On the night of the Oscars last year, Alanis Morissette was at home in Los Angeles with friends when she became bored midway through the show. She went upstairs, stood in front of the bathroom mirror and, on an impulse, began cutting off her trademark long hair. Two months later, she chopped off a bit more. And more again a few months after that, until it had been cropped from the small of her back to the nape of her neck. What does this tell us about Alanis Morissette?
Cutting one's hair, especially for a woman, and particularly for one whose hair is so much a part of her identity, is a tough decision. For some it's a statement of independence, a change of image, or perhaps it signals the end of a relationship. It's always a rite of passage. What it tells us about Morissette is that she does not need a $500 haircut to feel glamorous. For a long time, she says, her hair was a security blanket. She recognised a need to change, and to challenge her image of herself. Approaching her 30th year, she crossed a threshold. Talking to her, it becomes clear she was looking to redefine what it is that makes her feel desirable, feminine and beautiful. Because for a long time she didn't feel confident in her appeal. The question is, why did it take so long?
It is a sunny February afternoon and we are walking through Soho in London. Alanis Morissette is gregarious, petite(5ft 2in tall) and her big brown eyes are roving inquisitively. With her new hair, she has freedom from recognition. Every so often, she says, someone will come up to her and tell her she looks just like Alanis Morissette. She is intensely introspective without being brooding. She's just another pedestrian here on the street, just one of the girls later when we meet to share a spa treatment at her hotel. It's not an act: she really is just an ordinary woman who happens to have an extraordinary talent, and she's content with that duality.
We are facing each other, barefoot in matching pink terry-towelling bathrobes. It is late on a Saturday morning and the curtains are drawn in a private hotel suite in Knightsbridge. Candles are lit, mineral water and green grapes are on shiny silver trays, and the smell of eucalyptus fills the air. On dual tables, side by side, the massages commence. Peppermint oil is rubbed into her shoulders, and as her head pokes out from under the sheet, Morissette stares up at the ceiling, speaking softly about the time when she hid.
"When I was little, I felt crazy a lot of times in my own family. I felt really inclined towards examining my emotions - very inward-looking all the time - and I would retreat to my room."
Now 29, she grew up in Ottawa, Canada, with two brothers - an elder brother and a twin. Her parents, still married, are both teachers and she talks of how smart and interesting they are. But one thing they are not is musical. Pondering this, that her talent was a gift, her expression registers disbelief. "I know - isn't that cool?"
Tracing the roots of her sense of isolation within her family, her voice doesn't falter. "When I look back on it now, I think that wasn't crazy - it was just different. I had certain needs that weren't being met. I started seeing a therapist on my own at 14 - and told my parents about it later."
She went to a regular school but was alsoplaced in a programme for advanced learners elsewhere and, because of this, the messagethat was encrypted in her brain was that she was different. She has had an ambivalent relationship with her talent, wrestling with the advantages and disadvantages of feeling "special".
Morissette made her first record when she was just 10. She was overwhelmed by it all, didn't understand what publishing contracts meant. She made two records as a teenager, and by the age of 14 was already a famous pop star in Canada. She was prolific, writing songs constantly, driven - as she has said in the past - by a need for approval and acceptance. But the void wasn't filled; the "needs" that Morissette sought to understand through therapy were not being identified or fulfilled; she kept searching.
There were a lot of preconceived notions of what other people thought she should be. Her lyrics have always been deeply personal and mature, and for a light-hearted pop singer she was told they were too "un-16-year-old". She was 19 when she moved to Los Angeles, and the feeling of isolation increased. It was reported that she had a "breakdown", but that word is loosely applied. When it's mentioned, she laughs and clarifies. She had panic attacks - a lot of them - and it was scary because she didn't know what was happening. Not so surprising considering she was already a burgeoning teenage talent pursuing her career away from home at what was still a tender age.
"It was a culmination of all the little experiences - I was away from my family, it was culture shock in LA, I didn't know anybody... I didn't feel safe. It was a huge change in so many ways - there was not one person there who asked me one question about me. Whereas in Canada, it was so different."She met Glen Ballard, the record producer, who became her mentor. "He didn't have an agenda," she says, "which was so nice." And instead of telling her what to write, to niche her or to form her for the market, Ballard allowed her to find her own voice. Out of that search came the 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Morissette wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album, Ballard co-wrote and produced it, and it sold 28m copies, the biggest-selling debut album ever by a woman.
