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Enough With the Irony

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The sound of the ocean is so loud on this fall afternoon that Alanis Morissette gets up from the couch and walks across the room of her rented beachfront house to close the sliding glass door.

“I don’t think the tape recorder will be able to pick up my voice over all that noise,” says the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, whose 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” has sold nearly 28 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for best album of the year.

After avoiding the public eye for the past year while she struggled to regain her emotional balance after all the attention and pressure, Morissette could be forgiven for being a little tentative as she sits down for an interview. Yet here she is going out of her way to make sure she’s heard.

Now is that ironic or what?

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Morissette smiles good-naturedly at the question, remembering all the critics who pointed out that the situations outlined in her hit “Ironic” didn’t fit even the most liberal definition of the title word.

Having it rain on your wedding day or getting a free ride when you’ve already paid are, in the words of another songwriter, more like simple twists of fate.

But Morissette put the images together in “Ironic” with a conviction and craft that were typical of the entire “Jagged” album--a collection of tales about youthful anxiety and the search for self-esteem that struck such a strong nerve among pop-rock fans that it has become the biggest-selling album ever by a female artist.

As sales soared in the spring of 1996, Morissette felt the need to draw back. Though she fulfilled concert commitments through the fall of that year, she turned down dozens of interview requests.

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The public reason was that she wanted to avoid a potential backlash. Privately, she was struggling to find some inner peace--relief from the pain that had long accompanied her obsession to succeed, she admits now. How could she deal with questions about her or her future when in some ways she had lost track of who she was?

The search took the better part of a year and resulted in a period of depression so severe that Morissette came to understand how people could think about suicide.

Whether it’s ironic, a simple twist of fate or a personal miracle, Morissette eventually found the tranquillity she writes about in the new album.

Titled “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie” and due Tuesday from Maverick Records, the album is probably the most anticipated release of the year. Radio programmers have already embraced “Thank U,” a deeply moving song from the album.

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In a decade when mainstream pop has been characterized by the timidity of such acts as Hootie & the Blowfish and Matchbox 20, “Infatuation Junkie” is a brave, purposeful work. The album’s highlights look at life’s challenges and rewards with the primal-scream intensity and honesty of John Lennon’s classic “Plastic Ono Band.”

About her own struggle of the last year and a half, Morissette says, “Sure, I thought that fame and success would solve your problems, that there would be a sense of peace or self-esteem raised by having all this external success.

“So the question became, ‘If not this, then what can make me feel connected?’ . . . That’s what all those months were about for me. I went and searched for it. . . . I looked for it in other people, in a different culture. I went to India. . . . But the conclusion I came to is we don’t have to go anywhere.

“We just have to stop and find the answer inside ourselves . . . in our own divinity. And that was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life, because from as early as I can remember, I had never stopped. I had always been running after something.”

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*

If you are a Morissette fan, you shouldn’t have much trouble coming up with some lucky Lotto numbers.

* There’s 10--her age when the precocious Ottawa native landed a recurring role in the Nickelodeon cable channel kid series “You Can’t Do That on Television.”

* There’s 14--when she showed so much promise as a songwriter that MCA signed her to a publishing deal.

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* There’s 16--when she released her hit debut album, titled “Alanis” in Canada.

* There’s 20--her age when she wrote the songs for “Jagged Little Pill.”

* But maybe the most dramatic number is 45--the number of seconds of her music that Guy Oseary, a young artists-and-repertoire executive at Maverick Records, heard before he decided he wanted to sign her.

In a classic show-biz tale, Morissette was turned down by virtually every other record company in Los Angeles and New York before she approached Maverick, the upstart label launched in 1992 by Madonna and her then-manager, Freddy DeMann.

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So how could Oseary hear in 45 seconds of one song what everyone else had failed to hear in a demo tape submitted by Morissette and her producer and co-writer, Glen Ballard?

