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On becoming a superstar at an early age, the power of anger, and life in the public eye

Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting stands on November 2nd — with four special covers, including this one. We’ll be rolling out all 10 stories this week and next, so check back often. 

If anyone can understand the roller coaster that Olivia Rodrigo has been on this year, it’s Alanis Morissette. The two songwriters — who are big fans of each other’s music, but have never met before today — sit facing one another in dark blazers in a San Francisco warehouse overlooking the Pacific. Morissette rocks firecracker-red heels, while Rodrigo is disco-ready in platform leather boots that she swears are comfortable.

Prior to the interview, they casually discuss topics that range from Halloween (Rodrigo’s favorite holiday) to Germany (where Morissette briefly lived as a child). Soon, they get more personal, with Morissette asking Rodrigo if she has any tattoos. “No! I just turned 18!” Rodrigo says with a laugh. “I feel like if I do one, I’m going to want to do so many more.” Her idol offers a word of advice: “Don’t get a tattoo unless you’ve been married 47 years.”

Rodrigo and Morissette might be nearly 30 years apart, but they’ve gone down similar paths. Both began as child actors (Rodrigo on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series; Morissette on the Canadian sketch show You Can’t Do That on Television). Both of their careers exploded beyond their wildest expectations when they switched their focus to music, releasing blockbuster albums that used intensely personal details to strike universal chords of heartbreak. They even both have hit singles whose music videos feature them navigating mixed feelings in a moving vehicle (“Drivers License” and “Ironic”).

“I love how you’re so honest and talk about stuff that normally isn’t talked about in songwriting,” says Rodrigo, whose album, Sour, is one of the year’s most streamed by a healthy margin. “Well, you’re doing the same,” replies Morissette, 47, who’s been touring to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill. “I’m excited. I went down many rabbit holes knowing I was going to meet you.”

“Oh, my gosh,” Rodrigo says. “I’m going to blush.”

olivia rodrigo alanis morissette musicians on musicians

Photographed by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Produced by Walaa Elsiddig and Jenny Martin. Morissette: Styled by Sara Paulsen for Art Dept. Hair styled by Marcus Francis for A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Rachel Goodwin for A-Frame Agency. Jacket by Nanushka. Anine Bing T-shirt and Mother pants from Shopbop. Earrings by Andy Lif. Rodrigo: Styled by Chloe + Chenelle for A-Frame Agency. Hair styled by Clayton Hawkins for A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Molly Greenwald for A-Frame Agency. Sweater by AREA. Pants by Marine Serre.

Rodrigo: I remember having my mind blown when I was 13. I was in the car with my parents listening to Jagged Little Pill. I remember hearing “Perfect,” and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I told my music teacher a couple days after: “You can write songs like that?” I just looked at music and songwriting in a completely different way.

Morissette: What was it about that song? Was it the perfectionism theme, or was it just the idea of stream of consciousness?

Rodrigo: I just think that’s something me and all of my friends had felt so acutely for so long, and I’d never heard somebody talk about it — even in general, in conversation, and definitely never in a song that’s so popular.

It’s really hard to sing about what you sing about sometimes. Maybe it’s not hard for you, but as a listener … I went to see Jagged Little Pill on Broadway before lockdown, and that was the first time I heard “So Unsexy.” I remember being like, “I can’t believe she’s saying all of this stuff.” Stuff that is so, so vulnerable and intimate. That was another moment where I was like, “Wow, songwriting can be so much bigger than I imagined it in my head.”

Morissette: I don’t know what your process is around songwriting. For me, when I first write it, it’s just for myself. It’s me alone in a room.

Rodrigo: Always, yeah.

Morissette: And then when it’s shared publicly, it’s no longer mine. It’s still my story, and I’m really intrigued when I hear other people’s interpretations of it, because sometimes it’s a direct match to what my experience was. Other times it has nothing to do with where I was coming from. It’s just been beautifully co-opted by whoever’s listening.

But the process does start with it just being very intimate, literally alone. A lot of people have said to me very generously, like you just did, “Wow, that’s so brave,” and I wonder what part of it is brave, because it just doesn’t feel brave to me [laughs]. It just feels like a mandatory experience to the point where if I’m not doing that — if I’m not expressing myself in that way — I’d probably get sick really fast.

Rodrigo: That’s fascinating.

Morissette: What about you? Is it a mandatory thing? If you’re not writing or expressing yourself, do you start eating your own hand?

Rodrigo: I try to write every day. I’m the same way: I write solely for myself. I think if I tried to sit down at the piano and be like, “I’m going to write a song that everyone likes and that resonates with people!” it’s never any good.

I’ve been trying to put out songs and realize they’re not mine anymore. I can’t tell you how many songs that I’ve listened to and been like, “Oh, my gosh, that artist totally wrote it for me and my situation,” and they never did. You know what I mean?

