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Alanis Morissette: The Rolling Stone Interview

At just 24, she’s in touch with her anger, at home in her body and trying to understand her massive fame

Alanis Morissette performing on stage at an Amnesty International concert, 1998.

Alanis Morissette performing on stage at an Amnesty International concert, 1998.

Diana Scrimgeour/Redferns

Although it is figuratively the eve of the release of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie — the much-anticipated follow-up to 1995’s multiplatinum, Grammy-and-other-award-winning Jagged Little Pill — it is literally daytime. Alanis Morissette, 24, is sitting, yoga-style, on a futon on the floor of the light-filled, minimally furnished beach house she rents outside Los Angeles, where she also owns a home. Behind her a picture window frames sand, surf, sky and a very well-placed rock. Her hair is pulled back, and she is wearing a light-purple tank top and jeans. She has the remnants of some gold nail polish on her toes, and one bra strap, white, is showing. Her demeanor is serene in a way that makes you understand why someone (specifically, Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith) would cast her as God in a movie (specifically, the upcoming Dogma, which stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as angels who have been cast out of heaven). She has the kind of poised, attentive posture usually seen only on dancers and shy woodland animals in animated Disney features. On a more practical note, downstairs there is a pingpong table.

Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is very clearly the creative companion piece to Jagged Little Pill — even its title references its predecessor’s first and best-known single, the obsession-inflected, last-word-having “You Oughta Know” (which, by mentioning oral sex, blinded the media to all other meaning, thereby setting a trend). Although it addresses many of the same themes as Jagged Little Pill — the pressures and insecurities that underlie perfectionism; the fallout from relationships that don’t work out; the quest for self-understanding — the somewhat lusher, vaguely Eastern-influenced Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie does so from a more consciously spiritual, more consciously positive perspective. One of the things that sets Morissette apart from the other twentysomething singer-songwriters with whom she is often and inaccurately lumped is that she writes from the point of view of someone searching for meaning in a meaningful, rather than a meaningless, world. She’s not angry in the punk-rock, fuck-you tradition; she’s in touch with her anger.

Morissette was born in Ottawa and grew up there after the age of six. (Before that the family moved several times, including to Germany when Morissette was three.) She has two brothers, one older, one her twin. Her parents — Alan, a high school principal, and Georgia, a teacher — are, respectively, French-Canadian and Hungarian, and there are loving songs about both of them on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. In “The Couch” she imagines her father’s feelings in, and about, therapy; in “Heart of the House” she honors her mother as the unsung (until now) silent center of the family. “I think the greatest gift you can give your parents as a grownup,” she says, “is to see them as grown-ups instead of the gods they seemed like when you were little.”

Something of a musical child prodigy, Morissette began writing songs when she was nine. At ten she became a cast member on Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television, a sort of preteen ensemble sketch show with postmodern leanings and a recurrent bit in which someone got doused with buckets of slime. As “Alanis,” she played the love interest of the two lead boys, thus becoming the recipient of lots of hate mail from her contemporaries. (Maybe because of this, when she became a Canadian pop star at sixteen, Morissette felt she had to deflect attention from her achievements in music to avoid antagonizing her high school classmates.)

With her TV earnings, she formed her own record label and released her first single, “Fate Stay With Me.” (“It’s about someone leaving me and me trying to handle being alone,” she says. “A fiction — or so I thought.”) A deal with MCA/Canada followed, which produced two dance-pop albums: 1991’s Alanis, which won a Juno (Canada’s Grammy equivalent) for Most Promising Female Artist, and 1992’s Now Is the Time, which belied that promise by selling a disappointing 50,000 copies. Seeking a new musical direction, she moved first to Toronto and then to Los Angeles, where she hooked up with her co-producer and co-writer Glen Ballard, a veteran of the L.A. studio scene whose previous credits ranged from Michael Jackson to Wilson Phillips. The result was the hook-y, sensual sound of Jagged Little Pill, the explosive, expressive jailbreak of a record that powered past critical suspicions to the kind of popular success (28 million records sold worldwide) that can’t be predicted or even totally explained.

Morissette and Ballard took the same gunslinging approach to making Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie as they had to the last album, laying down seventeen tracks in six weeks. “It was written much the same way that Jagged Little Pill was written, in that everything was done very quickly,” she says. “Working alone or with Glen, I’d write it all at the same time, whether it was on bass or guitar or piano — music and lyrics all at once. And then we’d do most of the tracks right away just to capture the spirit. And then, every once in a while, I would write the lyrics — or poem or words or whatever it is when there’s no music with it — and I would bring it to the studio.”

