Jagged Little Pill: An Essay
By Alanis Morissette
I remember getting the news that I was being dropped from MCA Records in Canada. There had been much said about my evolving (catapulting?) out of what I had been known for…pop. Happy. Fictional. Certainly I had snuck some autobiographical shares in some of the lyrics, here and there. But my growing desire to write in the no-holds-barred way that I now dwell in was being discouraged…under the guise that “no one wants to hear this from you, not the least of whom is your manager.” Oh. I wasn’t aware that I was writing my songs and expressing myself to make sure my manager was happy.
Perhaps my burgeoning sexuality and coming-of-age were being made evident through the imagery in videos I started to shoot — nothing wildly gratuitous, but an indication of the sorts of places I wanted to further explore in my art, in my music. This “pushing for more”—by wanting to participate in the writing more, in the non-rhyming lyrics, in the full real-time expression of ME was not something anyone seemed to be interested in at the time. “Brand” changing (and this was before this crass yet effective word was even tossed around) was dangerous business. But nothing about evolving publicly and expressing my FULL life seemed dangerous. In fact, NOT doing it seemed like certain death to me.
So when I was informed that I was a “free agent,” I waited for the despair. The “pain of being dumped.” The realization that my current “team” was not going on this evolution ride with me, and that somehow that meant I was worthless, abandoned, alone. (I did — and do — like, very much, so many of the people I had been working with and giggling with for a handful of my tender teen years.) But this anticipated despair never came. Maybe 10 minutes of grief.
Having written my first songs at 9 years old, and produced them at 10 and 11, and having formed my own record company (for the fact that no one would sign a 10-year-old in 1985), I knew that this journey of art-making would be a long one, for how RIGHT it felt. And for the outlet that it created for me. Catharsis. I quietly made a promise to myself. In my mouse-infested apartment, I promised myself that I WOULD NOT STOP until I was in a room with someone whose very interaction with me begged the question: “Who ARE you, Alanis?” I wasn’t going to stop until I listened back to songs I had written and co-written, and truly felt that this entire record was the PERFECT snapshot of what was going on for me. All the glee. The chasing of the highs of life. The desperation. The devastation. The rage. The maternal. The tender. The empathy…etc. ALL OF IT. Well, as much as you can in one record.
I worked with countless collaborators in Canada and, eventually, Los Angeles. All of them talented in unique ways, all of them compelling, and some of them funny as eff. But I knew in my stomach within moments (not unlike when you are on a blind date) that my artist had not found her “home.” That is, until Kurt Denny, who was representing me at MCA publishing at the time, sat with me for dinner one night. I had not a penny to my name, but I had enough certainty and passion in me to crush worlds.
“There is someone I want you to meet,” Kurt says to me, his blue eyes sparkling like he knew what I was getting for my birthday, and kinda loved that I had no idea.
“Really?” I say while eating spaghetti (this is long before carbs were shunned in L.A. :)) “Who?”
“His name is Glen Ballard. I have NO idea if you will hit it off creatively, you might not even write one song, but I DO know that the both of you will really like each other.”
“Sounds good to me,” I say. More bread, please.
I had been writing with so many kind peeps that it became an adventure, these meetings, with the pilot light of knowing I wouldn’t stop until who I WAS was being honored, not who the person sitting across from me WANTED me to be — still burning brightly and steadfastly within my chest. I had a good feeling.
A couple of days later, I walk into Glen Ballard’s studio in Encino, and his space is impeccable and glowing with a golden hue. And most importantly to my deeply sensual and sensitive self and nose: everything SMELLED GOOD.
After exchanging pleasantries and realizing the several areas of compatibility we had, we decided to go into the studio and write.
The music and lyrics flowed quickly, and there was an aikido to our working together. Where I let up, Glen would dive in; where he would linger with a harmonic idea, I would jump on it like I would a wave with my surfboard and imply a breathless “come with me!” This continued for many minutes, and when the dust and confetti of giddiness cleared, we were left with a song called “The Bottom Line.” Apt for how I knew in my soul what I wanted. Glen’s presence with me had no agenda… This presence and this lack of projecting onto me “what I should be” was the ultimate freedom and support I needed to crack open. I called Kurt.
“Jeeeeez, Kurt! Wow. Nice intuit, my friend,” I said.
“Really!?” he half-laughed in his kind, Southern way. “This is the best news!”
Thus started a few months of my flying back and forth from Canada to L.A., and each time I was with Glen in his studio, the ante was upped. Whereas in the beginning we wrote lyrics together (“Ironic” was the only song Glen and I wrote the lyrics together for Jagged Little Pill), our roles quickly settled into their meant-to-be place for our collaboration. Glen and I writing the music together, me writing the lyrics at the same time, and Glen producing up a storm. Our songs took anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to write. There was nothing precious about our approach. But it was sacred to me.
This delicate balance of being receptive and open, combined with being applied, at-the-ready, on the edge of our seats…and open to chronicling what was happening in real time. As Glen would say, it was as though we were hooked up to the IV every time, and we would feel spent and giddy, and reflect upon the magic of it all over more carbs and great wine. At first we would shake our heads in wonderment, be covered in chills, and the studio would take on an almost haunted quality…
After a while we began relying on the process: Philosophical chat over chopped salad, some coffee — which I had to curb when I landed in the hospital, thinking I was dying. The doctor held my hand after my X-rays showed that all was well. He looked into my eyes.
“Are you from Los Angeles?” he asked kindly.
“No, I moved here from Canada.”
“Do you have any friends here?” he asked, a paternal concern in his voice.
