Alanis Morissette: The Adventures of Miss Thing
Here’s a clue for the clueless generation: If you’re going to worship someone, you ought to know what she looks like. Outside the Mercury Cafe Brewhouse, in Denver, where Alanis Morissette is playing a club gig, a desperate young man approaches the singer in the hopes of buying an extra ticket, unaware that he’s talking to the headliner. It’s a few hours before show time, and already’ a crowd of ticketless fans – a mix of intense young women, bookish lads and preppy couples – has gathered to try to buy scalped tickets to this sold-out show.
Just because fans of Morissette connect with her heartfelt, earnest songs – in fact, they seem on the verge of anointing her rock’s Generation X-rated diva – doesn’t mean they could pick their heroine out of a police lineup. They’re not to blame: The hit clip for that ultimate bad-breakup anthem, “You Oughta Know,” is so atmospherically photographed as to make its star a barely recognizable MTV icon. Similarly, the photo of Morissette on the cover of her smash album, Jagged Little Pill, has a hazy, elusive quality.
“I’ve been told a few times now that I don’t look like my songs,” Morissette says. “People expect me to have purple hair and a pierced nose and boobs. Then they meet me, and I’m just . . . me.” In this instance, ‘me” is a petite but curvaceous young woman who wears little makeup. “I hate to let anyone down, but I’m not the cleavage sort of aesthetic babe. I’ve been down that road before, and that’s not what I’m about.”
Exactly what Morissette is about has become a subject of passionate debate on the Internet and everywhere else music fans meet since “You Oughta Know” started its long reign atop the modern-rock radio charts. She has been called everything from brilliant to naive, with stops at most points in between. Perhaps naysayers are pissed that the public has chosen to make Morissette a star instead of the critically lauded Liz Phair. In any case, the masses have spoken with their wallets. Want to know how hot Morissette is? The other day she got a gushing love letter from the other queen of 1995’s pop culture prom, Alicia Silverstone.
On Jagged Little Pill‘s “Right Through You,” Morissette sings about a time that sounds like the present: “New that I’m Miss Thing/Now that I’m a zillionaire.” Although actually written when she was broke and sleeping on friends’ couches in Los Angeles, the lines appear to have come true.
“I guess in a way, I am Miss Thing right now,” Morissette says, shaking her head. “I laugh now when I sing the song onstage because the whole things so ironic. When I wrote those words, I was the furthest thing in the world from it.” Not that she’s complaining. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Morissette says she’s excited by her success: “I asked for this.”
Partly because Morissette collaborated on Jagged Little Pill with Glen Ballard – a successful songwriter and pop producer known for his work with Wilson Phillips, among others – her critics suggest she’s simply a contrived creation of the studio. But for the crowd in Denver, there’s no question that Morissette is for real. From the moment she kicks into “All I Really Want” with furious harmonica-blowing accompaniment, it’s obvious that a healthy percentage of this packed audience has not only taken these songs to heart, it knows them all by heart – and this for an album that at the time of the Denver show had been released only five weeks. Morissette’s uncensored documentation of her psychosexual former-Catholic-girl torments has become resonant fodder for the rest of the entire listening world. As she sings on “Forgiven”: “I sang hallelujah in the choir/I confessed my darkest deeds to an envious man/My brothers, they never went blind for what they did/But I may as well have/In the name of the Father, the skeptic and the Son/I had one more stupid question.”
“The reaction of the audience has been so amazing: and open,” says Morissette. “It’s comforting and bittersweet to know that I’m not the only one who’s gone through these things. At the same time it’s a little disturbing that apparently there’s a lot of people out there having gone through such painful things. The reaction has been pretty intense.” Sometimes the reaction is so intense, it shocks even Morissette. “There was a mosh pit in Minneapolis when we played there. Is it me, or is this music not about mosh-pitting?”
Still, singing with conviction and whipping her long mane of hair around the stage, Morissette brings the Denver crowd to a frenzy. Some may find her powerful voice – which at times recalls Sinéad O’Connor‘s and Kate Bush‘s – overly mannered, but she really is one of rock’s most gifted vocalists. Like the Counting Crows‘ Adam Duritz and the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, she’s a brave lead singer willing to go to an emotional level just millimeters below over the top.
