Alanis Morissette as She Is Today

The global pop star who rocketed onto the scene in 1995 with the album 'Jagged Little Pill' resists reduction and instead embraces her multitudinal self.

Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.

Abby West: Hi. I'm your Audible editor, Abby West. I'm delighted to be talking today with singer, songwriter, record producer, and actress Alanis Morissette about her eponymous new, Audible Original Alanis Morissette: Words + Music. Welcome, Alanis.

Alanis Morissette: Thank you for having me.

AW: Thank you for being here. I'm going to go ahead and date myself and say that you, your voice, and Jagged Little Pill were the soundtrack for a very specific period of my life, and that your voice still does things for me. Me and millions of folks around the world. I can't imagine what that level of fame is like. You've been creating in the public eye since you were a child, on the show in Canada, You Can't Do That on Television. I always mess the wording up but, You Can't Do That on Television.

AM: We used to call it You Can't for short. It was a long title. You Can't.

AW: And then you had your first record deal in Canada when you were also in your teens and then Jagged Little Pill hits. And that's a level of fame that no one could really imagine. Can you talk about how that just sort of blew up and steamrolled over you and it lingers today?

AM: The time release capsule that is still releasing the goods at 46 years old. No, I mean it's a very unnatural way of living, being recognized. And I think a lot of people who fare well in the long term are those who are wildly extroverted, and are born to be in the public eye and on the front lines. And I think I have a combination constitution, where one part of me is just super sensitive and empathic. And basically, I'm a shaky poodle in a fetal position in the corner. And then another part of me is a full ham, volunteering my hand's up before the question's even asked, who wants to volunteer and I don't know how the arm goes up, but it does. And you know, I'm ready to be on the front lines, happy to get my head chopped off. Just let's go.

If there's any mission in my life, as tiny as it might be, or as big as it might be frankly, it's to support people in being able to feel their feelings without hurting or being destructive.

So it's my responsibility to achieve some kind of balance. Even though that word is a funny word to me, it seems almost unrealistic at this point. But achieve a balance between being out there and macrocosmically in the world, and then sort of tilling the soil and microcosmic and certainly family care. Family is its own party too. Right? Being an attachment mom, unschooling. It's all these entities that are all linked now. Whereas before, my life was much more separated into sort of categories, church and state. This is career, this is self-care, it was all really compartmentalized. And now it's a bit of a free-for-all. And my goal this particular week is to try and up the ante on the self-care stuff. Because there's just so much going on in the world. It’s hard just as the activist archetype in all of us, it's just, "Roar." So it's a really intense time in the world. And for me it's about more self-care now and then parenting and unschooling and thinking about education as a concept too, and where we want to raise the bar. And then always making music, there's always some expression to be had, and sometimes I need to remind myself to stop.

AW: We're going to come back to both the parenting part and that creative expression as well. Your music isn't so much autobiographical as it is emotionally authentic. Right? And so you have managed to straddle that line and not have your life all be out there in the public eye all the time. Why was it important to you to do this Words + Music project?

AM: First of all, yes. All the songs are autobiographical, but I think what I was able to somehow achieve, which is probably why writing the book is terrifying, is because in three or four minutes, I can tell an absolutely authentic, channeled, cathartic song, but I'm not necessarily naming names and giving addresses and posting photos everywhere. My goal is not to seek revenge as much as enjoy the process of revenge fantasy. And there's a big difference. If all of us could move this current of rage and move this current of grief or frustration or all these very natural feelings, if we could just move them, and we weren't told to not feel them or sublimate them, I feel like there would be less acting out in the world. There'd be less murder, there'd be less reactivity. There'd be a little bit more of a sense of safety to just be human here.

If there's any mission in my life, as tiny as it might be, or as big as it might be frankly, it's to support people in being able to feel their feelings without hurting or being destructive. Because anger usually is equated with destruction. But anger is a beautiful, beautiful life force in my mind. So it allows me to show up here. If there's a lot going on in the world that I'm not happy about, it's much easier to show up as an activist. 

So there's the anger that I used to feel when I was younger, that I didn't know what to do with, and I used to write it out. I was processing a lot of anger, I think I was seven. And my mom found the note where I just was raging. I meant to crumple it up and throw it out, but I forgot to. Anyway, I think I worried her to no end. And I was actually telling her at the time, "Not to hurt anybody. I'm not going to do anything that I'm writing in here. I just have to get it out." So began the journey at around six of just writing to expulse in a way, and it's not healing. The process of writing I've come to find is not healing as much as it's energy moving and cathartic. 

