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From "Seventeen" January '99
The Lady of Rage
Alanis Morissette is back with a new CD, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. But is she still the same jagged little pill?
by OJ Lima
It's a chilly day in Los Angeles, and Alanis Morissette is lounging at SmashBox photo studio in a pair of faded jeans and a cardigan. "Do you want some tea?" she asks politely. She's drinking something herbal to keep warm and munching on baked apples stuffed with dates and walnuts. She sits on the couch cross-legged like a Buddha. Her hair almost touches her feet. She has that whole healthy, spiritual thing going on -- like she'd bug if she ever saw you eating a pork chop.
Morissette has finally returned to her home base in L.A. from a vacation that started two years ago, at the conclusion of her tour for Jagged Little Pill. The time off helped the 24-year-old Canadian develop a demeanor that's 180 degrees from her explosive stage persona: In person, she is surprisingly soft-spoken. She credits a lot of the change to her excursions to Canada, San Francisco, New York, Cuba and India.
Of all these destinations, India had the most profound impact on Morissette -- she even wrote a song, "Baba," about the trip for her new CD, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. "India was beautiful and paradoxial," she says. "There were environments that were touted as spiritually enlightening and nuturing, and I found the opposite to be true. I felt a lot of elitism. It was disheartening, but it further confirmed my belief that we don't have to travel any place, or acquire anything. What we think we can find outside of ourselves is already here."
Morissette didn't make the spiritual transformation she expected to in India, but she still values the experience. Besides, it was the perfect time for her to roll out since people like Courtney Love and Joni Mitchell were busy bad-mouthing her. Love once told the A&R boss of Maverick, Morissette's record label, to pass on a message: "Tell Alanis she sucks." And in '97, Mitchell told a reporter: "Morissette writes words, someone else helps set it to music, and then she's kind of stylized into the part."
Rather than getting embroiled in that drama, Morissette (who actually plays guitar, bass, piano, harmonica and flute) brushed off the criticisms. "When it's time to make a record or play live," she explains, "I would never want to gratutiously play something if I felt someone else could do it better." She took her lumps and still gave back good "juju" (or vibes). "I listen to everything and then weigh it against what I know to be true," she says. "If someone hates or loves something, then right on. I can't rob them of that. I'm not gonna try and change their mind." Morissette also recognized that all the rah-rah had less to do with her than it did with other people's envy and suspect self-esteem. "Something's been triggered in them for them to react so emotionally," she says. "At that point, I don't think it's about me. That which we judge in someone else, we're really judging in ourselves."
It's not surprising that psychology is Morissette's favorite subject. She's clever, observant, and, as we already know, has no problem exploring her identity -- especially because it's changed so drastically since she was a teenage pop star in Canada. "The transition came right around when I was 17," she says. "I wanted to be treated with respect and not have any rules set on me, specifically when it came to creativity. I'd been quite dependent on people, so I moved to L.A. to learn how to function in an adult world."
The move proved very painful for her at first. "I thought suffering was synonymous with growing," she says, laughing at herself. "And I would inflict it upon myself because I felt that was the surest way for me to grow." Somehow she realized all the drama about men, money and her budding career only made her vulnerable. Rather than crawl into a shell like a hermit crab, Morissette flipped the script. "The more vulnerable I am, the more empowered I feel because it's my belief that there's no emotion that I have to be ashamed of," she says. "We're taught to be ashamed of confusion, anger, fear and sadness, and to me they're of equal value as happiness, excitement and inspiration." Morissette recognizes this ideology as the impetus for Jagged and the reason it sold 28 million copies worldwide. "People personalized that CD," she says. "Writing about my truth and my vulnerabilities inspired people to be less fearful of doing the same for themselves. I've seen people [at my shows] tapping into parts of themselves that they perhaps felt self-conscious about. But because I was doing it, they felt the freedom to do it, too."
