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On Addiction, Healing, Compassion: A Conversation With Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette performing in San Diego on Sept. 17, 2017. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Alanis Morissette performing in San Diego on Sept. 17, 2017. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
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It's been more than two decades since Alanis Morissette's seminal album "Jagged Little Pill" was released. Now its enduring themes and characters are on stage in a new musical at the American Repertory Theater. Morissette collaborated with artistic director Diane Paulus and screen/TV writer Diablo Cody to craft the transformation.

I had the chance to speak with Morissette about the process and the timely issues "Jagged Little Pill," the musical, raises, along with her expansive views on healing, addiction, disconnection, relationships, compassion and parenting.

Read our conversation below, lightly edited. We start with the musical's origin story.

Andrea Shea: Could you go back in time to when this idea came your way?

Alanis Morissette: "When I first heard it, my initial thought was, 'Ok, wow, I guess I'm going to tell my personal story.' You know it was exhilarating and daunting — the idea of it — and then it quickly segued into, you know, actually there won't be pressure for that to be a one-person play, which I would love to do at some point.

"This musical is a quote-unquote fiction story, but it's imbued with so many personal aspects of what I've been through and then what Diablo Cody, who wrote it, has been through and Diane Paulus — all of us together have been through so many various experiences that we've warriored through, for lack of a better term. So, of course, that shows up in fiction for us. We packed in a lot of topics that are near and dear to our hearts, and our value systems, and what we believe is now our service and our lives. And the collaborative aspect of what we're doing right now is truly a dream come true for me. It can be somewhat isolating to be on tour — I've been on tour on and off since I was 10 years old — so to be part of a theater experience is so communal."

There's a lot going on in this story. I'm curious what it took to turn the characters in your songs into a full story? 

"I had no interest in doing a jukebox musical, I wanted it to be an actual story. And there are so many stories buried within these songs, you know, they speak to me, they speak to being marginalized, to identity crises, to self-defining identity moments and junctures in my personal life. And then addiction and recovery, ruptures within relationships, ruptures within relationships with God or spirit, ruptures within one's own self and that loneliness. So the songs of mine happen to be rife with all of these topics and riddled with them. When it came time for the story to be told, I was really blown away at different characters imbuing the songs with a whole other quality of urgency and palpability for me personally — because I've been singing it from my own personal lens."

What's it like to see your album brought to life? 

"When I'm sitting watching it, I mean, it's such a rare, surreal experience for me to hear the words that I had written being sung through the perspective of a whole other character and human being and gender, you know? Some of the songs are sung by men, and in a way that really takes it to another level for me, too."

It's such a fascinating idea that your album is now communal experience. I mean, I don't know if I've ever really even listened to "Jagged Little Pill" in the presence of another person. It's very intimate, like a journal. 

"It's a collective vulnerability. It's one thing for me to have run into a studio and to have written the songs in a vacuum — you know, in some ways, it's anti-relational writing. You could be by Walden Pond and write and write a whole soliloquy about how tortured you are, and if you don't really talk with anyone it's not relational. It can be a very cathartic experience — but there's no healing in it.

"I really think if we're wounded in relationships we're thereby healed in relationships — so there's something about the singing and exalting and celebrating and hurting in the presence of other that is really powerful. And that's the case in every scene in this musical."

There's a mom character as an entry point, and she's addicted to opioids. How did this resonate with you?

"I connect with the hunger to have that warmth and that sense of connection. You know, I have it. I have a deep loneliness that courses through my whole soul. And when I teach — I’m teaching at a place called 1440 again in the fall and [have] done keynote talks and I'm in the middle of writing a book and just finished another record — and so much of what I live for and what I want to support in others, and certainly in myself through copious amounts of therapy and recovery work, is how do I foster and nurture and repair this ruptured sense of connection with self, God and other? And I think what I'm excited about in this musical is that that's the core theme in question. An invitation throughout this whole musical asks how do we repair this rupture? And what is this rupture?

