Alanis Morissette (Profile 1999)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 8, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

Well, if you're Alanis Morissette, that's exactly what you do. The Canadian pop star had been organizing a visit to Mother Teresa's hospital in India, but she still wonders what prompted her to dial Calcutta on the night of Sept. 4, 1997.
Morissette, Alanis
Morissette's album Jagged Little Pill (1995) sold an astonishing 25 million copies worldwide.

Imagine. You are 23 years old and you have made the biggest-selling album ever recorded by a female singer. You have won four Grammys and six Junos. You have toured the world, and everywhere you go, from Milwaukee to Manila, you can hear echoes of your own voice raging from car radios. You are a lapsed Roman Catholic, an Ottawa girl who learned to bare her soul in Los Angeles, and who became, as you put it, Miss Thing. Now everyone wants a piece of you but you desperately want to get away. And get real. Who you gonna call? Mother Teresa?

Well, if you're Alanis Morissette, that's exactly what you do. The Canadian pop star had been organizing a visit to Mother Teresa's hospital in India, but she still wonders what prompted her to dial Calcutta on the night of Sept. 4, 1997. "I called out of the blue," she told Maclean's in a recent interview. "I wanted to talk to her if she was open to chatting. I talked to a couple of her sisters, and upon getting information from them, they said, 'Would you like to speak to her now?' " Morissette remembers weighing the decision in her mind. "In that moment - taking into account how I felt when a lot of people wanted to speak to me - I just said, 'No thanks, I'm sure she's really tired.' Then the next morning I woke up and she had died."

Did Morissette regret not talking to Mother Teresa? "Not really," she says. "I feel like I've talked to her."

By now, anyone who has heard Morissette's recent hit single Thank U ("thank you India, thank you providence") knows that she, like the Beatles, made the pilgrimage to the East and came back transformed. Spending six weeks in India in 1997 with her mother, two aunts and two girlfriends - "the goddess trip," she calls it - the singer briefly volunteered at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity hospital. She also hiked in the Himalayas. She later travelled to Cuba with a group that included fellow superstar Leonardo DiCaprio. There, she fell in love with a friend of his, American actor Dash Mihok (The Thin Red Line). And during her year-long disappearing act, she also competed in three triathlons. Plus, she filmed her first movie role, in a comedy called Dogma, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as fallen angels: Alanis plays God.

Of the Canadian divas who virtually rule the world of female pop, Morissette, now 24, appears the most eager to reinvent herself. Shania Twain is the Vixen. Celine Dion is the Voice. But Alanis is the Free Spirit, a wunderkind who has broken out of her packaging and seems willing to put her career at risk for the sake of self-expression. All three singers were on hand for last week's Grammy Awards. Although Morissette's new album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie came out too late in 1998 to be eligible, she won two Grammys for Uninvited, her song from the City of Angels film sound track - best female rock performance and best rock song. As she sang Uninvited on the show, she proved to be a class act in a night that unfolded like a Felliniesque costume ball. But Morissette's teen fans, who cut their teeth on the dirty outrage of You Oughta Know, must have been asking, "Where's the rock?" All of a sudden, they find their heroine in a sequinned gown acting all grown-up in front of a full orchestra.

With her new album and a new tour, Morissette is returning to the fray amid some daunting expectations. When she visited Toronto last month to announce a Canadian tour - an 11-city blitz beginning on May 2 in Vancouver - local media cynically suggested she was just trying to prop up soft album sales. In fact, since its release last November, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie has sold about three million copies in the United States and 260,000 in Canada. Coming after 1995's Jagged Little Pill, which eventually sold 28 million copies worldwide, the sequel's numbers may seem disappointing. But no one ever repeats that kind of once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough.

Besides, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie does not exactly go out of its way to be commercial. Among its 17 tracks, there are few of the catchy pop hooks that made Jagged Little Pill so palatable. Instead, Morissette's voice surfs the thrash and drone of minor chords, pulled by an undertow of Indian rhythms, while the lyrics offer a therapeutic balm of confessions, conversations and New Age resolutions. The sexy anger of Jagged Little Pill has given way to healing and reconciliation. Morissette turns free-form journal entries into unrhyming lyrics. She sings open letters to ex-lovers, family members and friends. Unsent, her new single, addresses stream-of-consciousness love notes to five former boyfriends ("dear matthew . . . dear jonathan ... dear lou.") This may be pop music's answer to e-mail. But Morissette's sophomore effort tries to stretch the boundaries of pop. And even when the result is sappy or self-indulgent, it has a nervy originality.