With confidence, Morissette leads her crack four-piece backing band – none of whom played on Jagged Little Pill – through looser, more explosive versions of the album’s material. Her young band comes from journeymen backgrounds: Guitarist Jesse Tobias, a former member of Mother Tongue, was very briefly a Red Hot Chili Pepper before being replaced by Dave Navarro; guitarist Nick Lashley and drummer Taylor Hawkins played together in Sass Jordan’s backing band. Then there’s bassist Chris Chaney, whose prior gigs include time with ’80s soft-pop star Christopher Cross. In a 65-minute set, Morissette and the band play everything on the album except “Head Over Feet.” They include no covers, but they’ve rehearsed a ska version of the Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.”
Morissette connects with her audience in a way that – when viewed without fashionable cynicism – is moving. The dynamic is less like a concert than modern-rock group therapy with Morissette serving as a sort of twentysomething Joni Mitchell backed by thrashy guitar. Despite having a song called “Ironic,” she’s as unironic an artist as they currently come. “Thank you for understanding,” she meaningfully tells the crowd before launching into her encore number, “Perfect,” an anthem about the pressures of youth.
According to Madonna, the woman whose label, Maverick, Morissette records for, Morissette is handling those pressures just fine. “She reminds me of me when I started out: slightly awkward but extremely self-possessed and straightforward,” says Madonna. “There’s a sense of excitement and giddiness in the air around her – like anything’s possible, and the sky’s the limit.”
Who has earned more of a right to sing the postmodern blues than a former Canadian child star who was washed up before she turned 18, an impressionable youth who once opened for Vanilla Ice?
Morissette was born on June 1,1974, in Ottawa. Her French-Canadian father, Alan, worked as a high school principal; her Hungarian-born mother, Georgia, was a teacher. Morissette describes her parents as “very free-spirited, curious people.” The family moved frequently when Morissette was young as her parents skipped from school to school, teaching the children of military personnel. From the ages of 3 to 6, she lived in the former West Germany with her parents, her older brother, Chad, and her twin brother, Wade, before moving back to Canada.
Morissette got the performing bug early. At 6, she took up piano, and at 9 she started writing her first songs. Her acting career, however, took off first. By age 10 she had made a splash on Nickelodeon’s cable-TV kids series You Can’t Do That on Television. “It was a good, stupid, sarcastic kind of show,” Morissette says. “Very obnoxious and very tongue in cheek.” Recently, MTV News aired footage of a virtually unrecognizably young Morissette being slimed by her co-stars on the show. At that time, jealous viewers wanted to slime Morissette, too. “I got hate mail because I played the girlfriend of the two lead guys on the show,” she says, “so I represented a threat to them ever having these guys. It wasn’t the best experience.” She went on to other acting work, including a “horrible” movie in which she appeared as a rock singer named Alanis, and future Friends star Matt LeBlanc played her boyfriend.
“But music has always been my priority,” says Morissette. At 10, she used some of her acting money to cut an indie single called “Fate Stay With Me.” At 14, she signed a song-publishing deal, which led to two MCA/ Canada albums. And so it was that the year Nirvana told the world Nevermind, 16-year-old Alanis Morissette released her first album of vaguely Madonnaesque dance pop. She was credited simply as Alanis.
Morissette says her parents never pushed her into showbiz. Still, she adds, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a dysfunction-free family. My parents, I love them, I’d jump in front of a truck for them, but no matter what family you’re in, there are going to be obstacles, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any.” Asked if her parents pushed her to perfection, she says simply, “I just wanted to do whatever it took to get the approval of my parents and the people I was working with at the time.”
Morissette’s early musical output is fairly generic. Her pipes were already powerful, but the only quality that ties her first two albums to her current material is a healthy sense of adolescent lust. “You’re just a party, party, party boy/From the moment I walked into your life/I knew right then it was a serious thing for you,” she sings on “Party Boy,” from 1991’s Alanis. Things took a darker turn on “Big Bad Love,” from her 1992 follow-up effort, Now Is the Time. “I’m having dreams in the night of you, baby,” she sings, “and Sigmund Freud would have thought I was crazy.”
