For Alanis Morrisette, anger is an energy

Alanis Morissette, celebrating 25 years since Jagged Litle Pill, talks to Ken Lexington on self-medication, love addiction, anxiety, depression and anger as an important lifeforce
For Alanis Morrisette, anger is an energy
Alanis Morissette in concert; her ‘Jagged little Pill’ album is now a musical and instead of ‘monologically performing it’ she is now able to receive it. Picture: Zak Hussein/PA
Alanis Morissette in concert; her ‘Jagged little Pill’ album is now a musical and instead of ‘monologically performing it’ she is now able to receive it. Picture: Zak Hussein/PA

Alanis Morissette, celebrating 25 years since Jagged Litle Pill, talks to Ken Lexington on self-medication, love addiction, anxiety, depression and anger as an important lifeforce

So firstly Alanis, did you have any reasons to drink today?

Alanis Morissette: Yep [laughs] just the sleeplessness, for me. Because jet lag with three kids. Basically, I haven’t slept in six days.

But that’s fun too! Yeah, the stress is high. This time.. well, all three children had postpartum activity, I call it.

So the first two were postpartum depression, like really challenging and then this one it’s postpartum anxiety. So medication is very helpful. [laughs] But a lot of reasons to reach for self-medication.

What is your choice of self-medication?

AM: It’s a long list. Food. Sometimes alcohol. Work addiction is my number one.

I am a recovering love addict, like I married an appropriate person, you know, we’re like any couple we have our own challenges but it’s much more functional than what I had been doing before.

You say recovering love addict?

AM: Yeah, I’d like to say recovered but anyone who says that is an asshole [laughs].

You know, I’m always recovering from developing still. I’m really obsessed with developmentalism, like how to take it from birth to give the opportunity for attachment, like we’re an attachment family, I’m an attachment mom.

So I always think about little pieces like if people missed it as a kid, there’s going to be some loneliness or some pain or some part of our selves, some blind spot. And then if there is suffering because of that in our lives, it makes sense.

Like how I see addiction, I think it warrants more empathy. I think people are seeking relief from stress or pain or suffering. So I feel saddened when I see addicts being judged. We’re just trying to keep it together! [laughs]

But love addiction can be a positive thing?

AM: No, it’s the most intensive withdrawal of all. You know, I haven’t had withdrawal from heroin or any of those but love addiction withdrawal is deeply, deeply painful. And there’s like ten other ones... [laughs]

You’re celebrating your tenth wedding anniversary this year?

AM: Yeah, I can’t believe it, so there’s that.

You’re surprised?

AM: I can’t believe ten years have gone by but all the relationships I’ve had that ended, I would say that I was committed to doing the work. And sometimes when we’d start having conflicts I would see that as the beginning of being really honest.

And conflict is growth trying to happen and they would say, ‘Oh no, we’re fighting too much we should end it.’ And I’d be like, ‘So you think it’s the end and I think it’s the beginning.’ [laughs] There you go. That’s why we’re not together.

So now with your husband you are very much on the same page when it comes to conflict?

AM: Yeah. We’re human but we don’t see it as ‘This means we’re done’. It just means we’re going to need to talk more.

Who is the bigger talker?

AM: I’m more of a wordy person but he’s quick to extend the olive branch. There’s a song [on the album] ‘Missing The Miracle’ and in the verses I talk about... he’s the one that just keeps knocking, you know, ‘Let me in, let me in.’

And you usually do?

AM: Yeah. I always do. I have to. And then the only way I could be attachment mom and career express activist, I couldn’t have a partner that wouldn’t support that. It’s the only way we can do it.

You mentioned postpartum anxiety – how would you define that?

AM: Yeah so postpartum depression is either really heavy depression or anxiety or both. The first two were depression heavy, this one is just anxiety heavy.

A lot of invasive thoughts or pictures of harm or death. So medication helps and it kind of goes away. A lot of thoughts that are highly ruminating thoughts versus helpful ones.

Thoughts that just aren’t true and they just go pfff. But now, with enough experience now I can at least go, ‘Oh’.

Do you see when it’s coming?

AM: Mmm. I can just tell. It’s a combination of bio-chemical hormonal, cognitive too, so CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] helps a lot of people, yeah and postpartum has been a quite misunderstood period of time. The perception is that moms or dads are all happy.

And that’s true and there’s no love like it but there’s so many more aspects to it. And a lot of people think, ‘Oh you just need to sleep.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, if it was just sleep there would be no postpartum depression, we would just sleep.’

In a couple of songs ‘diagnosis’ and ‘losing the plot’ – you speak about mental illness and meditation?

