Saving the World; from Angst to Detachment
Where were you the first time you heard Alanis Morissette belt out a song? I was doing laundry and watching MTV, innocently enough, when the unnerving, wailing sounds of “You Oughta Know” stopped me in my tracks. I dropped the hamper and froze in place; my young son wondered what had just happened to Mommy. How do you explain to a kid that you’re experiencing a defining moment, where a stranger—some “Alanis” person from Canada—is putting into words the most raw, frank account of heartbreak you’ve ever heard expressed in polite society? Is it legal, this kind of rage? I mean, most of us have been there, but no one’s ever summed it up quite like this—the extreme nature of love and hate, so intimately tied and unbearingly difficult to reconcile. Who invited this chick—God I’m glad they did—to slam her way into my living room and teach me more about expressing my anger in mere minutes than the collective dutiful, grin-and-bear it generations of women who preceded me?
Eleven years later, I’m having tea with Alanis at a Zen restaurant, her choice, in Brentwood. “You sold 30 million albums with Jagged Little Pill,” I say. She nods her head in agreement. “Did that break a world record?”
“I think so!” she says, her characteristic wide grin and alert eyes holding mine. She’s beautifully attired in a form fitting black dress, high boots, and blow-dried locks. Her glamour-girl chic is far from the more Rapunzel-tressed raging hippie chick look she sported while touring for her first album.
“I look more cared for these days,” she laughs. “On the Jagged Little Pill tour all I had was greasy hair the whole time.” Alanis seems lighter in other ways too; bubbling over with affection, easy laughter, all-around good juju—not appearing to harbor even an ounce of the angst she was once so famous for. JLP garnered six Grammy nominations, 4 wins, and became one of the best-selling albums of all time, but the last few years have found our songstress sitting cross-legged, pen in hand, quietly taking notes at self-help seminars as often as she sits down to compose with her guitar.
The more private and subdued path of inner spiritual healing has been a determined one; make no mistake—demanding that Alanis tap into the same wellspring of commitment that made her a global phenomenon. “I had done the conquer-the-world thing,” she says, “but it felt even more important to attend to my inner world.”
“A no less courageous path,” I say, and we laugh at the fantasy idea of going inward and floating on a peaceful cloud somewhere. “They don’t call it the ‘dark night of the soul’ for nothing,” she says.
“Still, you couldn’t possibly be as high maintenance as your songs would make us believe,” I venture, secretly straining to catch but a flicker of the chaos and torment she so freely expresses in songs like “Everything,” “Hands Clean,” and “Eight Easy Steps.”
“But we are all high maintenance according to some people,” she answers. “I’m pretty low maintenance overall, but in any of the songs that I write, I always write both sides.”
“I do that too in my writing,” I say, “because it’s far more interesting to be self-deprecating, but I’m on to your secret.”
“What secret is that?” she asks, seeming to enjoy the sparring. “That you’re not all that jacked up after all!” I say.
“But that’s not a secret!” she answers. “If I can distill it in a couple of sentences, it would be that when everything’s neutral and the words ‘asshole’ and ‘sweetheart’ are all okay, our natural state is really loving and adoring. I think when you’re neutral you can access that which you actually are, which is love. When you say that you’re on to me, I think what you’re on to is that being a bitch and being sweet is all fun, and when they’re both allowed—when we can laugh and be honest about our human frailties and everything’s on equal footing—loving behavior is automatic. It’s when emotions aren’t allowed that things get off kilter and we start disallowing and disowning parts of ourselves and our asshole nature starts to take over.”
“So, what you’re saying,” I hazard a guess, “is that at our essence, we’re all souls, and souls are benevolent and loving?”
“Exactly!” Alanis grins, sipping her tea. I’m not sure that either of us makes sense at this point, but am reminded of her mega-hit “Thank You”. Despite that Alanis boldly thanked the odd combo of terror, disillusionment, frailty, consequence, and silence, people seemed to relate.
“If you think of it,” I continue, “it’s funny that you’ve gone off to do all this self-help work because, really, you were the face of self-help when you arrived on the scene.” Alanis shakes off the compliment, but can’t altogether deny my reasoning: Instead of buying books on silencing one’s insecurities or paying expensive therapist bills, legions of fans just cranked up the volume on their stereos and sang/screamed it out in the car. Sure, some got tripped up on the rage, replaying key passages countless times because how fun is that?—Screw him. Who did this to her? That asshole!—but subsequent songs (like “Ironic,” “You Learn,” and “Head Over Feet”) and albums later, detachment, even peace ensued. Our “Angry White Female” (an Alanis Rolling Stone cover title) was our generation’s emotional guru, and I’m willing to wager that a decade later, we’re all a bit more Zen-like for it.
