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Alanis Morissette on Her Wrenching New Album, 25 Years of ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ and More

“I love anger,” says Morissette, who releases ‘Such Pretty Forks in the Road’ on July 31st. “It moves worlds. It helps me set boundaries and change things”

Shelby Duncan*

As with the rest of humanity, Alanis Morissette’s big plans for 2020 haven’t quite worked out. With the hit musical of Jagged Little Pill running strong on Broadway as the year began, she was going to release her first album in eight years, the wrenching Such Pretty Forks in the Road, in May and then tour for the 25th anniversary of her debut. The new album is still coming out — now on July 31st — but the rest of it has evaporated. “It’s the classic stages of grief,” says Morissette. As for the nearly decade-long wait between studio albums, there’s an all-too-simple explanation, she adds with a laugh: “I think it’s straight-up having three children.” (To hear the entire interview on the new episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, press play below, or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Spotify.)

The introspection of your new album feels well-suited to the times. What was your thinking in delaying it from the spring?
I just thought it intuitively doesn’t feel right to be putting a record out about one woman’s crisis when we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I got a 50-50 reaction depending upon which friend I told that information to. One would say, “Yeah, wait, please. I can’t take any more.” And then other friends said the total opposite thing: “Are you kidding me? I want to lose myself in your story and in your words.”

When you were 20, you sang, “I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.” It feels like part of this album’s message is that it’s still OK to feel that way later in life.
Yeah, and the spiritual running joke for me around that is that if I’m trying to figure it out on the level of ego, I’ll never figure it out. If I’m trying to figure this out by what I’m going to consume, or who I’m going to meet, or who I’m going to be married to, there will always be this ache, this hunger, and for me, that’s the spiritual. There’s a song I wrote called “Would Not Come” [from 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie] with a similar theme. If you keep repeating on the same level you can’t graduate to some new behavior or some new revelation or epiphany or anything. I just kept trying to find an answer on the level that you can’t find it on. So for me, it was like, “I want to cultivate a spiritual practice.” But it was really hard for me to meditate for years, because who wanted to be left alone with these thoughts?

“Reasons I Drink” feels like a very honest song about addiction. What were you thinking there?
There’s such a tendency to shame people and judge people who are reaching for the billions of whack-a-mole addictions that are out there. But the center of all of it is people — myself included — just seeking relief from being dysregulated. And then those of us who become really addicted, it starts off as something that helps, and then eventually kills you dead. For those who have any kind of addiction — work, sex, alcohol, any kind of drugs — I have a lot of empathy for me and them, because not only are they struggling with seeking relief, but also with being judged.

On “Losing the Plot,” you sing about insomnia. Is that a big issue for you?
My temperament is wildly sensitive. So I mean, someone can be thinking something and I’m up. Especially with an almost eight-month-old. I nurse all night long. And then I’m in general postpartum activity, as I call it. The first two times I had it, it was more sort of depressive symptoms. This time around, maybe one percent is depression The rest is just anxiety and all the pictures and all the the horrifying parts of PPD [post-partum depression.] But yeah, sleep is scarce. And I sleep whenever I can, which is not a large amount of time, but enough to keep going.

If I haven’t had any time with myself, there’s no way I’m going to be sleeping. The noises wake me and they go, “come on, write about it!” Whenever there’s something left undone that is really important to me, I won’t sleep. It’s the most creative time, because everyone’s sleeping, and I can sort of take off my mom hat. I can just really follow my muse and get into that expansive state of just being receptive to whatever is coming, whether it’s a lyric or an idea or something to edit or artwork or design for something.

The Jagged Little Pill musical cleverly builds some mockery of your “Ironic” lyrics into the show. Is it a relief to feel like you’ve put some nails in the coffin of the whole “most of that isn’t actually ironic” thing?
Yeah, until the next generation wants to kick my ass! Until the next onslaught of shaming. Diablo Cody [the musical’s writer] just nailed it. You know, I didn’t even want that song on the record. I remember a lot of people going, “Please, please, please.” That was one of the first songs Glen Ballard and I wrote, almost like a demo. But people wound up liking the melody, and I wasn’t that precious about it. I came to realize later that perhaps I should have been. [Laughs] Whoops!

Another thing that happens in the musical is that Lauren Patten’s character recontextualizes “You Oughta Know” into what people have called a queer anthem. What was it like to see your most famous song so powerfully transformed?
I mean, I what I loved about it was that there’s only a certain amount that I’ll share about my personal story. I love revenge fantasy, but my intention is not to seek revenge. And so the song is really written to get it out of my body because I’m such a Canadian imploder. Anytime I can move it, whether it’s through exercise or venting with my friends or writing songs, it’s just really responsible of me to get it out so that I stay healthy. And then once the record is finished, and I share it with people, it’s not mine anymore. So I’ve heard so many different accounts of like, ‘hey, this song helped me through my divorce’ or ‘Alanis, I hate men too!” And I’m like, [dubiously] ‘mmm, ‘kay.’ [Laughs] Forget it. And I just like hearing people’s stories about it.

