ALL THE RAGE

This year's singer-songwriter is Alanis Morissette. She's very young, very good, very big - and very angry
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE hits, and there are hits. These days a lot of them, singles or albums, are the wrong kind - a high new entry, a slight fall, a heavy fall, and goodbye, having appealed only to the converted. But every so seldom a record comes along which conquers the charts inch by inch, propelled not by reputation, or hype, or visual image, or corporate economics, but by simple word of mouth - people hear it at their friends', and like it. The latest example is Jagged Little Pill, by a little-known Canadian, Alanis Morissette. In the past few weeks it has gone from No 12 in the British album chart, to No 10, to 5, to 3, to 2. As Oasis are entrenched at No 1, this may be as far as Morissette will get. But that's all right, because she's more original than they are.

Tomorrow night, at the Brit Awards in London, Morissette will be among the performers, and the likely winners. She is nominated for Best International Female Solo Artist, where she will struggle to pip the goddesses of gloss, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, but she is a strong contender for Best International Newcomer. And if the Brits seem small beer next to the Grammies, which take place in Los Angeles on Tuesday week, well, she is playing there too, and she's up for six awards - the same as Mariah Carey, more than anybody else. Grammies are not presented to commercial failures: Morissette has sold six million albums in the US in eight months.

Six million people can be wrong, but in this case they're not. If Jagged Little Pill is an uneven record, its peaks are high and there are several of them. The first three singles are all bullseyes: "Hand in My Pocket", a list song ("I'm high but I'm grounded/ I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed") which nails the indifference and fence-sitting of the slacker generation, while acknowledging that Morissette is part of it; "You Learn", a beefy ballad which puts a new spin on the old theme of learning from your emotional mistakes; and above all, "You Oughta Know".

A withering ode to an ex who has a new girlfriend, this is already half way to becoming a classic. It's the one that may be Song of the Year at the Grammies, and it has already been covered - a punk version by 1000 Mona Lisas, itself an "airplay hit" on US college radio. In a world full of love songs, "You Oughta Know" is refreshingly hate-filled. It starts sarcastic ("I want you to know that I'm happy for you"), soon takes the gloves off ("Does she know how you told me/You'd hold me/Until you died?"), and culminates in one of the great profanities, strategically placed at the end of the middle verse: "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?"

As well as shock value - and there is some, still; on the Letterman Show, they bleep it out - the line offers a delicious cocktail of moods. The sentiment is both arrogant and vulnerable. The wording is deadpan, conversational. The music is optimistic. And the delivery is regal, with a hint of sly satisfaction - the pain of the situation giving way to the thrill of coming up with a good line.

If the lyrics, for once, are the main thing, the music is good too: raw, swinging and swaggering, with jagged little verses leading into big, easy choruses. Too rugged to be called pop, too literate to be grunge, too dynamic to be folk, the Morissette sound mixes elements of all three to pass the crucial test for popular music: it is both distinctive and highly elastic.

Most people still haven't heard of Alanis Morissette, and many who have haven't grasped her name. She plays dancehalls and theatres, not arenas. But she is already a star. And she is 21.

MIDTOWN Manhattan, 10 days ago. The snow sits on the sidewalks in heaps, like old mashed potato. Sixteen floors up, in a hotel conference room, Alanis Morissette's personal assistant, Jocelyn Rheaume, accosts a photographer.

"You're here to - ?"

"I'm shooting Alana."

"Alanis."

The photographer knows her face, though: "she's beautiful". He's a bit edgy because the room is drab and the light is awkward. Selling six million albums means earning, at the very least, six million dollars, but Morissette is sticking to the touring style to which she is accustomed: a bus, not a plane; Loews Hotel, not the Royalton or the Carlyle. Even having a PA is less glamorous than it sounds. Rheaume is a homely figure taking a year's sabbatical from Morissette's old high school, where she teaches drama.