“No, I’m not scared people might hear those records,” says Morissette. “I never did any Playboy centerfolds. There’s nothing I regret. Maybe people will just understand my lyrics now a little bit more if they hear those records. It validates this record.” (Hey, unless you’re Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, how would you like to listen to a record you did when you were 16?)
Alanis sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada and earned Morissette a Juno Award as Most Promising Female Artist, while Now Is the Time sold in excess of 50,000 there. She doesn’t disavow the earlier recordings, but she considers Jagged Little Pill her “real” debut. “There was an element of me not being who I really was at the time,” she says of her first two albums. “It was because I wasn’t prepared to open up that way. The focus for me then was entertaining people as opposed to sharing any revelations I had at the time. I had them, but I wasn’t prepared to share.”
As you might gather from listening to Jagged Little Pill‘s “Forgiven,” some of Morissette’s revelations involved her feelings about sexuality and spirituality. She went to church every Sunday while growing up and attended a Roman Catholic school. “Then I rejected the whole concept of organized religion,” says Morissette. “Still do. But now when I’m onstage, it’s very spiritual. I feel very close to God when I’m up there.”
Morissette says that part of her problem with the Roman Catholic church is its sexual repression. In “You Oughta Know” she describes herself as “perverted.” Today she simply describes herself as being “a very sexual person.” “I was active and physically doing the things that were sexual when I was younger,” she says. “There was one side of me that was crazy and deviant, doing things ahead of my time, and another side that was very held back, wanting to remain virginal for the sake of being the good white Catholic girl.”
These sorts of tensions led the over-achieving Morissette to a few episodes she characterizes as breakdowns. “I had a few,” she says. “That sort of comes from a passive-aggressive approach. From the time I was 10, I was working with all these people trying to control me and tell me what they thought I should be and what I should look like. And I tried to control myself to be what they wanted me to be.” Morissette says drugs were never a problem for her “because my getting into drugs would have meant that I wasn’t perfect.”
In an attempt to find more fulfillment musically and perhaps even grow up a little, Morissette moved to Toronto after graduating from high school at 17. “The idea was to let her live on her own and see what’s life’s about,” says Scott Welch, who became her manager around that tune. Morissette calls these “a couple of the most growthful years for me.”‘ Creatively, however, she searched with little luck for the right musical collaborator.
Eventually, Morissette found free artistic expression in a most unlikely location: Los Angeles. “It was a sort of baptism by fire when I got there,” she says. “I was held up at gunpoint in Hollywood when I first moved here. Still, despite all the negatives, it was like in ‘Hand in My Pocket’: I was broke, but I was happy.”
Professionally, Morissette went on about 10 bad “blind dates” with various songwriting pros and in the process “learned only what I didn’t want to do.” Things turned around in February ’94 when she knocked on Glen Ballard’s front door. A onetime protege of Quincy Jones, Ballard co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and has worked with everyone from Evelyn “Champagne” King to David Hasselhoff.
The two hit it off famously. Both had gone the safe commercial route before and were anxious to try something more adventurous. “Glen had a certain history, as I had, and when we met, we immediately connected,” Morissette says. “We just started with a clean slate.”
“What struck me about Alanis was that she was so incredibly self-possessed,” Ballard says. “I just connected with her as a person, and, almost parenthetically, it was like ‘Wow, you’re 19?’ She was so intelligent and ready to take a chance on doing something that might have no commercial application. Although there was some question about what she wanted to do musically, she knew what she didn’t want to do, which was anything that wasn’t authentic and from her heart.”
Feeling safe in the nurturing environment of Ballard’s home studio, Morissette’s creative floodgates opened. “It was the most spiritual experience either of us ever had with music,” she says. “The whole thing was very accelerated and stream of consciousness.
“The record is my story,” Morissette says. “I think of the album as running over the different facets of my personality, one of them being my sexual self.
To isolate “You Oughta Know’ is a misrepresentation of the whole story. By no means is this record just a sexual angry record. That song wasn’t written for the sake of revenge, it was written for the sake of release. I’m actually a pretty rational, calm person.”
Despite her youth, Morissette says the songs on Jagged Little Pill are based on numerous relationships. “Yeah, I’ve met a lot of people and done a lot of things,” she says matter-of-factly.
