Alanis Morissette: ‘Fans would take my underwear. It was invasive’

Twenty-five years after Jagged Little Pill, the singer on fame, addiction and recovery

In the video for her new single, Reasons I Drink, Alanis Morissette appears in a group addiction meeting. The song, set to stabbing piano, traces the difficulty of being in recovery when succumbing to addiction feels so freeing. "I'm such an addict," says the 46-year-old Grammy-winning firebrand, howling down the phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Morissette ticks off her top three addictions: “Work addiction, love addiction and food addiction,” she says. She traces her work addiction back to “when I was single digits” (she was always a driven performer) and her eating disorders to her teenage years and 20s, during which she was always “yo-yoing”. In the video she portrays herself as multiple characters: a businesswoman; the 1990s MTV star in the same scarf and hat she wore in the video for her biggest hit, Ironic; a mother; the chairperson holding space for others.

At 3pm I might feel: 'Wow, this is a huge gift, I'm so overwhelmed with gratitude.' By 3.15pm I'm raging. By 9pm I'm despondent. Isolation is the lighting of the match

Recovery is a complex, lifelong endeavour, and lockdown has been triggering, says Morissette, who is juggling life at home as a mother of three with promoting her ninth album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road. “At 3pm I might feel: ‘Wow, this is a huge gift, I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude.’ By 3.15pm I’m raging. By 9pm I’m despondent. Isolation is the lighting of the match.”

Medication has helped. Most recently she has been dealing with postpartum depression. Her youngest child, Winter, was born last August, a brother to her nine-year-old son, Ever, and three-year-old daughter, Onyx, her children with the rapper Souleye, whom she married in 2010. She has endured the condition after every birth. Previously, she delayed dealing with it; this time she sought to expose it as it happened, appearing on TV after the birth to tell viewers it is like “being covered in tar and underwater”.


She also headed to the studio for the first time in eight years to record her new album. “Songwriting is an exercise in letting the unconscious out,” she says. “I live my whole life, then I take 10 minutes to write the story of it.” The songs are rooted in guitar and piano-based rock; sometimes anthemic (Smiling, Ablaze), often gentler and pensive (Diagnosis, Her). They are not as abrasive as her definitive early songs, but just as she travelled novel ground back then, foregrounding a young woman’s anger, she is still covering topics that rarely appear in mainstream rock. The song Nemesis documents the mental gymnastics she faced with an unplanned pregnancy. “I’m excited yet I’m filled with despair,” she sings. “This metamorphosis closed the door and opened a window.”

The album also tackles what Morissette terms “financial abuse” in the music business. In 2017 her former business manager was sentenced to six years in prison for stealing $7 million, or about €6 million, from her, a violation that factors in the songs Pedestal (“You grabbed my crown and got everything you wanted”) and Reckoning (“I hope you enjoy these drawings in your jail”). They hark back to Right Through You, from her seminal third album, Jagged Little Pill, particularly the frequently cited verse in which she addresses a man who “took me out to wine, dine, 69 me / But didn’t hear a damn word I said”.

That's the most depressing thing in the entire world. The themes of pain and division, trust, exploitation, misogyny, lack of integrity, sociopathic personality disorder and narcissism. These are themes I cut my teeth on as a child

Morissette has been singing about being leeched off by men, economically and sexually, for 25 years. “That’s the most depressing thing in the entire world,” she admits, laughing. “The themes of pain and division, trust, exploitation, misogyny, lack of integrity, sociopathic personality disorder and narcissism. These are themes I cut my teeth on as a child.” To this day, she says, she is still healing from the theft, and from past sexual trauma that she doesn’t detail. She feels she could still fall victim to abuse; it is a pattern she wants to break. She is disarmingly fluent in psychology, including the work of Carl Jung and more contemporary academics. “If I didn’t have a whole team of therapists throughout my life, I don’t think I’d still be here,” she says.

Morissette, who is from Ontario, started a record label by the time she was 10. After a teenage pop career as the “Debbie Gibson” of Canada, she ran off to Los Angeles in 1995 and cowrote the rockier Jagged Little Pill. No label would sign her, then Madonna’s imprint Maverick did. The album sold more than 33 million copies worldwide, making her the youngest artist to achieve diamond-certified status in the US. She moved the needle but felt the drag. “I couldn’t even leave my hotel room,” she says of the claustrophobic spotlight. “If I walked by the window and my shadow hit the drapes, people would be screaming outside because they saw movement.” She recalls fans rummaging through her room when she wasn’t there. “They’d take my underwear. They’d know it was under my pillow. It was invasive.”