Morissette: No, they did! [Laughs.]

Rodrigo: A hundred percent. They knew every minutia of what I’m going through. But that’s what’s beautiful about art — you can just fill in the gaps with pieces of your own life. By trying to feel like you can control what people project onto it, it loses magic.

Morissette: The projection is sometimes intense, but I feel like people in the public eye and artists in particular are social activists by mistake, because we’re these screens upon which people project everything. They project light, they project what’s wrong, they project what they hate. My dad told me when I was really young — I think I was maybe seven — he said, “Sweetheart, there’s three ways people will perceive you in the world: They’re going to love you and you can do no wrong, they’re going to hate you and you can do no right, or they just won’t give a shit. It’s going to be one of those three, so enjoy!”

I kept that in mind, because ultimately people who are close to us want to feel seen and understood to some degree. We’re on tour right now, and every night onstage is this invitation to whatever you see up here or whatever you’re perceiving. I don’t know what your experience is performing live, but it’s like a churn. It’s like taking the energy and really alchemically crunching it out of my body, but also getting it out.

Rodrigo: That’s funny you say that. I’ve really never played a proper show before in my life, which is kind of strange, because I put out my record in quarantine.

Morissette: Right, how was that?

Rodrigo: I honestly loved it. I put out my first song, which did really well, and I didn’t expect any of that sort of success so early on. I think had I not just been doing the same thing that I had always been doing and writing songs in my bedroom, maybe I would have gotten a little more in my head about it than I did.

Morissette: So it’s released, and there’s no way really to anticipate any receptivity. Then it was received by a lot of people in a very excited way. How did you navigate that at first? I mean, you’re still in it, obviously.

Rodrigo: We had a similar experience, where we had a really successful debut album, which is weird. At least for me, it felt super-quick. It felt overnight, and I’ve been working and writing songs since I was five years old. It definitely wasn’t overnight. But the “I’m writing songs in my bedroom” to “Oh, my gosh, lots of people know this song” was really quick for me. I feel obviously so lucky, but sometimes it just feels like it doesn’t have to do with me.

Morissette: It’s impersonal.

Rodrigo: Yeah. I always think that creativity is sometimes really magical and celestial, and if you’re a vessel for an amazing song, that’s awesome, but sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with you. I try to not attach a lot of ego to it.

Morissette: Well, that’s deeply wise.

Rodrigo: How did you handle it when your album came out? Did you have any hard times dealing with criticism or the spotlight?

Morissette: All eyes on the fishbowl. There was a lot of bullying and a lot of jealousy and a lot of people whom I’d adored my whole life being mean girls.

Rodrigo: Same!

Morissette: Somewhere around 22, I stopped reading everything because it wasn’t really relevant to my personal growth and evolution. I had enough people around me who would point out blind spots whether I wanted them to or not. And I love therapy, so I’ve always had a huge team of therapists. But at the end of the day it became “Who do I feel seen by?”

Rodrigo: I’ve had a very similar experience. Putting out music in the age of social media can be really daunting, and I think people hold young women to an incredibly unrealistic standard. I’ve taken the same route as you have and just don’t look at it.

I don’t think anyone is meant to look at that stuff. I don’t think we as human beings are supposed to know what thousands of people think about what we wore or what we said or how we talk. I think having that separation is really important — realizing that that’s not real life, you know what I mean? That world that is created online, it’s just one facet of this very big human existence.

Morissette: People ask me what I think of Instagram and everything, and I just think it’s like a storefront in New York at Christmastime. It’s presentational.

Rodrigo: Exactly. It’s just hard for me because I had my first Instagram when I was 12 years old. So I completely had all of my adolescence in front of people, and I think it’s hard to differentiate who you are as a person versus who you are as a person on Instagram.

For a long time, I had a hard time separating those two things. I could be kind and smart and have all of these awesome things, but if I didn’t showcase them on Instagram and nobody saw it, did it truly happen?

Morissette: There are so many differences in our generations, and I’m thinking about the social media aspect and to what degree self is defined in today’s era through that.

Rodrigo: Something I think is really interesting, too, is that you used to be a child actor. So was I. Do you think that acting helped you be more in touch with your emotions in songwriting? In a certain way, that’s how I felt with it.

Morissette: What made it so that acting helped you in your expression process?

Rodrigo: I think it helped me be able to tap into certain emotions like that. I remember actually going to my first acting lesson when I was 11 years old and crying in this scene and feeling this sense of catharsis and being like, “Oh, this is like therapy.” I think that translates into music as well. I wrote a couple songs on my record literally crying at my piano.

You’ve both made hugely successful albums about heartbreak. What is it about that topic that attracts so many fans?

