.
On the surface Morissette was doing very well, thank you. Behind the scenes it wasn't so hot. Executives criticised her weight ("unsolicited feedback is a form of violence against women", she says now) and this, compounded by the size-zero era, helped cement a severe eating disorder. It was out of control and she was depressed. She became familiar with more than a few recovery groups, including OA (Overeaters Anonymous), Al Anon, SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous): "All great."
"Many things happened: sexual abuse, exploitation, financial undermining." From what age? "Three onwards, frankly." Her song Hands Clean, with its explicit references to abuse, fell on deaf ears. The record company even suggested having kids doing karaoke on the video. "I was like, 'Have you heard the lyrics? Did you read… ? No, right?' "
She can't stand it when people respond to women talking about historical abuse now by asking, "Why did they wait so long to tell anyone?" "I mean, please. First of all, they didn't wait. Second, they face the threat of losing their job, reputation or not being believed. At best it's swept under the rug, at worst you are admonished or fired."
Since Harvey Weinstein, the Pandora's box has been opened in the film industry, "but it hasn't even begun in the music industry", she says. "Almost every woman in the music industry has been assaulted, harassed, raped. It's ubiquitous — more in music, even, than film. It's just so normalised." I ask, naively, why, and she laughs. "What, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll? By definition it's crass, sweaty and aggressive. But it's only a matter of time before it has its own explosion of stories."
She says she enjoys the fact that "Kesha's already kicking ass", launching court cases against the music producer Dr Luke, but that the process is slow. Will Morissette name names? She demurs. "That's got its own considerations. I don't have an answer at this moment. My goal would be to take away the normalisation. And the structures that allow it." She scoffs: "As if those NDAs mean anything, are you joking?"
Does she meditate? "Some of us are too traumatised to meditate. Someone who has a lot of cognitive activity on the negative, self-abusive side shouldn't sit alone for too long. Too many voices. [The trauma therapist] Peter Levine calls it 'meditation-induced anxiety'. Like, full-blown PTSD stuff will eat you alive," she says. Anxiety "is terrifying thoughts, harrowing images. Lots of harm and death of people I love and myself." It happens when she hasn't taken her medication or is "overwhelmed".
She now lives in a hippie enclave of northern California. One of the reasons she moved out of Los Angeles is that "it's not common there for people to swing by with soup, or say, 'I'm coming by, I have a smoothie for you.' I need that. I'd get too insulated and then I start …" She shakes her head and clicks her tongue. Plus the microclimate is good for her nervous system.
Self-isolation, she says, is going to be hard for her. "I go crazy in isolation." She describes herself as highly sensitive and an empath. While most people walk into a room and pick up 50 cues, she will pick up 500, and that others with this temperament included Jimi Hendrix and Prince. She will happily say things such as: "I can feel energy all the time, so in LA, it's nonstop. There's a lot of unfinished trauma in LA". But she manages — God knows how — to make it sound funny and self-effacing.
Such Pretty Forks in the Road is released later this year; alanis.com
Head over feet
Alanis Morissette superfan Hannah Swerling explains the enduring influence of an era-defining album
I used to listen to Jagged Little Pill on repeat on the yellow Sony hi-fi in my teenage bedroom in the 1990s, plaid shirt tied round my waist (hello, My So-Called Life cliché). You weren't a real fan unless you waited through 65 seconds of silence for the "secret track", Your House, at the end of the album. So many friends and fellow JLP fans recall listening in their teenage bedrooms. The music was the soundtrack to our all-consuming heartbreaks and adolescent frustrations. It was cathartic, even if we didn't quite know what we were angsting about (although one girl at school credited it with helping her through puberty and her parents' awful divorce). Morissette was only 21 when she became the youngest artist in history to win album of the year at the Grammys, and surely one reason for the record's enduring impact is that it so perfectly captured such a formative time in so many of our lives.
In the mid-1990s, as I channel surfed from MTV to VH1 to The Box (remember The Box?) and back again, there was lots of Blur and Radiohead with some Björk thrown in for good measure. But as one friend said to me: "Lots of people were listening to Oasis, but for me it was so great to hear the same sort of anthemic indie-pop stuff coming from a woman." In that way, Morissette created her own category. If you'd said to me at 15, "Try this post-grunge, alternative rock album," I would have given you my most withering adolescent sneer, but the deeply felt lyrics and head-nodding catchiness of the music made it palatable to teenage girls. In a recent Whatsapp from one of my most cynical friends, she gushed: "It was a lesson in how femininity can be powerful, sad can be beautiful, freedom is better than conformity. The feminist themes were there for us long before it was 'cool' again."
Hard relate to the film directors Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde, who in recent years have sent fangirl letters to Morissette requesting the rights to use her music in their coming-of-age films, Lady Bird and Booksmart respectively, bringing a new audience of young women to JLP. Gerwig wrote: "Thank you for making all the music you did. You made a lot of girls feel like they could do anything." While Wilde effused: "I just said how much she had meant to me in my youth and when I was in high school ― Jagged Little Pill, in particular. Her strength as a woman and an artist and her singularity had really inspired me." It's like they're reading from my teenage diary.
In 2019 the album made an unwelcome appearance on my Twitter feed when an opinion piece on the American website Jezebel titled "Jagged Little Pill is actually very bad???" went viral. Count the question marks. My eyes have never rolled harder. Even the misguided author knew she was writing on dodgy ground. Clickbait silliness aside, the only good thing about the article was that it prompted Morissette fans to defend her honour and remind us all why JLP is so very good. Isn't that ironic?
Written by: Charlotte Edwardes
© The Times of London