The songs on this album were brave and raw.She explains how, looking back, she didn't see itas a career ladder to be climbed. She saw it, and she still sees it, as "walking down a path".
By 21, Morissette was internationally famous. Suddenly, aside from the pressure and stress, there was the responsibility of knowing that other people's livelihoods depended upon her success. She had to learn very fast how to trust herself, and her choices, how to speak up, and how tosay no, even faking certainty when she wasunsure of herself. "What I didn't necessarily trust was the kind of trust you get from experience,"she says. "I had to develop it."With her enormous success came a lot of identity issues. She was known for her passionate, vitriolic lyrics ("You took me for a joke/You took me for a child/You took a long, hard look at my ass/And then played golf for a while/Your shake is like a fish/You pat me on the head/You took me out to wine, dine, sixty-nine me/But didn't hear a damn word I said") and she was vilified as much as she was admired. Mainly, though, it was widely assumed she was an angry woman.
"I felt that I was misunderstood during Jagged Little Pill. The writing of those songs was a way for me to have an outlet for my rage, so I wouldn't turn it in on myself or project it onto other people." Morissette's anger was rooted in her early teens. As she was growing up, her life, at least on the inside, felt like chaos. She poured herthoughts and her fears and her questions into her journal, retreated to her room and read - all ofthis an attempt to stave off the creeping feelingof alienation and make sense of the yearningfor what she wasn't getting. Whether it was attention, understanding or acceptance that she craved, she felt alone and unsafe.
Her "rage" wasn't alleviated by the industry. As a woman and, more specifically, a young woman with power and intelligence beyond her years, and the desire to articulate and defend her position, she was dangerous to people who were accustomed to controlling "talent". So she was patronised, and this played on her own insecurities. She would walk into a room with something to say, but struggled with believing she had earned the right to say it. Her depth of feeling, the rage in her lyrics, seemed threatening. Labelling her "angry" was easier. But just because someone expresses anger, it doesn't make them an angry person.
"Where do we put our rage?" she asks. "Punch the sh** out of each other in a living room; turn it inward, which is depression? I am now coming up with more creative ways to channel it. I can sing it, but it doesn't heal it. Rage is a vital, beautiful energy that's gotten a bad rep. The essence of anger can be really beautiful. The form it takes can be really destructive."
The massage ends, and we float downstairs to the hotel restaurant for lunch. Sitting at the table near the window looking out on Hyde Park, she orders a mozzarella salad and camomile tea, and reflects on her current relationship. She has been with the Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, 27, for a year and a half, and is happy. They live together in LA and she has a need for consistent contact, talking every day, maybe several times a day. While she understands that this might appear needy or controlling to others who don't need constant communication to affirm loyalty or love, she draws strength from it, and requires it from Reynolds. "We've had troubled times, but consistency is really important to me - sometimes to the dismay of certain boyfriends I've had. For me, it's more of an emotional thing." She can feel detachment and abandonment without that frequent communication. "Someone doesn't have to physically leave you," she explains.
Morissette has experienced a wide range of emotions in her relationships with men. In her teens she had relationships with older men, "always older - sometimes 30 years older". She was mature emotionally and intellectually and felt, as many women do, more secure with the attention of apparently older and supposedly wiser men. It confirmed that she was special, and she sought acceptance and approval from them to validate who she was and how she felt about herself. She prefers being in a relationship to being single, but now her choice of partner no longer depends on his ability to validate her - she can do that herself.
She admits she would feel more vulnerable if she wasn't in a relationship. She smiles when she mentions her boyfriend's name. "I just love trampoline-style love; how buoyed I feel by us. And him too. There are risks that I'm taking now that if I were single, I just wouldn't be taking, doing stuff that is scary. Saying yes to things I would instinctively say no to."