Rodrigo: I think heartbreak is so universal — the feeling that lots of humans feel the most deeply. I’ve never felt as deep a sadness as I did when I was truly, truly heartbroken and devastated. Putting “Drivers License” out was such a unique experience because I’ve lived this sort of weird life. I grew up on set and didn’t go to school like everyone else did. I was like, “Are my songs going to be relatable?”

musicians on musicians olivia rodrigo alanis morissette

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Olivia: Vintage suit, vintage beret from Lidow Archive. Luichiny Boots from Arlalda Vintage. Ring by EÉRA

And when I put out “Drivers License,” about this really hard time in my life, I watched it just affect so many people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender or age. There would be 40-year-old guys that would come up to me and be like, “Wow, that really struck me.” Even if they weren’t going through a situation like that, they were like, “Oh, it takes me right back to when I was in high school and I went through my first heartbreak.” That was so magical for me, to not only see how universal that feeling was, but also how magical music can be and it can take you back to a specific point in time. You can hear everything and taste everything and smell everything, and that’s so unique to music.

Morissette: I think love and anger and pain are energies that move worlds. They open things up, they start the currents moving again if something’s stuck. If we’re depressed or riddled with anxiety — and they usually go hand in hand — in order to move out of that a tiny bit, maybe conjuring a little anger is going to help. What I love for my music to be able to provide is just this intimacy, and it’s an invitation for our humanity. There’s this whole current of what it is to be human that is overlooked by culture. Enter music. Music is this giant allowance for whatever messy, gorgeous, luminous, terrifying thing that’s going on. It’s like a permission button.

Rodrigo: Pressure of a sophomore album is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, too. I don’t know if you felt that pressure.

Morissette: After Jagged Little Pill, everywhere I went, every grocery store ever was “When’s your next record? I hate men, too!” I didn’t want to write it right away. There’s a lot of pressure to rise to some odd occasion or bar. For me, it’s about snapshots of what’s happening in your life now — including that pressure.

Rodrigo: Did you have a hard time with your relationship being pulled apart and poked and prodded and wanting details of your personal life that you don’t feel comfortable giving?

Morissette: Yeah. When I write songs, I’m not writing them to ruin someone’s life. If I were doing that, I’d probably give names and addresses. None of these songs are written to eviscerate someone or seek overt revenge, although I think revenge fantasy is awesome. Revenge fantasy is everything to me.

I don’t know the degree to which you have a formal mission or intentionality or whether you’re just busy living it, but something about the servicefulness of continuing to show up keeps me here. I’m curious: What would keep you here? If you see yourself making music when you’re 75, do you have a sense of what would keep you going?

Rodrigo: I think about that all the time, because sometimes it seems a little strange why someone would want this and bring it upon themselves.

Morissette: Oh, it’s cruel.

Rodrigo: It’s like, to want to be the president of the United States, you have to have this weird thing. It’s so much pressure and criticism.

I don’t really know that answer. I think what keeps me going is that love of writing a song in your bedroom and being like, “That perfectly captures how I feel better than anything I could have said in a conversation.”

Morissette: Seeing the profound effect that some of the songs can have on people across from me just really keeps me in the game.

Rodrigo: I love that. How is touring? I’m just curious, I’ve never been on tour. I’m very excited for the day when I get to be a mom like you and just wondering how that is, touring with your kids.

Morissette: Well, if anyone asks you whether you want to go on tour with your three children during Covid, you should say “Hell no.” Touring is the greatest; I’ve been touring on and off since I was 15 years old. I am a bona fide road dog.

Rodrigo: I’m going to go see you at the Hollywood Bowl, too.

Morissette: Oh good!

Rodrigo: I feel like I’d regret it if I didn’t ask if you had any advice for me growing up in this industry.

Morissette: Wow. If I could have done anything differently, I would have had a few more friends around me, period. Just a little bit more emotional support, someone where you could vent with them and process with them. It was lovely to journal about it, but if I could go back in time, I would have conjured a few really deeply loving, unconditionally caring people around me to just check in with me. Do you have that?

Rodrigo: I hope so, yeah.

Morissette: Let’s make sure you have that. I’ll send you a kit. A survive-on-the-road kit for the sensitive soul.

(Main photograph by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Produced by Walaa Elsiddig and Jenny Martin. Morissette: Styled by Sara Paulsen for Art Dept. Hair styled by Marcus Francis for A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Rachel Goodwin for A-Frame Agency. Jacket by Nanushka. Anine Bing T-shirt and Mother pants from Shopbop. Earrings by Andy Lif. Rodrigo: Styled by Chloe + Chenelle for A-Frame Agency. Hair styled by Clayton Hawkins for A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Molly Greenwald for A-Frame Agency. Sweater by AREA. Pants by Marine Serre.)

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