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Australian Playboy Interview

The diva least likely speaks candidly about her suspicion of fame: women, anger and music: and why sheís not a ball-breaker.

Alanis Morissette is one of the greatest successes in the history of pop music. The sales of Jagged Little Pill, her breakthrough album, have soared past the 15 million mark with no end in sight. At 22 [now 23, edited], the Canadian singer may well outstrip Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as the top-selling pop singer of all time. Morissette began her musical involvement as a child growing up in Ottawa, Canada. The pretty daughter of a French-Canadian schoolteacher father and a Hungarian-born mother, Morissette began studying piano at the age of six. At nine, she was writing songs. By the age of 10, she was starring in a Canadian TV series for kids. At 16, she cut her first album of disco-dance music. And at 19, she was living the wild life in LA, searching for a personal and musical identity. Today, Alanis Morissette is standing on top of the world with an album about anger, alienation and anguish. Since its release in June 1995, Jagged Little Pill has invaded the record industry like an irresistible force. Millions of listeners have identified with Morissette's ironic perspective and haunting vocals, seeing the album reach number one in Australia, the US and the UK. Morissette is only beginning to feel what itís like to have the success she always craved. Sex is the strident theme of You Oughta Know, the first hit single from Jagged Little Pill. Morissette wrote the song after a boyfriend dumped her for another woman, creating instant controversy with its searing lyrics: "An older version of me/ Is she perverted like me/ Would she go down on you in a theatre?/ Iím sure sheíd make a really excellent mother/ Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" Morissette sang these lyrics at the normally stodgy Grammy Awards last February [in 1996, edited], where she also went on to sweep four of the top awards, including Album Of The Year and Best Female Vocalist. For Morissette, winning the Grammys represents a coronation of sorts: her aching, caustic vulnerability has established her as one of the most famous singers on the planet. Extremely intelligent and self-composed, Morissette, has the mental toughness to deal with her success and the trappings of fame. She admits to being exhausted at times, but says she wonít allow herself to burn out. Before the explosion of Jagged Little Pill, no one outside her native Canada had even heard of Alanis Morissette. She was chiefly known as a dance-pop diva after the release in 1991 of Alanis, a syrupy album which sold over 100,000 copies and saw her named the Most Promising Female Artist at Canadaís Juno awards. But Morissette was unmoved by her success. She knew she had miles to go before she could truly express herself. Her time spent in Los Angeles would see Morissette develop both musically and as a person. It was time to reverse a repressed and controlled life and achieve success that actually meant something. Jagged Little Pill is about those changes. Those who remember Morissette as a determined young girl in Ottawa, Canada, are hardly surprised that she has pulled off such a musical breakthrough. Michael Jeffords, a Canadian record producer who knew Morissette in her disco phase, recalls how fiercely Morissette worked for her success. "Alanis was one of those people who had a fire inside of her," he recalls. "She knew that she loved music and wanted to entertain and win approval for her work. I think as she matured she suddenly found herself growing light-years beyond the kind of outlook on life she had when she was doing the dance stuff. Thatís the mark of a great artist : to move on to new kinds of material that reflect the changes youíre going through. Alanis is the perfect example of that." For her part, Morissette explains that her transformation was the result of coming to terms with her problems of self-control and self-esteem. It took her most of her adolescence to deal with her Catholic guilt and to find the courage to liberate her deeper feelings. Contributor Jan Janssen spoke to Morissette in London where she was still in the process of adapting to her extraordinary success. Sitting in a cafť in Londonís trendy Soho district she wore black pants, a jean jacket, and a plain white shirt and enjoyed a cafť au lait. Her hair, long, slightly messy, was parted in the middle as always.

Playboy: How can anyone adjust to the kind of success that youíve enjoyed on the past year?
Morissette: I know. Itís a little unreal. But itís what Iíve been after for years. Iíve been performing professionally for almost seven years and this is everything and more than I could possibly have imagined. But itís fun to be recognised for your work and although itís a little stressful, itís not freaking me out. This is the second time around for me as a singer. In Canada, I had had some success and I was totally miserable.
Playboy: So youíre suspicious of fame and being a celebrity?
Morissette: Itís an illusion because the word "fame" describes an artificial situation. Your work is known but you yourself are completely distant from your audience. Thereís a gap there which creates a false sense of mystery. Thatís what fame is. It distorts your perception, and this time around I was prepared to deal with it because I had had a bad taste on it before. The recognition is great, but fame [pauses] itís not something I worry about.
Playboy: Whatís the difference between your previous career as a pop singer and the harder edged Jagged Little Pill?
Morissette: The difference is that my music is more honest now and Jagged Little Pill is my diary of my adolescence. Itís about all the crap a person goes through between the age of 14 and 21 and how many difficult changes you experience before you even begin to know who you are.
