Life Lessons: A Q&A With Alanis Morissette

Videos by American Songwriter

A wise woman once sang, “You live, you learn.” It’s a mantra that continues to serve Alanis Morrissette well, allowing her to sustain a career long after most of her alterna-rock peers have thrown in the towel. Three weeks before the release of her eighth album, Havoc and Bright Lights, we talked with the singer, songwriter, actress and businesswoman about everything her fans oughta know.

You’ve been on TV this summer. The video for “Guardian” has been getting some airtime, and I stumbled across a few Weeds reruns recently. You were playing a veterinarian, and you were great.

Thanks! That show was really fun. I felt like I was finally required to use my chops.

I was bummed that you didn’t wind up with Andy Botwin.

I know. Me too.

You did marry Mario Treadway, though, and you now have a son together. Does happiness have an effect on your songwriting? Does it make things easier?

I’ve always felt that passion creates things. If I’m passionately pissed off or passionately infatuated or passionately loving something or passionately wanting to be part of a movement or passionately wanting to comment on societal moments, that’s what writes articles. That’s what writes beautiful songs. That’s what paints gorgeous paintings. For me, I’m such a passionate person that I never have to worry about the inspiration going away.

When you were writing these new songs, what sort of passionate things were floating around your head?

I wanted to comment on being an alpha woman in the face of patriarchy, misogyny and chauvinism, and what it’s like to be a woman in 2012. Where we are, where we’re going… that’s all in a song called “Woman Down.” And I wanted to write about wanting to safeguard my son’s safety and freedom at the same time, as well as offering that to my own self. It’s hard not to look at the discrepancy between how loving I am with my son and how hard I can be on myself. Being a mom has really inspired me to be kinder to myself.

 So you didn’t struggle with any writer’s block this time around?

No, I think writer’s block just means you need to be watching a movie or eating a sandwich somewhere. Whenever I feel like, “Oh, nothing’s coming,” I realize I’m probably just supposed to be taking a bath or something.

 Do a lot of your song ideas arrive at inopportune times, like bath time or bedtime?

Yes, and the most inopportune time is usually at night — in the middle of the night. I have an iPhone, pen and paper by my bed. I don’t have any control over where or when the inspiration hits. I’m just a humble servant.

 You’ve already done some touring behind this album. What’s it like to finally play these songs live?

Really great. We’ve been opening the show with “Woman Down,” and… just… oh my god, so awesome. It just sets this gorgeous precedent of “THIS is what we’re gonna be talking about,” and the show moves on from there. The songs, even though they’re taken from different records over the last seventeen years, all feel like perceivably compatible cousins. One song leaves into the next color, the next flavor, the next emotion. It’s like, “Oh, I need a break from that fever pitch, so let’s do a little ballad,” or “That was dark, so let’s get light again!” It’s just navigating the energy. I think that music is color. It’s about painting, and not having the show be all dark purple or all black, you know? It’s gotta have a little primary color action in there, too. But equally, if it was JUST primary colors and everything sounded like “You Learn,” that wouldn’t be fulfilling for the diminished, augmented part of me. So I have a lot of itches that need scratching throughout the whole show, and the setlist winds up being a very interesting journey.

More touring is coming up, too. Any places you’re looking forward to?

Brazil, which is one of my favorite places on the planet. We’ll be touring North America in the fall, and we’re going back to Europe again. Then there are places around the planet that I’ve never been to yet, like Russia and Egypt. I’d love to do shows there. Whether we’re gonna do that or not, I have no idea. But, you know, I’ll talk to my agents and say something, “Ok, I know there’s no stage in Beirut, but we’re gonna build one!” And we did.

 You’re releasing the album through a new label, Collective Sounds. After leaving Maverick, what convinced you to work with another record company?

The new paradigm. For so long, it was 80/20, right? By that, I mean it was 80% for the record company, 20% for the artist, and any squeaky artist that squeaked about the wheel was seen as an ingrate, you know? It was a challenge for a long time. But now, the new model is win/win. It’s a partnership; it’s 50/50. You work with a record company for a limited amount of time and it lasts for one record cycle, which is just less terrifying. Back in the day, signing with a record company felt like you were getting married to a person who said, “Even if I hit you and punch you, you cannot divorce me.” We’re no longer in that climate, thank christ.

It feels like every time you put out a new album, the paradigm has shifted again, and you have to acclimate.

Yeah, but I’d rather do that then think, “I’ve been in an abusive relationship for 14 years, where they breach contract because they know you’ll never fight them about it.” So I’d rather have to do much more work — more heavy lifting — by myself, but have a conscionable, real partnership in front of me.

 Do you actually like the business side of your music career, or do you wish you could focus on the creative side all the time?

I like it. I actually really enjoy using that side of my brain. It can be exhausting, but it’s way more fun now, because of what we just talked about, with things being a partnership. There’s actually some creativity and some real people that I can bandy things about with, as opposed to just fighting all the time.


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