The result is a river of DN A-shaped, diaristic songs that derive their strength from their sense of immediacy. As on her previous record, Morissette is inclined to write songs about Big Issues — gratitude, God’s relationship to man, reasons to continue living, self-acceptance, ex-boyfriends — and she does so without shame, which usually implies a willingness to show your sins, and here implies a willingness to show your sincerity. Her lyrics are at once so basic and so specific — “Are you still mad I kicked you out of bed? Are you still mad I gave you ultimatums? Are you still mad I compared you to all my forty-year-old male friends?” begins one song — that, weirdly, they achieve universality and self-revelation at the same time.

During the year and a half since she finished her year and a half of touring for Jagged Little Pill, Morissette traveled to India and Cuba, trained for and competed in three triathlons, and asked herself whether she wanted to re-engage in public life. How much pressure does she feel for Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie to be a success? “I don’t feel any,” she says, sitting in the white light of the light-filled room, which, on a more practical note, also contains a couch and a table with a six-pack of tangerine spritzers on it and a book on interpreting the I Ching. “The pressure that I felt was before I wrote it. The challenge for me was to see if I could write a record when my whole environment and lifestyle and situation had completely changed, and still be able to write it in a not-self-conscious way. For the first couple of weeks I was writing, I did feel pressure, and I just stopped. I just turned to Glen and said, ‘I’ll be back; I’m taking off.’ I didn’t want to write a record motivated by fear — I wanted to write a record that was motivated by inspiration and love. Even if I’m writing about fear, let it be motivated by love. So I went away, and I came back, and I wrote ‘That I Would Be Good.’ And that was kind of a turning-point song — it allowed me to finally believe I didn’t have to write this record. Because I didn’t want to have to write the record. I wanted to want to write it. And now I feel like I’m finished and the rest is not up to me. I mean, I’ll play, and I’ll sing it live, and I’ll communicate it, and I’ll connect with whoever wants to be connected with. But the rest of it is not in my hands.”

Why did you decide to he naked in the video for “Thank U”?
I thought of it when I was in the shower, while we were still mastering the record. I was naked, obviously, and I wanted something very raw and present, because that’s what the song is. And the last couple of years, the way I feel about my body has changed so that I don’t see it as just an ornament, partly because of the triathlon training. Now who I am inside determines how I feel about my body instead of the other way around. Because I had been at both extremes: seeing my body as just an aesthetic presence and then going to the opposite extreme and wearing overalls for two years. Now I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let’s talk about your childhood. What’s your earliest memory?
Living in Germany when I was three or four — I just remember being with my twin brother in a kindergarten class and thinking that if I put my hands over my eyes, no one could see me. I vividly remember that.

And do we think that that’s revealing, that you wanted to cover yourself and not be seen?
If we want it to be revealing, it shall be, and if we don’t, it won’t. I think my most enjoyable moment on earth is when I do feel seen, and when I am privileged enough to be able to see someone else. I think it’s the biggest gift we can give each other.

It’s kind of a contradiction: wanting to be seen, and all the loose clothes and the hair in the face.
Well, it’s equally exciting and horrifying to be seen. To be seen before you see yourself is a very scary thing.

Do you remember your first kiss?
Yup. I was in grade eight. I mean, my first real kiss; I had my first kiss when I was in grade one — that was more of a cheek kiss, but he was definitely my boyfriend. His name was Jeffrey, and I’m very curious to see where he is right now and what he’s doing.

And who initiated this romance?
We were both equally into each other. It was great. He’s the template by which I measure all men. It lasted many months. And we were exclusive. And the one in grade eight, we were both about to go into class, at the bottom of a set of stairs, and he leaned over and kissed me. It was very exciting. I had had a crush on him for a year.

It must be so difficult to be the boy in a sudden-first-move situation, don’t you think?
I think more women are making first moves. I reached a point over the last few years where I’ve been making the first move and not really worrying about it.

And what’s your success rate been?
It’s been pretty good. In my experience, the first kiss rarely happens unless both people are ready for it. It’s not as though you just grab somebody’s head and say, “I don’t know whether you like me or not, but I’m going to plant one on you.” Usually you have a sense.

Speaking as a former child star, what was your picture of the glamour you were going for when you started out?
It wasn’t so much the glamour per se, with the diamonds and the boas, as it was the happiness that I thought could be attained from achieving something, from the praise and the fulfillment. And a lot of what the motivating force was was that somehow, if I could communicate to a lot of people, that would validate me. I didn’t know that fame is the same as not being famous — only more so. Everything is exactly the same, only amplified.