When Morissette appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in November 1995, at the age of 21, the magazine billed her as the “Angry White Female”. Her songs were misinterpreted as combative and pretentious in their fury. She recalls radio DJs looking at her entering stations like “they thought I was going to bite their heads off”. Her success meant she was treated as an industry saviour, yet one manager shamed her for asking about money. “Oh, you’re one of those clients,” he responded. Today she stands her ground. “You’re not going to gaslight crazy-make me when I’m on a journey of empowerment.”

Two decades before a whimper of the #MeToo movement had even been heard, Morissette’s voice allowed listeners to wail louder. But that also backfired as she became a vessel for others’ projections. “If they had issues with an ex-girlfriend, or unfinished stuff with their mom or a horrifying divorce, I became that person they’d show resistance to,” she says. The discourse around her felt almost physical, as if it was being “thrown” at her. Even the solace she offered appreciative fans became burdensome. She equates the loss of anonymity to grief. “I used to sit on park benches and watch people. But when I became the watched it was debilitating.”

Her isolation deepened when she found herself pitted against other women. “I was sold that fame would be a panacea to solve all problems, that I’d be singing Kumbaya with my celebrity friends,” she says. Morissette was rejected by her peers. “I thought I was going to phone Björk and Tori [Amos] and all of us were going to love each other. I reached out to a lot of people. Often I was met with: ‘Why are you calling me?’” She doesn’t want to stoke division by naming names.

After Jagged Little Pill, Morissette returned to Canada to work on the follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with the producer Tim Thorney. There, supermarket checkout staff would ask her when the album was coming. “I wanted to cry,” she says. “I remember saying: ‘I don’t want to make music any more.’” When Thorney replied, “Sounds good!” and took her for dinner, she returned to the studio feeling revived and began writing immediately: “His freedom took the pressure away.”

Having my worth dictated by how relevant I am in the zeitgeist pop culture is a recipe for disaster. I don't ride that roller coaster

Released in 1998, that album debuted at No 1 in the US and broke first-week record sales by a female act, a record previously held by The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Yet the 1990s wave of unadulterated female-fronted rock would soon be crushed by teen pop. By 2000 Britney Spears had broken Morissette's diamond record and almost tripled her sales. It was a relief. "The white-hot heat of fame waned, which is what made everything okay, actually," she says. "Fame is not a circumstance I want to sustain."

Not that Morissette disappeared. Her 2001 single Hands Clean from fifth album, Under Rug Swept, was an international hit, although her next single failed to match its success. She began acting, cropping up in Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and in the movie Dogma, in which she played God. She even had a short stint as an agony aunt for the Guardian. There has been a steady cultural reclamation of the kind of female anger that Morissette was vilified for in the 1990s. Seven years in the making, a Broadway musical inspired by Jagged Little Pill has been a huge success. It includes a character who is raped at a high-school party and later gaslit over the experience. The actor Kathryn Gallagher recalls Morissette reminding her that the character was meant to be angry: "The thing that I've taken away from her in her guidance is the importance of feeling everything and going through every single emotion, even the sticky spots," she says.

Queer artists, including Halsey and Perfume Genius, have cited Morissette's importance in their own self-emancipation. This year Morissette's 1990s peer Fiona Apple – similarly demonised as an angry girl back then – received acclaim for a new album that delved into those formative industry traumas. Curiously, Morissette hasn't heard about it. She's focused on her own efforts. "Having my worth dictated by how relevant I am in the zeitgeist pop culture is a recipe for disaster," she says. "I don't ride that roller coaster."

Despite this cultural course correction, Morissette remains sceptical: she worries about the enduring vapidness that plagues the entertainment world and thinks it’s foolish to consider that talented women are favoured for reasons beyond marketability. “The patriarchy only pays attention when there’s a financial shift,” she says. “It became ‘bankable’ to have a female artist so it was embraced, and then, off to the races!” Yet she acknowledges that some things have improved. In the past Morissette’s desire to understand the human condition was a source of mockery by press and public. “I used to feel like a freak in every room I was in,” she says. “Now I don’t feel strange.” – Guardian

Such Pretty Forks in the Road is released by RCA on Friday