ALANIS IN WONDERLAND
The queen of confessional pop takes her deepest, most revealing plunge through the looking glass
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Alanis has kept me cooling my heels in a hotel lobby for two hours, but I don’t take it personally. We’re in Los Angeles, where celebrity is sacred, so I blame the handlers. Alanis was tied up in a photo shoot with a marquee American photographer, and when she finally arrives, assistant and publicist in tow, she has the aura-fluffed look of someone who’s spent the morning being caressed by a lens. Now she wants to go shopping for art supplies down the street. The publicist likes this idea. The star can take time out to indulge her whims as an amateur painter, while the journalist can collect “colour” for his piece. Literally.
At the art store, Alanis grabs a shopping basket and heads straight for the acrylics. “With oils you need more patience,” she explains. “Unfortunately I’m in a bit of a time crunch.” Time crunch? Yes, she’s on a deadline to produce some artwork for her album cover. Like Joni Mitchell? No, nothing like that. Just an experiment. (In fact, none of her work will end up on the cover.) Alanis starts dropping tubes of paint into her basket. Cadmium Yellow Deep. Permanent Rose. Raw Umber. Burnt Umber. “I love the earth tones,” she says. I suggest writing a chromatic profile, the exhaustive answer to the question: “What’s your favorite colour?”
Alanis plucks more paints from the shelves, as if assembling an extravagant
bouquet. Red Iron Oxide. Hooker’s Green. She waves a scarlet oil pastel past her lips— “yummy!”—then asks me to choose between two hues of yellow. Soon her basket is brimming with paint tubes and oil pastels, several hundred dollars of tint. For a moment, she lingers over a pricey wooden chest for art supplies, but settles on something plastic that looks like a small tackle box. Leaving her assistant to run the purchase through the cash, she looks genuinely thrilled, the proverbial kid in the candy store.
Alanis Morissette has made a career of colouring her world—dipping into her psyche to fingerpaint musical self-portraits for millions of fans. In an industry dominated by sex-cool, fashion-conscious divas—from Madonna to Britney Spears to Alicia Keys—Alanis is the feminist flower child with waist-length hair who performs musical therapy on herself and dances like a playground dervish. Now 27, the Ottawa-born superstar has a new, self-produced album, Under Rug Swept, but no new image to go with it. Just another breakup, a new boyfriend, a fresh band— and an ongoing determination to do things her way.
After extensive interviews with Morissette in both Los Angeles and Toronto, I’ve come away with a mess of contradictory impressions. Face to face, she is warm, engaging, sincere and smart. But to read the transcripts of our interviews, you might think she’s a flake, adrift in an endless loop of psy-
chobabble. She has an acute self-awareness, a hair-trigger sense of humour, a huge smile and a wild laugh. But she wears her ardessness like a suit of armour. While she’ll riff on personal issues with apparent candour, she’s cautious not to reveal too much. (She doesn’t invite journalists into her home, or let them interview her parents or two brothers back in Canada.)
Yet “sharing” is her mantra. As the queen of confessional pop, Alanis makes all the world her couch. Her songs dissect relationships with psychoanalytic whimsy, and her personal Web site is a child’s garden of poems, drawings and breathless diary entries (“hey there, yesterday was so incredible . . . been doing lots of yoga, making it my own. i feel good in my body in a way i haven’t since i was a teenager, like i’m home somehow. more on that later, i want to write a hundred pages right now. do you?”). The Web site’s operative toolbar is a watercolour paint box.
Morissette created her new album
found equanimity annoying, especially those who relished the bitterness of Jagged Little Pill. But you have to admire the way she’s deflected what Joni Mitchell called “the starmaker machinery,” by presuming she can relay her inner child to the outside world with unmediated honesty. “When I’m onstage,” she says, “or when I’m writing, and in my very artist place, I feel like a child. I feel they’re synonymous—child, artist, same thing.”
In Under Rug Swept, Alanis examines bruised, childlike vulnerability with clinical precision. “How these little abandonments seem to sting so easily,” she sings in So Unsexy. “I’m 13 again, am 113 for good?” On the page, her lyrics can look prosaic, but her voice—by turns seductive, plaintive and incantatory—flips that rug of re! pressed feelings into a flying carpet. It’s 1 a blue-sky voice, open, fluid and full 5 of yearning. Alanis coaxes raw emo! don from the most analytic lyrics. In| verting syntax, breaking down words I with quirks of phrasing and cadence,
defence of the Alaskan wilderness, she has campaigned against President Bush’s energy policy. And last December, she received a United Nations award for promoting tolerance through the arts.