Fear made her turn down acting jobs, but she did play God in the 1999 movie Dogma, andlast December she starred in an off-Broadway play, The Exonerated, and credits her relationship for giving her the encouragement to take chances. "I felt so supported, and when I did the show it was such a surprising experience. It surprised me to put that much effort into something that only ran for a week."She has a hard time nailing down what makes her say yes to opportunities. "I have gotten to the point where unless it's an absolute yes - in every area - then it's a no. Whether it's a boyfriend or a career opportunity, or a T-shirt that I'm not sure about, it's got to be screaming,'I have to!' or I'm not going to do it."
Sitting with her now, it's hard to believe that in the past, Morissette was guarded and introverted. She's more open and comfortable With herself than ever, and credits the "life coach" she employed two years ago. "If I would go into interviews, there would always be that fear of being called to deal with something that I don't want to deal with. Now, it's kind of exciting. I would love to have a question or hear something that triggers me."We put it to the test. What is she most afraid of now? She puts her fork down. "Okay... Today...I am afraid of..." She giggles, looking delighted. "Ooh, I like this. This is good. Let's see."There is a brief pause. "I am afraid of losing myself in relationships. Still. It's a huge terror. You know the power struggle that you get into in a relationship? Post-infatuation - when you're establishing your boundaries where one person ends and the other person begins? Sometimes I don't have that much trust in myself: that I won't default to being so generous and so curious and so giving that I go to an extreme in that - and I lose myself. I want to be generous but I'm only learning now, at 29, how to not give too much. It's about the balance of generosity and selfishness." Another fear is straying too far from her family. "I always get freaked out by that, because I have no desire to move back to the home town - and at the same time I yearn to be physically near them. I have nephews now."
She's also afraid, she says, of "stepping out". For instance, she says she has an idea for a nonfiction book that she would like to write someday, but "The thought of writing a book terrifies me, because it requires me to be arrogant. There's a shadow part of me that still struggles to this day - especially when it comes to writing a book - with the thought of 'Who cares what I haveto say?'" Just then,she smiles at the irony of this - that having sold millions of albums, she still wonders if people will care about what she has to say. The shadow is self-doubt. "Look at me - Miss Authenticity. What's my shadow? My shadow is that I think that what I have to say is utterly f***ing meaningless and I'm not helping anybody." She crinkles her nose, as though barely able to tolerate the words, let alone the thought. That struggle was paraded in her favourite song, That I Would Be Good, a song about self-worth ("That I would be good even if I did nothing/That I would be good even ifI got the thumbs down/That I would be good if I got and stayed sick/That I would be good even ifI gained 10 pounds...")
Her second album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, also produced by Glen Ballard, came out in 1998, and for her third studio album, 2002's Under Rug Swept, Morissette both wrote and produced all the songs. On that album, the switch from woman wanting to be rescuedto woman capable of saving herself wasevident in the song Precious Illusions ("You'll complete me, right?/Then my life can finally begin/I'll be worthy, right?/Only when you realise the gem I am/But this won't work now the way it once did/And I won't keep it up even though I would love to/Once I know who I'm not, then I'll know who I am/But I know I won't keep on playing the victim...")
She no longer gets anxiety attacks, but admits: "I'll crawl close to it - I know how it feels inmy stomach - but I don't get there any more. I might again. I never say 'never'. But I haven'tbeen there in a while. And now I know what to do when I feel it coming on."It's been a long, complicated little journey for me - making money so quickly as a 21-year-old. Going from borrowing money to survive, and then overnight becoming a millionaire."
A few hours have passed, and Morissette's tour manager comes over and whispers in her ear. Suddenly a huge grin crosses her face. "Ryan's going to be at the hotel in five minutes," she says, sounding girlish and happy. Reynolds has come to London to meet her; they're going to Paris for Valentine's Day.
On the verge of 30, Morissette is pushing herself more than ever to take risks and she is enjoying the process of questioning herself, undaunted by challenges. She has learnt to get the answers wrong, to risk mistakes ratherthan fear consequences. "Now the 'Do I stayshort or do I go long again?' moment is uponme," she says, twisting the ends of her hair. She laughs. "It's a huge question."Who knows how long her hair will be a year from now? The point is, Alanis Morissette has learnt to cut it herself.