Infatuation Junkie is the portrait of an artist in recovery from fame. Here is someone who worked assiduously to become a pop star from the age of 10. She paid her dues as a teenage disco queen, enjoyed a frustrating tease of Canadian celebrity, headed to California as a 19-year-old unknown, flirted with a nervous breakdown, then unleashed her raw emotion in Jagged Little Pill, an antidepressant hit of pop girl power. But no sooner was Alanis a star than she began to shed the trappings of stardom.

The evolution was evident in the videos for her breakout album. The first showed her as a rock chick in the desert vamping through You Oughta Know in black leather pants; by the fourth video, for Head over Feet, she posed without makeup, giggling at the camera, in a dramatically unflattering close-up. Then for Thank U, she walked the streets of downtown Los Angeles in a granola/Godiva pose of sexless nudity, her breasts coyly veiled by the hippie hair and her crotch whited-out by a video blur. "I was in my shower when I thought of the idea," she says, adding she would happily bare all if it were not for censors. "When I'm naked, I feel so free and liberated and unself-conscious and close to God. So I thought it would be appropriate to be naked in my video."

Record company executives were not so thrilled. "They would have loved something safe," says Morissette's Los Angeles-based manager, Scott Welch. "But she felt, 'I need to let girls see that you can just be who you are.' She's fearless. Here's a star who's not afraid to be shown without perfect hair or makeup. And she's not afraid to fail in public."

I am the biggest hypocrite... / I've gotten candy for my self-interest / The sexy treadmill capitalist... / I have abused my power forgive me

- One, from Infatuation Junkie

The photo shoot is set up in a basement room of Toronto's new sports arena, the Air Canada Centre. There is a toxic odour of fresh carpet in the air. Alanis, fresh from a news conference announcing the Canadian tour, walks in wearing a long knit coat. Underneath, a delicate brown blouse with sheer sleeves, button-fly blue jeans, scuffed black combat boots. Her hair is a loose mane. Her only jewelry is a ring with tiny dried flowers in a ball of lucite, a gift from a girlfriend in Vancouver.

Posing for a photographer, Morissette meets his eye with the plain, open gaze of an innocent girl. But she is a wary subject, with the self-possession of a woman beyond her years. When asked to lower her head and look up at the camera, she hesitates.

"I don't want to look like a rock star," she says firmly.

"Don't worry," says the photographer. "You look like a fashion model."

"That's even worse," she laughs, turning away.

Later, in a wide-ranging interview, Morissette talks candidly about her life and art - from losing her virginity to coping with fame. She talks about channelling her anger, going beyond therapy and finding serenity in self-expression. Her ideas, like her songs, often verge on psycho-babble, but they seem honest and uncontrived, the musings of a young woman infatuated with her newfound maturity.

Fame took some getting used to. "I felt there was a distance between who I was and the environment I found myself in," says Morissette. "I was motivated by my own expression, but a lot of people were motivated by fame and status and winning awards. I questioned why someone would want my autograph, and why someone would feel better standing near me or running back and telling their cousins they spent time with me. And me not knowing when to say no and when to say yes - and perhaps erring on the side of saying no." On the other hand, she adds, "fame was an amazing way to see who I was dealing with pretty much right away. I can immediately tell a lot about someone's character by the way they feel about fame."

Then there are the perks. Getting to hang out with other famous people. Going to Cuba with Leonardo DiCaprio. "It was a cultural exchange with 20 people put together by an investment banking company in New York," Morissette explains. "We went to different hospitals and art galleries and restaurants and dance clubs and really just absorbed it. Basically, the Cuban culture wants America to see them as more than just an embargo situation, and they felt inviting different artists down might result in us kind of spreading the word." The trip was an all-inclusive package. "One minute I'd be in an AIDS hospital speaking to a patient and connecting with them, and later that night I would be dancing my head off at an outdoor salsa club. It was everything. It was beautiful and inspiring."

And romantic. After meeting Dash Mihok in Cuba (he's the red-headed Pte. Doll in Thin Red Line and a regular on TV's Felicity), a year later Morissette says they are still in love. So how many times has she been in love? "We have to define what we feel 'in love' means," she replies. "In love, I think maybe once. I have felt infatuation and heart palpitations and obsession countless times. But I've only been in one really healthy relationship. And that's this one."

