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Sun September 2, 2012
Music Interviews

Alanis Morissette On Anger, Fame And Motherhood

Originally published on Sun September 2, 2012 6:57 pm

A lot has changed for Alanis Morissette in the past two decades. Raised Catholic in Ottawa, she spent much of her youth believing she couldn't sing. When she began her music career as a teenager, it was as a dance-pop artist — and, briefly, Vanilla Ice's opening act. Finally, in 1995, she released Jagged Little Pill, an international smash that made Morissette an overnight celebrity, won her an armload of Grammy awards and left her with a "scorned woman" image that she hasn't shaken since.

Morissette's latest album, Havoc and Bright Lights, is her eighth, and it comes on the heels of another big change: She gave birth to her first child at the end of 2010. Here, Morissette speaks with NPR's Guy Raz about the new record and more.


Interview Highlights

On how motherhood has changed her music

"It did affect it, in the sense that I was able to finally have my maternal energy channeled into an appropriate relationship — versus having done it super-dysfunctionally with ex-boyfriends and in professional relationships. Being a mom with my actual son was very appropriate."

On responding to sudden fame at the start of her career

"The story goes that we would be surrounded by people who adored us, our self-esteem would skyrocket and everything would be glorious. And I found that fame only amplified that which was already there to begin with — so if there was any self-doubt or self-hatred or tendency toward self-annihilation, it just kind of put steroids into it and made it even more explosive."

On being pegged as an "angry" performer

"If there were to be any quality [for which] I become a poster child, I'll take anger — because as a woman, two of the main emotions that we are, quote-unquote, 'not allowed' to feel are anger and sadness. That anger is such a powerful life force, and I think it can move worlds. It is behind every activism and every [act of service] that I do — anger fuels it. So for me to think that anger can go away is naive. But the form that that anger takes, and the degree to which I am responsible for it, in that I don't allow it to be destructive... Ideally, that would be how I'd operate with it, but sometimes it has its way."

On her earnest cover of The Black Eyed Peas' 'My Humps'

"A lot of record-company members over the years would beg me to write a party song. They'd just be like, 'You write such intense songs; can you please just write a party song?' At first, I was completely offended and I said no. And then I thought, 'God, you know, I'd love to do that, but I don't actually think it's possible — but I can cover one.' And I love highlighting lyrics, lyrics that some people might pooh-pooh and make fun of, but there's actually some gems in there."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you happened to pass a radio in the mid-1990s, you couldn't possibly have escaped this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU OUGHT TO KNOW")

ALANIS MORISSETTE: (Singing) You, you, you oughta know.

RAZ: Alanis Morissette and "You Oughta Know." That record, "Jagged Little Pill," went on to sell more than 30 million copies, and it made Alanis Morissette very, very famous overnight, a level of fame she wasn't ready to handle. Her lyrics were often angry, the product of tormented relationships.

Today, Alanis Morissette sings about somewhat different things on her new album, "Havoc and Bright Lights." For starters, she's older - 38 - and she's now a mother. And the first track off the record, "Guardian," is about that new role in her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUARDIAN")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) You who smiled when you're in pain...

RAZ: So how did motherhood affect Alanis Morissette's new record?

MORISSETTE: It did affect it in the sense that I was able to finally have my maternal energy channeled into an appropriate relationship versus having done it super dysfunctionally with ex-boyfriends and in professional relationships. Now, being a mom with my actual son was very appropriate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUARDIAN")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) I'll be your keeper for life as your guardian. I'll be your warrior of care, your first warden. I'll be your angel on call, I'll be on demand. The greatest honor of all as your guardian.

You know, I also didn't want to write a full throttle mom record because that wouldn't have been that exciting for me to. So records wind up being these great snapshots of periods of time in my life to the point where when I start writing a record I don't actually have an intellectualized grasp on what it'll become. It emerges as we go.

RAZ: Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. You grew up in Ottawa.

MORISSETTE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: A pretty strict Catholic family, right?

MORISSETTE: Yup, pretty Catholic. It's where I cut my teeth in the singing world. I remember my brothers hilariously said that I had the worst singing voice - and I believed them - until I sang - I think I sang the St. Francis of Assisi song in church one day when I was 10 years old. And a woman turned around after, and she just said, you have a beautiful voice.

And I thought, wow, that's interesting. I didn't know I did. So that was a turning point for me. So God bless the Catholics for that, among many other things.

RAZ: It's amazing, I mean, the story of how you sort of emerged, because you came to Los Angeles as a kid. I mean, you were what, 19 or 18?

MORISSETTE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And you became huge. I mean, millions and millions of people bought "Jagged Little Pill," and you became a celebrity...

MORISSETTE: Yes.

RAZ: ...overnight.

MORISSETTE: Yup.

RAZ: You sing about that on this record, about being a celebrity.

MORISSETTE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELEBRITY")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) I have tasted stardom since before I breathed. My well-known hungry daddy modeled it for me.

