You bleed, you learn. You scream, you learn. Some more than others.
Alanis Morissette has a new album out on July 31. To peruse the song titles of Such Pretty Forks in the Road is to be concerned over her welfare: Reasons I Drink, Diagnosis, Losing the Plot, Reckoning, Nemesis. And if you think the lead track Smiling sounds like something more joyful, guess again. “This is my first wave of my white flag,” Morissette sings on that song. “This is the sound of me hitting bottom.”
All of which to say, is she okay?
“No,” she says over the phone. “I’m not!”
Morissette laughs – not that she’s kidding. A year after giving birth to her and her husband’s third child, the 46-year-old singer-songwriter is in the middle of postpartum depression. “From previous experience I’ve learned that, unfortunately for me, it’s a two-year commitment,” she says, again with a laugh.
The stormy piano-heavy Such Pretty Forks in the Road has in it the wounds and angst Morissette first exhibited on 1995′s Jagged Little Pill, a breakthrough album and pop-cultural phenomenon led by era-defining hit singles One Hand in My Pocket, You Oughta Know, Ironic, Head Over Feet and You Learn. Then, as now, her songs serve as a release. “There’s no way around pain,” she told Spin magazine as an unusually wise 21-year-old. “That’s part of the charm of being alive.”
In the past few years, the pain has involved miscarriages, depression and, at the hands of a former business manager, embezzlement. In 2017, Jonathan Schwartz pleaded guilty to stealing nearly US$5-million from the singer. For his swindling of her and other clients, he was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay US$8.6-million in restitution.
“It’s part of a patriarchal system,” Morissette says, speaking from the home she shares with her family near San Francisco. She recalls another business manager from earlier in her career. “When I asked him about my money, his response was, ‘Oh, you’re one of those clients who wants to know things.' I quickly parted ways with him.”
There might be a tendency for the general public to wave off Morissette’s financial losses. She’s a rock star – easy come, easy go. This is an artist who tours arenas and who has seven Grammys to her credit. Jagged Little Pill alone has sold more than 33 million copies worldwide. So she lost some money. Can we not chalk that up to, as someone once said, the charm of being alive?
“I like the idea of being an archetypal rock star,” Morissette says. “I live for it. I’m born for it. At the same time, I’m a human being. The very idea of the person being there to protect you turning out to be a predator, that’s been a reoccurring theme for me since I’ve been a young person.”
A native of Ottawa, Morissette has been in show business since appearing in the Nickelodeon children’s TV series You Can’t Do That on Television at the age of 12. By 1991 she had signed a contract with MCA Records Canada. Quickly a teen pop star (”Canada’s Debbie Gibson”), she won a Juno Award in 1992 for Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill marked a shift from adolescent dance pop to hook-laden, angst-ridden alt-rock that aired grievances. You Oughta Know in particular was a startlingly honest and raw expression of romantic betrayal. Morissette wasn’t the first female songwriter to get deeply personal. Joni Mitchell should be considered the Godmother of Confessional Rock, with Stevie Nicks in the discussion (even if she did keep her visions to herself).
But while Mitchell was unflinchingly honest, her confessions were poetic and rich with imagery. Morissette’s vulnerability was presented with unprecedented ferocity. Unsure but defiant, the feral-voiced and hair-thrashing avenger was an icon to girls and young women across North America and a late-night favourite of karaoke nation. A young Taylor Swift would have a Morissette photo on her bedroom wall, not one of the Stand By Your Man singer Tammy Wynette.
“As a kid, I was told I wasn’t supposed to feel angry, scared or sad,” Morissette explains, speaking about songwriting as an outlet for her heaviest emotions. “So, it makes sense that’s what I write a lot about.”
The pain-ravaged mom rock of her new album shows that Morissette has not mellowed with age.
She says her songwriting process itself hasn’t changed over the past quarter-century. “The only difference now is that I have absolute confidence in it. Whereas, during the writing for Jagged Little Pill, it was, like, fingers crossed hoping that a song would come.”
Everything changed with the release of Jagged Little Pill. “I began to have trust issues when it came to fame or money or not-so-hidden agendas,” Morissette says. I’d had asked her about Pedestal, from Such Pretty Forks in the Road. The song is scathing, with lyrics referencing those who took advantage of her: “Dropping my name blew doors open that were closed before.”
Though Morissette’s accusatory You Oughta Know was specifically fired at one unnamed person, the subject of Pedestal is a composite of people she’s worked with and past lovers and friends.
“I want to connect and I want to feel cherished and vice versa,” Morissette explains. “But in that song I’m saying, ‘I don’t trust that when you look at me, you’re not just looking to get something from me.‘”
On the moody ballad Losing the Plot, Morissette brings up the matter of career status. “Rip my heart out ambition mill or bust,” she sings. “With my relevance in dust.”
Accepting Billboard’s Woman of the Year Award in 2016, Madonna called out ageism in the music business. “I stand before you as a doormat,” she said. “Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer. Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.”
I mention to Morissette that of the 40 artists and bands who were on the long list of nominees for this year’s Polaris Music Prize, only six were more than 40 years old. Sarah Harmer, 49, did make the cut, but was inexplicably left off the short list of 10 nominees, even though her new album (Are You Gone) is arguably the finest of her career.
“The obsession with being rich and young forever, these are pretty big value systems in the West,” Morissette says. “The major record labels now are signing embryos.”
The original plan was to celebrate Jagged Little Pill with a 25th-anniversary tour of North American amphitheaters this summer, with fellow nineties survivors Liz Phair and the Shirley Manson-led Garbage set to hit the road with her. Then the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the tour to 2021.
The postponement was “devastating,” according to Morissette. “There are about 30 of us who are a part of the tour whose livelihoods are all affected. My initial reaction was, ‘how do I take care of my team as the CEO?‘ ”
She was looking forward to the tour for less altruistic reasons as well. “Years ago, my band used to say that being out on the road was a vacation for them,” she says. “I never understood what they were talking about until I became a mom.”
Another coronavirus casualty is the now shuttered stage production of Jagged Little Pill. The Broadway jukebox musical featuring the songs of Morissete and co-writer Glen Ballard and a book by Diablo Cody opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Dec. 5, 2019. Reviews were positive. The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as “an original feminist story of heartache, hurt, anger and activism.” Rolling Stone raved about a musical that burned with passion and was “full of all the right triggers.”
For Morissette, the dramatic adaptation of her smash album was a revelation. “This musical has given me an opportunity to be objective about these songs for the first time in my life,” she says. “Hearing them sung and interpreted through the portrayal of this family, this human family, is incredible.”
Broadway is currently dark. The live music industry is all but shut down, and her album is being released in the throes of a viral pandemic. Again, is Morissette okay?
“Sometimes I’m a mess,” she says. “I’m like a shaky, crying poodle in the corner.”
And the other times?
“I can’t believe what an opportunity this is for awakening collectively on this planet.” Morissette continues, mentioning the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements and the possibility of unity.
As for the virus, she has faith. “I trust God implicitly. I just know there’s a higher reason for this happening. And although I may not know what it is, I’m getting glimpses.”