Morissette has come a long way from the post-adolescent rage of her banshee
‘When I’m onstage or I'm writing, I feel like a child, feel they’re synonymous-child, artist, same thing."
with a spontaneity almost unheard of in her stratosphere of the music industry. The singer, who lives in Los Angeles, sequestered herself with Canadian musician Tim Thorney in his homespun Toronto studio, where she wrote and recorded the rough draft of Under Rug Swept at the rate of one or two songs a day. Pop music’s answer to e-mail, Alanis channels lyrics as a stream-of-consciousness correspondence with herself. Drawing on her journals as raw material, she can craft a song from soul-searching as blithely as Martha Stewart makes a welcome mat out of botde caps.
But behind this one-woman cottage industry in self-expression there’s a lot of savvy. Morissette had enough business sense to invest in MP3.com, and cashed in millions worth of shares before the dotcom market crashed. More Girl Scout than riot grrrl, she also takes celebrity citizenship seriously. On her last tour, she made outreach excursions into war-torn nations such as Croatia and Lebanon. She has addressed Congress to champion musicians’ rights versus record companies. In
breakup album, Jagged Little Pill (1995), which went through the roof with worldwide sales of 30 million. Disoriented by success, she shrunk from the spotlight and recorded Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998), an India-influenced swirl of introspection that seemed designed to shake off all but her most loyal fans. It still sold seven million copies.
Now with Under Rug Swept, she has struck a balance. Morissette is the first to admit it’s “less precious” than her previous record. Athough it lacks the white heat of Jagged Little Pill, it does have an edge, and more than a few infectious pop hooks. FromThorney’s thrash guitar on the opening track, 21 Things, it seems to be saying: Alanis is back. And Hands Clean was Canadian radio’s top-charted new single last month. The album also shows a new artistic maturity, mapping intimate emotional terrain with disarming transparency.
In a world where the media manufacture faux-intimate portraits of celebrity lives, Alanis shortcuts the whole process by direct reportage. Some people find her new-
she turns language into a Crayola keyboard.
The album is an inventory of impossible relationships. In That Particular Time, an aching ballad, Alanis pours her tears almost directly onto disc—she wrote and recorded the lyrics just hours after splitting up with her boyfriend of three years, actor Dash Mihok. 21 Things I Want in a Lover is a mock personal ad, with questions ranging from “are you politically aware? and don’t believe in capital punishment?” to “are you uninhibited in bed? more than three times a week?” Narcissus exposes the commitment-phobic “momma’s boy” who’s “a stranger to the concept of reciprocity.” And in Hands Clean she exhumes memories of borderline abuse.
The meaning isn’t clear from listening to the song or even watching the video— which shows her at a sushi bar, experiencing flashbacks of an ingenue being packaged by industry honchos. But Alanis has no qualms about reducing her art to autobiography: Hands Clean, she explains, is about a romance with a “guardian-like” older man who was deeply involved with
her career when she was a teen. Adopting his voice, she sings:
Just make sure you dont tell on me especially to members of yourfamily
We best keep this to ourselves and not tell any members of our inner posse
I wish I could tell the world cuz you’re such a pretty thing when you’re done up properly
I might want to marry you one day if you watch that weight and keep your firm body.
Lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles. Alanis orders tuna sushi, a sesame spinach dish that’s not on the menu, and a snack bowl of steamed soy beans in the pod, which she eats likes peanuts. Usually I feel creepy asking a star personal questions, and tend to save them to the end. But because Alanis writes about her love life so transparently, it seems like fair game. So just who is the svengali in Hands Clean? Could it be Steve Klovan, the impresario who served as her agent and manager throughout her teens? Alanis won’t say. However, she does reveal that the relationship began when she was 14 and lasted
house, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood. (She also has a beach house in Malibu.) “After I broke up with Dash, I thought, ‘OK, its time to meet new people.’ My house was packed, and I met three or four hundred wonderful new people. He’d come in with a bunch of friends and said, ‘Who’s house is this?’ He has a similar sensibility in decoration. So he sought out the owner.” (Later, I scan the Web, trying to figure out who he might be. The closest candidate I can come up with is a former police chief who quotes Sun Tzu, and is blurbed by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Seems unlikely.)
Whoever he is, Mr. Security turned out to have a wicked sense of humour, which goes a long way with Alanis. “I’m a comedian lover. I’ve always had crushes on comedians, and most of my friends are comedians. My first boyfriend was a comedian. My second boyfriend was a comedian. My third boyfriend was not a comedian. He was the opposite of a comedian, very intense. My fourth boyfriend was hysterical. And my boyfriend now is
ing to explore or have adventures or investigate solitude. It was best to do it now rather than figuring it out when you have three children and you’re 47.”
“It all sounds very sensible.”
“It was so sensible it was horrifying,” she laughs. “But we’re still friends.”