I love you when you dance when you / freestyle in trance / so pure such an expression

- So Pure, from Infatuation Junkie

Philadelphia, the eve of Valentine's Day. Some 15,000 fans packed into a hockey arena erupt into wild cheers as Alanis steps onstage. She is clad in black, with a spangled skirt wrapped around loose pants and a sleeveless top. Picking a microphone up off the floor, she launches into Baba from the new album, a rock dirge about Western tourists seeking instant salvation at the feet of "makeshift gurus." The theme of Third World exotica extends to the simple stage set, which is flanked by batik banners, and backed by ornate Moroccan fretwork.

But for a rock spectacle, it is a no-frills production. And Alanis wins over the audience without the usual rock 'n' roll stagecraft. She does not dance so much as stride back and forth to the beat. As she triangulates the stage, finessing her movements with mercurial turns, she never tries to prod a response from the corners of the crowd. Happily lost in her own world, she lets people watch the spirit move her. Nor does she interact much with her musicians - a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist and a keyboard player. Her voice carries the show. It is a powerful, acrobatic voice, one that is comfortable up in the jet stream somersaulting in and out of falsetto. As she sings, she does something weird with her hands. Holding the microphone with her right hand, the left hangs limp and twitches a spastic code, fingers selecting hieroglyphic cues out of the air.

Between songs, stopping each time to sip from a water bottle that she keeps by the drum kit, she is coolly dispassionate. At one point, she glances up at the arena's digital clock and announces: "It's 10:14 and all is well." Talk about being in the moment.

The audience responds best to the hits. And with the opening bars of Thank U, it is truly bizarre to hear cheers of recognition greet lines like "how 'bout getting off of these antibiotics" and "how 'bout them transparent dangling carrots." One Hand in My Pocket starts out unplugged, to the sound of hand drums and harmonica, while a video shows Alanis jogging into the sunset. Then, in You Learn, she lets loose. With a snowboarding video playing behind her, Alanis jumps and spins in circles, faster and faster, like a kid trying to make herself dizzy, until her braid is pinwheeling around her head. A whirling dervish. As the song ends, she folds her arms in prayer.

None of this seems choreographed. Or, at least, the illusion of naïveté is convincing. And none of the rage and pain underlying Morissette's lyrics comes across in performance. From the Sgt. Pepper thrum of the band to the Indian decor, the spirit is born-again peace and love. It is white music - while the majority of Philadelphia's population is African-American, there are few black faces in the audience - and it's not terribly sexy. Whenever things threaten to get too ethereal, however, Alanis picks up the harmonica. She is no virtuoso, but as she bends over and blows the living daylights out of it, she drives the crowd to a frenzy with her sheer exuberance.

Later, when asked about her fondness for the harmonica, Morissette says: "It's a sweet little instrument, yeah. It's coming from the mouth. I love wind instruments." Alanis heard a lot of harmonica as a child: her parents were heavily into Bob Dylan.

take a trip to new york with your guardian / and your fake identification / when they said "is there something anything / you'd like to know young lady?" you said / "yes i'd like to know what kind of people / i'll be dealing with"

- Ur, from Infatuation Junkie

Alanis Nadinia Morissette - and her twin brother, Wade - were born in Ottawa on June 1, 1974, to Alan and Georgia Morissette, who are both teachers. Alan is French-Canadian. Georgia was born in Hungary - fleeing to Canada with her family during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising at the age of 10. Georgia was just 12 when she and Alan met in a schoolyard and fast became sweethearts. Alan boldly predicted he would marry her, which he did, nine years later in 1967. The Morissettes have three children - the older brother, Chad, was born three years before the twins. But the bond between Alanis and Wade seems strongest. As a child prodigy, she often performed with her twin brother, who became a singer-songwriter but is now a yoga instructor in Vancouver. "We've influenced each other a lot," says Morissette. "Not coincidentally, we've been going through a lot of the same changes at the same time."

Her talent first emerged when she was a toddler. In 1977, her parents began a three-year stint teaching at a NATO base in Lahr, Germany. While on vacation in France, Alan took the three-year-old Alanis to the movie Grease. She quickly memorized all the songs, and using a nail-polish bottle as a microphone, she would play Olivia Newton John to Wade's John Travolta. By the age of 9, Alanis had started writing her own songs and putting them on tape, precocious numbers with titles like Fate Stay with Me and Find the Right Man. She mailed the cassette to a couple of family friends who were musicians, and they were impressed enough to help her cut a single.