It’s only natural, then, that this force of nature would go from healing our psyches to healing the planet. She and Keanu Reeves recently narrated a smart environmental film, The Great Warming, about which Laura Kern of The New York Times writes “… should be required viewing by all,” offering environmental education and examples for green living. But am I the only one who sees the parallel here—that Earth Mother Alanis, and Earth Mother terra firma, both pack a helluva wallop?
“We filmed a version of The Great Warming actually before Katrina, where we predicted the whole thing in great detail—what would happen if the levees broke. It all happened right before our eyes, just as we had outlined. We had to make a whole other version of the film after that.”
“Did doing the narration make you paranoid about humanity’s future?”
“Well, I certainly learned more about the dangers of what’s happening on a global scale. But I’ve gone through stages. At the end of the day, I’ve had to learn to let the doomsday stress go and just trust. In making the film I appreciated that they didn’t want to focus too much on what’s wrong with the planet, but more on what we can do pro-actively. It’s counterintuitive to focus so much on what’s wrong.”
“When I was young I used to think that if I didn’t work to save the world, it might not happen,” I admit. “How crazy is that?”
“I so get that,” Alanis reveals. “I almost worked myself into the ground with activism and charity work. Activism, activism, activism. I almost fell down. I had to stop for a long time and say, ‘You know what? Let so-and-so do it, they’re really inspiring, let them handle it.’ Nowadays I’m back to fighting the good fight, but more quietly, and under the radar.”
“When you look back on your life,” I say, shifting gears, “what do you think are the two stand-out miracles?”
Suspicious of Stardom
“Easy,” she answers. “The first was becoming disillusioned with fame. That was an awesome gift! A pivotal, important piece for the personal evolution of my consciousness. Probably the most important piece. I knew it was coming, too.” “You could feel it?” I ask. “What were the warning signs?” “As a Canadian, maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I knew to watch myself. It was clear to me that fame was an external thing. I remember feeling that if I were grounded before something crazy like fame happened, I’d probably become even more grounded. It’s when you don’t have much of a foundation that everything can be blown apart, really.”
“How old were you when you knew you’d be famous?”
“I could sense that was in store for me even as far back as five or six years old. I didn’t see the form of the outcome, but I felt the essence of it, and I could tell that it was aligned. I wrote my first song when I was nine, and knew that that was somehow connected to me being here to comfort and validate and uplift humanity. I was always so connected to life and to spirits, and the whole artistic process was just something I bowed down to.”
“Fame and creativity are two different animals,” I offer.
“Yes. I smelled a little bit of a rat in terms of the happiness that fame was purported to give you. ‘I don’t know about that,’ I’d think when the TV or magazines made it sound like the answer. ‘Sounds fishy.’ But that didn’t mean I didn’t get somewhat caught up when it happened to me, even though I knew ahead of time there was going to be a nice little crash.”
“Your song, “That I Would Be Good” is about that very thing, isn’t it—about being loved no matter if you get the thumbs down, get sick, gain 10 pounds, or go bankrupt? It always makes me cry. Did you write that after getting caught up in the trappings of fame?”
“Right around that time. I still cry when I sing that song because isn’t that what we all want—to be loved and grateful for ourselves no matter what? Gratitude is a moving emotion. I was at a lecture that Byron Katiewas giving recently, and she played that song at the end of the day, and invited me up on stage to sit with her. She put her arms around me and I was barely holding it together. I was about to lose my shit. It was a very spiritual, full-circle moment.”
“Would you mind going back in time,” I ask, “back to the year you first swept at the Grammys? I’m sure you’ve spoken about this a million times and I’m sorry if you’re sick of the topic, but—”
“No, I haven’t talked about it in a long time,” Alanis says, her face reflecting genuine interest. “It was a great but complicated time because I had a lot of inner conflict. On the one hand, I had been insulated, making this magical little record with my producer, with no one expecting it to sell more than 250,000 copies. The whole thing was a dream in terms of how the process went. Then, the dream came true when the record was finished.”
“Didn’t you just write and record the pieces right there, rarely laying down more than one or two tracks?”