Just hours after their phone call, as Alanis wrote and recorded That Particular Time, “I just couldn’t stop sobbing,” she says. “The two engineers, bless them, came into the room with a box of Kleenex. I said, ‘I’m just going to take a few minutes.’ And we ended up keeping that vocal for the song.” Thorney, who was at the session, says, “She was really bummed about Dash, because he was the first one she went out with who was her age and in her own peer group. Her entire life she has been surrounded by older guys. She could snowboard with Dash.”
When I asked Alanis if I could interview some of her friends, Thorney was the only name she offered. He owns Great Big Music, a grey cinder-block building on
end of the day I’m still from Ottawa.
Coming to Los Angoics W3S tho huffsst cuitui© shock.
six years. And the first time I talked to her, in 1999, she told me she was “very sexually active” from the age of 14 but remained a virgin until 19. Now a picture is beginning to emerge. I ask if she was abused.
“Emotionally abused maybe. If it were my 15-year-old daughter, I would have some pretty huge issues with allowing a relationship like that. But it was so secretive there was nothing anyone could do. No one knew about it. And I wouldn’t do anything differently. Not a damn thing.” But in Flinch, another track on the new album, she sings of being still “haunted” by the same man—“How long can a girl be shackled to you/How long before my dignity is reclaimed... Soon I’ll grow up and I won’t even flinch at your name.”
Morissette’s new boyfriend is another much older man. She won’t name him either, but says he’s an author and consultant who specializes in protecting the security of high-profile personalities (he’s been in high demand since Sept. 11). Alanis met Mr. Security about a year ago when he turned up at a huge party she threw at her
one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.”
“So that makes five boyfriends?”
She counts them on the fingers of one hand. “Five. I mean, like really super significant. Every person I meet I have a relationship with on some level. A spiritual level. I feel I conceptually date people.” I wonder if were having a conceptual date right now—the guileless star, flirting with self-revelation, and the hardened journalist, yet another older man trying to make her laugh, and drop her guard. I ask if men are leery about getting involved with her. It could be like dating Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City. A guy might end up on the wrong end of a song if he’s not careful. And not all men are so keen on talking ad nauseum about The Relationship. “Now I’m with someone who likes to talk about it more than I do, if you can believe it,” says Alanis. “I spent so much time with people who felt I was too much. Too emotional, too analytical.”
So how did she break up with Dash Mihok? By phone from her Toronto hotel, she says. “There was an element of want-
an industrial street in Toronto’s east end, across from a Hells Angels clubhouse. A product of the Winnipeg music scene, Thorney won’t reveal his age. He’s a scruffy, gregarious sort with a beard and long hair. Sporting dark glasses and cradling a guitar, he sits in a black overcoat covered with white hairs from his bulldog, Jack Benny, and spins anecdotes syncopated with the kind of profane wit that likes to slip the f-word between syllables.
Thorney first worked with Morissette in 1994 when he was producing a Tom Jackson album. After a precocious career as a teenage disco queen, she was 19, broke, and trying to be a songwriter in Toronto. He offered her a session doing background vocals. “We needed a voice to be used as an instrument at the end of a song,” Thorney recalls, “like a North American Indian chant. That’s the first time I heard her do that thing with her voice, and it’s become a signature.” I’ve never met a singer— and we go through a lot of singers—who has no key. You can do songs in D or E or G and it doesn’t matter. There’s no wrong
key with her. She has such a wide voice it’s consistent all the way up.”
Thorney, who makes his bread and butter producing jingles, has become one of Morissette’s most trusted collaborators. Freaked out by stardom at the end of the Jagged Little Pill tour, she went to stay with him in Toronto. “She said to me, ‘I don’t want to do another record,’ ” recalls Thorney. “I said, ‘Who cares. You did that one pretty good. Don’t bother. But do you want to do music any more? Because they’re two different things.’ ” Thorney was living at the studio at the time, and he gave her his room while he slept downstairs. Late one night he came home alone from a bar, where he’d tried to pick up a waitress, and she said, “Man, I really feel like writing a song.” She sat down at the piano but didn’t want anyone recording her. “We had one mike on, about 30 feet away,” says Thorney, “so we had a guy crawl on his belly for about five minutes to bring it closer, so we actually got something. She was so vulnerable.”
Eventually those sessions laid the
groundwork for Supposed Infatuation Junkie. Later, while recording the album in Los Angeles, she and Thorney worked their way through the eight laser discs of The Beatles Anthology (which may explain the obvious Beatles influence on the sound). They were on Disc 6 when, out of the blue, Alanis heard Ringo Starr was interested in jamming with her. “We went to this studio in Santa Monica that makes my place look like the Taj Maf___inghal,” recalls Thorney. “She and Ringo went off into a corner and I don’t know what he said, but from that point on, her entire attitude toward people bugging her and autographs and all that was completely different, like night and day. She went from being really isolated and not wanting to do a record to coming right out of her shell.” Last year, when it came time to write the new album, Alanis returned to Toronto, and to Thorney’s den. “I wanted to be off the radar,” she says. “I’m more apt to feel pressure in Los Angeles than in Canada.” This time, she was less fragile, but still required a cocooned space. “The whole
room would be lit, and dressed, with the lights down and candles,” says Thorney. “Any kind of movement would distract her, piss her off. I didn’t ever, ever want to piss her off. So I stayed low. So I stayed low and she would stay focused.”
