Thirteen years on, it is easy to forget just how much of a phenomenon Alanis Morissette’s first major album, Jagged Little Pill, proved to be — particularly among women. With its immortal lyric, “D’you still think of me when you fuck her?” ringing around the bedrooms of angst-ridden teenagers (and often those of their mothers too), the album became the second-biggest seller of the 1990s. It was assumed that Morissette would go on to write more pithy, angry songs about relationships — instead, she took 18 months off to travel around India with her friends, and returned to record music that even she, at times, has called “amazingly self-indulgent.”
So it is good to see the return of some of that early anger on her new album, Flavors of Entanglement. While writing it, she split up with her longtime fiance, the Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, an aspiring A-lister who is now engaged to Scarlett Johansson. She says that “this album was like a life raft ... . I wanted my own personal story to unfold as it was happening.” As such, it is effectively a breakup album, moving from fury to hedonist escape to hope, and featuring some fantastically barbed lyrics. On the grinding, juddering track Straitjacket, for instance, she castigates her ex-lover, “I don’t know who you are, talking to me with such fucking disrespect,” while on Underneath she sings, “Look at us break our bonds in this kitchen/Look at us rallying our defenses/Look at us waging war in our bedroom.” It is a raw evocation of the loss of someone she had expected to build a life with.
We meet in a hotel in London, and, at 33, Morissette looks rounder and more beautiful than the tomboy I first interviewed back in 1996. On her fifth major album, she feels that she has come full circle. “What’s that line from T.S. Eliot? To arrive at the place where you started, but to know it for the first time. I’m able to write about a breakup from a different place. Same brokenness. Same rock-bottom. But a little more informed, now I’m older. Thank God for growing up,” she adds.
Morissette is more approachable than most well-known artists, and laughingly admits that she has a problem “setting boundaries.” When young women come up to her, as they regularly do, wanting to tell their stories about suicide attempts, divorce, body image and parental death, she can’t bring herself to back away.
It is partly this that has inspired her other current project, a memoir focusing on women’s issues. She is halfway through writing it, and has chapters on themes such as sexuality, beauty, relationships and work. Those themes underline the fact that for years Morissette has struggled with low self-esteem. Growing up in “a chauvinistic, patriarchal environment” in Ontario, with her Hungarian/French-Canadian family, she was an established actor and pop star from an early age, and spent the late 1980s singing bland dance pop from beneath a frosted fringe, feeling as if she was “14 going on 40.” In fact, the pressure was so great that at 16 she became anorexic and bulimic.
One day, a record executive summoned her to the studio and “suggested I was getting too fat, saying, ‘You need to go on a diet.’ My response was, ‘But I’m a singer.’ He said, ‘Yes, well, you need to get small again.’ That started a whole cycle. Two days later I was sticking my fingers down my throat.”