One of the most talked-about moments of the 2015 American Music Awards was all about a song that came out in 1995.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking breakout album Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette hit the AMAs stage with famous fan Demi Lovato to belt out the ultimate angsty anthem “You Oughta Know.” For Morissette, it was a sign of a new, collaborative climate in music. “In the ’90s, collaboration was an odd thing; it was like Picasso and Monet doing a painting together was just kind of gross,” she laughs to Billboard on Monday, the day after the duet. “Whereas now, there’s just kind of a world of collaboration.”
Twenty years later, Morissette is embracing that newfound sense of community by joining Taylor Swift onstage at her 1989 World Tour, promoting Justin Bieber’s new song with a hilarious video, and relaunching her Alanis.com website with the new interview podcast Conversation With Alanis Morissette. She’s also branching out from songwriting by penning her first-ever book, which she calls “20 times more terrifying” than writing music.
Below, find out how the Demi team-up came to be, what’s next, and how she feels about Jagged Little Pill now.
How did your duet with Demi Lovato come together?
The AMAs and people on my team were brainstorming about something really special to mark the end of the Jagged Little Pill 20th anniversary. So they had a few names up their sleeves that they ran up our flagpole, and when I heard Demi Lovato’s name, I got really excited.
Did you already know Demi?
I’d never met her before. I did the 24 Hour Plays with Wilmer [Valderrama], her boyfriend. I know her music, and I was also really impressed and touched with her advocacy for recovery and also speaking out about loving one’s body. I was just really moved by her activism and her mission.
While yours and Demi’s musical paths aren’t exactly the same, you both have these big, booming voices that really worked together.
I already knew she sang beautifully, but when I saw her perform her single before our performance together, I just thought, “Oh my gosh, this is gonna be really fun.” During our rehearsal, when she was harmonizing with me, it was stunning, because I’ve been such a solo artist. You know, I’ve been singing alone for so long. To have a huge-voiced goddess with me was lovely.
We’ve already seen your love-fest with Demi on Twitter (above) — she called you “one of the baddest women in the music industry,” and you said how much fun you had performing with her. It’s so great to see that back-and-forth.
It’s a sisterhood that I didn’t have when I was younger. When Jagged Little Pill came out, I was really overwhelmed by the overstimulation of it all, and I was reaching out to all these different celebrities — whose names aren’t even relevant at this point — but I was reaching out to all these people to see if I could hang out with them or get some support maybe, some mentorship, and every phone call I made, it was received with: “Why are you calling me?” It was an odd thing, apparently, during the ’90s to reach out for that kind of camaraderie or that kind of support. And it was both genders. I thought, “OK, well, if some of the women aren’t working out, I’m going to reach out to some brothers.” [Laughs] That didn’t work out either. I just had this naive thought that I could have this sisterhood, and what’s lovely now is that the new generation, if they in any way, shape or form reach out to me, it’s just so lovely to offer them a safe place to land or just someone who is chronologically older than them and perhaps has had some similar experiences with fame and zeitgeistness who can just love ’em up.
So does that put you in the mind-set of wanting to collaborate more, whether it’s another performance or recording with someone?
I’m always open to that. I wasn’t when I was younger. In the ’90s, collaboration was an odd thing. It was like Picasso and Monet doing a painting together was just kind of gross. [Laughs] Whereas now, there’s just kind of a world of collaboration. And it’s much more integrated too. In the ’90s, it was almost as if you had to pick one thing — you were either alternative or you were rock or you were a heady academic girl, but you certainly couldn’t be all three. I remember directing a video for a song called “So Pure,” and I’m dancing in it, all these different styles and genres of dancing. And I remember my record company rallying around me — it wasn’t rallying, actually, it was cornering me [Laughs] — and they said, “This is suicide for your career.” I just thought, “Wow, just because I’m using a talent that is not the primary songwriting talent, how could that mean the end of a career?” Whereas today, if you’re not dancing and singing and doing comedy, then somehow you’re incomplete. It’s a very Judy Garland era again, which is nice.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the AMA performance?
A lot of goodwill and excited people. It’s just so sweet, because for me, it’s a marking of both generations supporting each other: honoring from the current generation and then just me tipping my hat to them for continuing the flame.
Demi has a very passionate fanbase. Have you heard from them on Twitter last night and today?
I haven’t, only because I am terrified. My survival strategy from, frankly, when I was 15 years old was to not expose myself, because if I get too wound up in the positive feedback, it’s inevitable that I’ll get wound up in the negative feedback. So what I do is if there’s an article or a well-placed sentence here and there that my sweet inner-team feels would be beneficial for me to read just so I get a sense of being understood in pop culture, I will. But in general, I kind of hide. It’s a self-preserving mechanism.
That’s smart. The Internet can be scary.
