The Time Out Interview: Alanis Morissette
Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette deals with her rage head-on in her latest album, ‘Havoc and Bright Lights’. By Sharon Steel
Do people still ask you if you figured out what the word ‘ironic’ actually means?
Once in a while, some smart-minded person will say something really funny and cute about it.
Does that piss you off?
I love to get to the underbelly of why people are up in arms about anything. Really, what I see is a big shadow in the West, in America especially, and everyone’s afraid of looking stupid. But the truth is, I’m a genius and I’m stupid at the same time. [Laughs]
I’m going to start saying that, too. You started working on your new album, ‘Havoc and Bright Lights’, right after giving birth to your son, Ever. Did you come to any realisations about motherhood at that time?
I think a beautiful quality that’s a biological, hormonal imperative for women, whether they have children or not, is that we’re built to be empathic. For me, it was finally being maternal in an appropriate way, instead of trying to mommy ex-boyfriends. [Laughs] Now, it’s appropriate! So I feel more functional, to be honest.
This record seems more rooted in spirituality than previous works of yours. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
The spirituality that I experience sometimes touches on religion, in that I resonate with the thread of continuity that permeates through all religions. But in terms of it being a concretised, organised part of my life, it’s not. It’s kind of outside of and within religion, my sense of spirit. It shows up less apologetically now, because as I get older, I have less shame believing in what I believe.
Were you ashamed of your spirituality when you were younger?
I felt shame for being the little God girl that I was. [There were] a lot of eyebrows raised. Even the other day, I was looking for a store that sold tarot cards in Italy, and they said, ‘Ah, yes, false religion!’ [Laughs] And I thought: ‘Oh, really? Well, can you tell me where the false religion store is, then?’
I used to play ‘You Oughta Know’ on repeat after a bad experience with a douche-bag boyfriend. You are now a happily married woman. When you go back to that song, do you recognise yourself?
Yeah. I recognise the rage and the passion, and I think if there’s any difference, it’s that instead of reactively writing it in a song, I now have a little more courage to deal directly with my anger. In some ways, I was being a coward by going into the studio and being super authentic, but in my day-to-day life I wasn’t as brave.
‘Jagged Little Pill’ gave many young women and girls permission to be angry, but often a woman who expresses anger in music is immediately labeled as a bitch. Have you come to any conclusions about this over the course of your career?
The two feelings that I [was told I] could not feel were sadness and anger. Sadness includes depression and despair and despondency, and anger includes mere frustration or rage. Those are the two big ones I think we’re told as women that we can’t [feel]. The sad part is that we’re being told to show up but cut our arms off. It also completely snips the opportunity for intimacy, because if I’m not allowed to deal with my anger directly in my professional and personal relationships, I can’t deepen my connection.
What do you listen to when you want to get angsty?
What influenced me was Tori Amos, who was unapologetic about expressing anger through music, and Sinéad O’Connor. Those two in particular were really moving for me, and very inspiring, before I wrote ‘Jagged Little Pill’.
Your cover of the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘My Humps’ really stands the test of time. Have you considered releasing any more cover songs from a comedic perspective?
[Laughs] Thanks! I’ve had a few ideas over the last couple of years, and some of them in the R&B community. For me, comedy is great, until it starts tiptoeing into potentially offensive [territory]. I don’t want to offend people and I don’t want to be mean, but social commentary and comedy for me are part and parcel. I think the greatest social activists are comedians. As long as I can make myself laugh in a way that isn’t overtly offensive to people, I think I’ll probably do it more than once in the future.
You draw a very clear, filterless picture of your emotional life on all of your records, and they really mirror whatever phase of life you’re in at the time. Do you ever feel as if you’ve given away too much of yourself?
No. I’ve never had anything but a big high five when it comes to transparency – appropriate transparency. I’m still politically considerate. I’m not writing these to offend people as such. If what I’m writing about that’s authentic happens to offend by mistake, then so be it, I suppose. But I’m not out to offend my own self or anyone else, and that’s why I don’t mention people’s names, and I don’t get specific about who I’m writing about. The intention is to move the energy and pull me out of depression or despair or whatever it is. It’s not to attack.
Many musicians give away a lot of themselves on social media channels, but their actual music can be very impersonal in the face of all of that. Is that contrast something you’ve considered in light of your own work?
For me, that example was actually in reverse. It was so easy for me to be authentic and transparent in music, and a challenge to be that in my life. I think all of our journeys are about how safe it is to be authentic. Some of us hide in our public personas and our presentational self; we have all these versions of ourselves that we present in different contexts. I suppose mastery of some kind is when we reach a point when we’re pretty consistent in terms of where we show up. I still aspire to that. But I’m getting there.
What would you tell the version of you who wrote the songs on ‘Jagged Little Pill’ now, if you could give her a few words of advice?
I think I was subject to the same feminist messages that all of us were, which is independence and autonomy at all costs. Whereas now I look at it, and I think: Interdependence is where it’s at. It’s perfectly okay to be empowered and say, ‘I need you. I need help. I need support.’
‘Havoc and Bright Lights’ is out now at major record stores.