What are the advantages of fame, besides a pingpong table in every residence?
I don’t have one in my other house, actually — I should. One of the advantages that I came to see later on is that it’s a good gauge of what kind of person you’re dealing with. You can tell a lot about a person without having to say a single word, just from what their energy is around fame.

Like . . .?
Whether someone wants something from me or whether someone will feel better just by spending time around me when it has nothing to do with having a conversation with me, it has more to do with the fact that they somehow feel that they would be more worthy if they’re around me.

Which was pretty much your own attitude: that you would be more worthy if you were around your famous self.
Right. And the charm of having understood that about myself is that I understand it about other people. So while it gets frustrating, it doesn’t enrage me. I’m much more compassionate now to other people.

I don’t know — I bet you were always compassionate to other people, and the thing you learned was to be compassionate to yourself. Like the reverse of the golden rule: Do unto yourself as you do unto others. And what are the disadvantages?
The disadvantage, not so much now as when I was adjusting to it, was in certain cities — especially where I was playing — not being able to walk down the street and look people in the eye and keep my head up. It was something I so much enjoyed doing — being able to walk down streets and just connect with people and look at them, and when they’d be looking at me, they’d be looking at me for a myriad of different reasons and not because they recognized me. Now when people look at me, I always wonder whether they recognize me or whether they’re just looking at some brunette woman walking down the street. I miss the sense of community where you all feel equal.

I guess you weren’t looking for quite that level of success.
How can you? I mean, you can think about it, but I don’t think you can create it.

Certainly not as inexpensively as you did it, anyway. When you stopped touring for “Jagged Little Pill,” your press at the time said that you were going to go right back into the studio.
And I had every intention of doing it, too. But I think that I underestimated the amount of things I needed to process before that needed to happen.

I’m sure you needed a nap.
A conceptual nap that lasted a year and a half but was so necessary. Even though I feel like I did more work on a whole different level in the last year and a half than I did in the year and a half that I was touring.

What kind of work?
Just emotional work and spiritual work and just . . . investigative work, you know? I just wanted to get right back to where I had started, to see if I really wanted to continue doing this. If I had to unlearn certain things, I wanted to unlearn them, and if I had to question certain things, I wanted to question them. And if that meant I wasn’t going to write another record, then I was willing to deal with that. So I stopped. And I lived the life that I wanted to live outside of the career, because ever since I was nine, I’ve been very focused on my music, and that was always my number one priority. I had never really investigated what life would be like if I switched the priorities around. So I just got away from the public world and read and traveled.

Where did you travel to?
India. I traveled to Canada quite often, and I spent time in San Francisco, which I love. And I went to Cuba. A whole bunch of us went. Artists and actors and people in the political world and people in investment banking, just sort of as a cultural exchange. I was the only Canadian on the trip, so for me, obviously, it wasn’t as much of a coup, because I would have been able to go whenever I wanted, but it was amazing to watch the experience through American people’s eyes.

Who were the investment bankers? Just kidding. Who were the actors?
Obviously, you know.

No, I don’t know. Did I say it knowingly? Really, I have no idea.
People have been asking, because one of the people was Leonardo DiCaprio. But there were a bunch of other people. There were about twenty of us.

And when you went to India, did you go with other people?
It was a Christmas gift to my mom and two of my aunts, so we all went together. It was sort of the goddess trip.

And it’s all over the record, that trip. It reminded me of Kashmir-era Led Zeppelin. I wondered whether that was intentional.
No. My gravitating toward minor chords has just been something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and some of the tendency toward those sounds of late has been attributed to my trip to India. I think some of it is subconsciously something that happened with that trip, but the rest of it probably has nothing to do with India at all. It’s just my taste in chord changes.

Well, people like to have reasons, though I guess sound is not necessarily a thing with a reason. Do you think the record ended up having themes, being a record “about” something? I’m hoping that the answer, again, is Leonardo DiCaprio.
Right. I think the themes are not having to look outside of ourselves to find who we are. And that being in different environments that are in keeping with who we think we are, or that aren’t in keeping with who we think we are, helps us further define who we are. Not to say that I think we should hide away on some mountaintop and never function in the physical world again once we think we know who we are.

Maybe because you were defined so aggressively from the outside for the year and a half after Jagged Little Pill?
And not just a year and a half — twenty-four years.

You’ve often talked about feeling a lot of pressure as a child.
That was more about being told that I had to be kind and smart in order to be accepted, whether that was in reaction to report cards or doing something for which I got a lot of praise, and obviously feeling good about myself when I got a lot of praise and not feeling good about myself when I didn’t. When I was very helpful and nurturing and maternal, I got the thumbs up, and when I wasn’t those things, I was seen as sort of selfish. And I felt like I had to mother every male in my life, basically — brothers, father, men that I worked with, men at my school.

