Alanis Morissette – the Beatweek interview on havoc and contentment
December 13, 2012 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
“There really is,” she says, “no better time to be alive as a woman than 2012.” Alanis Morissette is speaking on behalf of women in general, but it applies equally to her own life as well. If her new album Havoc And Bright Lights is full of musical contentment, one need look no further than her entry into marriage and motherhood over the past two years. It turns out that the hardened singer who attained fame by publicly shredding an ungrateful man in You Oughta Know, and was spotted doing the same as recently as her last record a few years back, has always had a softer side wanting to come out.
At a homecoming show in Los Angeles, she performs a setlist which on this night largely alternates between songs from her latest record and her first record, and the audience is reminded that she wasn’t always angry back then. The renditions are faithful, making clear she can still access her old emotions even if she’s moved on from them. But the interspersion of the new material serves to highlight the distance she’s traveled. In the context of having her son backstage, and her husband DJ Souleye performing as the opening act, the context of a song like Guardian falls into place.
“That mama bear fierce thing definitely has come out in that chorus and in general,” she says of the song. “I also just care more. My marriage that has opened my heart a lot, and then being a mom has definitely cracked open my heart, and then doing all this inner work and ascension work and reading, I just read non-stop. I’m just doing a lot of inner work around wanting to soften this really hardened heart that I had. But somewhere in there was a little soft heart, so it’s coming out more and more.”
It’s not that Alanis doesn’t still get her licks in. Woman Down sees her exploring the current state of womanhood and taking on “all woman haters” in the process. But, she says, things have come a long way in that regard. “The days of old were such that women were owned and we were property and we were less than, and then we went through the women’s movement, which was an important movement, we became empowered, but in an individualistic, autonomous kind of way; neither style, neither approach afforded any kind of connection or intimacy. And then now we’re slowly segueing into this gorgeous era where we’re empowered but we also have the knowledge that interdependence can afford this connection within and connection with other people, so the women’s movement is moving in such a much better way. And that’s not to say that misogyny and chauvinism and patriarchy isn’t alive and well in so many places around the planet, including this country, but that it’s getting more and more balanced, to the point where not just females but the divine feminine itself is being more respected and revered as an important way to connect with each other and with spirit. So I have to comment on that in my music.”
The album’s title is an exercise in contrast. Havoc is the name of one of the songs, is “the underbelly of things, the challenging part. I’m obsessed with dark and light, I think. Because I’m a Gemini by trade I’m obsessed with the dualism that it is to be here on this planet and play in that high/low, cold/hot world. So Havoc is the underbelly of recovery from addiction. Bright Lights refers to the “white hot heat of fame” and the journey she’s taken under it.
And then “Bright Lights” has a double connotation, one being in the white-hot heat of fame, and there’s a song called “Celebrity” where I just comment on fame and the whole journey of it, especially in pop culture in America, not just America, though, everywhere. And then “Bright Lights” also connotating the spiritual aspect of things, that we’re all light beings and that that’s what connects us, whether we’re aware of it or not.”
Just don’t ask her to assess where that evolution has taken her. “I don’t have objectivity on it until many, many years later,” she admits. “So I think just committing to making sure that every record is my being authentic about what’s going on at any given time, these records become like candid photographs, to the point where when I’m 108 on my deathbed I’ll look back on these records and remember the whole era.”
Still, she’s able to assess her past in depth. “I think that a big turning point for my spiritual growth was after Jagged Little Pill, when I had reached and grabbed the brass ring and swallowed it, frankly, there was no other direction for me to go in that egoic sense, because I had broken all kinds of records, I won all the awards that I was “supposed” to win, or supposed to strive for in the American dream, so then there was no other direction for me to go but within and to ask even deeper inquiry fueled existential spiritual questions. So that experience of that kind of fame, that quality of fame, really kick started a spiritual, it didn’t really kick start it, but it kicked it for the second time into a whole other category of devotion and steadfastness. I don’t want to freak people out when I write songs. I don’t want to turn it into a record that is almost too much to bear, so I temper some of the content so that it’s not overwhelming. I don’t even want to overwhelm myself when I’m singing sometimes. But the live shows are very spiritual for me. It’s like sweating my prayers, to coin a Gabriel Roth term, I just feeling like I’m up there praying the whole time.”
So how does she go about meshing the past and the present into a setlist each night? “I’ll sit around with my bandmates, and they’re a great help to me in this way, because they have an objectivity and their musicianship is so stellar that they’re able to raise their hand and say, ‘Oh my God I’m dying to play Citizen of the Planet’ or whatever song, so I look to them a lot and say what songs are you loving and missing harmonically. And then for me it’s just the content and the stories and the narratives, I just want to make sure that I touch on enough aspects of my own humanity that it’s a varied show. I think in terms of color a lot, so I want to make sure that the whole set isn’t all dark purple. I’ve got to have some primary colors thrown in there, some action, so I’m going to keep it positive and challenging and exaltative and harrowing and have it all come forth, angry, happy, blissed out, infatuated, pissed off.”
As it turns out Alanis Morissette comes off, in conversation, as a philosopher. It’s unlikely that most fans would have been expecting that when they first heard her wailing brashly on the radio seventeen years ago. The audience that night in Los Angeles sees her plaintively exploring motherhood on Guardian, while in another moment strapping on an electric guitar at one point in the show and contributing to her band’s wall of sound. By the end of the evening she’s narrowed the intensity down to a quiet acoustic set. The emotionality, the tonality, runs the gamut and back before the night is done. Perhaps it’s her ever reaching thought process which allows for the variation.