“True. It was so organic,” she reflects. “That’s how I felt working with my publisher on my first book. In the beginning, when it’s just about the possibility and the collaboration—before money or sales numbers or reviews get you trapped in your head—creativity is so pure.”
Keepin’ it Real
“That’s exactly right! And you want to share your collaboration with as many people as possible, but when I was winning awards I was really conflicted because so much of that award winning time was seemingly all about the ego. People would say, ‘Just shut up and appreciate the fact that you’re being recognized.’ I would say, ‘But if I was actually just being recognized, why is all this other stuff going on that doesn’t seem to be about the recognition? It’s so self-congratulatory and seemed to be all centered around self-promotion.'”
“Do you think you were an egomaniac? Or did that process inspire the birth of that within you?”
“Well, it’s always there, isn’t it? Just like little sleeping cats. You step on my tail; I come to life!” Alanis pauses. “You wanted two miracles, right?”
“Yep,” I answer, “but I bet I know what the second one is,” I say, the know-it-all interviewer. “It’s your voice, right? It’s got to be the most enjoyable thing in the world to be able to sing like you do!”
“It is,” she answers, “but that’s not where I go when thinking of miracles.”
“Huh? We non-singers can only dream.”
“Sure,” she says. “It’s the law of women with curly hair that want straight hair and women with straight hair who want curly hair. I see my singing voice as a great gift from God. I’m so humbled by it. I can’t even believe I have it. I’m so grateful.”
“And?” I ask, “What’s the catch?” I’m wracking my brain trying to imagine what could surpass the act of opening her mouth and creating those sounds (not to mention making a fortune doing so—hello?). “It’s only one tentacle of many forms of expression that moves me,” she says. “It happens to be the one that I’m most well known for, as a singer-songwriter. It makes sense why people would think that’s my ultimate, but it’s only one of all kinds of forms of creativity that speak to me—from acting, writing, screenwriting, photography, directing, producing, etc.”
“Hmmm. How do you see your singing, then?” I ask.
“I think of it more in terms of it being a catalyst than a miracle. Miracles to me are on the order of the talent of authors and transformational seminar leaders like Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), Harville Hendrix (Getting the Love You Want), Alison Armstrong (Keys to the Kingdom), Debbie Ford (Dark Side of the Light Chasers) and Byron Katie. There are so many of these inspired teachers. All of them are embodied miracles to me.”
I can’t disagree with the aforementioned talents—especially not with Ms. Armstrong, one of my personal faves, but come on—talk about fishy. This humility, coming from a gal whose work has probably touched more millions than the combined work of everyone she’s just mentioned? “The second and most real miracle to me is that I have the time and the ability to do that inner work, and that these people are the teachers. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about making a living if I don’t want to. I can just work on me.” “A lot of people don’t have that luxury,” I say. “Yes, I know,” she replies. “I think of my predecessors, and the perfect design of the way I was raised to put me in a devout Roman Catholic home where my role was to try to understand the chaos. Talk about miracles! If I hadn’t had my difficult childhood, I don’t know if I would have been pulled to understand the human condition in the way that I’ve always been obsessed about doing.”
“Many people have substantiated that it’s not necessary to have a peaceful, happy childhood in order to succeed. I’m guessing you’d agree with that?”
“Yes! In fact, a troubled or challenging early life might actually be a prerequisite for any kind of enlightenment. I don’t know, but what I do know is that so many gifts have come from the pain of my past. Through Debbie Ford’s shadow work, I learned that it’s through working with the shadow part of ourselves that those challenging things pull us toward becoming who we are today.”
Gratitude. That’s the perfect word to summarize my feelings about breaking bread with my musical idol, sensing my good fortune in catching her in an unusually quiet moment in time. In the few months since our interview, Alanis’ life has indeed changed significantly. She and her boyfriend of several years, actor Ryan Reynolds, have split. Alanis wrote 23 songs in three weeks and has been recording them in London while acting in the theatrical role of a death-row survivor in The Exonerated, all the while writing her first book, and releasing a genius satire of Fergie’s My Humps video on-line (check www.YouTube.com) sparking massive press and Alanis fever of the viral kind.
For her many diehard fans, it’s welcome news that a new album’s in the works. And for those of us still fantasizing about saving the world—with all due respect to those peace-inducing, self-help seminars—we can’t help but hope that those songs reveal that our Earth Mama Alanis still packs one helluva wallop.