Meanwhile, the young singer had landed an acting gig on You Can't Do That on Television, a local children's show that was picked up by the U.S. Nickelodeon cable channel. She used her earnings to manufacture 1,300 copies of the single, Fate Stay with Me, and ship it across North America. Although it did not take off, it caught the ear of Ottawa impresario Steve Klovan, a former figure-skating champion who became Morissette's manager and agent. At 13, she belted out O Canada for an Elizabeth Manley skating show, then soon became a fixture at hockey games and political rallies - the Anthem Girl. When she was 14, Klovan whisked her off to Paris to shoot her first promotional video, which showed her frolicking through a fountain in a bathing suit. At 17, she released her debut album, Alanis, which sold 100,000 copies and won the Juno for most promising female vocalist in 1992.

It was not easy being a teen pop tart. Every morning, her high school played her version of O Canada over the PA system, giving the singer her first taste of an anti-Alanis backlash. Also, she lived a double life. "There was this split," she says, "a split between my high-school self - the part of me that would go to parties and spend time with friends my age - and the part of me that was in the entertainment industry with a lot of adults, staying in the studio till two in the morning. It required me to be very much an adult, while emotionally I was still very much a child." But Morissette insists her parents did not push her: "The pressure to perform perfectly was mine. Perfectionism was something I battled for many years."

Growing up in a devout Roman Catholic home, however, was another source of stress. Morissette says she did not lose her virginity until she was almost 19. "Brought up Catholic," she says, "I was taught that if you're a virgin, then you're clean and men will love you and you are going to be this prize. So while I was very sexually active from the time I was 14 years old, I remained a virgin, which was hilariously ridiculous in retrospect. But I was inundated with this whole you-have-to-stay-quote-unquote-pure thing." Eventually, she adds, "I had sex and saw how beautiful and freeing and godlike it was." Who was her lucky liberator? Morissette will not say. "But we don't need to talk about him, poor guy," she laughs. "He's one of the greatest loves of my life, still to this day."

(Around that time, however, she was involved in one of her first serious relationships, with American TV actor David Coulier, who starred in Full House, hosted America's Funniest People - and is 15 years older than she. Among the thousands of Web sites devoted to Morissette, Coulier's name often comes up as fans speculate about the identity of the man who jilted her for an older woman in You Oughta Know. But Morissette, who seems to be building a career on seeking closure with ex-boyfriends, is not about to name names.)

At 19, Alanis reached an impasse. Her second album, Now Is the Time, had performed weakly and her career was stalled. Meanwhile, she had been accepted by universities in Toronto and Ottawa. But then MCA Music Canada executive John Alexander connected her with Scott Welch, a Los Angeles manager who had turned Paula Abdul from a cheerleader into a pop star. Welch persuaded Morissette to leave home, live in Toronto and write songs. "We put her in a small apartment with the smallest stipend she could live on," he recalls. "All of a sudden, she started to get a sense of who she was. She'd always been in a creative situation where other people were dictating the terms. This was her opportunity and she took it."

After collaborating with a string of Toronto songwriters, and hosting a CBC TV show called Music Works, Morissette made the leap to Los Angeles in 1994. Shortly after arriving, she was mugged by two thieves at gunpoint. Undeterred, she stayed on and hooked up with Glen Ballard, a high-powered producer who has worked with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Michael Jackson. "I thought she was intelligent, curious, energetic," recalls Ballard. "We hit it off - had a cup of tea and wrote a song."

But on a flight home for Christmas, while rushing to finish the last of her Christmas cards, Morissette was overcome by an anxiety attack. It was followed by fainting spells and bouts of uncontrolled sobbing. The breakdown unearthed a motherlode of repressed emotions that became the active ingredients of Jagged Little Pill. When she went back to work with Ballard in Los Angeles, the songs just poured out. Writing the album together was "unpremeditated," says Ballard. "And it benefited greatly from the fact that Alanis didn't have a record deal at that point. We were doing it for fun." Maverick Records, the label owned by Madonna, signed her up, and the album, powered by the sexual rage of You Oughta Know, took off like a rocket.

Is she perverted like me / Would she go down on you in a theatre?

- You Oughta Know

Morissette burst on the scene as pop's new feminist provocateur. Madonna, an earlier prototype, told Rolling Stone that she "reminds me of me when I started out: slightly awkward, but extremely self-possessed and straightforward. There's a sense of excitement and giddiness in the air around her - like anything's possible and the sky's the limit." But, despite their mutual interest in yoga, Alanis and Madonna appear to have as much in common as a flower child and a dominatrix. "I haven't been listening to Madonna in the last few years," Morissette confesses. "When I was younger, I listened to her a lot. We don't really talk very often."

