In the summer of 1995, a startling voice jolted through the haze of R&B jams dominating the airwaves. Part power belt, part witchy yelp, it sang of jealousy, perversion, of the messes men leave in the wake of broken relationships. It belonged to Alanis Morissette, then 21, whose song “You Oughta Know” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart -- the only one by a woman (other than her own “Hand in My Pocket” a few months later) to do so that year. That was just the beginning: Morissette’s U.S. debut, Jagged Little Pill, topped the Billboard 200 for 12 weeks and became the chart’s top-performing album of the 1990s, along the way inspiring a generation of singer-songwriters to share their rawest truths.
Since then, Morissette has released another seven albums, and at 45, Billboard’s 2019 Icon is as busy ever: She’s putting the final touches on the Jagged Little Pill Broadway musical; readying her forthcoming LP, Such Pretty Forks in the Road, due May 1; and prepping for the Jagged Little Pill 25th-anniversary tour with Liz Phair and Garbage (starting in June). “I’ll be writing songs until I’m dead and probably after,” says Morissette with a laugh. “Channeling through some poor 17-year-old!”
When you were starting out, who were the icons you looked up to?
Whitney Houston, Carole King, Aretha Franklin. Women who could belt it out with a huge amount of soul. Whitney -- I [loved] her vulnerability, her humanity, just her sweetness. A lot of her lyrics were so kind and adorable. I always felt if I could sing along with women whose voices I bowed down to, that would legitimize me as a vocalist.
Your career has had a somewhat unusual trajectory -- you started out as a teen dance-pop singer in Canada, then seemingly got the support to write what you really wanted.
Some artists are writers, and some are pure performers. I feel like I’m a combination of both. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t necessarily in an environment with people who were supportive of my songwriting. I was actually dropped from my record company right before I wrote Jagged Little Pill. So I had this clean slate in front of me when I was 19. I just wanted to write a record I loved.
Before you came to the United States to make Jagged Little Pill, did you already have the courage of your convictions?
I had conviction on a certain level, and then working with Glen [Ballard, who produced Jagged Little Pill], it was solidified. If I wrote something, he would just say, “Is this a true story?” And it became a no-brainer: “Of course.” From 19 onward, I only know autobiographical [stories]. Even if I’m writing for a character -- whether it’s for the Jagged Little Pill musical or a movie like City of Angels, I’m thinking of how I relate personally.
At that time, did you feel like you had a support system among other artists?
I had a bit of Canadian naivete, [thinking] that as soon as I was in the public eye, I would be embraced by other artists and we would all be sitting around the fire singing “Kumbaya.” That wound up not being the case. There was a lot more isolation and misperception and competition and jealousy. I was still the woman doing the show at festivals around the planet with 16 male artists. It was awkward to figure out how I fit in the middle of that. My bandmates were lifesavers, especially in the 2000s. They really got behind me, and it wasn’t about anyone wanting the seat I was in, it was just, “Wow, we love this woman, and we honor what her mission is.” And I had a team of amazing therapists. (Laughs.)
When Jagged Little Pill came out, you were portrayed as this queen of angsty female rage -- but you didn’t necessarily seem like an angry person. So many of the songs on the album are actually quite empathetic.
Thank you for saying that. I feel like I’m everything -- sometimes I’m ashamed, sometimes I’m jubilant, sometimes I’m ragey and irritable, sometimes I’m devastated. Hello, I’m a human being! There’s this kind of violent tendency to one-dimensionalize artists, maybe so we can wrap our heads around them and move on. That’s why I’m so enjoying this musical -- it allows these people in this story to be complex.
Speaking of the musical -- what convinced you it was a good idea?
I definitely didn’t want a jukebox musical -- I knew it would have to be something born from the stories in the songs. It wasn’t until [book writer] Diablo Cody signed on and went, “Alanis, all the characters are in your lyrics,” that it hit me: “Oh yeah, there are a lot of characters in these songs,” enough for her to expand them and create a whole narrative. It just feels so integrated.
In the past, you have spoken out about everything from the environment to postpartum depression to promoting healthy relationships. Do you think social activism is an obligation for all artists right now?
People can feel responsible for what they choose. For me, if I’m going to experience this thing called fame, it has to be coupled with some form of service or else it feels hollow to me. As a kid, my mom took me to food banks, we did charity work almost every Sunday -- it was just part of our upbringing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of self-expression and even self-indulgence. It’s mandatory as an artist. But it feels incomplete if I’m just doing it for myself.