“I was just blown away by it,” Oseary says now of “Perfect,” a song about the suffocating pressures of parental expectations. “I heard it and I knew. I didn’t even know what the song was about. I had just never heard anyone sing like that before and write lyrics like that.

“You’ve got to understand. I was only 22. I had never heard [Carole King’s] ‘Tapestry.’ I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I had never heard [Joni Mitchell’s] ‘Blue.’ I had never heard all that much of Bob Dylan. Maybe the people at other record companies were used to hearing singer-songwriters and they didn’t pick up on how special Alanis was, but I couldn’t miss it because this was like me hearing ‘Tapestry’ and ‘Blue’ and all those great albums for the first time.”

Despite the brilliance of “Blue” in 1971 and the commercial fireworks generated by “Tapestry” (which spent 15 weeks at No. 1 the same year), women were still viewed as limited partners in pop-rock at the start of the ‘90s. But then a new generation of writers began surfacing, including Sinead O’Connor, Polly Jean Harvey, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. Together, they may have finally marked the end of male domination in pop-rock.

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Of all these musicians, O’Connor most resembles Morissette. Both are explosively passionate artists who draw primarily from their own experiences. They both use their music to share their struggles for self-esteem in ways that give their songs an almost crusading edge. It’s as if they have found comfort and confidence through music and now want to share that discovery with others.

Because of the raw, accusatory tone of the R-rated “You Oughta Know” on “Pill,” Morissette was quickly dubbed an angry young woman by the media. But the album contained a wide range of subjects, from the resilience of “Hand in My Pocket” to the heartbreaking vulnerability of “Perfect.”

At the heart of the album, the message was: You can take charge and you can get better.

The fascinating thing about Morissette’s concerts during the “Pill” period was how that message connected with two generations of pop-rock fans. There was a large number of mothers and teenage daughters sitting side by side, each singing along to these songs of solidarity and hope.

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It’s pretty much the same message in the new album, but there is a greater maturity and depth to the songs--a postgraduate course, if you will.

The album’s most immediately winning songs, including “Thank U” and “Would Not Come,” are testimonials. You don’t have to know much about Morissette’s own story--from the “Jagged” success to her entry in a triathlon competition to her monthlong pilgrimage to India--to sense the autobiographical strains in the songs.

In “Would Not Come,” she recites all the dead ends in her search for some sort of balance.

I would throw a party still it would not come.

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I would bike run swim and still it would not come

I would go traveling and still it would not come . . .

I’d be filthy rich and still it would not come . . .

I’d have an orgasm still it would not come. . . .

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The flip side is contained in the spiritually tinged “Thank U,” which celebrates life’s experiences, positive and negative, and “That I Would Be Good,” which underscores the importance of believing in oneself.

“To me, the whole new album on some levels is a journal,” says Ballard, her co-producer and co-writer. “It’s like a travelogue, a meditation, a letter, and you can sense that it comes from deep within. When we get together to write, it’s very intense. It’s like she goes into a trance to find those words.”

There’s a big grin on Morissette’s face as she welcomes you to the sun-filled front bedroom of her three-story beachfront house. She owns a place nearby in Santa Monica, but it’s not on the beach, so she took a year’s lease on this house and uses it as a retreat.

Her upstairs bedroom is sparsely furnished. Just a couch, a mattress on the floor and a modest sound system. The handful of CDs leans toward introspective singer-songwriters. King’s “Tapestry,” Mitchell’s “Blue,” Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” Radiohead’s “‘The Bends.”

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She talks about herself and her songs with such candor that you feel as if you are in a therapy session. After a while you are even tempted to adopt a psychiatrist’s lingo: “And how does that make you feel?”

The only area that seems off limits is naming boyfriends, past or present.

But she does acknowledge that she is in what she describes as a new, healthy, loving relationship.

“I always thought relationships were this random, inexplicable, knee-jerk, heart-palpitating mystery, . . . which often led to painful relationships,” she says, her legs curled under her on the couch.