And then at 10 years old, I wrote a song, and a friend of our family wanted to record it for me as a surprise. And so we started a record company when I was 10 together. His name was Lindsay Morgan. He passed away recently. Nobody wanted to sign young kids 25 years ago or 30 years ago. They were actually quite afraid of it. Perhaps rightly so. Now they'll sign you when you're very, very tiny, they don't care. But we started a record company when I was 10. And that's when I realized that writing songs was such an incredible career for how singular or collaborative with one or two people at most it was. It was very sanctified and the process was super sacred. I mean, the sharing of it and what I'm writing about I'm actually not that precious about. It's much like taking a photo. I started really young with just this propensity to want to express as opposed to sublimate, which culturally in Canada, God bless us, we're sort of culturally like kind, kind, kind, kind, kind, snap. So this “snap” part is great to put in a song.

AW: I love that when you talked about the importance of feeling those feelings and you were talking about how you told your kids, feel it in a way that is not destructive. I viscerally felt that. I've had that conversation with my children, "Go in the room, scream into the pillow, but you can't throw something."

AM: We even walked through the swearing thing too. There's a gentleman named Vsauce who does a whole piece on the history and etymology and everything about all the swear words, and it's lovely. So we watched that several times. And in our house we basically say, "Is anyone in the room offended by swearing?" And if someone says, "Yes," none of us swear. But if everyone says, "We're okay with it," then little F-bombs here and there, but we're using them with some kind of knowledge of the fact that it's getting energy out of our body. You know there's swearing or there's drawing or songwriting or physical activity. And sometimes just straight up horrible venting. I call it the sacred complaint. There's the victim consciousness complaint—that's really not going to get us anywhere—but the sacred complaining and the sacred venting is when your loved ones just hold a bucket and you just go off. And for me, with my husband, maybe it's sometimes 20 minutes and it just releases so much repressed energy. I think it's not as hard as we think to allow ourselves to feel the feelings. It's just that my sense is that we fear death, feeling these feelings because somehow we were told and indoctrinated that, "If you feel sad, you're weak and you're going to get killed. Or if you're scared, then you'll be trampled on." All these feelings that we're not allowed to feel, but they're such a part of our human fabric. 

AW: I love how with the Words + Music thing, you're interspersing songs that really mean a lot to so many of us. How did you choose? How did you boil it down to just a handful of songs? And did the narrative for you come first or did you think about the pulse points of songs?

AM: I wish I could take credit for the whole structure and arrangement of it, but I was very much helped by Audible and Bill Flanagan, and just really got into a whole conversation. My dream is also to do this live, which is to have Q&A conversation. And then the topics themselves emerge, and then I'll think of a song that matches it. Which is not unlike how we put the Broadway musical song choices together with a big whiteboard, and the director, Diane Paulus, Diablo Cody, who wrote the book, and Tom Kitt, who directed the music and made the music with me. Basically, we had a whiteboard and we'd be just talking about where the characters are going. And Diablo Cody said, "Oh, I pulled all the characters out of the songs." So for this conversation with Audible, it was just talking about what's going on in the world. And then songs sort of beg to be played based on what we were talking about, which is my favorite way of doing it.

AW: I don't know if you've taken a look at any of the reviews. They're amazing. And there are a number of folks who are just, "This is everything I wanted to get to know about her. It feels like I'm talking to a friend or we're revisiting her." And there's a level of sharing that I think people who really love your work really wanted to have. So were you thinking about that as a conversation with the fandom or no?

AM: Yes. People would come to my shows and you know it's not a coincidence that a lot of them are very sensitive and empathic and super attuned and some of them are telepathic. I feel like it's a family of similar temperaments, the 20 or 30 percent of people who are highly sensitive and the 4 percent of those who are empathic in the 13 or 15 different ways we can be empathic. So there’s a nice resonance with how we live and what our worldviews are. It's almost like we're sitting in the same seat looking out together. So it is communing, and certainly there are the shows where I get to at least energetically dialogue with people, then it gets a little bit more intimate and face-to-face when I used to teach at 1440 [Multiversity] before the pandemic. We'd have a room full of 200 people to do a lot of the experiential and do some Q&A teaching.

I've started to really get a sense of people who come to my shows and getting to know them, because in the '90s it was just too terrifying. I had to unfortunately just block everything out. And then in terms of comments or feedback, I'll ask my management or people I work with to once in a while give the dog a bone, like "Tell me a couple of nice things just to get me through the week." But for the most part, I don't go into how what I'm saying is received, because then that would probably affect how I share. Certainly my loved ones give me plenty of feedback and point out plenty of blind spots…I’m all set!

AW: I'm good on the negative feedback.

AM: I got a lot of feedback to process.

AW: I would share that the feedback is great and you keep doing what you're doing. How is the lockdown, the global pandemic, the sudden ceasing of live shows and live music? How's that been for you as an artist to have to limit that, at least for a time?

