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Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair talk songwriting during an apocalypse and rock-star self-care

A remote photograph of Alanis Morissette. Her new album is “Such Pretty Forks in the Road.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)
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Alanis Morissette wants to change your mind. She’ll do it too. Spend an hour talking to her and you’ll realize that you like yourself more than you did before your interaction. She makes gifts of her observations. She never lets you over-share alone. Your life path might diverge from hers, but you’ll come away from a conversation with her feeling strengthened and understood. She listens; maybe that’s the rare thing.

Her breakthrough album, “Jagged Little Pill,” turns 25 this year. She was only 21 when she rocketed to stardom on that, in 1995. I am struck by how fearlessly she tackled taboo subjects in those early songs, how she remained unwavering in her conviction. She became a spokesmodel for a generation of young women hoping to claim their power when she’d barely advanced beyond her teens. In 2019, those same songs became the backbone of a critically acclaimed Broadway musical, and Alanis reasserted her status as a household name. You can’t think of anything ironic without thinking of Alanis.

We were supposed to tour together this summer, before the emergence of COVID-19. I was slated to open for Alanis and Garbage on their sold-out North American run. I can vividly imagine how epic it would have been: the balmy night air in the amphitheater, cellphone lights swaying in the crowd, Alanis belting out the soulful and stunning songs off her new album, out Friday, “Such Pretty Forks in the Road.” I feel cheated.

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“But we’re going to do it next summer,” she reminds me. “There’s a lot of important work going on right now that we need to make space for.” Damn it. She’s younger than me. But so wise beyond her years.

Liz Phair: We were supposed to be touring right now.

(Ken Kwok/Los Angeles Times)
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Alanis Morissette: I know. I was having a moment of silence for that.

Phair: When was your last gig? I saw on Instagram you’d been in Europe.

Morissette: Yes, we were in Europe doing shows and interviews, and right as we were heading back to California, everyone started going into lockdown. What about you?

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Phair: Check this out: I was supposed to be on a cruise ship. I am a lifelong avoider of cruise ships. I’ve always thought that the plague that would end the world would start on a cruise ship. But this was run by my friend, Jonathan Coulton. It’s called the JoCo Cruise, and a bunch of nerds and indie people take over the ship. We ended up flying to Santo Domingo on March 11th and flying right back home on the 12th. I have a picture of me on March 11th with this big-ass cruise ship in the background, like, exactly where not to be. It’s a photo I’ll treasure and be horrified by.

Morissette: The thought of touring with you is very healing for me because you were one of the only people — I’m going to start crying — who just felt really sane to me, even though of course you probably felt insane.

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Phair: I did feel insane, Alanis. I still feel insane half the time. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was voracious and I was literally reading medical abstracts about the original SARS. My father was an infectious disease specialist, so I grew up with this kind of crazy ... this is right in the wheelhouse of both my paranoia and my expertise. In my crazy brain, I was like, “I will solve this.”

Morissette: We like our answers, we like our control. But this is a really great time to look at the idea of faith, the idea of trust, the idea of not knowing, and living in that kind of limbo grief, limbo fear.

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Phair: But it’s hard to get back to being an artist in all this. That’s the maelstrom that I find difficult to create within. Hyper-vigilance and intimacy with self are ...

Morissette: They’re not bedfellows.

Phair: Right. Not many people can sit with themselves and go inward and investigate. A lot of people avoid it. But the pandemic has certainly forced people to do that.

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Morissette: But for introverts and empaths, the internal world is heaven. It’s rich. Oh, my God, it’s so juicy in there. For artists and writers and I think moms too, it’s kind of a normal process to be like, “I need a few hours alone to get inside.” These days, I basically get it at 4 in the morning. When do you get your alone time?

A screenshot done via the FaceTime App on an iPad, of Grammy Award-winning recording artist Alanis Morissette in her backyard ball pit.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Phair: In the middle of the night. It’s like some little spirit comes out of me, and the genie is out of the bottle. When the world is asleep, I have more room. During the beginning of the pandemic, I did this weird thing. I live two blocks from the beach and there was a bioluminescent bloom going on in L.A., and it was spectacular. We weren’t supposed to go down to the water, but I would sneak down with my mask and gloves. During the pandemic, I do my functioning things in the daytime, but my artist self has become a night-timer. There were other night-timers out there in the darkness; I passed a surfer coming up at 3 in the morning, wet from the ocean, who’d just done a session. I have all my big ideas late at night. I have all of my big moments of understanding.