Yeah. I have to make a commentary of what it was to be in it but not of it in my own way. You know, I was sold the same bill of goods about what fame would afford me. You know, the story goes that we would be surrounded by people who adored us, our self-esteem would skyrocket, and everything would be glorious, you know?

And I found that fame actually only amplified that which was already there to begin with. So if there was any self-doubt or self-hatred or tendency toward self-annihilation, it just kind of put steroids into it and made it even more explosive.

I know a lot of artists that I watched over the years, the Jimi Hendrixes who have this gorgeous talent and this major movement of energy that courses through them, and we're demanded to be responsible for that and to corral it. And we don't always have the faculties to do that, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELEBRITY")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) Give me celebrity, a kingdom to be famous. Tell me who I have to be starting to be famous.

RAZ: Is there a part of celebrity that - I mean, obviously, there are huge privileges that go along with it and there's a part of it that is tedious. I mean, people who are huge fans of yours presumably come up to you and they have an image and a sense of what you will be like. And you may be having a bad day, but you have to be friendly. You have to be nice, right?

MORISSETTE: You don't have to be anything, really. I mean, it's always nice to be gracious, because if this person has been listening to your music for, in my case, 17 years and then you have 11 seconds with them, you know, I really want to offer as much love as I can. And if I'm in a bad mood or I'm PMS-ing, I'll just turn to them and say, I'm exhausted. I'm so sorry. You know, so I'll attempt to be as gracious as I possibly can, but I'm also human. So...

RAZ: How do you sort of react when people who write about your music refer to Alanis Morissette's anger or her feelings of being a scorned woman? Do you - I mean, do you feel like that's in the past? That is not who you are in any way?

MORISSETTE: If there were to be any quality that I become a poster child for, I'll take anger. Because as a woman, two of the main emotions that we are, quote, unquote, "not allowed to feel" are anger and sadness. That anger is such a really powerful life force, and I think it can move worlds, you know? It is behind every activism and every serviceful move that I do. Anger fuels it.

So for me to think that anger can go away is naive. But the form that that anger takes and the degree to which I am responsible for it in that I don't allow it to be destructive, you know, ideally, that would be how I'd operate with it, but sometimes it has its way.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: By the way. I was curious about something that you did a few years ago. You covered the song "My Humps."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HUMPS")

FERGIE: (Singing) My hump, my hump, my hump. My lovely lady lumps. Check it out.

RAZ: This is a ridiculous song by the Black Eyed Peas. And you covered it as a totally earnest ballad.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HUMPS")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) My hump, my hump, my hump...

RAZ: What's the story behind that?

MORISSETTE: Well, a lot of record company members over the years would beg me to write a party song. They'd just be like, you write such intense songs. Can you please just write a party song? And I - at first, I was completely offended, and I said no.

And then I thought, God, you know, I'd love to do that, but I don't actually think it's possible, but I can cover one. And I love highlighting lyrics, you know, lyrics that some people might pooh-pooh and make fun of, but there's actually some gems in there because Fergie talking about how it's nice for a woman to standstill and let her man work, work, work, work, work, work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "MY HUMPS")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) Make you work, make you work, work. Make you work...

It's lovely in the quoting department. It teaches women to standstill, which is always a good thing.

RAZ: Apparently, she loved your version of it.

MORISSETTE: Yeah. She sent me a cake in the form of a butt.

(LAUGHTER)

MORISSETTE: Very kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY HUMPS")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) What you going to do with all that junk?

RAZ: This album is out. You're going to be touring it.

MORISSETTE: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And you have a child and a great marriage and all these great things are happening. And it seems like what people have thought about you or sort of imagined your life to be is very different from what it has become.

MORISSETTE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MORISSETTE: Yup. There's new chapters now, and it goes to show for me that I didn't want to keep repeating the same story over and over again, you know? If it was an authentic one, which it always was, no regret around that. But I really wanted to evolve my own story, you know? So I specifically took time off because I wanted to have some fulfillment in my personal life.

I had so much and still do have incredible fulfillment in the music, and my personal life had a little bit of tumbleweed rolling around in there. Crickets were to be heard. So I specifically took time off.

RAZ: Where do you see your music heading over the, you know, course of your career?

MORISSETTE: Well, I think in terms of the sonic musical soundscapes - and I still feel like I haven't even scratched the surface. There are so many billions of chords, and I think of music in terms of color. So there's so many color blends and combinations that I haven't even begun to tap into.

So in that sense, I feel like beginner's mind. And then content-wise, all I can commit to is that I will be chronicling what's going on at any given time and that it'll be a snapshot of that era to the point where when I'm on my deathbed at 108, I'll look back and remember each record for what was going on during that period.

RAZ: That's Alanis Morissette. Her new album is called "Havoc and Bright Lights." Alanis Morissette, thank you so much. Congratulations on the record.

MORISSETTE: Thank you so much for our conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDGE OF EVOLUTION")

MORISSETTE: (Singing) Here I leave my story, I leave it in the dust. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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