Alanis Morissette on Music, Motherhood & Spirituality (INTERVIEW)

The iconic singer-songwriter talks about her journey from angst-ridden inspiration to life’s "aha" moments.
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Alanis Morissette Photo Courtesy Maverick Records

Alanis Morissette became the voice of a generation with her 1995 album 'Jagged Little Pill.' (Photo: Courtesy Maverick Records)

Alanis Morissette may yet have one hand in her pocket, but in the two decades since she announced herself to the world in multi-platinum fashion as a former supposed infatuation junkie, the Canadian music superstar has plunged her fingers into more pies than Little Jack Horner. 

A decade after unleashing the Jagged Little Pill juggernaut, which included five Top 10 singles and became the best-selling debut by a female solo artist, Morissette reconvened with producer and co-songwriter Glen Ballard to put an acoustic spin on the album, head to tail. Much had changed in 10 years, particularly in the artist herself. “I had evolved in many ways,” she says. “I’d come to a better sense of boundaries, a better ability to communicate. Generally, I’d become just a lot more comfortable in my own skin.” 

The album spawned six hit singles (“You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” “Hand in my Pocket,” “You Learn,” “All I Really Want,” and “Head Over Feet”) on its way to selling 33-million albums worldwide, nabbing Billboard’s Album of the Decade and four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Morissette was 21 years old. 

Through the unvarnished, immaculately produced sound and fury of a woman torn, scorned, and slowly reborn, Morissette gave voice to an entire generation. The more highly specific, autobiographical in nature Morissette’s lyrics were – (Wait! You did what in the theater?) – the more global was her Jagged Little Pill success. “I do remember people saying I was putting into words and into songs what they were feeling, but hadn’t yet articulated,” Morissette recalls, grateful that the nearly unanimous embrace with which the album was received left her feeling somehow less alone, too. “In 1994, I was thinking in an egocentric way that I was the only person on the planet experiencing these things, only to realize a week after ‘You Oughta Know’ came out that I wasn’t at all alone in my experiences. That seemed both comforting and confounding.”

For a culture finally uncorking its ears to the fury and hunger and tenderness and howl of young women (particularly if sandwiched in earwormy hooks and production polish), Alanis Morissette was right on time. A tidal wave of young ladies, confessional, singer-songwriters with Fender amps and a Sid Vicious sneer, from Avril Lavigne to Pink, followed in Morissette’s wake. 

Alanis Morissette Photo Courtesy Maverick Records

Cover art for "Jagged Little Pill." (Photo: Courtesy Maverick Records)

By the time Morissette emerged with her follow-up album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, the recording artist, now 42, had laid her feet upon a path toward inner peace. Those expecting a second dose of Pill’s urgent, rage-infused harmonics were blitzed, instead, with the tuneful, light-seeking musings of a spiritual pilgrim, the cribbing of Buddhist slogans peeled off with soaring crescendos of candor, compassion, and incantation. 

Whether crafting indelible albums rich with revelation and instantly hummable melodies (from Under Rug Swept to Havoc and Bright Lights), lending her serene, yet combustible presence to the occasional feature film or TV series (yep, that was Morissette assaying The Creator in Kevin Smith’s controversial, 1999 comedy, Dogma, then portraying a whipsmart, brass-knuckled obstetrician on the sixth season of Showtime’s Weeds), recording an irresistible, often provocative monthly podcast (Conversation with Alanis Morissette), penning a regular advice column, both poppy and sage, in The Guardian newspaper, or becoming mother of two, Morissette is a woman born and reborn, then born again, and that’s just the way she likes it.

“The crux of my own inner work and training over the last many years, my goal is not so much to be good, as much as it is to be whole,” Morissette admits. “That’s my goal – to be all these parts of myself.  I remember as a young girl all the way up till today, I would always write in my journal, `All parts,’ `All parts,’ `All parts.’  My fantasy – my highest vision – was that at some point in my life not only would I feel all parts of myself were accepted by other people, but that I would accept those parts. Like everyone else, I’m getting there.”  

It’s hard to believe that Jagged Little Pill is now “old enough to drink.” Twenty-one years go so fast!
 (Laughs) And when you’re raising babies, even faster! In the aftermath of Pill, you very consciously sought a slow-down, heading to India for several months. Why was that important for you?

I wanted to step away from the hailstorm of overstimulation that was the tour from Jagged Little Pill, and I somehow managed to do that. India has a very particular version of silence, this stillness, this solitude, this pin-drop silence, literally and figuratively, that I really needed then, when the only privacy I had was in my closet, literally, where I would write a lot of my songs. I was in the middle of nowhere in India, pretty much all the time, and every street corner is an altar and there is a profound spirit that permeates their culture. It was a good choice on my part. I brought that home with me, in my personal life and what has become a very meaningful practice, and then I wrote the song “Thank U,” where I actually thank India for all it gave to me. 

Being thrust onto the international stage at the age of 21, connecting so profoundly with 30-million fans that had purchased the album, touring relentlessly for two years, you were on a treadmill. What was it like to realize that you could actually stop the machine for a moment?

It was liberating, exciting and terrifying. I began laughing again, making up for a lot of lost time on emotional levels, on traveling levels, on relationship levels, physical levels, exploring my own spirituality. I felt humbled, inspired, afraid and grateful. I feel younger now than I ever have in my whole life. When I was 14, I felt 40 years old, and now I feel both eight and 80. I discovered the world on many different levels with the energy that had always gone solely into my “career.”

With a lot of songwriters given to candor and revelation in their lyrics, audiences crane their necks for snapshots of “The Real Artist.” How much of “The Real Alanis” are listeners likely to find in your albums these days?