That would be one thing I would say to the new generation: Sometimes it’s good to take a break from hearing what other people think about you. [Laughs]
You also had another couple of big appearances earlier this year — going out onstage with Taylor Swift in August and helping promote fellow Canadian Justin Bieber’s new music with an online video. How do those kinds of things come about? Do Taylor and Justin’s camps reach out, or do you know them from crossing paths at events?
Over time, they may have said something about me in the press, or when Justin was younger, he did a cover of “Ironic” on YouTube that people would send to me. So if there’s already a mutual-admiration society going on, then it’s a little easier for the next step to be for us to do something fun together.
All of these performances and appearances have been such a great celebration of the 20th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill and really introduced it to a whole new audience. It was such a huge introduction for your career. What has your relationship been like with the album in the years since it was released?
I’ve always loved that record. Just the process of songwriting for me, that I can rely on having something happening internally — whether it’s in my body or in my life — and I can turn to a song to chronicle it or even just mark it, I feel really humbled by the ability to do that. And I also notice that I used to use songs as a way to hide from relationships. I thought, “OK, I don’t actually have to talk to anybody. I can just write this song and go away.” The songs would provide a great catharsis for me but wouldn’t heal my relationships. So as I grew a little older, I realized that I actually had to interact with human beings. [Laughs] I just feel happy that there’s a timelessness enough to this subject matter that I’m not cringing when I’m performing the songs. A lot of the topics are topics that thankfully still remain and I’m not cringing, but also unfortunately they still remain, in that it’s still an issue — whether it’s perfectionism or body-shaming or patriarchy or whatever it is. These are still rampant, and in some ways we’ve even taken some steps back. The activism that fueled the writing of these songs is more fiery now.
And since you were putting these emotions into a song, it’s like you are revisiting the honest place you were coming from at that point.
Yeah, and I’ve always loved autobiographical music. People sometimes ask me how I think the industry has changed over the past 20 years, and I just keep coming back to resonating with the artists who are brave enough to tell their stories.
In a recent interview, Adele talked about how the staggering success of her last album 21 frightened her. Did you ever feel that way about Jagged Little Pill — kind of overwhelmed that it got so big, so fast?
Yeah. I completely shut down, actually. I remember I was at this juncture where everyone around me was begging me to repeat — repeat the success, repeat the style, repeat the narrative. And I just thought: I cannot repeat, but I promise to evolve. And then I just kept following that journey, regardless of the ebbs and flows of receptivity or lack thereof. That’s all I could ever promise as a human being, as an activist, as an artist — that I would just keep following my own evolution, wherever that leads me. And sometimes it leads me down some very interesting paths, some boring paths, some overwhelmingly exciting paths. So I just keep showing up, and often I’m surprised by the outcome.
And speaking of that evolution, what’s next? Are you in the studio? Are you writing?
I’m holding my next record hostage until I finish the book. [Laughs] It’s so easy for me to write records — and I don’t mean the process is easy; I just mean writing a record feels so natural to me. But I promised myself I would finish this book before then. And this book really touches on all the topics I care about: recovery, abuse recovery, sexuality, body, social activism, commentary, storytelling, just a lot of healing and growth and, I’d like to think, hard-won wisdom from my personal experiences, and then tons of stories. So I can’t wait for this book to come out. A lot of commentary on relationships: what worked and what didn’t. And once that’s finished — I’d like to think I’ll be done by the spring writing it — then I’ll just take a couple of days off and then dive right into the studio and the record, because I have about 15 song subjects that I’d like to dive into. And then it will be about finding the right collaborator and going for that.
What is the difference between writing for the book and writing songs? Are there topics you’re able to address in the book that you weren’t able to in songs, or vice versa?
It’s much more intimate and 20 times more terrifying, because with a song, there is an element of hiding behind some of the imagery. I can be a tiny bit obtuse in a song, which kind of shields me from being too exposed. But with the book, there’s nothing to hide behind. And it is a real invitation into intimacy. As soon as someone commits to reading the book, it’s like, “Wow, we’re having a conversation here. This is terrifying.” [Laughs] And it allows me to get a little deeper than four minutes allows in a song. It allows me to really get into the more psychological aspect of things. And I’ve always been a closet academic psychological woman, so now it’s not so closet. On my website, I’ve been writing all these blogs on addiction recovery and feminism and the main pillars of spirituality and psychology and all of these parts that I used to think I had to hide and frankly was shamed for in a lot of the press, especially in the U.K. and internationally. So now I feel 2015 is exciting, because it’s all about integration. It’s all about being everything that you are and not apologizing for it.
Any more plans to perform in the next few months?
I would love to. There’s no direct plans. There was an invitation to tour, but I feel very abundant around touring: As long as people will have me and I can stand — actually, even if I can’t stand. If I can sing! I’ll probably continue to sing until my deathbed, and maybe after.
I had SO much fun.. Thank you SO much @Alanis!!! Was awesome to perform with one of the baddest women in the music industry
— Demi Lovato (@ddlovato) November 23, 2015