Were you a fearful child? Like being afraid that your closet was the entrance to a hell mouth like Sunnydale High School in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? But you don’t watch television, do you?

That’s un-American. But since you’re Canadian, I guess that’s all right. Anyway, were you afraid of things like that, as well as more general, emotional fears?
Yeah. I was afraid of my basement. But mostly just afraid of conflict and afraid of my own emotions and how intense they all were, and how I felt completely out of control. I was also in environments where everyone was much older than I was, so I was playing the role of someone who was forty years old when I was thirteen.

Which is every thirteen-year-old’s dream, in a way.
Yeah, and it was my dream, and I was excited to be there, but it wasn’t a peaceful place. My emotional immaturity was overlooked due to the fact that I could hold my own in business environments. And it was funny because often I wanted to remind them of it in order for them to be able to cut me some slack, but I also didn’t want to remind them, because I really enjoyed being on their wavelength and being treated as an equal, so I didn’t remind them when I probably should have.

I think, in a way, being able to go back and be thirteen when you’re older is probably better than having to do it when you’re thirteen. What artists were influential to you then, when you were growing up?
I listened to everything, from a lot of Abba to Carole King.

You know, I can’t say I hear Abba’s influence in your work.
Really? I do. Just in their sense of melody and their unabashed popness, which I love. I listened to Bob Dylan when I was younger, more because my father was listening to him than because I went out and bought a Bob Dylan CD. I basically listened to everything my father was listening to. I was more focused on the entertainment value as opposed to what was being communicated on an emotional level, even though I feel that, as if by default, I was subliminally being injected with some emotion.

I know what you mean, but I don’t know that it’s so subliminal. It’s hind of the nice thing about pop music that it makes what’s being communicated on an emotional level and entertainment into one entity.
Yeah. There were a lot of songs about heartache that I like to think I was appreciating just for the music, but now that you just said that, I think it was probably exactly in keeping with my view of love relationships at the time. Carole King was in keeping with that.

Even though you’re supposed to be the queen of pain, there are some songs on this record that are positively upbeat.
Yeah, it’s funny, because I felt, especially over the last few years, that I had to be self-protective and go into a shell of sorts in order to survive, and it denied me . . . exuberance. When I was a teenager, I felt like I had to be positive and laughing and upbeat and maternal in all my friendships and interactions, and I felt that nobody would want to hear about any pain or difficulty that I was going through. If you hear the records that I did between when I was nine and when I was eighteen, there are some references to difficulties or pain, but I think, musically especially, it’s very upbeat. It was very smiling-all-the-time, even when I wasn’t happy.

Over the last few years, in certain situations, being positive or having a smile on my face was an open invitation to take advantage of what seemed like openness in me. Or to presume that I would say yes to everything, presume that I could be congenial at the cost of my own needs. And to temper that, it was easy for me to not smile. It’s funny that the very lifestyle I entered into at the time Jagged Little Pill came out is the lifestyle where you have to, just for survival’s sake, keep a lot of people at arm’s length. And I really think I threw the baby out with the bath water.

Do you remember your dreams?
Mmm-hmm. There’s been a few recurring ones. Two of them, actually. One of them is, I run through houses and homes, and in and up and around trapdoors, and I’m in search of something. And then the other one I have is elevator dreams, where I’m in an elevator and the higher I get up, the more prickly the air gets. It gets prickly, like you can see the air, and the building starts to shake the higher I get. And then the elevator door opens on the top floor and there’s just a huge earthquake.

And what’s your interpretation of these dreams?
The obstacle-course one is about my always-well, not necessarily always, but more often than not — being in a position where I have to find a way through things. I enjoy being in a position where I take care of people and situations and finding a way to get through things. Like, I’m the kind of person you’d probably want to be with if the house caught on fire. I love looking out for people, so on this obstacle course, I’m trying to find some kind of route for us all to get through.

So we’d want you on Gilligan’s Island?
Yes, I’d be very resourceful. The elevator dream I haven’t had in a really long time. There was always somebody on the top floor, though. It wasn’t as if I got up there and I was alone — there was always somebody there to, like, whisk me away and go to safety.

Somebody specific?
Well, in one of the dreams, it was Paul Reiser.

And what’s your interpretation of that?
I don’t know — he seems friendly and sort of paternal. And as if he enjoys life; you’d probably feel safe with him. He’s sexy in a safe kind of a way, which, to me, is the sexiest — that whole seems-very-communicative situation seems very sexy to me.