In my earlier incarnation I repressed my emotions just like I did in my personal life. When I was a teenage singer I wasnít ready to create in the way I knew I could because I was being pulled in different artistic directions that I found myself not being able to control. I was suffering from that and when my second album failed and my career began to tail off, I had to go back within myself and find out who I was and what I really needed to do with my artistic energy. I touched bottom a few times psychologically and everything thatís happening to me now is my personal payback time. I know what it feels like to be alone in a small apartment and wondering whatís happening to my life.
Playboy: Are you bitter over the kind of experiences that inspired the uglier side of some songs in Jagged Little Pill? Are you still mad at the guy who dumped you?
Morissette: No, Iím past that point. Iíve been past that point already for a few years. He doesnít mean anything to me anymore. But three years ago I was in pretty bad shape and my only catharsis was to write that kind of song. Heís long been out of my mind, although it doesnít bother me that he might wish he hadnít been such a bastard to me.
Playboy: Many people were attracted to your album not simply because of the primal energy it exudes, but also because of the very frank and compelling sexual lyrics.
Morissette: Iím a very sexual person. Iíve always felt that sex is a powerful experience and that orgasm is one of the most important forms of emotional and physical release that we have.
Playboy: The lyrics are deeply personal. Did you have to dig deep inside yourself to come out with such rage and sexual passion?
Morissette: It was a very traumatic process but it was also incredibly thrilling to be able to turn my psyche inside out and put things on paper and being able to use my music to get that kind of message across. I obviously asked for all the attention by writing about my feelings and my past; thatís definitely part of me. I am a very sexual person but thatís just a piece of the pie. The album is about a process of self-analysis and a battle to restore my self-esteem. Itís something a lot of people struggle with in order to find themselves and move on with their lives.
Playboy: Is there a lot of dark, subconscious self-analysis going on in the music?
Morissette: Oh sure. The subconscious is a great source for nasty thoughts and lyrics, especially for women because we like to explore our inner demons more than men do. Men hate to go through painful self-analysis but women are almost obsessed with it, at least Iíve been like that at times in my life. But my subconscious is feeling a lot better these days. [Laughs]
Playboy: Does it feel odd to be answering questions about an album that traces a part of your life that is probably long behind you?
Morissette: Yes, it does feel odd. That period in my life seems like a million years ago. I had a strong sense of determination and I was a model of self-control. And that was the problem. I was a very sexual person and I was very active without losing my virginity until I was 19. That was symbolic of my repressive tendencies. I was enjoying myself but without letting loose, without fully releasing myself.
Playboy: You deliberately chose not to go all the way?
Morissette: Yes. I remained a virgin because I somehow thought that that was the sign of a good Catholic little girl, even though the rest of my life was deviant and pervers. Lately, Iíve been making up for a lot of sex and other things.
Playboy: Anger is the major theme of Jagged Little Pill. Are you still an angry person?
Morissette: I think that anger is part of everyone, but I wouldnít describe myself as angry. Iím actually quite happy with myself these days, but I still get angry and frustrated about life from time to time. Thatís only normal. I think a lot of writers began to make too much of the anger theme and almost used it as a way of attacking me as an angry, frustrated woman.
Thatís the double standard in society. Men are allowed to be angry, especially male musicians, but somehow women arenít supposed to be that way in life or in music. Society has a history of repressing female emotions, especially anger and frustration, and Iíve used music to celebrate anger and confusion. Those emotions are just as valid as happiness, and theyíve been part of most of the music that most male rock singers and bands have produced over the years.
Playboy: When you arrived in LA from Canada did you experience a bit of a culture shock?
Morissette: Total culture shock. LA is another planet compared to Toronto where I recorded my first albums. Ever since Iíve been living here Iíve felt part of a big musical family. Getting Flea and Dave involved wasnít even a big deal (Jagged Little Pill features Flea and Dave Navarro from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and guitar respectively). Everybody hangs out in the same clubs and wants to do as much musically as they can.
Playboy: The principle collaborative force behind your new life as an artist has been Glen Ballard, who previously worked with the likes of Michael Jackson. How did that come together?
Morissette: I met Glen in February 1994 and we developed an immediate friendship and musical bond. Glen and I soon found out that we had something special in terms of writing together. We had both been unhappy with the kind of music we had done before, and this was our chance to start fresh and do exactly what we wanted. I had met a lot of other producers and songwriters in LA but nothing ever panned out. Glen was terrific because he understood the kind of pain that I was trying to express. Other producers never bothered to listen, but from the moment we began writing together, the magic was heart-stopping.
Playboy: How long did it take to get a record label interested in the music you began writing together?
Morissette: It took about three or four months. We had been passing around demo tapes to various record labels, but no one was even vaguely interested until Maverick called. When we got off the telephone with them, Glen and I just looked at each other and our jaws dropped. We were also concerned a bit by all the horror stories about major labels and how they screw people, but when we asked people about Maverick they would all say go for it. Itís also pretty cool because Iím the first female solo artist on the label.
Playboy: Maverick is owned by Madonna. How was the first meeting with your new boss?