"So, you know, there are ways it can be done very temporarily through substances, processes — being addicted to people or sex or gambling or whatever we can get that dopamine hit. If we can get that high that can really feel like a connection — but it is temporary and there's a big difference between pleasure and joy.

"Joy is that knowing of our sense of connection, the direct experience of it — and pleasure is sort of a near enemy, for lack of a better term. It feels very similar, but it's short-lived and can basically ruin your life and at the end of the day even kill you. So I think it's important to recognize the desire — in my own self and in so many of us — for that sense of connection and warmth is so natural. You know, we're hungry and we need each other and we're built neurobiologically, biochemically to be interdependent with each other, we are built to need each other. Yet we live in a society that supports autonomy and supports basically this hyper-individuation and disconnection and competition, and better-than/worse-than, and who’s the winner and who's the MVP and who's first place and all these corrosive messages in culture that keep us disconnected from each other.

"And then we have our technological evolution that is way ahead of our consciousness evolution. You know, there's more and more ways to feel separate, so this desire to stay connected, if it's found through opioids, or if it's found through overworking or whatever addiction of choice, for me the propensity toward it makes perfect sense.

"I think some empathy needs to be given to those of us inside of an addiction because the disparaging comments about people — you know, 'They’re junkies,' or, 'They're just wastes of space' — I think the addiction community is benefiting slowly from the sea change around perceptions of what addiction is. But in the beginning there's always a beautiful relief-seeking intention behind it, from my perspective."

Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane Healy in American Repertory Theater's "Jagged Little Pill." (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Elizabeth Stanley as Mary Jane Healy in American Repertory Theater's "Jagged Little Pill." (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

Can you relate those ideas to the hopes with this musical, because it is bringing out these themes, with a family that's going through an ordeal — lots of different ordeals, actually, including pressures to be perfect — but they're deciding to work together and face each other rather than run away, right?

"Yes. And that's so counter-intuitive. It really does require the frontal cortex of your brain to be alive, because when we’re in fight, flight or freeze, we run from each other, we hurt each other. So it's really incumbent upon us to regulate our nervous systems to calm ourselves down enough to be able to have our facilities about us so that we can move toward each other.

"So that act of moving toward each other, and calming down enough to actually begin the resolution of these conflicts — that warrior work — is ultimately what this family and this community do on stage, before our very eyes. I love the fact that that's even being modeled because for me if I don't have a map, or a sense of where I'm going, I can be super aimless."

What are your hopes, then, for people who experience this musical?

"I have no agenda other than, you know, get cozy and receive whatever it is that is meant for you to receive. You know, it could be a moment. It could be a whole overarching theme that touches you. But, ultimately, I think artists and writers and people interviewing, like yourself, I mean we're being of service.

"We're offering art, music, story for people to take and make their own. There might be some part where the race conversation is particularly touching to someone, or the marriage crisis is really validating or heartening. And it also depends on the day of the week that you go. I've seen rehearsals and there are different moments that touch me depending upon how I'm doing — or how close I am to my period!"

Where the moon is...

"Right. Exactly."

Going back to when your album first came out — I was in my 20s, and it hit me where I live. Now with the #MeToo movement — and the deeply personal abuses that come across in songs like “You Oughta Know” -- what's it like for you when you look at the album today, and what was it like when it first came out?

"I thought maybe a hundred thousand copies would sell — and I thought that I was being generous. So it was a surprise in terms of how many people resonated with it. And on one hand it was heartening because I immediately felt less alone in my challenges. On the other hand, it was horrifying because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, there's a lot of people who are relating to this, ergo there must be a lot of people in pain.' And it really did inspire me, it was the catalyst for me to step up in my wanting to serve, and then the context that it came out in the '90s --people seemed really receptive to it.