So you don’t go for the bad boy?
Used to. There’s a turning point over the last three years where I no longer gravitate to that which kicks my ass.

You don’t think the second dream is the fear-of-success dream that it obviously is?
The elevator one? Could be.

What, to you, constitutes infatuation?
For me, just not being able to eat, not being able to sleep, not being able to stop thinking about someone, my heart beating fast.

Oh, just that. Do you have an infatuation you’re addicted to at the moment, O supposed former infatuation junkie?
There was a person I was infatuated with at the time that I wrote that song [“So Pure”], and I was very much trying to deny it. And I finally said to myself that it was fine, that it was fine to just be infatuated and that I didn’t have to siphon it through my intellect or my quote-unquote psychological awareness, that I didn’t have to explain it, that I could just feel it and it was OK.

In “Are You Still Mad,” you compare the guy you’re addressing with all your forty-year-old male friends. Do you have many forty-year-old male friends?
A ton.

And how’d the guy you’re comparing with them compare?
The biggest difficulty has always been that there are certain things that people, in this case men, who have been on this earth for forty or fifty years are just going to know more of than someone who’s been on this earth twenty years or twenty-five years.

So why aren’t you involved with the forty-year-old friends?
I’ve tried that. And the problem there is that there’s a part of me that’s extremely sixteen years old, and I don’t want to deprive myself of that.

There’s no pleasing you.
No, there is. There’s being involved with someone who’s chronologically close enough to me that we have some of the same pasts but is contemplative enough that they’re interested in the world and have sort of experienced a lot of life for their age so we can muse about things that are, you know, typically forty-year-old musings.

In “One,” you say you’ve abused your power. How do you think you’ve done that?
Oh, in subtle ways. Just taking people up on the perks of being known, whether it’s getting a better seat somewhere or getting a discount on something just because my name was recognized.

And you think that’s an abuse of power? You’re too hard on yourself.
On a certain level I think it’s an abuse. It’s taking advantage of power, and it’s an abuse in the sense that I would feel people come in a room and be afraid of me. And the biggest difference now is that when someone comes in a room and is afraid of me, where there was a part of me that felt like to keep the fear in the room would protect me, because then I would have the power, now what I would love to have happen is to have a person who comes in the room afraid of me leave the room not at all afraid and feel like a complete, total equal to me.

You’re not a very scary person, you know.
But I was, more so.

And I don’t think it’s such a sin to enjoy your success. Somebody’s going to get that better seat.
Yeah, but why does it have to be me?

Why does it have to be the other person? You’re there, too.
Yeah, but sometimes it’s a matter of picking between me and someone else, whether it’s a seat or anything. “Will we give it to Alanis or to that guy over there that we don’t know?” Or it’s an abuse of power not showing up on time or saying no just on a whim when you know it’s going to affect someone, affect a schedule — just saying no, just gratuitously.

I made a note to ask you about “So Pure,” but I don’t really have a question. I just like it; it’s very joyous. If I were the record-buying public, that’s the one that would be a hit.
Really? I almost didn’t put it on the record.

Why not?
Sometimes . . . I think, to me, it’s more vulnerable to be happy than it is to be miserable.

Do you still have friends from before Jagged Little Pill?
Mmm-hmm. My roommate is a girlfriend from high school, and my other really close friend who I speak to all the time is one of my friends since grade seven.

You share a house?
Yes. I had always lived alone forever, and I vowed that I could never have a roommate, and as soon as I stopped being the extremist that I was, I realized that I could have that work.

Most people have the roommate before they make the millions.
Right. But I always felt that suffering was a prerequisite to having a great, fulfilling life. I know, I always thought suffering was great, and I always thought that if things were comfortable, then, somehow, I was doing something wrong. Having a roommate just seemed like it would be far too comfortable. I just felt that difficulty induced growth, so much so that if I wasn’t going through difficulty, I wasn’t growing somehow. And I still battle that sometimes.

You don’t want to put happy songs on your record.
No, I’m scared of happy songs. Not as much as before. Obviously. I put it on the record.

OK, we’re through. You have a very pretty name. Is your name a name?
I think it’s a word in Greek. My parents saw it in a Greek newspaper. A Greek friend of mine in New York told me that it means a person that’s someone who is off doing their own thing and that they liken it to a lone wolf that just runs off and does a thing outside of the family and the family would then say, “Ohhh, alanis.”

Well, that’s very pleasing, isn’t it?
As opposed to finding out your name means “mold” or something like that? Yes.


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