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“Now I see them as healing opportunities--that it’s OK to have wounds from our childhood triggered as long as there is consciousness in the relationship to heal it once it has been triggered.”

Before she was ready for a new relationship, however, she had to deal with a far wider range of anxieties.

“I have this running joke,” Morissette says. “A famous life is exactly like a ‘normal’ life, only more so.

“By that I mean if you are at all insecure before fame, you’ll be more so after you get famous. If you are at all egocentric, you’ll be extremely egocentric.

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“I was always ultra-sensitive. I had this curiosity to get to the root of why certain people were acting in certain ways and the reason for my own pain. . . . I was curious, and it made me want to know even more, which was impossible because we were on the tour and you don’t have time to deal with issues in your life.”

It was only when the tour ended in the fall of 1996 that Morissette began to deal with the issues she explores in the new album.

Spend a few minutes looking over Morissette’s personal history and you can see why she feels as if she’s always been running.

Alanis Nadine Morissette and her twin brother, Wade, were born in Ottawa on June 1, 1974. Their parents, Alan and Georgia, were both educators who instilled their children with a strong sense of ambition.

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Alanis started playing the piano when she was 6, took dancing lessons at 7, got involved with acting by 8 and used some acting money to help finance an independent single when she was 10.

Kenneth Gorman, a singer-songwriter who taught English at an Ottawa high school, recalls the youngster coming into his classroom to sell him a record, explaining that she had already sold one to a woman who sat beside her on the bus.

“I laughed and shook my head at the thought of a 12-year-old selling her own records on a city bus while on her way to school,” Gorman said in a newspaper article he wrote about Morissette in 1996.

“But Alanis did not consider her behavior eccentric. She saw herself as merely taking the first steps down a path that would eventually lead to superstardom as a singer-songwriter. Such an outcome was not a mere possibility or even a probability. In her mind, it was a certainty.”

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When you weigh that determination against the pain outlined in “Perfect,” it’s easy to picture Morissette’s parents as villains.

Be a good girl

You’ve gotta try a little harder

That simply wasn’t good enough

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To make us proud.

Morissette says there was a dysfunctional element in her family, but no more so than in most. She is close to her parents and speaks of her childhood as a good one.

“If there was ever some sort of an obstacle or there was someone saying, ‘Well, you can’t do that,’ the attitude in our family was to see it as a challenge,” she says, appearing proud of the drive that she gained during childhood. “There was no such thing as ‘I can’t [accomplish] something.’ What I am so appreciative for was their openness to whatever I wanted to do as a person, whatever I wanted to choose as a career. There was never a roadblock.”

That fearless attitude helped Morissette walk away from a blossoming pop career in Canada at age 18 because she felt she wasn’t moving fast enough creatively.

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By then, Morissette already had released two albums that sold a combined 200,000 copies in Canada and earned her a Juno Award (the Canadian Grammy) as the most promising female singer.

By moving to Toronto, which had a larger and more progressive music scene than Ottawa, Morissette hoped to find new inspiration and collaborators. She spent a year and a half in Toronto, living chiefly off her publishing money, but she never really found the right musical partner. So she headed to Los Angeles in 1994.

She had been living in an apartment in Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon for about a month when someone at MCA Publishing suggested she get together with Ballard. They began writing songs together that first afternoon.

Says Morissette, “With Glen, I felt this sigh of relief,” Morissette says. “Finally, it wasn’t someone saying, ‘Here is who you should be’ or ‘Here is who I think you are.’ Every time he looked at me, I felt like he was asking me to tell him who I was. Here was someone who had no age or sexism issues.”

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The partnership led to a remarkable period of self-discovery for Morissette.

Whether exploring the sexual repression of her Catholic upbringing in “Forgiven” or taking a slap in “Right Through You” at the way adults don’t take young people seriously, Morissette seemed to be more liberated with every song.

No tune, however, had more dramatic punch than “You Oughta Know,” whose blunt language (including the famous line about giving oral sex to a boyfriend in a theater) caught the pop world’s imagination.