AM: Yes and I think the more sensitive we are, like I think of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, I think of the higher sensitivity that we have temperamentally and the more we benefit from support, whether it be therapy or that kind of support is really important because we’re really sensitive to everything, to energy, I can be highly empathic. So it’s a sacred trait, you know, and it makes for great art and music and philosophy – but it can be hard on the body.

The songs on the new album 'Such Pretty Little Folks' are very beautiful?

AM: Thank you.

What state of mind were you in when you wrote them? like ‘Diagnosis’, for example?

AM: For ‘Diagnosis’ I was in it very deeply. And in Hollywood, I lived there for 25 years and we just moved to the Bay Area a year ago, so my whole value system for my kids, you know, I can withstand the Hollywood ‘you gotta be famous, you gotta look 19 forever and you’ve got to be a billionaire’.

It used to be a millionaire, now you’ve got to be a billionaire.

So I just wanted to bring my kids somewhere else, where the value system was about relationships and community. So that was a big juncture, a big turning point to go up there. What was the question?

About your state of mind when you wrote the songs?

AM: Oh yeah. I was in it during ‘Diagnosis’ for sure and ‘Losing the Plot’.

Being a woman over 26 in Hollywood, there are really patriarchal messages sent to you that they’re done with you in some way, so that’s why I had to write ‘Losing the Plot’.

But interestingly enough every time I’ve had postpartum depression I’ve always felt better than ever after. So I look forward to that.

Coming out strong?

AM: Yeah and so resilient. There’s a deep wisdom and a self- definition that can happen, you know? So I really feel that.

In ‘Losing the Plot’ you say, ‘the light at the end of the tunnel is a train at a 100 miles per hour’?

AM: Yes. Well that, in the moment, you know, thinking like, ‘Oh I feel better’, you know, in the middle of it. It’s like, ‘Oh I’m done’ then it’s like, ‘No, you’re not.’ I mean some women say postpartum is the rest of their lives and for me, so far it’s been about two years, maybe three.

So if it gets better every time are you ready for a fourth?

AM: Er no. I think I’m done [laughs]. You know, in a parallel universe I’d have ten kids and adopt another ten. Definitely somewhere in the recesses of my unconscious I want to have 20 children.

But this particular one, I think I’m done because my career means so much. If I was willing to do mom full-time, I am doing mom full-time, but it’s just maths. Only 24 hours in a day.

So you moved to the bay area in San Francisco?

AM: Yes, it’s East Bay so by Berkeley.

There must be plenty of billionaires there with the tech world?

AM: Now there is. Yeah, it’s a lot more conservative than I thought. I had this romanticised visions of Haight-Ashbury in the ‘70s.

And it’s a lot less of that than I thought but my best friends are all up there and there’s part of me that’s really academic and I have all my therapist friends, a lot of them live up there. And I love villagefullness.

So if I’m sitting at home and people drop by for soup... in LA people don’t really do that so much unless you live next door to each other. So I was missing friendship.

So it’s more communal?

AM: Yeah so someone will swing by with a smoothie and then in 20 minutes it’s like, ‘I gotta go.’ And then they come back the next day for breakfast. That’s my dream.

Do you kids know what mommy does for a living?

AM: Onyx is starting to slowly understand. My son Ever pretty much totally gets it and sometimes he’s charmed by it and other times it isn’t even on his radar, he doesn’t care.

But they both, Onyx and Ever have really beautiful voices so... I don’t say anything about it other than, ‘You have a really beautiful voice.’ But I’ll hear him.

The other day he was in the shower in the morning and I just heard him outside the bathroom and he was singing, ‘Smiling’ and hitting all the notes and I was like, ‘Oh sweet boy.’

You can’t have been that much older than ever when you first startéd in the business?

AM: Right. That’s right. It was actually right around now. Kids know what they love from a very early age. Like I gave my iPhone to my daughter so she could take photos the other night and she handed it back to me and I looked at it and they are amazing, the composition is mind-boggling to me and Ever did the same thing.

So I just think kids, if you ask them, ‘What do you love?’ They’ll tell you and they know from really early on. I knew, I knew when I was three what I wanted to do.

So your life turned out perfectly how you wanted it?

AM: Yeah it did. And it’s a lot. In the ‘90s it was very much about, you know, pick one thing, you’re either a rock star or you’re an academic, or you’re a mom, like just pick one.

Alanis Morissette in concert at Brixton Academy in south London. Photo: Zak Hussein/PA Wire
Alanis Morissette in concert at Brixton Academy in south London. Photo: Zak Hussein/PA Wire

Whereas now in 2020, I feel like there’s a great invitation to be everything.

And the challenge becomes how to manage time and energy.

So this is a good era to be in for the multi-hyphenated people. I used to have a shame about and being judged for it, now I’m being praised for it, which is interesting. Same person.

People always praised and loved you before for what you did?