AM: It's depressing. I have a song called "I Miss the Band" that we just did a video for, where I'm just talking about how much I miss everybody. It depends when you catch me. Some moments I'm a complete mess and I feel like I'm in the middle of a psychotic split. And then other times, I'm pretty neutral and I really am enjoying being home with my kids and snuggling them nonstop. Other times, where if I don't have silence, it’s just like the worst personality in the world. It just depends how much sleep, how much breastfeeding, how much news, and the positivity skew too, because I'm in the middle of postpartum depression. I'm just kind of riding all of this.

AW: All the things.

AM: And in my best moments, I'm just accepting what I'm feeling. In my more challenging moments, I'm a bit of a mess. So everything in between.

AW: So you are reconfirming for us that you are indeed human, and we appreciate that.

AM: Oh well, God bless. God bless us all. For me, the meme game is certainly on point right now. So for me, memes are everything. And humor, so I'm doing a lot of comedy watching and specifically not viewing too much content that is overwhelming. I don't think I'm alone in this, I think a lot of parents and caregivers and aunts and nannies, we're all... Our eyes are crossed. But I really do believe this is an alchemical crunch time. And I've seen not only in my own family and small bubble community, but also larger communities, I've seen so many people really anchor and define what they believe in and what they stand for and what they want to stand up for and what matters to them.

That self-definition and self-knowledge is so powerful. It's exciting to watch the burgeoning, and it's horrifying to watch the acting out of personality disorders. And the humanity is just everywhere right now. There's a sense of people really leaving some room for parts of their humanity that typically we would just numb or hide or deny. We're not in this together, not all of us have the same circumstance, so much privilege everywhere. And the humanity part is the only area where we're in it together. So vulnerable.

AW: I feel like that self-reflection and that self-assessment has been such a big marker for you throughout your life. And then you talk about seeking out different forms of therapy and not wanting to get too stuck on one at any time, and being able to use bits of each of different ones to form what's best for you in any given moment. And I love that part and I feel like it's one of the lessons. I know you didn't set this out to be a lessons thing, but there are a few lessons in there and that was a big one for me.

AM: Oh, good. Yeah. Most teachers are model creators, God bless. I think it's important that they're obsessed with their own model, for those of us who are benefiting from these models. I just love evolving them, updating them, questioning them. And I've had the gift and privilege of being able to speak with people who were in this psychotherapeutic world and academic conversation. And just really get into it. And I'm blessed, because I can't swing a dirty sock without hitting the most amazing, appropriate model that could help at some moment. Sometimes it's purely somatic in body. Other times it's really, I have to get an intellectual understanding of something to even begin embarking upon the journey of understanding at a greater degree. And then sometimes it's really simple.

"I think we're wildly multitudinous."

Sometimes it's just sit in hot water. But I love the combination now of neurobiology, somatic fascia. Every granular detail that we could have about what makes us human, from hormones to brain to soul to quantum physics. It's all there for us and it's overwhelming, but it's really fun because all of them have some contribution to make to our regulation and our peace inside our body. I love having access to all of that myself. 

I wrote a little book that I keep for my kids, you know when I die in a hundred years, whenever that is, can't talk about it. Death is so scary, but I have a book of all my favorite models and thoughts on them and how to apply them, so that if I'm ever gone, that book is there for them. And it's just getting loaded. It's just loaded with tools and things to remember and watching your thoughts. Inner work...is hard work sometimes, but it's also deeply kind and cultivating that turning toward oneself when you hate yourself is such an interesting turn. Imago theory says that if you hate yourself, you can't just snap your fingers and love yourself. So the Imago theory is that you've got to love in others what you hate in yourself, which basically means you look at your projections. And then other parts, IFS—Internal Family Systems—is about having these parts within oneself that seem to be at odds and conflictual, really start to work together, in dialogue together, and realize that a lot of the behaviors that we do that may or may not work in our relationships are really us trying to protect ourselves.

I can talk with you about that for a long time. And what I'm excited about is, I just participated in an embodiment conference and because of the pandemic, I think there were 300,000-some-odd people doing it. So the fact that so many people around the planet are caring about healing and returning to wholeness, in all the myriad of ways that you can do that, is really exciting to me. Because 25 years ago with Jagged Little Pill, I was being made fun of. People were shaming me for this sort of intrapersonal intelligence or the tendency to want to have an interiority that's really grokked. At worst it was called navel-gazing and at best it was just poo-pooed and laughed at.

Whereas now I feel like people really want to talk about trauma recovery and look at addiction and a little bit of a different way. And then in the meantime as artists, there's stories to be told, anecdotes to be giggled at and songs to be written and photos to be taken, and that's endless. I feel like in our family, that's all we're doing. Someone's either drawing or photographing or fingerpainting or writing something or creating a beat. There's always some sort of self-expression going on, and it's exciting to be here.

AW: People are catching up, and I don't know if it's just about this moment in time, but I think the ensuing 25 years has helped people get to the point where they're receptive. It's part of that lesson for me, where you have an album and a persona as a teen that people kind of wanted you to stick to. And you said, "No, I'm not going to do that. But then I'm also not going to get pigeonholed into the album that everyone thinks that's all I am too."