"I think there was this moment in the 'feminine movement,' as I call it. I saw it as this huge wave swelling, and I feel like I raised my hand and said, 'I'll surf that front wave, let’s go!' You know, I've always been the kind of woman who's prepared to go into the virgin snow, front lines, get my head chopped off — and then halfway through the request I don't even know why my hand is up! And here we are 20-some-odd years later, and I feel there's a new generation listening. There were many songs over the last 20 years that were written to chronicle the journey of my own humanity and looking within, and really giving permission for all these vulnerabilities and powers and aspects of humanity."

The Greek tragedy-like chorus is a unique device.

"I'm so excited about the ensemble. The amount of people onstage serve as almost like a shadow aspect ... like the conscious and unconscious. And that they're able to give voice to other parts of the characters, their other fears, other concerns, other wishes and dreams at the same time. So it wouldn't be just a singular voice from the character.

"I remember speaking with Diablo Cody and Diane Paulus at the beginning about how important it was for me that if one character thinks they're upset about something that there's so much more complexity to human beings — and that's another theme that runs through not only my music but frankly my whole life. I'm so curious about the different layers. On one hand I feel excited about this — on the other hand I feel terrified. And that someone feels multiple emotions at the same time. The challenge on stage when someone is performing it as a musical character is how do you share with the audience that they're feeling 14 things at once? Without over-expositioning?

"So the chorus just fleshes it out so each character is whole, as opposed to just one dimensional — which can so often happen when a story is being told in Hollywood or on Broadway. A character can just kind of be one note — and I've never met any human being my whole life that is one note."

Is there one particular song in the musical that surprised you or that ended up being arranged in a way that you weren't expecting?

"It blew my mind when Steve, the character, performs 'Mary Jane.' Hearing 'Mary Jane' sung from a male body perspective in a very empathic way — it's like the masculine being empathic toward the feminine. Are you kidding me? Even just talking about it right now I get teared up. I can't stop crying through so many of these songs because these characters are really bringing it to life for me.

Sean Allan Krill and Elizabeth Stanley as Steve and Mary Jane Healy in American Repertory Theater's "Jagged Little Pill." (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Sean Allan Krill and Elizabeth Stanley as Steve and Mary Jane Healy in American Repertory Theater's "Jagged Little Pill." (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

"Also hearing the Nick character portray the challenges around his perfectionism and performing 'Perfect.' I just see America as this pressure cooker for people to become something that their parents believe is the brass ring — you know, get that MVP and get that trophy. It's just such pressure — kids being weaned and prepped for college in kindergarten. What about trusting one's own passions, and one's own desire for education, and one's own desire for self-expression? I mean, it's almost like we've lost complete faith in the human being. And I have so much faith in the human being that if you just leave them alone and love them well ... we're like flowers."

Diablo Cody called it a “therapeusical” when we spoke.

Morissette laughs. "Back in 1996, I think Q Magazine in London was saying, 'stadium therapy.' If there is a difference between 1996 and now it's that back then I was sort of made fun of for being psychologically inclined. It was almost like I had to sweep that more psychological, academic part under this under the rug. I was called a psycho-babbler, and [people asked], 'What is she talking about? She should just shut up.' And now I'm being asked to speak and keynote and comment. So it feels like there's an openness to how to navigate this whole human story, you know, there's more of a movement toward wholeness. Just feels like a different era where there's more holism and more invitation to be the full person that we are."

In this #MeToo era people are going to listen to your album and your words in a different way.

"These lyrics are a big part of my childhood and a big part of my, you know, my #MeToo-ness. It's like how can the feminine be in a context of patriarchy, which is basically disempowered masculine, and not be offended or assaulted or outrightly raped or harassed in some shape or form in every different context? You know, a lot of people are talking about how the music industry would do well to quote unquote 'come under fire.' It's less about moving from industry to industry, it's about this planet, and as patriarchy shifts -- and Lord knows it's shifting away at a snail's pace — but as it shifts it's permeating everywhere. People are thinking twice before they demean and oppress and abuse the feminine anywhere. It's beautiful, what a great time to be alive."

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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