From Fury to Success

By Paul Rigg

If one of the main challenges in music is to connect with your audience, then Alanis Morissette’s personal stories on Jagged Little Pill (13 June 1995; Maverick) must count as a huge success. Because this previously little-known Canadian artist, in search of a record contract and living at her parent’s house, suddenly struck gold with her co-writer and producer Glen Ballard (who had helped write Michael Jackson’s Bad and Thriller), and produced an album that went to number one in countries across the world, sold over 33 million, won five Grammy awards and spawned half a dozen hit singles. Those numbers make it one of the biggest sellers in history; not bad for a woman who was only 21 years old at the time of its release.   


And while the gushing rawness of her lyrics might have been too much for some, the message of songs like Right Through You, which dealt with sleazy and inappropriate advances on her by record company bosses - “You took me for a joke, You took me out to wine, dine, 69 me”, - has only become increasingly poignant over time.

After finding only lukewarm success in Canada with her first two albums, Morissette decided to move from her hometown, Ottawa, to Toronto, and from there was then persuaded to go to Los Angeles, where she first met Ballard. They hit it off immediately and within minutes were experimenting with song ideas. "I just connected with her as a person, and, almost parenthetically, it was like 'Wow, you're 19?' She was so intelligent and ready to take a chance on doing something that might have no commercial application,” said Ballard.


The pair travelled to Ballard’s studio with the aim of writing one song a day. Ballard played guitars (namely a modified 1979 Fender Strat, which he says he uses 90 percent of the time; though he is also a big fan of Rockbridge acoustics), keyboards, and drum machine while Morissette played harmonica and co-wrote the lyrics. Later on bassist Flea (noted for his love of Modulus) and guitarist Dave Navarro (who often plays a PRS signature electric and Epiphone signature acoustic) from Red Hot Chili Peppers contributed to the lead hit single You Oughta Know. The acerbic lyrics on this track are typical of the edginess and sexuality that recurs throughout the album: “Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it,” she bitterly intones to an ex-partner.

The second single from the album, Hand in My Pocket, contains a strong rock guitar lick against a drum machine back beat,
and has a more hopeful lyric: “Everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine,” she sings. You Learn, another top 10 hit, is perhaps the most pop-oriented track, with its light rock and jazz backdrop to Morissette’s amusing suggestion to her listeners that theyDitch the fear, open your heart, speak your mind, and when the going gets tough, walk around the house naked.”


Head Over Feet
, the sixth single, might be described as a simple and sweet love ballad, and is a good example of the contrasts and depth of the album. Here we meet the opposite of the guy portrayed in You Oughta Know. Ironic, on the other hand, was placed near the end of the original release, and was only the fourth-released single, but it became Morissette’s biggest hit. It was criticised at the time for using a number of examples of behaviour that are in fact not ironic at all, such as “It's like rain on your wedding day" or 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife”, but gave the press something to talk about and Morissette the last laugh.

Jagged Little Pill
was expected only to sell enough for Morissette to make a follow-up, but it became a huge international hit, and still stands up today as a testimony to the capacity of a highly personal take on messy relationships to connect with millions of people across the world.