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Alanis Morissette nurtures 'Havoc and Bright Lights'

On a new album, the passion of her 'Jagged Little Pill' days melds with a mother's intensity. She's making people think, as always.

August 27, 2012|By Steve Appleford
  • Alanis Morissette in the green room backstage on the "Chelsea Lately" show.
Alanis Morissette in the green room backstage on the "Chelsea Lately"… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

The heat outside a North Hollywood rehearsal studio is in the triple digits, and inside isn't much better, but Alanis Morissette manages a cool, beatific calm beneath the hot lights of a film crew. She is fast approaching "the fever pitch" of activity that accompanies her every album release, even after a break of four years.

A camera sweeps in on a boom for a close-up of the singer-songwriter, cheerful in a gleaming white blazer, her auburn hair long and parted down the center. She is here to talk up a new album, "Havoc and Bright Lights" (out Tuesday), and her new life of marriage and motherhood for an online video piece hosted by Wal-Mart.

A young interviewer with a clipboard asks about her newest songs, and as Morissette begins — "On 'Woman Down' I comment about the patriarchy and misogyny ..." — it's immediately clear that the singer's first album since 2008 will pull no punches, regardless of recent domestic bliss in her own life.

"It's a challenge to be away from my son for too long, but I live for this," Morissette, 38, says minutes later, settling into her dressing room couch. On her left forearm is a tattoo of a tiger, drawn around the word "gentle." "I live for having the larger conversations that are spawned by the content of the songs. That's what I'm here to do, whether I like it or not."

She's had those kinds of public conversations at least since 1995, when her blunt, confessional album "Jagged Little Pill" exploded with songs of intense melody and occasional rage, including the biting "You Oughta Know." Billboard declared the multi-platinum disc the bestselling album of the decade, and she's enjoyed a dedicated international following ever since.

Her son, Ever, was born about 20 months ago, and with her husband, rapper Mario "Souleye" Treadway, she has committed to intensive "attachment parenting," indefinitely on-call for breast-feeding as needed. That's kept her family in close proximity, and perhaps not coincidentally, many of the new album's dozen songs are obsessed with human connection.

On "Guardian," the album's opening track and first single, Morissette is typically fierce and melodic amid layers of guitar as she promises a loved one, "I'll be your keeper for life as your guardian / I'll be your warrior of care, your first warden / I'll be your angel on call."

The through line from the lyrics, she says, concerns "the degree of healing that is available with commitment and intimacy — whether it's marriage or babies or commitment to friends who I imagine growing old with and dying at 108 together.... I'm terrified of intimacy, but I'm obsessed with wholeness."

The four-year break between albums is not what she planned. Morissette expected to get to work on new songs while pregnant but found that by 3 p.m. every day she was exhausted and prone on the couch. "I was down for the count," she says with a laugh. "There was no way that was going to happen."

She then suffered from postpartum depression, but five months after Ever was born she felt ready again. Morissette built a temporary recording studio in her Los Angeles living room and from England brought out producer Guy Sigsworth, her collaborator on 2008's "Flavors of Entanglement."

"He's like family to me," she says of Sigsworth, who has also produced Björk and Madonna. "He's a savant genius. And he's sensitive. We get along really well. We cry together."

With Sigsworth in the room, songs would begin with a sentence or just a word or two to establish a theme or basic idea. The final stage was handing their work over to producer Joe Chiccarelli (the Shins, Grace Potter) for a final round of polish, the result being a subtle blend of the organic and electronic. They recorded 31 songs, before cutting to the final 12, a process of weeding out she called "torturous."

Among those that made it is "Woman Down," which lashes out at various forms of abuse and neglect of women, as she sings, "Calling all woman haters / We've lowered the bar on the behavior that we will take."

Times have changed, she says, with a marked improvement for women even since the '90s, when there was as much backlash as celebration for "Jagged Little Pill." "In the '90s, it wasn't so much a sisterhood climate. Whereas today there is more of a mutual appreciation, parity and support. That wasn't the case 15 years ago," she explains. "My intention was not to vilify men. My intention was to be authentic. So I had a lot of people hating me. I had chauvinistic women hating me, and it was hard."

Morissette left Warner Music/Maverick Records in 2009 and is releasing "Havoc and Bright Lights" on Collective Sounds (owned by her management company and distributed via the Sony-owned RED).

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