Morissette joins us with soft hellos and shy handshakes. She is smaller and slighter than she looked on stage, last night, at the Roseland Ballroom; but that's just another way of saying that she is a star. Her visual signature, her hair, is unchanged: dark, centre-parted, and extra-long, like a Bennet sister at bedtime.

"Is there anywhere else?" says the photographer. "Can we go to your room?"

"That's just the same," Morissette says. "Pretty cheesy furniture."

Cheesiness is a subject on which she speaks with some authority. Aged 10, Alanis Morissette was an actress, a short-haired regular on a cheesy Canadian soap opera. (In case this wasn't precocious enough, she used her TV earnings to release a single, on her own label.) Aged 16 to 17, she was a cheesy disco-moppet, just called Alanis, who released two albums on MCA Canada, sold well, and won a Juno Award (a Canadian Brit), while also, to go by a cheesy photo which has now been gleefully dug out by the music magazines, becoming the first woman to wear the smile of the young Donny Osmond under the coiffure of the young Kevin Keegan. One way of looking at her third showbusiness career is as an attempt to avoid cheese. In photographs, her long thin face tends to sport an expression of great seriousness.

The more serious the face, the lovelier the smile, someone famously said, and when Morissette smiles, all the lights come on at once. She finally looks her age; even a little cheesy, with an endearing resemblance to Kirby, the butler's daughter in Dynasty.

Her stage outfit is chosen for comfort, she says, but also displays a discreet sexuality - black vinyl trousers, a billowing silk shirt in mulberry. Her interview outfit is just discreet: tweed trousers, of the kind her father, a high-school principal, might wear at work; a long suede jacket; no jewellery or detectable make-up.

For one who has made a reputation out of being angry, on "You Oughta Know" and several other songs, she is strikingly polite. Unused to interviewing 21-year-olds, I had envisaged a lot of mumbling and phrases beginning "I'm, like ..." She doesn't say this once. She speaks in flowing sentences with barely a "sort of" to sustain her. She's unlike.

The only time she gets angry is when I mention anger.

"To be considered as a one-dimensional person, let alone a writer, is somewhat laughable to me, because there's a lot of overt emotion on the record, not just anger. There's frustration, confusion, revelations, hope. I just think of the record as a response, to the environments I had been in and what I was exposed to my entire life. Because I was given an opportunity to be honest for what felt truly like the first time, it just flowed out uncontrollably. And I don't think that'll continually happen - at some point you find a middle ground. My records don't have to be angry just because my first one happened to be filled with that emotion."

HER BACKGROUND is both exotic and conservative. Her father, Alan, is French-Canadian, her mother (another teacher) Hungarian. Home was in Ottawa, one of North America's less happening cities. Alanis was brought up a Catholic. She still believes in God, but not in organised religion.

Was it a repressive upbringing?

"Some of it was, and some truly wasn't. My parents gave me a lot of freedom. I don't know a lot of parents who would let their 10-year-old fly to different cities to record or shoot videos."

Would she put her daughter on the stage?

"If they wanted it I would. I'd try and ask them what they were motivated by. If they were motivated by their art - music or painting or books or poetry - I'd be more peaceful about it. If they simply wanted the adulation or celebrity, I'd feel a little less peaceful. But I'd still let them do whatever they wanna do. I guess I was motivated by both things, and here I am, pretty peaceful."

Her lyrics read like diaries and she confirms that they are all drawn from life, except the hidden track "Your House", in which (singing a capella) she imagines snooping round a friend's place. Her parents get it in the neck in a song called "Perfect", where a lullaby of a tune carries a scalding encapsulation of parental pushiness. But she still goes home for Christmas and any lingering bitterness seems to be directed more at Catholicism, the patriarchy, and the narrow commercialism of the Canadian music business. "As I got older, and as I became more of a human as opposed to a woman, it was obvious to me that a lot of things that I thought were taboo in the past truly aren't, and there were things that I was led to believe I should feel guilty for that I truly could have been revelling in when I was younger. I grew into realising that and it came out in my songs."

