NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 02: Alanis Morissette One Night Only Performing “Jagged Little Pill” … [+] at The Apollo Theater on December 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for AM)
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If there was an interview hall of fame Alanis Morissette would be a surefire first year inductee. All of the things that make Morissette so unique and important as a songwriter — the earnestness, the candor, the thoughtfulness, the integrity, the humor — come through in conversation.
So from a purely selfish standpoint, I am always grateful when Morssette, my personal all-time favorite interview, has reason to talk. And she has a lot to say right now, with the Jagged Little Pill musical opening on Broadway this Thursday (December 5), a new song, “Reasons I Drink,” out in advance of a new album, Such Pretty Forks In The Road, out next May and a 2020 tour with Garbage and Liz Phair (as an aside I hope someone is smart enough to arrange a panel conversation or conversations between Morissette, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson and Liz Phair when they all tour together next year. It will be as compelling and fun as the music).
But for millions of fans, who have been waiting for new music from Morissette since 2012, it is equally welcomed, as we witnessed when she returned triumphantly to the Arroyo Seco festival in 2018. Her voice of wisdom and her sincerity are sorely needed in these tumultuous times.
When I talk with Morissette over a wide array of topics, from new music and revisiting Jagged Little Pill for the musical to motherhood, environment, feminism and more, the one thing I am reminded of is how much she loves art for the sake of art, not for fame or what it brings. A conversation with Morissette is, as you will read, art in and of itself.
Steve Baltin: Where are you today?
Alanis Morissette: I am in the East Bay. We moved up here after 25 years in L.A. and my nervous system thanks me for it every day. The energy here is very, very quiet and when I need those quiet moments I need them to be really quiet. I can’t have the energy be really intense and as you know in LA. even when the whole city is sleeping it’s still an intense energy.
Baltin: As we have talked about I am a big believer in how environment affects writing. So has being up there and out of L.A. influenced you?
Morissette: Yeah, I think there are so many localizations perspective wise you can write from. What I’m enjoying is a lot of times writing retrospectively, like writing about a relationship that had come and gone and I was reflecting on it. And now I’m writing in real time. So I’m writing about post-partum depression, I’m writing about what’s happening today in this moment versus thinking that I need to tie the bow beautifully and then comment on it two or three years from now. This new record is just so hyper-real time.
(Her son walks in and they speak)
Morissette: My son is intrigued more than impressed if that makes sense. It’s all sort of very philosophically intriguing to him what the heck is going on with his mom and what happens when we’re out in the world is fascinating for him (laughs).
Baltin: It’s good because it keep you grounded.
Morissette: Yeah, believe me. It’s interesting because as a mom and a career person I thought, “Oh my career is just gonna matter way less.” But in some ways it actually matters even more because there is so much service imbued in what I do. I think if I were just entertaining and it were just a hobby on steroids I maybe would throw it down the list of priorities, but I notice that if I don’t express myself or write or serve in some way that mommy gets really bummed out (laughs). So it’s almost like my responsibility is to keep one foot in the world of public expression or there’s a part of me that starts atrophying.
Baltin: But that has always been the case for you and it’s interesting because you practiced that from such an early point in your career.
Morissette: Yeah, and I think it’s because my mom used to take me every Sunday, we had to physically go somewhere and hand out food at a food shelter, we had to go to the hospital, we had to go to the homes where people were in hospice and just visit people. So that was part of our lifestyle. I would sing as a 12-year-old at different homes, or in the cafeteria at places just to entertain people. So, for me, art and service are united.
Baltin: But there is some self pleasure at least because whenever you write you learn about yourself from it. And on that note it will be fascinating to see what you learn from the new music written in real time since it is mostly subconscious.
Morissette: Yeah, and that happens with every record. If I listen back to any record I’ll think, “Oh my god, okay.” I’ll get a sense of that era. And that’s what I meant earlier about self-expression being mandatory.If I’m not expressed I’ll literally start getting sick, I’ll get lethargic. But if I’m expressed and it keeps going through me I just feel like I’m doing what I was put on this planet to do. And it’s lovely that it happens to be of service because that’s two goals in one experience.
