The 1996 Féile Festival was both an end and a beginning. With Dublin’s barn-like Point Depot the unlikely setting, the event marked the death rattle for Feile, which had been in an ever-deepening tailspin since departing its spiritual home of Thurles.
There would be just one more Féile — a last hurrah in Tipperary — after which it faded into history and joined the great nostalgia jamboree in the sky.
But things were very much on the up for the headliner of the 1996 festival’s final day. Twenty-two-year old Alanis Morissette was playing her second Dublin concert in four months. That April she’d packed the 3,000 capacity St Francis Xavier (SFX) Centre near Mountjoy Square.
On that occasion, Morissette had cut a rather severe figure. Dressed in a simple t-shirt and jeans, paired with scuffed running shoes, hair dangling almost to her waist, theCanadian has proceeded through the cathartic pop of her international debut album, Jagged Little Pill — an LP that had already shifted 50,000 units in Ireland.
Were it possible, she was even more intense headlining the close of Féile. Morissette, who followedsupport acts Mazzy Star and Frank Black, had swapped t-shirts since playing the SFX (she now wore grey instead of black). But she retained the demeanour of an artist with the weight of several lifetimes on her shoulders
As is the way with Dublinaudiences seeking to ingratiate themselves with a big international act, the room was love-struck from the outset. By contrast Morissette, though clearly appreciative of thereception, never quite mustered a smile.
Jagged Little Pill, initially rejected by the music industry as uncommercial and far too female oriented, was on its way to selling 33 million copies. To her shock and growing alarm,Morissette was riding a wave ofglobal acclaim. In the time between her first and second Dublin concerts, it had dawned that her life would never be the same again.
“I still have PTSD from the Jagged Little Pill era,” she would reflect 20 years later. “It was a profound violation. It felt like every millisecond I was attempting to set a boundary and say no and people were breaking into my hotel rooms and going through my suitcase and pulling my hair and jumping on my car.”
She says there was a time during Jagged Little Pill where she didn’t laugh for about two years. “It was a survival mode, you know. It was an intense, constant, chronic over-stimulation and invasion of energetic and physical literal space.”
But survive she did and this week returns to Ireland for her firstperformances here in a decade. Her date at Cork Live at the Marquee on Wednesday and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin on Thursday sold out in a heartbeat — testament to the shadow Jagged Little Pill continues to cast and the swirl of emotion it evokes.
The album now stands tall as one of the touchstones of the Generation X era, arguably second only toNirvana’s Nevermind. It was also a breakthrough for women in rock.
“I was a massive fan of hers,” says Radio Nova presenter Ruth Scott. “A few things coincided to turn me on to her music. I was living away from home, studying in UL; I was involved in the Radio Soc on campus and had gotten a present of my own stereo — a massive thing with double cassette deck and a CD player! The height of sophistication in the mid 90s.
“Even though I wasn’t very ‘woke’ to any feminist ideas at that stage in my life, a contemporary strongfemale who I could hear on the radio, play on the radio and play loudly at home in my rented crumblingstudent house, was all new andexciting. I do remember having one housemate that I didn’t particularly like. My room was above his and I played that Jagged Little Pill album to death at high volume.”
As a scruffy unknown in LA,Morissette had initially struggled to attract major label interest. The logic was that, with Tori Amos and Sinead O’Connor having already established themselves, pop had no room forconfessional songwriters who also happened to possess a set of ovaries.
Yet she pushed through the prejudice to become among the biggest selling female artists of all time. More than that, Morissette did so with an album that, decades before #MeToo, articulated what it was to be a young woman growing up in a cruel and judgemental world (the record revolved around a painful romantic split yet was so much more than soppy breakup LP).
“The two feelings that I [was told I] could not feel were sadness and anger,” she would say of her early experiences in the music business. “Sadness includes depression and despair and despondency, and anger includes mere frustration or rage.
“Those are the two big ones I think we’re told as women that we can’t [feel]. The sad part is that we’re being told to show up but cut our arms off. It also completely snips the opportunity for intimacy, because if I’m not allowed to deal with my anger directly in my professional and personal relationships, I can’t deepen my connection.”
Morissette and her producer, Glen Ballard, had spent a thankless 18 months knocking on every door in Los Angeles. Over and over they were told the music industry already had quite enough empowered female singers thank you.