The album title comes from a lyric in “You Learn,” which for Morissette expresses the idea that “a lot of times when you’re immersed in something painful, you don’t realize there’s any lesson. A lot of what I wrote about was difficult times from which I walked away a better person.”
Much of Jagged Little Pill was recorded with only Morissette and multi-instrumentalist Ballard in the studio. She wrote all the lyrics and worked out musical ideas with Ballard. Only later did some of the other musicians on the album – keyboardist Benmont Tench and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Dave Navarro – add overdubs. “We’d literally write and record a song in a day,” says Ballard. “That process was so much a factor in us capturing the moment.”
Confident they were onto something special, Ballard sent a tape of some of the early songs to a friend at Atlantic. Although a full-out bidding war never materialized, a couple of companies expressed interest. “The process was difficult for me,” says Morissette. “Since I was 14, I’ve spent a lot of time with people focused on everything except the music. For me this was not about money or getting patted on the back. I met with some people who’d tell me, “Why don’t you change this lyric, and the kids will respond more.’ And I’d say, ‘I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for me.’
Finally, Morissette found a new corporate home shortly after she and Ballard took a meeting with Maverick’s A&R executive Guy Oseary, who heard “You Oughta Know” and “Perfect” and went straight to his colleagues Freddy DeMann and Abbey Konowitch. After seeing Morissette sing a few songs live in Ballard’s studio, Oseary signed her late last year.
Asked what initially drew her to Morissette’s music, Madonna answers, “Her honesty, her pain, her hopefulness.” Morissette returns the compliment. respect Madonna very much,” says Morissette. “I respect her strength and her resilience in a crazy business. I still remember seeing her in an interview when I was younger, talking about freedom at a time when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality. She’s a great CEO.”
Jagged Little Pill came out this past June, and Los Angeles’ influential alternative station KROQ jumped on it immediately. “I guess we’re all all so callous that if people start responding to a record, everyone just assumes it’s hype,” says Welch, Morissette’s manager. “We were just hoping to sell maybe 250,000 or maybe 300,000 albums by the end of the year and build a base. Look what happened.”
Jagged Little Pill is now double platinum and shows no signs of slowing down. Obviously the music-buying public approves of the new, grown-up Morissette in a very big way. But more important, what do her parents think?
“They’re happy because they know a lot of what I’ve gone through, and they’re happy I got it all out of my system,” Morissette rays with a smile. “My dad called me up when he heard the record and said, ‘So you’re expressing a lot of emotion. That’s good.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I am, to say the least.'”
Over lunch in New York a few weeks later, Morissette says she’s again ready to do a little acting. She says portraying another character would leave her feeling less vulnerable. “It takes a lot out of me, singing every night,” she says, “knowing there are people listening to things I never thought you could even share with one person, let alone everyone.”
Final preparations for one of the biggest days of Morissette’s life are being made as she speaks. Last night she collapsed from exhaustion after an important New York show that she nearly canceled hours before show time. Later this afternoon she’s taping The Late Show With David Letterman before rushing to the night’s gig in Philadelphia. Tomorrow there’s a video shoot for Jagged Little Pill‘s second single, “Hand in My Pocket.” Still to come are the MTV Video Music Awards. But as she chats away in a Manhattan health-food restaurant, the self-confessed bohemian comes off like the calmest person in the Top 10.
Offers are pouring in for tours, soundtracks and movies. “I just have to make sure I do things for the right reasons,” Morissette says emphatically. “I’ve got to remember what brought me to this place, which was being honest. If I stop doing that, I’m disrespecting what got me here.”
Already, Morissette has learned that she doesn’t want to do more innuendo-laden radio interviews like the one she did on KROQ’s Loveline, a sex-oriented listener call-in show. “I owe it to myself and Glen and this album not to demean it,” Morissette says. “Jokes about me taking guys out to theaters are not funny.” (Not that she doesn’t have a sense of humor about her angst-in-her-pants image: One of the slogans on her new tour T-shirts is INTELLECTUAL INTERCOURSE.)
Retaining the spirit of the album was also a goal in finding her band, according to Morissette. “We auditioned 50 people just through word of mouth,” she says. “The idea was not just to make sure the musicianship was amazing but also that we didn’t want jaded people who had done the road thing one too many times and spent their time rolling their eyes. And as you can see, I got real lucky.”