Baltin: That’s interesting you say that about when you go back and listen to music because it’s always the case when you hear someone interpret your work. I spoke with Tom Kitt recently, who is amazing. I imagine hearing what he has done with Jagged Little Pill songs for the musical totally gives you a new perspective on that album.
Morissette: It has and I’m able to actually hear it with objectivity for the first time. So I would be sitting in rehearsals and just weeping. Tom himself would come up to me and I’d be shaking. At one point he put his hands on my shoulders just to ground me because I was almost convulsing from taking in this music through this particularly story from these people portraying these characters. But they’re crying right. So I’m in rehearsal. They’re performing, there are tears flying off their faces and them I’m quivering and sobbing. And Diablo Cody and I laugh, and I say laugh in quotes about it, because we can’t stop crying through this whole process. There’s something about it, for me, anyway, I’m able to receive these song because when I perform them around the planet it’s been slightly monological, certainly dialogical energetically. But it’s monological and to be sitting in the audience and hearing these stories I’m baffled and I’m moved. I often think that some songs I’ve written 10 years ago were written for my own self, speaking of self again.
Baltin: Hearing these songs with that perspective and distance can you now understand why Jagged Little Pill became the phenomenon it did?
Morissette: I have a sense of it. It was a massive permission giving for someone to let their fallibility, vulnerability and humanity be what it is. So how amazing is that? (Laughs) When I listen to it I think, “Wow, it’s such an empathic, validating record because no matter what flavor of emotionality I was cycling through in any given song or verse or chorus it was a musical validation of those feelings.” And we live in a culture still, but especially 25 years ago, that said female bodies weren’t allowed to be angry for sure. But also they weren’t allowed to do other things. Like in my family culture I wasn’t allowed to be sad, I wasn’t allowed to say a lot of things. So this music, and you said it earlier about the unconscious was full permission to feel. And in so doing when people were listening they thought, “Oh, we have full permission to feel too. This is great, everybody wins.”
Baltin: Do you remember those first moments listening as a fan where you realized music giving you that permission to feel?
Morissette: Yeah, I always felt that musicians and songwriters were on to something that perhaps those outside of the songwriting community weren’t necessarily on to. And what I mean by that is when I would listen to a record, and I was listening to “Tainted Love” even as a kid, or Olivia Newton-John or Styx or Bob Dylan, my dad would be playing Bob Dylan I would be really fascinated by what is he talking about. So I just thought that these people were wisdom keepers. This was a different era. This was late ’70s, early ’80s, so music and what it represented at that time had a whole different flavor of self expression and social commentary. So I just felt they were the wisdom keepers and philosophers. So archetypally, as a philosopher , as someone who likes to think she’s a wisdom keeper (cracks up), I love linguistics, I love humans, I love social, I love the emotional inquiry. Writing songs is such a slam dunk for me because every itch gets scratched.
Baltin: Do you appreciate all of this more now with the understanding this wave doesn’t last forever?
Morissette: Yeah, and there are two sides to every version. Being out there in the public has its pros and cons and then being what I call being under the rock has its pros and cons. So basically both versions, public and under the rock, they’re both really colorful to me and they’re both really exciting. And one without the other would be devastating. If I were just to stay in the hot heat of non-stop fame I would probably be dead right now. And if I were to stay under the rock and not be expressed publicly I wouldn’t be living my vocation. So for me my well being is dependent upon bouncing back and forth between public and private.
Baltin: At what point did you find this was the balance for you?
Morissette: Some of it is grief and loss. For me, probably in the mid-2000s I thought this is cool because what you mentioned about Tom [Waits] I relate to it where if I want to step up and do an interview or something that really matters to me I can do it and, to some degree, people will welcome that. And it’s a little tougher to walk around because some people do recognize me, but in general I can walk around and be the mom of three and get to know people, just brown-haired woman who is part Canadian, part American, semi-normal person (laughs). So yeah I feel like I have the best of both worlds. And this is sustainable to me.
Baltin: What are your favorite forms of self expression right now?