The only one to take chance on the songs that would become Jagged Little Pill was Guy Oseary, future manager of U2 and then a fresh faced a&r executive at Madonna’sMaverick label. He was just 23 — and had to work to convince his label to gamble on an unknown 19-year-old from Ottawa (Morissette had had some hits as a teen star in Canada — but was unheard of in the US).
“Even though a lot of people passed on Alanis, I don’t feel like, ‘Oh I’m the guy who said yes,’ I feel as if I’m the fortunate guy she said yes to,” he would say. “Again, I only found out about a lot of it later that everyone else passed. I didn’t care about any of that. I just loved it.”
Morissette was a huge Sinead O’Connor fan, taking inspiration as much from the Dubliner’s determination and self-possession as from her music. The other big Irishinfluence was The Cranberries, whose hit ‘Zombie’ informed the raw textures of Jagged Little Pill, inparticular the single ‘Ironic’ (and yes, Morissette, has heard all of those quips about none of the scenarios painted in the song being ironic).
off to europe as a community. ✨✨✨🙏🏻❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️💕🐝🦄👩🏻🎤🐣🎈🎊🧝🏻♀️ #loveyou pic.twitter.com/oI52tWvov9— Alanis Morissette (@Alanis) June 26, 2018
“We were listening to a lot of indie rock at the time, I think at the time the Cranberries were very popular,” engineer Chris Fogel would say of the recording of Ironic.
“So we were going for a little bit edgier, not so polished sound, and I think if you listen to the vocal sound in ‘Ironic’, particularly the bridge section, that’s heavily affected, that’s something that I came up with for the mix.”
What wasn’t ironic was the album’s immediate impact. Morissette wasn’t the first female artist to bare her soul. But her use of loud angry guitars ratcheted up the sense of catharsis while the presence in the producer’s chair of Ballard (credits included Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Paula Abdul’s ‘Forever Your Girl’) gave the angst a pop gloss.
Jagged Little Pill was thus heartfelt and honest and unflinching — but supremely catchy too. It was also, initially at least, howlingly uncool. Kurt Cobain had taken his life just a year earlier and rock music was still obsessed with authenticity.
With her background in pop and Madonna’s Maverick as her sponsor, tastemakers rejected Morissette as a triumph of marketing over integrity. Entertainment Weekly described Jagged Little Pill as “hard toswallow”, decrying its “clunkymixtures of alternative mood music and hammy arena rock, and the 21-year-old Morissette tends to wildly over-sing every other line”.
And the critic Robert Christgau described her as a “reluctant refugee from Canadian children’s television”. Jagged Little Pill, he elaborated, helped “stick a basic feminist truth in our faces: privileged phonies have identity problems too”.
Morisette would never again approach the success of Jagged Little Pill. When she plays in Cork and Dublin this week, it is a safe bet that the oldest songs will receive the loudest acclaim.
But the album has comprehensively outlived the misdirected hate to which it was subjected and today can be seen as a landmark moment for rock (a designation unlikely to fade given how much less important music is today).
“The impact of the album wasn’t just for Alanis herself,” argued the Female First website on the album’s 20th anniversary. “The massive success of Jagged Little Pill opened all sorts of doors in the music industry. It showed that pop didn’t have to sweet. It didn’t have to have a nice ending and that real feelings and emotion in music were to beabsolutely embraced, not hidden under harmonies.
2FM’s Ciara King is one of many of her generation who count Jagged Little Pill as her favourite album of all time. “We didn’t grasp the concept of the scorned lover — but there was something in it, we still got as teenage girls,” she says. “It was the first feminist manifesto any of us would really have listened to.”
The NME argued in favour of the record in 2014: “Morissette wrote an intensely personal album about specific facets of her life that millions could somehow relate to. By going totally inside her self and baring her psyche without restraint, she made the thing universal and inclusive.”
“Jagged Little Pill is one of the best pop albums of the last 20 years,”says Sally Ó Dúnlaing, who sings as Ódú. “Some may balk at the idea ofdeeming it ‘pop’ but you can trace the lineage right through to the likes of Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and Tove Lo and loads more.
“Those hook laden melodies and crunchy guitars paired with such uncompromisingly honest lyrics showed younger female artists they could do pop in more than one way and that influence still reverberates today.”
Alanis Morissette plays Live at the Marquee in Cork tonight; and Iveagh Gardens in Dublin on Thursday.