Morissette: Madonnaís not my boss, although I think of her as a mentor whoís willing to support me and my music. When I met her, she was very down-to-earth and in touch with what I wanted to do and thatís all anyone can ask from a label. She even came backstage after a show and congratulated me when my album first reached number one in the States.
Playboy: Did you talk about your relationships with men?
Morissette: Yes. That was a major part of our conversations. Weíre both aggressive women and weíve both had to deal with men who may have difficulty responding to us because we demand a lot from them and donít want to be dominated or seduced in the typical ways.
Playboy: A lot of men think of Madonna as a natural-born man-eater?
Morissette: Well, sheís not. She loves men, and has a lot to give any man sheís with. But you better let her answer those questions.
Playboy: Some journalists have described you as a ball-breaker.
Morissette: Iíve read those kinds of comments and theyíre off base. Every time a woman wants to assert herself and have an equal relationship sheís automatically considered to be a bitch or a ball-breaker. Thatís the double standard that still exists in our society. Men have to realise that the price of an equal and open relationship is the willingness to listen to and understand women who are determined and self-confident and who are not willing to lie down and get fucked.
Playboy: So youíre not worried about your image in that way?
Morissette: Oh I am if people are getting this impression of me as being a negative person. Iím not asking or suggesting anything in my music thatís not honest and real. I donít think itís being aggressive or man-hating to suggest that a lot of men donít treat women properly and that both sexes have to find a better way of getting along with each other. Thatís the ideal.
Playboy: Did Glen Ballard encourage you to be as honest as you could in your work and not to be afraid of being sexually outspoken?
Morissette: Yes, he helped show me that I have to be true to my feelings. But I donít want people to focus completely on the sexual side of the album, because thatís only one part of what Iím trying to explain about a difficult period in my life. Obviously You Oughta Know has an intense sexual theme because Iím venting a lot of frustration that was bottled up inside of me. If anything the song is about letting yourself go and releasing all your self-imposed mechanisms of control. The rest of the album is about finding yourself once you begin to taste your freedom.
Playboy: When you were singing in Canada, you went through a phase where permed your hair, wore spandex tights and exposed some cleavage.
Morissette: [Shakes her head] When I was 16 or 17 I was in control of what I was doing in one way, but I didnít stop to think why I was doing it. Now I donít have to compromise any part of myself or my art to achieve the success Iíve had. It gives me a lot of confidence that I worked hard on something very personal, very deep, and itís paid off commercially. I guess Iím not as cynical about the process as I used to be.
Playboy: So you feel somewhat vindicated?
Morissette: In a way, yes. I know what Iím doing now; Iím making music that is honest and comes from then heart. If I hadnít done that, I wouldnít have a record deal, I wouldnít have a video, I wouldnít have an album thatís number one, and I certainly wouldnít have the guts to tour. Iím beginning to live the way I want to and everything that went into the album helped me leap over all the walls I had built around myself.
Playboy: Why do you think audiences have responded so intensely and enthusiastically to your album?
Morissette: I think all the touring Iíve been doing over the years has shown me that a lot of people, and especially a lot of women, have felt the exact same things that I talk about in my music. Thatís the kind of connection every artist wants to make. Itís what I live for.
Playboy: How did you hold up under the pressures of touring?
Morissette: Sometimes it felt like a nightmare because I had never done this before and so I wasnít physically prepared for all the travelling involved. But all the contact with the crowds made it very special because this time all the work I put into my music felt real.
It shows that whatís considered Top 40 today is pretty close to what the underground scene was five years ago. I didnít stumble into my style, it has always been there. The words Iím singing have been brewing in me since I was 10 years old.
Playboy: How have you adjusted to your new-found wealth? Is the money just piling up in your bank account?
Morissette: Piles and piles. [Laughs] My manager laughs at me because I still shop like Iím poor. I had a meeting with my accountant who went through some financial projections for the next year. It should have blown my mind but it didnít. The only money Iíve really spent is on a house in LA which isnít exactly palatial. Iím not motivated by the money. Iím not into buying Ferraris and yachts.
Playboy: What has it been like dealing with friends and other musicians who knew you before your success exploded?
Morissette: Some artists Iíve known over the years are having a hard time being happy for me. I can understand it; some of them are twice my age and have been working for a long time with nothing to show for it. I just hope Iíll never forget what itís like to be feeling down and desperate.
Playboy: Do you find yourself becoming part of the celebrity gang in Hollywood, going to movie premieres, parties, things like that?
Morissette: No, no, no. I hate that kind of thing. Itís very artificial and embarrassing to find yourself in that kind of lifestyle. Iíve gone to a few music awards parties and thatís about it. I donít see myself ever becoming a celebrity in that kind of sense. Itís not what Iím about.
Playboy: Howís your love-life these days?
Morissette: [Laughs] Iíve been seeing someone I really like. But I still donít know how ready I am for big commitments. I just want to focus on enjoying a caring relationship. I donít think youíll be hearing another You Oughta Know in the near future. God, at least I hope not!

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