AM: Right.

AW: Here’s the rest of it. I’d love for you to talk about what it is to forge that path when everyone was trying to keep you in a box of some sort, even well intentioned.

AM: Yeah. The tendency to one-dimensionalize anything, people just want to figure something out, check the box and move on. Right? I totally get that. You want to be like, "Oh yeah, they're like Led Zeppelin, I'm going to eat lunch." It's this tendency to want to one-dimensionalize or frankly reduce. It actually is quite violent and it's inaccurate, because I've never met any human in my life that is any one thing. I think we're wildly multitudinous. And to the degree that we accept those parts of ourselves or not, I mean, we might resist them, but all these parts are still there within us. So for me, especially during Jagged Little Pill time being pigeonholed as the angry woman, I'll take it. We just talked about anger and I love anger so much. So if I'm going to be reduced, I'll take anger, but it's still a reduction. 

AW: I know this is not a lessons audio, but do you have tips for folks on how to push past those other people's expectations or limitations when it comes to that? Because you've done it on such a global scale and I guess on a microlevel.

AM: My way of self-preservation is quite simple: I just don't read any comments, and I know that's become harder and harder with Instagram and social media because the comments oftentimes are just trickling through your whole experience. I did a talk once where all the comments were being fed on the bottom and I had to close my eyes. I can't be sharing something and receiving a so-called objective opinion about me at the same time. So basically self-preservation. It's not that difficult. You don't read the comments, you have your friends show you the ones that feel pretty accurate or might be helpful to you to read, to keep going.

My intention when I write is to clarify something for myself and then when I share it, it's not mine anymore. It does wind up being a case of me caring a lot more about people's interpretations of it, rather than being stuck on, "This is what I meant and I'm being misunderstood." I don't care if you understand. That's not why I'm writing it. I'm not writing it to be understood, although the caveat I will say is that when a new record is put out or a new song is put out, I do feel somehow more seen or more as though I'm representing myself accurately or currently. So if a record hasn't come out in a while and I haven't written any blogs or done any talks or any teaching, I do feel pregnant with ideas and definitely ready to pop.

AW: I think this new Words + Music audio is going to help you feel seen for sure, because I think it definitely connects with folks. I have to ask before we wrap up, what might you be working on right now? What can we look forward to?

AM: I'm working on my work addiction. I can't stop working. A lot of people I've spoken with, I don't know what your experience is, but in a pandemic you work more.

AW: More.

AM: I think it's because we don't have the structure of, "Okay, we go in, we leave at 5. We transition, ideally we come home." Now it's just everything is on top of each other and I'm working at 2 a.m. Currently what I'm working on, I'm doing a little mini show. My son started it, called "Motherload," where I'm soliciting questions from people, any questions about parenting or anything. So there's that show, and I'm finishing a meditation record, because I was wondering what kind of music might be valuable in this moment in time. And my friends and I are all nervous wrecks. I'm having a panic attack pretty much once a day, God bless my husband. So I thought, what can I do right now that would be super expressed, but also helpful for the collective nervous system? So we're about three-quarters of the way through a meditation record.

"My intention when I write is to clarify something for myself and then when I share it, it's not mine anymore."

I'm also going to do a guided meditation separate piece and the topics could be "Sleep," "I'm in the middle of a panic attack. What do I do?" Peter Levine, who started somatic experiencing, he called it meditation-induced anxiety, meaning some of us, if we're left alone in silence with our thoughts, that's not a good thing. So sometimes starting with a guided meditation or hypnosis or EMDR is way better than going, "Oh, I'm going to try and meditate 20 minutes a day." It's like setting ourselves up to fail or setting ourselves up to have a full panic attack every time we get into the stillness, because everything comes up. But I'm also... What the heck else am I doing?

AW: As if that weren't enough.

AM: There's a few more things, and they're all really exciting to me. There's an HBO documentary that I'm working on. Alison Klayman is directing it. She's amazing. 

AW: A documentary on you?

AM: On Jagged Little Pill, 25th anniversary.

AW: Nice.

AM: There's footage in this that I've never even seen. As Alison's been working on it, I'm saying, "I don't want to see anything until the end." Because I think 50 percent of what she found in my archives is footage I've never even seen, some of it I don't even remember having been there. So it'll be entertaining I think, fingers crossed.

AW: Interesting and scary, but great.

AM: And elucidating.

AW: I can't thank you enough for coming to Audible, working on this project, and getting it out into the world, and then for sitting down with us to talk about it. So, Alanis Morissette, thank you so much.

AM: Thank you so much for creating this idea for Audible and being part of it. Allowing people into the deeper depths of artists is such a great gift to us. Thank you.

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