Probably all of her, I’d say. And then, maybe none of her. They’re like tools of divination, these songs. All of her is there, but you have to know what you’re looking for. (Laughs) Songs, or any form of expression, are unself-conscious moments or snapshots captured on film, tape or canvas or paper. Even if it may change in a week or in an hour or in 10 years, it will remain a representation of that moment. I like that.

In retrospect, playing God in Kevin Smith’s film only moments after dropping one of the best-selling albums of all time and being branded by culture cops as the “Voice of a Generation” might have been a sassy choice. Thoughts?

If I were to have thought about it in those terms at all, I’d probably agree with you. But it was what was in front of me, and I felt like trying to get inside that perspective might be a powerful one. A humbling one. 

Of course, every filmmaker has his or her own directorial style. What’s the on-deck conversation between you and Kevin Smith on Dogma?

You have to let go of every egoic version of God you might have. Kevin Smith and I talked very briefly about what the character should be, and he, basically, said, “Oh, just go over there and do whatever you think God is.” I was, like, “Great. I’ll be right back.” And I realized, God must have an incredible sense of humor, and to let this world be as it is, also a great sense of neutrality. Those were the qualities I chose to embody. I don’t know if I was right. 

That type of expansive and expanding spirituality is something that’s infused your work for many years and, these days, seems the cornerstone of your public presence. Is there a touchstone for you, a place you might refer others in the questing mindset?

Yes! Read The Diamond In Your Pocket by Gangaji! Pretty supportive stuff. This is a book I’ve read four times, and every single time I read it, there’s a new message in it for me. It’s really a book for the brave warrior in me – and, frankly, anyone – who is committed to authenticity above all. It’s easy to be a little bit authentic, or to say you want to be authentic, but this is a book that really supports that journey. Its unwavering. It’s demanding. It’s about cultivating courage and releasing control and unearthing the roots of our suffering. It’s a lot of energy. Am I there yet? Hell, no. But aspiring. Read it. 

Though it’s not nearly as tidy as nightstand reading, parenthood is a spiritual sojourn of its own. How has motherhood shifted your life?

My manager said to me at one point many years ago, “Your life’s going to change when your baby is born – but only forever.” (Laughs) I have discovered the virtues of coffee, truly. Coffee has become very helpful in that I’m sleeping a lot less. But motherhood is also all about integration for me. Previously, personal fulfillment was at home, and then I was on the road, living my vocation. Everything was really compartmentalized. Separate. There was this, and then there was that. Now everything is really integrated. I come into my room to do an interview, I go breastfeed, I talk to my husband, I go write a song. Everything’s blended together and, frankly, not a moment too soon. It’s always been a goal, this integration.

There have been many artists who have played very public masquerades, changing masks or appearance or sound or branding between albums. You’ve not done that so much as you have exposed the very process of that searching and that sleight of hand in your music. Are there any essential roles, or aspects to, Alanis Morissette?

I like that question, and the answer is, “Yes, of course there is – today.” Maybe tomorrow, it will be different. But today, it’s teacher, student, friend. These are three sacred roles that allow me to jump all the time between humility and confidence. I am so blessed when I am in the position to mentor people, super-blessed when I am the student, which is maybe my easiest role, and then the parity and play of two teachers and friends coming together. These relationships mean so much to me. I’m so blessed to finally be in a place to give and receive in that exchange. 

There are colors and details of your personal life captured forever in these songs that might make a different artist a touch queasy or gun-shy. Have you ever felt like you’d gone too far or said too much?

I try to always be aware of those possibilities, but I also try to never be fenced in by them. It’s always a balancing of respect and bluntness, appreciation and truth. There really is no emotion or part of myself that I’m afraid to write about. The challenge is to be specific enough that it resonates for me on an emotional level, but not so specific that it disrespects anyone’s boundary or privacy. I have also, through the years, played certain songs for people that I’ve written about them, and all of them have understood the spirit in which the songs were written. Unwittingly, these songs have sometimes encouraged me to connect directly with people, and that can be very healing. 

Meditation became a key component of your life in the wake of Jagged Little Pill. How has meditation impacted your life?

Completely. While it may have seemed like I was surrounded by allies back in the early days, life on the road can be very insulated, and therefore isolating. There is no handbook on how to deal with road life and external success, much less how to dispel the illusion without seeming spoiled and ungrateful, all when you’re 21! Meditation taught me how to get back to the fundamental truths. We get distracted by all that is outside of us in this desperate race to “get” something that will make us feel whole and connected. We seek bliss through “things” (other people, money, status, sex, adulation, whatever it may be) when all we have to do, really, is be still. What we actually so desire is in the silence. It is us. It is tiring and futile to try to grasp for that serenity by attaining or achieving “things.” Meditation, along with “achieving” what could have seemingly been the “ultimate achievements,” made me realize that we are all sadly and ignorantly chasing our tails. So it’s rearranged everything in me, and I’m very thankful for that. 

There’s a new album in the works, reportedly due this winter. If you could skip today’s recording session – not to mention this conversation – where in the world would you be right this second?

Big Sur. Easy. No question. I’ve been going since I was 19, and I’m kind of obsessed with the place. A lot of time, I’ll go to Esalen, maybe take a class or do a meditation, and then Deetjen’s for dinner, where the food is farm-fresh and there is a roaring fireplace and you’re in this little haven, surrounded by these redwood trees, and the Andrew Molera hike along the bluffs and the ridges is breathtaking. It may be heaven on earth. That’s where I’d be, but I’m also very happy to be exactly where I am.