Morissette: I just finished a record. So songwriting will always be my primary since I can’t stop writing songs. Blogging is great for the immediacy. I can write it at four in the morning and put it up 10 minutes later, so writing in that kind of stream of consciousness prose is really almost mandatory for me. Designing and decorating. It’s a closet passion of self expression for me, but I love going into a room and knocking down walls or putting furniture in. So design and composition and all of that is huge for me.
Baltin: Will you be involved then in the stage design and look for the tour in 2020?
Morissette: I’ve always collaboratively been part of that process, where I’ll pick the backdrop or some of the lighting I’ll have something to do with, Definitely shooting videos, like right now we’re bandying ideas around for the video for the first single if I can even call it that in this era. So video making, photo shoots, designing the backdrops, the lighting, the set list is its own design too. And also integrating a new record into a set list is always juicy cause there’s however many more songs, sometimes up to 15 or 20 new songs to integrate into a set list, which always enlivens the process for me and my band mates.
Baltin: Are there songs from the new album you are most excited to see how they go over live?
Morissette: What I find interesting is when a record comes out what people comment on or what people notice that might have been an entire blind spot for me. I might have been writing about something obviously super personal and autobiographical for me that kind of came and went lyrically. But then it might be something that other people notice and I’m kind of taken aback in a lovely way. Like, “Oh, that’s what they think this record is about? That’s cool.” Every record has about 30 topics on it. If I was to really drill down and extract them from each of the songs. So I never know which one is going to be piquing anyone’s interest to be honest. So it’s always fascinating to hear once the record is out. And I’m always really nervous right before any record comes out for that reason probably. It’s almost like I don’t want to see myself.
Baltin: Taking that back to the Jagged Little Pill musical are there particular songs that surprised you from that? And with that new music can often invigorate older songs. So are there older songs you are excited to bring back alongside the newer songs?
Morissette: I love that you know that. You go on the inside. Yes, so when listening to the musical, first of all, having some of the male characters portray these songs and these stories is wild to me because, for me, the feminist movement at the core of it is just bowing down the feminine within any body, any gender. So when I hear “Head Over Feet” being performed as a duet between a male and a female and then having “Mary Jane” be sung by the father in the musical and just to hear these songs being sung from a different gender is really exciting to me because it further expresses what I’ve always believed, which is it’s a human condition. There are all these studies that show that our male and female brains aren’t different. There have been some studies that have come out that show the physiology of the brain in both male and female bodies are not different at all. So basically I’m excited how these characters are sharing these songs like a couple that are having challenges in their marriage singing “Not The Doctor.” And then all of a sudden the lyrics in “Not The Doctor” mean so much more to me. I’m like, “This isn’t just me talking about resistance to helping a partner. Now it’s this couple and I’m invested in this couple and they’re talking about it in this song that feels new to me.” So “Not The Doctor” is one that has been updated in a way because when I wrote it I was dating, and horrified at the thought of being smothered by anyone I was dating, that’s a whole sidebar conversation we can have (laughs). And now here I am 10 years married and this scene in the musical is all about the invitation to actively participate in healing your partner’s challenges. So “Not The Doctor” is like, “Ooh.” That was the part of me that was just avoiding intimacy and didn’t really want to commit and didn’t want to do the juicy work of a long-term partnership. So when that song came to the table with Tom Kitt and with Diane Paulus and all of us that was actually a challenge for Diablo Cody too and she said, “Let’s talk about this therapy scene.” So we went back and forth quite a bit about it. And it’s one of my favorite scenes in the musical. So I feel like it really arrives at indicating what you’re talking about. So “Not The Doctor” was originally about me being resistant to this guy needing me. And 25 years later here we are this whole song is about wanting to be needed and that we do need each other and this is a relational context and no woman is an island. Post war everyone was singular for a minute. We thought it was cool to be like, “I can do anything a man can do, only better.” I think the essence of what I’m drawing in now as a mom, as a wife, as a friend, as a leader, with this musical, is it’s such a relational return. We need each other. We weren’t born isolated. Babies need touch, eye contact and attachment and all of that whole theory. I’m just realizing the autonomous movement was maybe a blip on the radar. But it certainly can’t be where we arrive and land.