Morissette's success, meanwhile, drew detractors. Courtney Love dissed her. And Joni Mitchell was quick to squelch comparisons between herself and Alanis. "I'm a musical explorer and not just a pop songwriter," she huffed. "Alanis Morissette writes words, someone else helps set it to music, and then she's kind of stylized into the part." Morissette coolly fields the criticism. "Everyone's entitled to love me or hate me or not care about me. So I don't really feel the need to respond. I started listening to Joni after Jagged Little Pill, when everyone said you're so obviously influenced by her. I said, 'Actually, I don't even have one of her records.' So then everyone was inundating me with Joni Mitchell records."

The Joni comparison is not completely farfetched. Like Mitchell, Morissette is a vocal explorer with an ethereal instrument and original sense of inflection. And Ballard, Morissette's writing partner, says she has a strong hand in the music. "I often suggest a harmonic landscape," he says, "but she's always finding the ultimate melodic expression for what she has to say. Once she starts wrapping her words around it, she has to personalize the melody. And I have no idea how she gets so many words in one bar of music."

Morissette has developed a unique vocal attack, the way she fillets multisyllabic words - "un-a-bash-ed-ly" and "dis-ill-us-ion-ment" - into unlikely lyrics. In Sympathetic Character, a dissonant mantra about abusive men, she sinks her teeth into "tes-tos-ter-one" as if bent on drawing blood.

Asked about whether she herself has suffered physical abuse, the singer says: "No, but I've feared it, because I've spent a lot of time around men who couldn't control their anger. They'd repress it so long by the time they had to release it, it just came out very destructively. So I have a lot of fears surrounding that." Is this a boyfriend she is talking about? Morissette offers a blanket response: "Family, friends, boyfriends, colleagues, professional relationships ... a lot of people." The singer, who professes a long-held fascination with psychology, has been in and out of therapy since she was 16 - everything from psychoanalysis to spiritual counselling. "I've read psychology books as far back as I could read," she says. "I consider this physical realm to be somewhat illusory, but we have to understand our pain."

Morissette does not indulge in the usual escapes. She does not do drugs, drink or smoke. "I've dabbled with smoking pot," she says, "but I don't really feel comfortable doing it. I like being still and being connected. And my life in general feels very euphoric. All the things that I believe drugs can do, whether it's the clarity or out-of-body experience or whatever, I've experienced in a pretty big way by being straight."

So how does she get psyched up for a show? "I do yoga, I have a massage and I eat." How does she unwind when she gets offstage? "I eat almonds," she says. Almonds? "I eat nuts and I talk to my band members and I get on my bus and travel to the next city."

You only have to look at Morissette's hands to see that she is not entirely stress free. Her fingernails, the paint chipped away, are bitten down to the quick - a habit she attributes to the pressure of recently directing her two new videos. Touring, however, has become much easier. "I'm laughing all the time," she says. "I didn't laugh once on the last tour. There was just too much going on, so much stimulus. I was just inundated."

Inundated. It is one of her favourite words. But lately, Morissette has found some uninundated space in her life. When not touring, she can retreat to her three-bedroom Mediterranean-style house in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles. "It's my dream home," she says. "Sometimes I wish I could transport it outside of Los Angeles and live somewhere else. But I don't even feel like I own it. It's somewhat communal. I have friends staying there, and I just stay there when I'm home, so I feel I'm borrowing it."

A lucrative royalty deal on Jagged Little Pill made her a wealthy woman. And since visiting India, Morissette has also become a visible charity supporter - one dollar of every ticket sold for her Canadian tour goes to a local cause, such as Toronto's Covenant House, an agency for street kids. But the singer, who drives a Jeep, says she has trouble finding ways to spend her money. "My business manager said all her clients have one thing that they spend their money on, and with me it's travelling. Whether it's for myself or friends or family, I spend a pretty large amount of money flying people all over the world."

Meanwhile, new horizons keep opening up. "I'd love to write a screenplay," she says, "I'd love to be in films, behind and in front of the camera. I love photography and poetry." Anything else? "I'm writing a book right now," she reveals. "It's a collage book. One chapter is a fictional story, the next chapter is diary entries, the next is letters, the next is photos, the next chapter is confusion and revelations and questions. I may have to figure out where it all fits together, or not."

The earnest ambitions of Alanis Morissette raise questions. As she spins her emotional life into a cottage industry, there is always a risk of becoming the Martha Stewart of confessional pop. She has yet to prove that inner peace can be as compelling as inner turmoil. But in the Age of Irony the apparent sincerity of this woman - who built an entire song on sweetly misusing the word "ironic" - comes as a tonic. There is something admirable about the faith with which she has invented herself. She is a work bravely in progress, a pop star searching for the artist within.

Maclean's March 8, 1999

Music of
Alanis Morissette (Profile 1999)