‘Jagged’ Edge : Canadian singer Alanis Morissette, graduating from a cutesy teen sound to raw, insightful lyrics, is raising sexual consciousness on this side of the border. And raising a few eyebrows as well.
As Canada’s version of cutesy teen-star Tiffany, a 16-year-old Alanis Morissette sang of “lucky autumn leaves” and “chilly raindrops.”
Today, the 21-year-old is finally breaking into the United States, but this time around, her style and approach are a little different.
“Are you thinking of me when you [expletive] her?” Morissette seethes on her U.S debut album, “Jagged Little Pill.”
The singer-songwriter’s approach has done more than just raise eyebrows. Since she signed to the Madonna-owned Maverick Records early this year, Morissette has emerged as a populist answer to less accessible abrasive artists such as Courtney Love and Liz Phair, while providing a more edgy alternative to the more digestible Melissa Etheridge.
Morissette’s vocals and music are palatable and familiar enough to appeal to the mainstream, while her lyrics are raw enough to jolt listeners and hit a deeper chord.
“I never considered myself to be a very radical kind of person,” Morissette says over lunch in a Sherman Oaks restaurant. “That’s why the response is a little overwhelming. People are saying to me, ‘You’re saying things no one’s ever said,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Am I really?’ I’m not doing anything that isn’t just human.”
Morissette’s lyrics--ranging from tales of how her youth was stolen to studies of jealousy to snippets of guarded optimism--seem a direct reaction to the shiny, happy facade of her past. Besides being a teen pop star, she was a busy actress who became semi-regular on Nickelodeon’s “You Can’t Do That on TV.”
The pressure and expectations generated by both of those roles fuel her frank lyrics: “You took me for a child / You pat me on the head / You took me out to wine, dine, [expletive] me /But didn’t hear a damn word I said,” she sings in “Right Through You.”
The claustrophobic, self-addressed lyrics of “Perfect” also reveal the source of much of her anger: “If you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love / Don’t forget to win first place / Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face.”
“I think my personality has always been predominantly positive, which is cool and part of me,” says Morissette, “but I think I also denied myself a whole spectrum of emotions. I did not really accept myself as three-dimensional. I guess now I’m making up for it.”
But Morissette is not on a mission to shock with her music. She wrote most of her songs off-the-cuff, drawing from what was inside her, and recorded them before she even had a record deal. Still, the singer is bound to be labeled as controversial simply because she’s smart and straightforward.
“I think my lyrics do scare some people, particularly those who knew me when I was younger,” says Morissette, whose fading freckles and alert, round eyes make her look just under voting age. “Back then, I was a lot more worried about people’s perception of me. I wanted their approval, so I always came across happy. I repressed a lot of stuff. So when they finally heard this more honest part of me, I think they were like ‘Yikes!’ ”
Dressed in cuffed purple polyester pants of ‘70s vintage, an oversize, sparkly black shirt and green suede tennis shoes, Morissette looks more comfortably unassuming than confrontational. She is open in conversation and jokes often at her own expense. She even admits to one of her favorite pastimes: eavesdropping.
“I just overheard these two women talking,” she says, indicating two conservative-looking women in their mid-30s at a nearby table. “One was talking about her boyfriend and she said, ‘Yeah, that Alanis Morissette song really hits the nail on the head!’ ” Morissette smiles in amazement. “God, that’s so weird.”
Though this new popularity at times mystifies Morissette, she does have some theories on the underlying reasons for the response, which has quickly pushed her album to No. 10 on the national sales chart.
“I think for the most part people are just happy to hear that I’m being honest,” she says, blowing her long, brown bangs out of her eyes. “In a roundabout way, when I’m being vulnerable and honest, it’s enabling them to be like that too. A lot of people listen to the record and maybe they think I’m interesting, but it gives them more of an opportunity to look at themselves. So in the end, it’s not really even about me.”
Music business veteran Glen Ballard, who co-wrote and produced Morissette’s album, concurs.
“It’s a highly personal record, and I think any time you address something really personally and honest it has a resonance for people in a universal way,” he says in a separate interview. “I think the function of any artist is to take personal experience and share it with people so they can in turn relate to it their own way.
“I think her truth is what has attracted people. I think there’s a great hunger for something real out there in this culture, and Alanis is entertaining, but she also has something else attached to it.”
Morissette grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, with two brothers--one a twin, one older. Her Hungarian immigrant mother, a teacher, and her French Canadian father, a high school principal, found teaching jobs in West Germany when Morissette was 6 and moved the family before returning three years later.
It was then that she began writing songs. With her earnings from acting, she put together a label called LaMore Records and released a single at age 10, then signed to MCA in Canada when she was 14 and released two albums.
“I don’t know why I was so focused,” she says. “I think part was ambition and part was to prove something. I found something I could do that a lot of people wanted me to do. Anything to feel like a good girl. I was a smart kid at school, and excelling in show biz got thumbs up across the board--from teachers to grandma, except for my schoolmates.”
Morissette moved to Toronto for a couple of years before she decided she needed a faster pace. When she arrived in Los Angeles last year she was promptly greeted by a Hollywood mugger.
“This city has helped me become angrier,” Morissette says. “It’s helped me realize it’s OK to be a little cynical, and it’s OK to be assertive at the temporary expense of someone else in order to keep your self-respect. It’s sort of a bittersweet thing really: There’s a lot of darkness here, but it’s also made me stronger.”
Regardless of her attraction to the flashier aspects of L.A., Morissette has chosen to shun its obsession with vanity and keep a low profile. Though the video for “You Oughta Know” is now played frequently on MTV, her image in it is muddy, her face strategically obscured. It made radio deejays wonder whether she was “a dog or not,” to use her phrasing, and that’s the way Morissette likes it.
“The footage is a lot fuzzier than I thought it would be,” she says, “so when I saw that you couldn’t really see me, I was like ‘We don’t need to re-shoot this, this is great!’
“What I have to say is far more important than how long my eyelashes are,” she says. “I know what it feels like to have that be the priority, though, because I was in a position where it was all about my cleavage and look. I couldn’t have been more frustrated. It fits that whole view of what society expects of us, particularly of women, and I hate to be a part of that.”
While Morissette does her best to avoid that kind of exposure, she also works hard at balancing the effects of her new status as a strong personality in rock.
“In many ways, it’s better for me to be ignorant. I don’t need to know if I’m climbing up the charts. I really just do what I feel. The good thing about the response, though, is that I don’t have to feel alone in what I think.”
That sense of connection has kept Morissette feeling comfortable with revealing her more vulnerable side.
“Ironically, I think the more you open up, the less it has power over you,” she says. “I think there’s strength in being vulnerable, because at that point you can’t go anywhere. It’s the truth, and people may not agree with it or may not want to hear it, because it evokes some sad emotion in them, but it’s a really peaceful place for me to be.”
Morissette pauses to reflect on exactly where her career has brought her during the past 15 years. Some of the memories are embarrassing and some are laughable, but for the most part she seems content with where she’s been.
“I never regret anything I do. It’s all part of who I am now, and I like who I am now. I know if I took out any of those links in the chain, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”