“I admitted in that song that I was jealous and horrified and shattered because I was left by someone . . . and I was admitting it publicly,” she says of the song’s importance to her own development.

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She found it difficult to admit it even to friends, she says, because of the fear of seeming less than perfect. “I thought the emotions that society wanted to hear about were joy and excitement. People didn’t want to hear about your pain and your insecurity.”

It was that kind of daring that Ballard encouraged in Morissette, and he thought they had made a powerful album in “Pill.”

When Morissette and Ballard finally found believers at Maverick Records, success was almost immediate.

“The single exploded at Top 40 radio as well as alternative rock, and not just in some cities but everywhere,” says Maverick’s DeMann. “It started happening so fast that we were worried. We didn’t want it to explode too quickly and have Alanis perceived as an overnight sensation. And this was back when the album was selling 500,000 copies. Who ever dreamed it would sell [all these] millions?”

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Morissette and her manager, Scott Welch, also tried to resist being swept up in the sales tide. Rather than move quickly into arenas to maximize concert grosses, they continued to book smaller halls for much of the life of the album--giving audiences a chance to see her in intimate surroundings the first few times around.

Maverick might have pushed sales of “Pill” beyond the 30-million mark if it had kept releasing singles from the album. But five was enough.

Besides, Morissette was drained and in need of time off after some 300 shows in 18 months.

During the months after that period, she tried all the things outlined in the song “Would Not Come.” She read books on psychology and religion. She reconnected with family members and friends. She traveled to India, looking for some sort of spiritual enlightenment.

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But it wasn’t until she got home to Los Angeles and shut herself down for a few weeks that she began to find the sense of self-worth and confidence she had long sought.

“It is a death of sorts,” she says of this traumatic period in her life. “It was like letting go of everything we have been taught and starting again from scratch with no handbook, nothing to measure whether you are doing the right or wrong thing.

“It’s extremely scary, but as soon as I stopped and breathed and grieved and allowed myself to feel and be everything that I was . . . and didn’t think I could find God or myself outside of myself, all I was left with was gratitude, compassion and inspiration. That’s the point where I felt complete and at peace and knew I was ready to write this record.”

That’s when Morissette, who writes all the lyrics and some of the music, teamed up again with Ballard to write the songs for “Infatuation.”

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Despite the pressure of living up to sales expectations, Ballard--whose Java Records label roster now includes pop-soul veteran Terence Trent D’Arby and young hopeful Lisa Marie Presley--says Morissette seemed driven once again to simply tell her own story.

“I was never worried that Alanis would be affected negatively by success,” Ballard says. “She always seemed to see the pitfalls that were ahead. She was always examining things and herself to make sure she didn’t buy into this stardom thing.”

On stage last month at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, Morissette seemed as confident and content singing the new songs as she had been in the earlier interview.

The show was the formal kick-off of a warmup tour that will be followed by an arena tour next year. Highlights of a New York tour stop will be shown in an hour special at 9 p.m. Monday on MTV.

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Of course, it helped that the audience cheered each new song with the same enthusiasm they showed for the “Pill” hits. It certainly seems likely that it was the accomplishment of “Pill” that helped her finally feel that she no longer needed to prove anything.

“On a certain level, I feel 80,” she had said on the eve of the San Francisco show. “But now I feel 8. I’m younger now than I’ve ever been . . . freer, less restrained. From the time I was 9 years old, I was 50. I was so responsible, so structured, so ‘good.’

“Over the last year and a half, I basically let go of so many things. . . . Coming to terms with the fact that I would be OK with losing all of this . . . that I don’t have to write another lyric or poem or song ever again if I don’t want to . . . that I had enough. . . . That I was enough.”

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Hear Alanis Morissette

* Excerpts from “Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie” and other recent releases are available on The Times’ World Wide Web site. Point your browser to:

https://www.latimes.com/soundclips


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