Oddly, for someone who’s played such a seminal role in Morissette’s creative process, as a kind of musical therapist, Thorney doesn’t own a piece of the action. “I don’t have a deal with her,” he says. “I’ve never had any reason to. She’s treated me better than anyone I’ve known. I feel I’ve done the right thing, and that’s important to me as an artist. What she’s about is love and peace and understanding and healing yourself. There’s no negative shit with her.” That’s hard to believe. “Like anyone else, I have a huge dark side,” Alanis admits. Then she recommends a book called The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford. “Basically it says anything I’m resistant to is part of me that I haven’t claimed or embraced. Everything from arrogance to pettiness to greediness to egomaniacal energy. If I embrace it and go, ‘Yeah, I can be a totally narcissistic, greedy, bitchy asshole, it defuses everything for me and allows what feels natural—my generosity and curiosity and compassion—to come forth without it being something that I’m trying to hold at the forefront in order to deny this whole other part. Everything kind of integrates and softens.”
Uh, right. “So how do you classify yourself spiritually?” I ask, immediately regretting the question.
“I don’t,” she says, devouring a slice of raw tuna. “I believe we’re spiritual beings in human form, pieces of God manifest in this relative realm, and we’re here to define ourselves and to evolve. We are innately love, and fear exists to show what love is.” But then she adds, “At the end of the day I’m still from Ottawa. You can take the girl out of Ottawa but you cannot take the Ottawa out of the girl. Coming to Los Angeles was the hugest culture shock. What I feel about the Eastern and Western cultures, I feel about Canada and America. Canada could benefit if it were to adopt certain American styles— the sky’s the limit, land of opportunity, etc. And America could absolutely benefit from the communications style that Canada has, the sense of community and the way they treat the land.”
Alanis sounds Canadian. She may have
found paradise in California, where she kayaks, snowboards, plays basketball and practises yoga. But when she sings you can still hear Ottawa in the flattened curl of the letter “r.” And there’s something unmistakably Canadian about her earnest style, her goodwill—and her resistance to industry types trying to package her. “They tiptoe around me,” she says, “because they know I’m like a sleeping cat, and if someone says, ‘Maybe you should.. .’The word should is a huge no-no for me. My sphincter tightens up when I hear that word.”
Like, maybe she should cut her hair?
“I will,” she says, suddenly conscious that she’s been twirling her Godiva tresses like worry beads. “I’m ready for some pretty wild change, but I don’t know what it will be.”
After lunch, as we head back to the hotel on foot—always a contrarian activity in Los Angeles—Alanis gets recognized by someone in an SUV. Then a couple of girls wave from an apartment window. With star sightings, recognition tends to be contagious. When I ask Alanis if she gets both-
ered by fans, she says, with just a trace of irony, “We like to call them appreciators.” Further on, an “appreciator” shouts her name and comes running down the sidewalk after her. Turns out it’s DJ Spinderella from the rap group Salt-N-Pepa. She has a video crew with her and wants Alanis to give her an instant clip to promote a TV show called The Spin’z Cycle. Alanis complies with a smile and a few words for the camera. Only in L.A., where stardom is infinitely relative, can you find celebrities hounding celebrities.
Later, before Alanis heads back into the hotel, she asks if I saw the recent meteor showers. “It was incredible,” she says. “We were in Hollywood, on this cliff. My friends and I, we just laid on our backs and squealed the whole time. Someone came out of their house and said, We realize you’re excited, but if you don’t keep it down, we’re calling the cops.’ My thought was: if a cop came out, he would just lie down next to us and watch the show.”
Right. And perhaps he’d let her slip a flower into his service revolver. When
Elvis Costello sang “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” the irony was that he unleashed the words with a measure of anger. Alanis has already shown that irony isn’t her strong suit, with that hit song about “a black fly in your chardonnay.” But in an America where irony has been eclipsed by sincerity, at least briefly, she strikes a chord.
The final cut on Under Rug Swept is Utopia, an anthem to conflict resolution that plays as a sweetly ethereal folk song in 6/8 time. It imagines a world where “we would stay and respond and expand and include and allow and forgive and enjoy and evolve and discern and inquire and accept and admit and divulge.” Some might call that naive. Or unfashionable. Or wordy. But for Alanis Morissette— whose idea of a night out in Hollywood is lying on the ground and staring at the sky—it’s what makes her more than just another shooting star. E3
Read an excerpt from the interview with Alanis Morissette.