The madness that goes along with blowing up can ruin even the most grounded individuals, but Morissette has handled it as well as hoop star Cynthia Cooper handles the rock. Since 1995 Morissette's become a multimillionaire who maintains a tight schedule. There's no question that fame has exacted a price. "The one thing I regret the most is not being able to walk down the street anymore and look people in the eye," she says. "But I can do it more now than I could a couple of years ago when things were a little crazier." She avoids paparazzi traps and hangs with close-knit friends. Glen Ballard, her friend and producer, says Morissette has a great sense of humor. "We do more laughing when we're making a record than at any other time," he says. "And she's the first one to make jokes about herself." In her downtime, Alanis paints, trains for triathlons (she did three last fall), and road trips with her posse to Big Bear Lake to snowboard. She even has a boyfriend whom she wouldn't identify and declined to talk about except to say, "Our relationship is evolving." But judging from the gigantic grin on her face, it's safe to say he pleases her.
New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom is packed to the gills. Morissette is playing a concert to support the release of her new CD. The crowd is superhyped to see the Lady of Rage, but every so often the bored face of a hapless boyfriend pops up. A few of them, all with the identical my-girlfriend-has-dragged-me-here-against-my-will expression, are hanging around the men's room where it's safe. But once the music starts, everyone is so amped that even the listless boyfriends find it difficult not to wave the hand signs that go along with "Hand in My Pocket." Then Morissette says, "Hi, New York City. I'm thinking about moving here," and the audience goes buck-wild. When she sings "You Oughta Know," you can barely hear her because everyone is singing along. Excluding "Thank U," which has already created a buzz because Morissette is butt-naked in the music video, no one's familiar with her new songs. That, however, doesn't stop the crowd from jumping around like House of Pain and cheering her on for two encores.
Her fans may be beyond devoted, but there's no question that with Infatuation Junkie Morissette faces the daunting prospect of having to repeat Jagged's record-breaking success. She admits to being distracted by fear when she initially began writing songs for the new CD, but maintains that after she chilled for a month and completed "That I Would Be Good," the pressure to release the most anticipated CD in years diminished. "It's a no-lose situation as far as I see it," she says. "My motivation is not to re-create some sort of external success. How people receive it is so out of my hands that it's not even worth thinking about."
Morissette also knew that critics might label her a one-trick pony, but she insists the rage routine is not her only calling card. "Jagged's reception says a lot about where society was at the time," she says. "People were open to women tapping into emotions like anger and confusion that they weren't supposed to feel in the past. But there were a myriad of subjects all over that record. I see my emotions as one part of the pie. So to extract one piece and hold it up as the one-dimensional thing that I am is missing a lot of the point."
Writing Infatuation Junkie involved a different thought process for Morissette. "Jagged was mainly the urgency to release what I had repressed on so many levels," she says. "This time I didn't solely point the finger at other people for having inflicted pain on me. Last time I felt the release, but I didn't feel closure. For this record I stepped back and said, 'OK, what can I take responsibility for?' Songwriting is an easy way to get away from dealing with a person face-to-face. I would get in a conflict with someone and think, Great, I can write a song about it, but I'd never resolve it. Now what's happened is that I wrote it, and that wasn't enough. The record itself almost forced me to deal with those people face-to-face."
The new CD may be perceived as a bookend to Jagged, but Morissette insists her true purpose was to develop more compassion for her own deficiencies -- in particular her propensity for being an infatuation junkie. "It's a running joke," she says with a smirk. "I kept saying I was over infatuation, and my friends would laugh at me. The CD title is me admitting that I'm not." But what exactly is Morissette infatuated with? "People," she replies with a big laugh. "I thought relationships were these inexplicable, heart-palpitating, knee-jerk, painful, tumultuous experiences where you get carried away with someone and become physically intimate and there's no rhyme or reason to it. But once I experienced that often enough, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I realized that relationships exist so we can heal each other, communicate and be closer to God. Once I learned that, I enjoyed the process of being attracted to someone again."
Morissette might sound more capricious than neurotic. One-on-one, she's calm and meek. Onstage, she's a boisterous, whirling dervish of feminine splendor. She's like Obi-Wan Kenobi trapped in the body of a Spice Girl fan: wise but young, mature but passionate. That's the secret to her success. Her fans acknowledge her wisdom and embrace her ability to admit that issues like men, family and relationships completely perplex her. When she expresses her anger, sorrow, confusion and frustration, it's just gravy on her fans' empathy train. She's a unique singer and songwriter, but she doesn't behave like a star. She's just like the rest of us -- with a bonus helping of honesty. It's peculiar that someone who represents so much to so many people is such a regular person. As Morissette says herself, "Isn't it ironic?"