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How about you? How are you navigating through the pandemic?

Morissette: I’m so maxed out right now, with three kids [Ed. Ever, 9; Onyx, 4; and Winter, 11 months, with husband Mario Treadway] and a new album, that I’m accepting that overwhelmed feeling. If I resist it, I just create massive suffering for myself.

As a society, though, we’re being crunched into this corner of potential awakening, which I love. We’re being asked what matters the most, what do we value, what do we care about? Because in America, it’s always been like, “I want to look 20 forever, I want to be a millionaire” — or these days billionaire — “I want to be famous.” Now, everyone’s asking, “What’s the new value system? What matters now?”

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We have to change everything: Systemic racism, systemic misogyny, systemic fricking everything has got to be dismantled. In business, education, everywhere.

I talk to a lot of people who are freaked out about having to home-school their kids. Parents need to cut themselves some slack. Because no parent is going to re-create what conventional school offers. My oldest son is 9, and we’ve always unschooled him. [Ed. Unschooling is a branch of home-schooling that promotes nonstructured, child-led learning.]

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Phair: There is something really troubling about this drive to get our kids back into the classroom. It’s like we’re just training people for the capitalist machine.

Morissette: There are just so many different ways to go about educating kids. God bless Americans, we’re so ethnocentric.

My husband and I loosely use Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences in unschooling our kids. The theory holds that there are different types of intelligences, not just one. You could have musical intelligence, verbal intelligence, naturalistic intelligence ... or intrapersonal intelligence, which is the ability to go within yourself. I was never taught about that in school. I was barely taught that at home. How does one go within and cultivate a world of interiority? For those of us who are highly sensitive and artistic, we go, “Yeah, yeah. Of course.” But going within comes with a lot of negative messaging: “If I go within, I’m going to be filled with fear and pain.”

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Phair: My mental health relies on my ability to go within and write songs. That’s an essential part of how I ground myself. I almost don’t know what I’m feeling until I write the song. I find that the older I get, the more I end up weeping when I’m writing because there’s something unblocking. And I also find — word to the wise — that if I want to say something to someone, rather than writing an email or text that I regret, when I write the song, it just settles everything. Somehow, the universe needed to hear it more than that person did.
Morissette: I used to think that I could write songs and never have to deal with human beings. I’d be like, “I’m really angry at that person, so I’m going to go over here in a room and write about it and then never talk to them. It’s perfect.” But turned out, if that person walked into a room, there’d still be some unrest. People are like, “Oh, it must be so healing to write these songs.” It’s clarifying, it’s empowering, but it doesn’t necessarily heal the relationship itself.

(Mick Hutson/Redferns)

I’m Canadian, so I’m basically passive-aggressive. I’m kind, friendly, and then I snap. I’m just a cranky little bitch. There’s just no way around it. Even with my band mates, I’ll just be like, “Mommy hasn’t had a lot of time alone today, so I’m just going to do my thing and I’ll see you guys at an hour.” And they’re like, “Right on, thank you.”

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Phair: I’ve been working on learning how to lose my temper because I hold on to it.

Morissette: Anger gets such a bad rap, and it can be such a beautiful force. I mean, it helps us say no. It helps us be activists. It helps us stand up for ourselves, for others. Anger’s so amazing. It’s just that people equate it with something destructive.

Phair: Do you remember when I opened for you a million years ago? We went out to dinner one night, and you were talking to your label about submitting the follow-up to “Jagged Little Pill.” You’d just achieved the absolute pinnacle of success. And yet the label was saying, “You need to do this, you need to do that.” And I just was sitting across from you thinking, there is no end. There’s no amount of success that gives you artistic autonomy. There’s no amount of success where commerce won’t impinge on the art. If you hadn’t earned the ability to walk into an office, drop the songs on their desk, be like, “You’re welcome” and walk back out, there was no endpoint.