While traveling around in a crowded van and staying in cheap hotels, the Jagged Little Pill tour mates have shared an authentically grungy experience. Part of the idea of this tour – booked before the album took off – was to give them the chance to become close-knit, which they have. The only thing the band is lacking is a name, although Morissette reports that the boys in the band are pushing for the Sexual Chocolate.
To stay sane on the road, Morissette reads, meditates and exercises. Socially, she says, “I’ve just been dating a whole bunch of people and kind of making up for lost time.” More chastely, she has made a habit of painting the fingernails of many of the men she encounters. She started with her own band mates and has moved onto other men she has met, including the members of Better Than Ezra. “It’s a good excuse to get a guy to put his hand on your knee,” she says.
As its namesake paints away, Morissette-mania spreads worldwide, even to Canada, an early holdout. Apparently some of her old fans initially had trouble with the way in which she has grown up in public “For obvious reasons, they’re a little more apprehensive in Canada,” Morissette says “A number of interviews I did turned into adversarial situations up there. They’d tell me my records sucked and that what I’m doing now is contrived. If it was that calculated, I must be pretty darn smart. Don’t give me that much credit.”
Other than those bad brushes with the press in her home country, Morissette claims she hasn’t encountered much cynicism. Hasn’t she heard anyone call her a poseur, a prefab riot-grrrl substitute? “No, I haven’t, you bastard,” she says with a laugh. Morissette says she has been far too busy on the road to notice being slagged off for any irony deficiency. “I’m pretty insulated these days, which is probably good,” she says. “I don’t watch TV, I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t go online, and I don’t read the newspaper.” She believes critics will get past her pop-diva past and is heartened by both Tori Amos‘ ability to move on from her metallic pop-tart days of Y Kant Tori Read and George Michael‘s post-Wham! artistic evolution. Indeed, Morissette may be Listen Without Prejudice Vol. One‘s biggest fan besides George Michael.
Since Morissette’s work is so autobiographical, does she think she has to endure more fucked-up romances and other miseries before she can write another powerful album? “I think it’s inevitable that you go through the hard, fucked-up stuff,” she says. “If you’re alive on this earth, it’s going to happen, so I’m not worried”
Her performance of “You Oughta Know” on Letterman goes well. Morissette sings the song’s uncensored lyrics, knowing full well she’ll get bleeped because you really can’t do that on television. As she makes her hasty exit out of the studio, Morissette runs into fellow Canadian Paul Shaffer. “Great performance,” the bandleader tells her warmly. “Even more anguished than the album version.”
The next morning – too few hours after returning from the Philly show – Morissette and the Sexual Chocolate gather in their hotel lobby and head out to Brooklyn, N.Y., for the “Hand in My Pocket” video shoot. On the way the rest of the band members scan two newspaper reviews of the New York show. The New York Times is extremely respectful; the Daily News is savage. SHE DOES THE TRITE THING is the News’ headline. The piece calls Morissette “pop’s latest and most transparent poster girl for female rage.”
“You don’t want to read that one,” Lashley tells her.
“I don’t want to read either one,” Morissette retorts before quickly offering to paint the guitarist’s fingernails black.
Upon arriving at the shoot, Morissette’s thrilled to see that the vision she has been brainstorming in recent weeks with director Mark Kohr, known for his work with Green Day, has come to life. An entire picturesque Brooklyn block has been transformed into a colorful, Fellini-esque parade route. An eclectic cast of characters, including skateboarding punks and the police on horseback, lend the scene a nicely surreal feel. The Cadillac that Morissette will drive in the parade awaits her. The locals, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. “I think it’s some foreign group,” says an elderly lady standing in front of the All for Paws pet store.
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The band members will only appear as bored parade observers. Morissette, on the other hand, has settled in for an all-day shoot that will end with an artificial rainstorm. In a moment of down time, they all sit in a trailer and watch a replay of their Letterman performance. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. A New York policewoman has spotted Morissette and requests an autograph on, of all things, the Daily News review. DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ, Morissette signs.
Before long, its cameos shot, the rest of the band decides to head back to the hotel. Alone now, Morissette kicks back and happily waits for the rain on her parade.