AM: Yeah but I’m just talking about the industry itself, you know, I remember I wanted to dance for the video ‘So Pure’ that I directed, I wanted to dance in it.

And I remember the record company saying, ‘This is a career suicide choice for you.’ And I was like, ‘Woah, I’m just dancing. Relax’ [laughs]

You write songs to figure yourself out don’t you?

AM: Yeah. Very self-defining. Also, when I write them I write them for clarity for me. But when I share them, I give them away, like, ‘This is yours to interpret, you don’t have to share the same interpretation that I do.’

And oftentimes people don’t, you know, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Oh this one really helped me through my friend’s suicide or my dad’s death’. And I’ll just be like, ‘So glad these songs could support you.’

Does life get less complicated, less disturbing as you get older as you gain life experience?

AM: Yeah. There’s more activity but yeah, there’s more resilience, there’s more fortitude for me.

There’s less reactivity. For me the challenge is that there’s just so much at any given time to just... I can do it though, I can focus [laughs], I have the capacity.

So more resilience means?

AM: More resilience meaning less reactivity instead of the highs being crazy highs and crazy low, it’s just more.. in some trauma recovery circles they call it the window of tolerance.

So tolerating dysregulation or panic attacks ... instead of having full-blown panic attacks, postpartum depression aside, in general, just less panic attacks, less depression, just more... I know how to get back on track more quickly. I can hold things that are intense a lot more steadfastly.

As a mom, it’s really powerful to be able to sit in the room when one of my children is having a sad moment or an angry moment.

I get to just hold it, instead of saying ‘Stop’ or ‘Turn that off’ or sublimate, I get to be like, ‘Tell me more’, ‘Don’t throw that – but I love your anger!’ [laughs]

Would you say you are a relaxed or a strict mom?

AM: I am very aware that I’m like a guide and that I’m here to protect them. I want to give them... every stage of development, like attachment is about eye contact and constancy and responsivity for me.

Second one, really explore, it’s about creating safety and freedom.

So you might put a pillow here but still let them run. And then the third one is the identity one, which I had the biggest challenge with, where you can mirror like, ‘Wow, your brain worked really quickly there’ or ‘You have great reflexes, did you see how you caught yourself?’ Just really a lot of words so that the identity can be built.

And then the fourth one is the confidence one, like, ‘You can do it.’

So I feel like my childhood, the mirroring ones and the sense of self... and that’s how songwriting and journaling has been therapy, has been really powerful, because I haven’t always been able to gain objectivity on what the heck this is. [laughs]

Do your kids go to school or homeschool?

AM: It’s called unschooling. We loosely base it on, I did a podcast with him, Howard Gardner, he has a theory of multiple intelligences.

There were seven and he added two more and then I audaciously asked if I could add a few more and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s.’

But we just kind of keep our eye on that. Sometimes it’s maths, sometimes it’s painting, sometimes it’s philosophy, research. It’s 24/7, there’s no like, ‘From 1-3’, it’s just all the time.

You sing, ‘change, you’re my nemesis’ but with so much change going on in your life do you embrace it and fight it at the same time?

AM: Yeah, change is hard for the more sensitive of us.

You know, and the psychotherapeutic way to deal with it, even with a baby is you make sure they have their teddy bear, their object constancies and continuity. So change, you know, moving from LA after 25 years, I was in my house for 22 years.

Saying goodbye to that was profoundly grief-filled. And we were in Malibu when the fires happened.

There was so much change going on when I wrote ‘Nemesis’.

So I was just reflecting on all the big junctures. So that’s why I called it ‘Such Pretty Forks in the Road’, all the junctures of change, I hate change, but I also love it.

‘Such pretty forks in the road’ is a line from the track ‘Smiling’ - is this a saying?

AM: It’s not, I mean ‘forks in the road’ is a saying but maybe there are different ways of looking at it but there’s so many junctures every day.

Everything from what to eat, to how to spend time, to yes or no, to styles of teaching kids - so many junctures and forks. Millions.

Do you cook for yourself or do you have somebody?

AM: Yeah. There’s so many things I’m like, in a parallel universe I would be that homemaker. I used to be. I used to cook and I love cleaning my house but we have a village, we have to.

So a lot of my energy goes into making sure that everyone is taken care of and that they are feeling in their own leadership and that we’re all contributing. But I could not do career and attachment parenting and home schooling without the village.

‘Reasons I Drink’ is probably the most angry song on your new record?

AM: Yeah, I mean I think depression and anger are linked.

If we’re expressing anger we’re not depressed, it’s like a few steps up from depression.

So even ‘Diagnosis’ and some of these songs, it was like sometimes if someone is really depressed, one way to kind of invite them to take a baby step out is to say, ‘Tell me everything you’re angry about.’ It gets the energy moving.

