important life lessons from alanis morissette
Ahead of Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill kicking off in Sydney and Melbourne, the iconic music star shares her wisdom with us.
(SOMETIMES) LADIES MAKE BANK It’s a totally different world for female musicians today. When we were releasing “You Oughta Know” in 1995, we sent it to radio stations and the initial response from all the program directors was, “Oh, we’re already playing Sinéad O’Connor, so we’re good on women,” or, “We’ve hit our quota – we already play Tori Amos.” Literally one female artist was allocated to every radio station. I thought there’d be more of a sisterhood in the fame – that Sharon Stone would be patting my head by the campfire singing “Kumbaya” – but that wound up not being the case. Thankfully, things changed pretty quickly after that, because those suit peeps are very interested in the bottom line, and all of a sudden a woman became bankable.
NEVER STOP PROBING I first went to see a therapist of my own accord at about 16. I had an eating disorder for many years, and I’m irretrievably Canadian, so I didn’t want to be any trouble to my parents, you know? I thought, “Wow, this is amazing to sit with someone whose only interest is in processing stuff with me.” I’ve gone to therapy off and on my whole life, and I truly would be dead without it. I love that it’s been normalised now. That we can talk about post-partum depression or the fact I have full-blown anxiety attacks every night at 9.27pm. We need to let the human experience be what it is and realise how normal it is to feel these feelings. When we keep pushing them away, of course there’s going to be an explosion, because they want our attention. I don’t think I’m ever going to be done with therapy. The inquiry never really stops.
HAVE A LITTLE FAITH When I was really young, my dad said to me, “There are three ways people are going to respond to you. One is they’ll adore you and you can do no wrong. The next is that they’ll hate you and nothing will change their mind. And the third is that they don’t give a shit. So no matter what you do, just do you.” Then, when I was about 21, right when Jagged Little Pill came out, my manager said, “Pretend you’re on a train track and just keep looking down at the next rung. That’s all you have to do.” Those two pieces of advice were really powerful for me. They’re both about having trust in yourself.
MUSIC’S FOR THE MASSES I love the power of conjuring emotions through music. In some circumstances it’s probably not appropriate to be sobbing 24/7, but in this context it’s not just appropriate, but invited and safe. The thought of someone – any age, any skin colour, any culture – hearing a song of mine and it comforting them or validating them or letting them know they’re not alone is the greatest thing in the whole world. I initially write songs for myself, but then they’re shared publicly and they’re not mine anymore. For how many people there are, there are equally as many interpretations, and they’re all charming or induce a lot of empathy. Doing the Jagged Little Pill musical was really powerful, because I was able to sit in the audience and receive a lot of the songs I’d written over the past 25 years in an objective way. That was really meaningful.
ANGER MOVES MOUNTAINS I was called the “angry white female”, but for someone to be reduced to just one thing is pure violence. We’re so multitudinous – we have so many parts. We have the part that just wants to be on stage, the part that wants to hide, the part that’s enraged, the part that doesn’t give a shit. However, if I am going to be reduced to one quality, I’ll take anger, because I love anger. Not destructive acting out – I’m talking about the pure, unadulterated feeling of anger in our bodies. It’s enough to move worlds and set powerful boundaries and show up as an activist in a way we couldn’t if we weren’t angry. If you’re paying attention to the black community; to what it is to be a woman; to what we’re socially, relationally, spiritually up to as a planet, you’re livid. So, I say take that livid and turn it into something really cool.
THERE’S POWER IN A NEW DO Just let your hair do what it’s gotta do. Hair falls out, hair comes back, hair doesn’t come back. Enjoy your hair – cut it if you like. I get bored really easily. For so long I had one look, which I loved and will probably return to again and again, but I needed a little change, so I went blonde. I’ve been red as a teenager. I need novelty. It’s such a contradiction, because on one level I need the consistency of my monogamous marriage and seeing my kids every day, but on another level I need this novelty and newness. I’m a junkie for it. Changing my hair is an easy way to achieve that.
RALLY YOUR KIN I call it post-partum activity, not post-partum depression, because it’s not just depression or anxiety – it’s this whole biochemical, hormonal, neurobiological experience of being covered in tar in some moments, and in others having these wild mood swings. Sometimes I have to warn people, “I feel really overwhelmed with what’s going on in my body right now, so I’m going to go to my room so I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” But we’re relational, so we need each other for support. Back in the day, in the villages, we were surrounded by a million caregiving aunts and uncles and cousins, and the mum was sort of held and loved up. Now, because of how sequestered we are, we almost have to plan it before giving birth. Who’s going to be dropping off the soup? Isolation is a killer, period, but it’s particularly challenging when you have post-partum activity.
LAUGHTER LIGHTENS THE LOAD Humour is everything to me – it’s mandatory. Life is really intense. I write about depression; about anxiety and trauma; about sexual abuse and recovery. It can get really full-on, so humour and playfulness are almost like a palate cleanser – the sorbet between entrées. Plus, I have to be a ham in some ways, otherwise how would I ever get on stage? The more I spend time with people I deem to be mentors, or spiritually evolved to the point I admire them and look up to them, the more I realise they’re always laughing. That’s kind of how I recognise a master – they’re laughing all the time! And if they’re not laughing, their eyes are. Everything is funny.
KEEP SOME FOR YOURSELF Work addiction isn’t just clickety-clackety on a laptop. It’s not just sneaking all your papers to your Hawaii vacation. It’s also overdoing, overgiving, being overgenerous, over-volunteering. It’s about setting boundaries. As women especially, the imperative is to serve and give and nurture. The key to my sanity is transition time. Even 10 minutes alone, hiding in a closet or an airport bathroom – there’s no place that’s exempt from being used as a recharge pod! It’s your time to recharge the battery and put on another hat. I’ll go from rockstar-CEO-empire-runner to like, mum, wife, puppy lover, but in between I have to do something self-caring, whether it’s having a snack or just sitting in silence.
CHANNEL A CHILD In our family, we follow the kids’ noses – we make sure they feel safe and able to express themselves. It could be my daughter walking around the house stream-of-consciousness singing, or making a cake that’s totally inedible. I might be like, “Look at this hummingbird!” Meanwhile, they’re looking at the puppy digging something over there and couldn’t care less. So I try to redirect myself and be hyper-present with them. Looking at life through my children’s eyes, I see it’s miraculous. There’s so much colour and so many smells and tastes. It’s really helped with my general sense of positivity and hope. I was surprised by how exhausting motherhood is, though. Someone once said to me, “Alanis, three kids is a lot,” and I remember thinking, it’ll be OK! I’ll figure it out. My dad said the hardest years with kids are the first 60, so I figure by the time they’re 61 I’ll be ripping it up partying.
This article was republished in partnership with Jagged Little Pill The Musical, which premieres at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on December 2 and at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on January 2. To find out more about the award-winning Broadway musical and book tickets, check out the Jagged Little Pill The Musical website.