I spend my weekday afternoons with Glen in his studio, and I spend the weekends rollerblading and people-watching from Santa Monica Pier to Manhattan Beach and back. I spent six months attempting to meet people, but the cultural differences between Ottawa, Canada, and Los Angeles, California, were vast. Nobody asked me one question for six months. And so I quickly realized that when in Rome…I needed to start sharing when my share was unsolicited. Something almost impossible for me to do.
The doctor paused. His hand was still holding mine. Human contact. It had been a while, save for the flings I had had while traveling back and forth from L.A. to Toronto.
“You’re going to be fine,” he said. “I recommend reaching out to some friends for their support, Alanis.”
“Ok.” I will reach out so hard to these imaginary friends.
“And cutting out the coffee.”
…and then Glen and I would dive into writing. Often with Glen sitting in a chair with a guitar, and me on the floor with journals, pen, and the music moving through me. The vocals were all one or two takes, the approach to producing and mixing was one of pure intuition. And imperfections and visceral responses to sounds were our guide. There were attempts to clean it all up, “perfectify” it all… I was admonished on more than one occasion for the record sounding “too caustic” and “too imperfect.” I got a lot of dirty looks for that one.
I remember telling them, “Well, if you wanted a record that sounded like Dan Steely, then maybe you should have signed someone in their thirties, rather than me, a 19-year-old.” This was met with silence, in typical form. My friend quickly leaned over and said, “It’s ‘Steely Dan,’ Alanis.” Oh, jeez. I said, “Well, regardless, this record represents me, and anything other than this is not a record I am interested in being a part of.”
There were a few songs we re-recorded to see if my intensity could be stamped out a bit (heavy forbid a woman be intense)…and they were rejected by everyone. To their credit, they could tell something was lost in that process. Thank God.
When the songs “You Oughta Know” and “Perfect” were written, we went and visited many record companies, none of which were impressed. Rejection for me, over the 10 years I had been in the music industry at that point, intimated I had not found my “home” yet…so I persevered.
One day, while in my sweatpants, writing a song called “All I Really Want,” there was a phone call to let us know that Guy Oseary had gotten wind of what Glen and I were up to.
“I can’t go now, I look like an 18-wheeler just hit me,” I said. My sweatpants were not of the “cute” variety.
“You have to go now, Alanis.”
I played “You Oughta Know,” “Perfect” and “Hand In My Pocket,” and Guy Oseary, sitting in his office (both of us playing adult at our young ages), was freaking out.
Many adventures later, the record was shared officially while I was embarking on the beginning of a small-club tour. The people around me had realistic-to-low expectations, and mine might have been even lower. But I was thrilled that I could stand by this record. A record that I had been dissuaded to write for how “against the craft-grain” it was. I remember a former producer from Canada listened to “Head Over Feet” over the phone and his response was “Wow, ‘That’s not lip service,’” he said, pointing to a lyric in the song. “Amazing, bud. I had no idea you could write.” Most of the steam-rolling collaborators with whom I’d been set up would likely have said the same.
Apparently, there were a lot of things people didn’t know about me. That I could write. That I was angry. (The angriest people I know are people whose presentational selves connote an ongoing and unrealistic joy.) That I had multiple feelings. That I was complex, and yet somehow quite simple at the same time. That I wasn’t just the girl you could bully, take advantage of, exploit, use, manipulate. That there was a human being in there somewhere. A human being who cares deeply about humanity. About functionality. About relationships. About healing. (Interestingly, writing songs has never been healing, but rather cathartic. The real healing, for me, has come from correction in relationships, not in my running away to write about these relationships in a quiet, dark room because I was too terrified to stand up for myself with a human being across from me.) I have always cared about the feminine and the masculine, and the fragile and the fierce. As a true Gemini, I was craving ALL of it. Wholeness was my obsession, and music allowed and continues to allow me to explore ALL of it…
When “You Oughta Know” was first taken to radio, the consistent response was “We are already playing two female artists, we don’t need another one.” Female artists “weren’t lucrative,” apparently. But I knew in my heart that the feminine imperative (found in male and female artists equally) was of the highest importance. Archetypally, the priests and priestesses and poets and writers have always been relied upon to engage the planet on multiple levels. And that we as artists could not be reduced to how “lucrative” we were. There were a million forms of currency that contribute to this funny, colorful planet, and music-from-the-core-of-yourself was one of the greatest contributions that artists through time immemorial have offered.
There was a cultural wave swelling…a readiness, perhaps, for people to hear about the underbelly, the true experience of being a young, sensitive, and brave person in a patriarchal world. This wave was moving through culture with or without me, and I happened to grab my glittery surfboard and rode that wave like a feisty androgyne on the back of a megalodon.
There will always be commentary needed to keep the larger cultural and social, and relational and spiritual, emotional and psychological conversation going. And today, 2015, if I can continue to be a part of it by singing, writing, performing, speaking publicly, writing articles, making art, being a mom, a wife, an educator, a perpetual student, and a friend…I will. Till I am gone, and likely after. :)
Thanks for caring about this. Hope I can meet you one day, or meet you again.
Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is available at iTunes, Target, Amazon and from other retailers. The new edition features all of the original tracks remastered for 2015 and a second bonus disc of ten previously unreleased demos handpicked by Alanis. Also available is the four-disc Collector’s Edition which also includes a previously unreleased concert from 1995, as well as 2005’s Jagged Little Pill Acoustic album. The four-disc set is packaged in a white colored journal with a cream colored strap, featuring handpicked lyrics from Alanis and her signature embossed in gold on the front cover.