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Morissette: You said I didn’t have the ability to walk in and drop the music and go, “You’re welcome,” and walk out. The thing is, is I did do that. Their response was, “She’s not very open to feedback.” I used to say, “I’m sorry, is your name on the album cover? It’s my name, my face and it’s my life. So you’re welcome.”

Phair: Did you ever feel pressure, though?

Morissette: A couple of times. I was like, “All right, I’ll re-record ‘Hand in My Pocket’ and see if it’s better,” even though I didn’t want to re-record it and I thought it was finished. Then we’d re-record it, and they’d say, “No, no, no, the original one’s way better.” Sometimes they’re like, “You’re a genius, but change everything about yourself.” Some of that for sure is patriarchy. Some of it is just how the industry is. Record companies are just not compatible with artists. I’m shocked that they even let us be in the same room sometimes.

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Back then, it was a very guy-centric time. Labels, musicians: They didn’t know what to do with me. If they couldn’t f— me, they would ignore me. It was like I was an alien. I was going to sleep with them, or I wasn’t going to exist. There were exceptions of course, but that was pretty much how it was. A lot of men in the ‘90s would say to me, “Oh, I love women. Women are amazing.” I’m like, “Oh, no, no. You like to f— women. That’s not the same thing.”

Phair: You and I were both chicks in a male world writing from the point of view of being more than just a girl. I think we both saw ourselves as female but also, more importantly, human. A lot of female artists back then were either masculinized, like they had to hang with the boys and do more coke than them, or they were feminized and fit the hot girl bass-player tokenism. Intuitively, I knew I wanted more room. I wanted more territory for myself. I definitely felt lonely. Now, there are so many young women making music of all sorts, with their visions intact. They wear whatever they want. They make the video the way they want. They play keyboards, drums, whatever. They’re autonomous in a way that I couldn’t have dreamed of back then.

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I would have been accepted had I just picked up a bass and played in a male band. I would have been accepted if I’d been a chanteuse who wrote songs and let them be directed by a male producer. But I had the audacity to get onstage and take a spot away from a guy.

Morissette: When “You Oughta Know” was first sent out to radio stations, the response was, “We’re actually playing Sinéad O’Connor, so we’re good.” Or, “We have Tori Amos in our rotation. We can’t add another woman. Sorry.” That changed pretty fricking quickly.

Phair: Thanks in large part to you.

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Morissette: I saw that the wave was coming, and I had the surfboard. I’m like, “Let me get up there on the crest.” It was so ready to change.

Phair: The programming at radio stations used to drive me crazy! Thank God I went to Oberlin. It was a very politically progressive college, and it quickly smartened me up about how women are represented in our culture. Like, how many times a woman’s body was used to advertise things: dish soap, tires, real estate, cars. The female body was seen constantly, and their heads would almost be cut off, like they were practically in porn. I wanted to take all those female bodies that I saw and tell their story. That’s why, on “Exile in Guyville,” I took the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” and gave the girls in those lyrics their own voice. I wanted to put the story back in the silenced hot bodies. Subjectify the objectification or whatever.

Morissette: What you’re describing, that hyper-sexualizing of women. … There’s a new song on my record called “Sandbox Love,” and it’s really about, what does sex look like post-sexual abuse, post-harassment? How you have sex after abuse is really at the forefront for me right now, because I’ve experienced so much sexual abuse in my past. And so “Sandbox Love” is about that.

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Phair: I would argue that all women, because of patriarchy, and all men, because of patriarchy, are going to have to learn how to have sex after abuse, because in some subtle way, we’ve all been given an abusive picture of what sex and love is. Women may need it more, but men need it too because a lot of times they’re just pantomiming what they think they’re supposed to be doing.

When you come down to the best of what sex is, it’s this naked, awkward ... You know that space that you can hold with someone that’s so special?

Morissette: It’s intimate. Yes. I love it.

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Phair: It’s intimate, and you don’t have your armor up, and you’re not showing off. The older I get, the more that is my favorite part of life.

Morissette: Everything, even trauma recovery, is all about just coming back into the body.

Phair: I’m so glad to see your face. I love women. Women are the best.

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Morissette: We’re going to hit the stage as soon as it’s OK to tour. I can’t wait.

This interview was moderated by Times television critic Lorraine Ali.

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