Is anger a positive thing then?

AM: Yeah for me. I love it. I think a lot of people when they hear about anger, they think of the destructive acting out of it, you know, punching, killing people.

But the lifeforce, the movement of energy of anger, it helps me set boundaries, it helps me do activism, it helps me speak to congress, it helps me say no, it helps me be momma bear, protective.

Young people are really angry these days, if you look at Greta Thunberg?

AM: Yeah well, there’s a lot to be angry about.

What do you think of her?

AM: I love it. I love seeing beautifully-channelled anger, it’s a sight to behold. It’s the greatest.

So activism, she’s great example of that. And there is so much to be angry about it feels appropriate. I think anyone I’ve spoken to, and it’s really rare, but when someone says, ‘I’m never angry.’

I’m like, ‘Well then you’re lying.’ [laughs] And equally when someone would say, ‘You used to be so angry and now you’re not’, I’m like, ‘Wait...’ [laughs] As I get older anger is transmuted into setting better boundaries and writing art and even taking photos sometimes.

It can be fuelled by the great life forces that create art and move worlds – love, anger and I think sometimes grief too. Fear. Fear can move worlds, sometimes not always in the best direction.

Do you think elements like anger and fear make the album come alive?

AM: I think so. I think as a young female, the three feelings that I was told I couldn’t feel were anger, for sure, sadness and fear.

So people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so brave.’ And I’m like, ‘Inside I’m terrified [laughs] But I do the action of bravery’.

And same with ‘Smiling’ is about feeling all these feelings but really the only permissible, especially as a Canadian, as a young female who is sensitive, it’s like if I smiled everyone would calm down.

Fear, anger and sadness. So grief is a big one, grief, loneliness, we do a lot of things as humans to try and get away from those sensations in our bodies. They’re not pleasant.

Years before #metoo happened, you were all about that with your music?

AM: Yes.

How do you feel about what has been happening over the last couple of years?

AM: I’m excited about how it’s becoming more embraced.

One pet peeve, I have a million pet peeves, but one of my pet peeves is when someone says, ‘Why did she wait so long?’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, first of all, she didn’t, she was told that she’d lose her job, she went to HR and she was told...’ you know, I wrote ‘Hands Clean’ and no one noticed until 15 years later - the sensitive thoughtful ones did.

It’s a huge step for society?

AM: Yeah. It’s a consciousness, you know? So we have a technological evolution that’s going really fast and our conscious evolution is a little slower.

And the pendulum swings, politically or otherwise, it just keeps swinging back and forth and five steps forward, three steps back. But at least we’re moving in this direction, in theory.

What is it like in your marriage? Is there a tug of war, an equality?

AM: Well he’s an interesting man, I love him so much, his mom had two full-time jobs when he was tiny – pros and cons to that. And his dad was at home.

So he doesn’t think any of this is unusual. And sometimes even some of the challenges in the feminist movement he’ll go, ‘Huh?’ ‘Jagged Little Pill’ partnered with a charity that supports men and I got him a sweater from them that said, ‘Let Boys Cry’ and he put it on, it was the sweetest moment, he put it on and read it and said, ‘I don’t understand this.’

I started to weep I was like, ‘I’m so happy you don’t understand this’. And so he grew up with a mom... and so nothing I’m doing is unusual, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have power struggles and conflicts - every day!

Finally, how do you feel about ‘Jagged Little Pill’ turning 25? those songs changed so many people’s lives and the music industry?

AM: Yeah. I’m glad that I can still sing these songs with conviction, which to me says that the value system has remained the same.

The only song that I would update would be ‘Not The Doctor’ because that was during a time where I was dating and I was like, ‘You’re you and I’m me’ and now that I have been married for almost ten years it’s like, ‘Oh no, we actually have to help each other.’

Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morrisette's third album, was released in 1995
Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morrisette's third album, was released in 1995

So there’s some insight there. But the rest of the songs, I feel like their value system has remained kind of continuity-filled. So that’s convenient because I can still sing it and love these songs so much.

Is it hard to get your head around making an album that changes history?

AM: I’ve never taken it too personally, like what I mean is, the songs gave, in some way, if I had any objectivity, in some ways just gave people permission to be human and to feel anger, to feel joy, to feel human.

So in some ways I feel like it’s this giant permission-giver.

So that makes sense to me. When I think of it that way, that makes sense that it became such a zeitgeist, women allowing themselves to feel angry – why not?

And now it is a musical too?

AM: Yes, which takes it to a whole other level and I’m able to sit and receive the music for the first time, because I’m always monologically performing it and so to receive it, I’ve just been a sobbing, weeping mess [laughs].

Literally can’t stop crying every time I’m sitting like at rehearsals or watching them, I’m just like heaving [laughs].

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