And then for it to be at the centerpiece of the Jagged Little Pill musical and the way Lauren performs it – I think it’s an extra 20 layers because you get to actually see the relationship that is causing so much pain in her, versus mine, which we’re never going to really talk about. So for me,  it was also my being able to sit in the audience and really take it in. And how devastated that song is. Because a lot of people just think of the anger. You know, I live for anger. Not the destructive acting out of anger, but I love anger. It moves worlds. It helps me set boundaries and change things. But yeah, when I watched ‘You Oughta Know,” and frankly, all of them, I just thought, ‘Wow, this has been brought to life on so many different levels.’ And it just warms my heart.

In working on the musical, you got to collaborate with yourself at 19 or 20. What would you say to that Alanis if you could?
I would just express a desire to have a few more people around her. It was pretty lonely. During that time, every festival I participated in, it was like 72 male bands and Alanis Morissette. [laughs] It got to a point where a lot of them didn’t know what to do with me. “Like, okay, we’re not gonna have sex with her. We’re not gonna date her. What do we do?”  And my answer was, “Nothing! Just chat with me! Have a falafel with me, y’know?”  So I tried making a lot of friends and it just didn’t quite work out because it was such an unusual circumstance. Fame is very confusing to some people. I leave a lot of room for people to be awkward at first. If you eventually can’t get through it, it’s untenable as a friendship. There’s so many different considerations [to be able] to thrive as someone who’s in the public eye and kind of isolated for it. I had this bill of goods sold to me that I think the entire planet had sold to them to about fame – which is, it’s going to solve all your problems, you’re not going to be lonely. And, you know, that’s not what happened.

CA.KROQ.#2.AS.12–17–95A Alanis Morissette performing on stage at the Universal Amphitheatre during the KROQ 6th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas Concert on Sunday evening; first night of the 2 day concert event which features some of the biggest name s in alternative rock. Photo ^^^. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Alanis Morissette performing on stage at the Universal Amphitheatre during the KROQ 6th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas in 1995. (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

On the new song “Nemesis,” are you singing about psychedelics?
Yeah. I’ve experimented with a lot of portals to find God, and some of them are temporary but still open up the window. I am a curious girl, so most things I would experiment with. I have a lot of friends who found that ego-obliterating experience was really powerful for them. For me, I’m a little bit of an anxious bird. There’s so much information [in my head] all the time and all of it is ego-obliterating, even when I’m not medicated in any way.  I definitely don’t need anything to help me go to those places.

You were supposed to spend this summer on tour with Liz Phair, who sometimes seems to have wished for a more Alanis-like career. But have you ever wished for a more Liz Phair-type career?
I’ve never really thought of it, because it would require me not to be me. Maybe in a parallel universe I have a swallowable amount of fame. But it was too late at 22 — I was like, “You can’t put all this back in the box.” Then after a while, it did chill. I was so ignorant about the trajectory of fame that I thought, “Oh, my God, does it stay like this forever? I want out!” But of course it changes, which was lovely. I could start to breathe again.

Your new album is another reminder of the power and uniqueness of your voice. That Alanis thing you do – the high end of it, where there’s almost an additional harmonic to it – where did that come from? Was it always there?
It was always there! And I hear it in my son. My son sings with me and harmonizes with me and the timbre is exactly the same – and he’s got full Mariah range.  I think it was always there. What I never wanted to do was to gratuitously do all the vocalization flippy-flippies to impress people, Priority number one  was the story being told. So if the story needed to be told in an octave, and she doesn’t get a chance to hit them high notes, then so be it – that’s what the song wants, So it’s always the narrative and the story first, and then the vocal fun comes. I have to knock on wood when I say this, but I always imagined that as I got older, my range would get smaller. But the opposite is true. My range is actually getting wider. Low is actually, for me, just as fun as high. Like, how low can I get? . It’s almost like these vocal cords are a paintbrush. Sometimes it’s velvety, sometimes it’s just really crackly and vulnerable.

The fun Canadian dance-pop music that you recorded before Jagged Little Pill is now easily accessible online. If you happen to listen to something like your 1991 single “Too Hot” now, what do you make of it?
I’ve always been drawn to different genres. I just finished the video for [new single] “Smiling,” which has a lot of dancing. Since I was six, I’ve considered myself a writer and a dancer, you know? [Laughs] Back then, I wanted to have a loop and an electric guitar — dance and rock. And I was collaborating with people who understandably had a very, very clear sense of “No, you’re either this or you’re that.” That’s something I’ve heard so many times throughout my life. But at 16 or 17, I was working with people who had a beautiful agenda and made great music. And to be honest, I was nowhere near ready to be singing autobiographically at 15. Too scary!

You’re writing a book. First of all, how is it going? And I know you have some stories to tell – will you be naming names?
Well, I have written 1300 pages, and in it, I’ve used every name. But I’m not going to name names [in the final product]. I mean, maybe I will if I get some permissions here and there, but again, not unlike “You Oughta Know,” I’m not writing for some revenge-filled outcome. The irony for me is that I don’t care about my story. I’ve hired people to help me care, because I don’t. It’s why I get excited when I hear other people tell me their stories.  But my intention is not to just do a tell-all that ruins 25 people’s lives in one minute.