Not least in a couplet on "You Oughta Know" which has achieved instant notoriety: "Is she perverted like me?/Would she go down on you, in a theatre?" This, she has wearily informed other interviewers, is a joke. "How could anyone think I seriously consider giving head to be perverted?" But the ability to miss irony knows few bounds. The day after we meet, the New York Daily News reviews her show at Roseland: "this self-professed pervert who sings about performing oral sex in public places ..."

TO FIND herself, the teenaged Morissette left Ottawa for Toronto and Toronto for Los Angeles, where she lived on friends' sofas and on loans from Scott Welch, manager of Seal. Needing help with the settings for her lyrics, she tried "100 different collaborators" before meeting Glen Ballard, who had produced Aerosmith and co-written "Man in the Mirror" with Michael Jackson. Morissette and Ballard recognised something in each other: "He and I had pasts that were reminiscent of each other. We were both ready to do what we really wanted to do, as opposed to, in my case, doing what I felt I should do, and in his case, doing what he was commissioned to do."

Scott Welch shrewdly advised her to make the album before trying to sell it. "So there was no pressure. It was so pure, it made me believe in the inexplicable again. It humbled me, 'cause I'm so goddam analytical and it was a thing that I had no answer for."

The finished article was 80 per cent demos: "you can really squelch a song by going over it too much." Then she did have to deal with record companies. "The process was difficult for me," she told Rolling Stone, in a cover story published only a year later. "Since I was 14, I've spent a lot of time with people focused on everything except the music. For me this was not about money or getting patted on the back. I met with some people who would tell me, 'Why don't you just change this lyric, and the kids will respond more?' And I'd say, 'I didn't write it for them, I wrote it for me.' " In a market-researched world, this is a heartening reiteration of the paradox of popular entertainment: the surest way to attract the public is to disregard them.

Her distaste for corporate types led her to sign with Maverick, a little label where the ultimate boss is not a man in a suit, but a woman and a fellow performer, albeit a businesslike one: Madonna. "She reminds me of me when I started out," Madonna has said (and bosses love that). "Slightly awkward but extremely self-possessed." Morissette, while playing down the similarities, calls Madonna"a great CEO". But it's clear that the central figure in her working life is Scott Welch. "He's a manager of integrity. He only works with artists he believes in and - " a shy laugh - "you gotta love that."

Integrity seems to be the thing she most believes in.

"Definitely. Across the board. It's almost like a new discovery for me - in the past the whole concept of integrity was grey to me. But the benefits of living moralistically are so big and fulfilling that I wouldn't think twice about it now."

In cold print, in sceptical Britain, this speech will look pretentious, but it's delivered with a redeeming artlessness. Most artists take themselves seriously, and they have to: it's important to be earnest. The syndrome is most pronounced in performers who start at the shallow end of the business, then reinvent themselves. It's no accident that the British singers Morissette especially admires are George Michael and Annie Lennox.

SCOTT WELCH'S hope for Jagged Little Pill was that it would sell 300,000 and establish a base. That has now happened 20 times over. And, inevitably, it has been suggested - notably in Canada, the one country to resist her charms this time around - that all Morissette's soul-baring is just a ploy to reach a young female audience. Her publicist is sufficiently concerned to take critics aside at the New York show and stress that she's for real.

Her own riposte is more effective. "If it was calculated, I must be pretty darn smart. Don't give me that much credit."

! Alanis Morissette plays the Brit Awards, ITV, Tuesday, 8.30-10pm; Empire, W12 (0181 740 7474), 14-16 April; Aston Villa Leisure Ctr, Birmingham (0121 328 5377), 18 April; Apollo, Manchester (0161 242 2560), 19 April; Barrowlands, Glasgow (0141 552 4601), 20 April.

Tim de Lisle, editor of the 'IoS' series and Penguin paperback 'Lives of the Great Songs', will be discussing rock writing with Donald Clarke, editor of the 'Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music', at the Helter Skelter bookshop, Denmark St, WC2 (0171 836 1151), Thursday, 7pm.

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