Fierce. Vulnerable. Unapologetic. Alanis Morissette’s voice tore out of 1995 with an album that split the decade. Jagged Little Pill"s sharp arrival was unexpected: Morissette’s previous work included two teen pop albums and a single that gave her the moniker “Too Hot” Alanis. It also gave her a dance-pop image she wanted to shake. At 21 years old, Morissette no longer let others define her; Jagged Little Pill was her truth.
Dropped from MCA Records after those first two albums, Morissette traveled to California to write new songs and eventually found a co-writer in Glen Ballard (Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul). Madonna’s label, Maverick Records, picked up the resulting album, and come June 1995, Morissette released a feminist manifesto in Jagged Little Pill that sold more than 33 million copies and won multiple Grammy and Juno awards.
2015 marks 20 years since Morissette set off on her Jagged Little Pill world tour, a.k.a. the Can’t Not or the Intellectual Intercourse tour. But the album’s story starts in a small studio in Encino, California, just after an earthquake, at the same time and place as the O.J. Simpson police car chase. When a 19-year-old Canadian woman with a hell of a lot to say headed west from Toronto and found her voice.
With interviews from Morissette, Ballard, Maverick’s Guy Oseary and more, we present the complete oral history of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.
Editor's note: all interviews have been edited for clarity.
The making-of: ‘I have zero regret about anything’*
Morissette: I really was dying to go to Hollywood. But I knew that if I went from Ottawa straight to Hollywood it just would've been too big of a cultural change for me. So I spent about a year or so in Toronto, and then I was dropped by MCA. And so I just kept writing. I was a workaholic then, I'm a recovering workaholic now. I was just writing day and night — I have calendars from that period of time where I have a writing session in the morning and a writing session at night, seven days a week, Saturdays and Sundays, and that's all I did.
Ballard: In February of 1994, a young publisher named Kurt Dinney, who was at MCA Music Publishing, and was working in the L.A. office, he called me and said that he had a writer coming in town from Canada and he had thought me to write with her and that's how it all started. It ended up that was Alanis Morissette. And he told me that she was going to be in town for a short time and wanted to write songs.
Morissette: I just didn't want to stop [writing]. And it's why I moved to Hollywood and wrote with so many different people, I didn't want to stop until a song really represented exactly what I was thinking and feeling. [I’d already written] probably 50 songs? [Laughs] I was a people pleaser, and I had a hard time stopping the process if I was writing with someone out of respect for them, so I would finish the song, but I knew that I would never use the song. The exercise of it was really illuminating for me but I knew I hadn't sort of found my rightful seat, so to speak.
Ballard: She was trying to figure out who she was in that moment, and it was this incredible thing. I just felt like she just was shaking her tree and fruit was falling out [laughs]. I mean, she was just so ready to have that happen. So it was a beautiful, beautiful time. And it rarely happens that way. I mean perfect time, perfect place. She was 19 and 20 years old at the time, and on her 21st birthday this record came out and it was a pretty nice birthday present [laughs].
Morissette: When I moved to L.A. I continued writing with a handful of different people and it just didn’t click until I met Glen. He was intellectually sophisticated, so there was no ceiling for me there, and then musically he was really sophisticated, so there was no ceiling there, and then he was just really curious about who I was and left this huge open space for me to write.
Ballard: She walked in my studio in March of 1994, Encino, California, just about six weeks before that there'd been a huge earthquake, and my studio was just getting back online and when she showed up, she actually helped me finish the last day of getting it online. We were late getting started; the studio wasn't ruined, but a lot of stuff had been shaken up. So it was kind of after this huge, seismic event. And then when we're writing the record, literally this O.J. Simpson saga was happening and at one point, Robert Kardashian, he lived in Encino not far from my house. There were all these helicopters going over, chasing O.J. Simpson down the street and we were going, “What the hell is going on?” We were writing a song called “No Avalon,” which is not on the album but it's a very powerful song. It was kind of influenced by that event. So it felt like there was a lot going on. Certainly every day was a pretty magical thing. There was no question about it. That doesn't happen every day.
Morissette: A lot of other people that I'd been put together with to collaborate had their own agenda. Especially in Canada, understandably. They'd known me as a teenage artist. So everyone had an agenda often when I would go into the studio with them, whereas Glen had no agenda. His begged question for me was, “Who are you? What do you wanna write about? What's going on with you?” That was a real freedom, it was beautiful.
Ballard: The first song was called “The Bottom Line” [which later became “All I Really Want”] and we recorded it, we wrote it and recorded it all that day and that became our pattern. We finished it that night, recorded it and played it for our publisher the next day and they liked it, and they said keep going. So we did.
Morissette: Our ritual was such that we would just get together, maybe at noon or 1, we'd go to lunch, we'd have some conversation, some philosophical conversation about whatever the topic was that day, and then we would go into the studio and often the song would be about that topic.
Ballard: I think the biggest thing is that she wasn't on a record label, and we weren't really trying to write something for the radio or for an A&R guy or whatever, we were just writing songs and I think that’s the best thing that could've happened, because I think she was much too original. She didn't want to copy anything, I mean that wasn't in her. And so it was the least derivative thing I've ever done, it was literally just whatever we wanted to do we started doing.
Morissette: We did the music together the first few songs — so “Closer Than You Might Believe” and “The Bottom Line” and “Ironic” were written by him and me, and he dove into some of the lyrics with me, too. So I was leaning on him a little bit in that regard for the first few songs. And then afterwards it just became obvious — well it didn't become obvious, but I just really sort of came into my own, so to speak, and was writing the music with him but then the lyrics would be written all at the same time with me and I felt like I was off to the races, with his support.
Ballard: The best thing that happened in all the writing was that she sang a lot. She just was singing. She didn't have all the words yet but she was singing, singing, singing. And singing these melodies and changing things. For me, getting to hear her voice in the room a lot, that's how we were able to write those songs, one a day. So that was sort of the predicate, and literally every song we did in a day, and it was just the two of us.
Morissette: I think as we started writing more and more songs together, I just thought, “Oh, this is an invitation, this is complete freedom for me to be who I am yet at the same time feel safe,” right? So it wasn't like there were 500 people in the studio in the room, staring at me, judging me [laughs]. And again the lack of agenda was just a very soulful experience for me, his lack of agenda. I had a really big agenda: my agenda was to be self-expressed and to be as authentic as I possibly could, and I wouldn't stop until that happened.
Ballard: I recorded all those vocals at the end of the night, sometimes one take. “You Oughta Know,” one take. Most of 'em, two takes. And it was that part of it, to this day, amazes me more than anything. Because she did not ever, ever get neurotic about vocals. A lot of singers just naturally will be. She just couldn't be less concerned. She just would go out and sing.
Morissette: I think the process for me was really sacred, but it wasn't precious. If I were to have gone in to re-record these vocals, they would've been very awkward [laughs]. Because I already had them, you know? There was a really urgent, visceral, immediate, real-time capturing that Glen was able to do with his C12 mic, his magic mic, the original Magic Mike. And so I just felt the vocals were already there, and he did too.
Ballard: So much of it happened just with the two of us, honestly it's the most intimate record you could make. Because the first two days we were working, I didn't have a recording engineer, largely because of this earthquake thing. I was just doing my best to get it on tape. Recording it on 8-adds. I have a nice studio but I don’t consider myself to be a recording engineer, but on Jagged Little Pill I was. So the first two things we did, it was just me, and she said, “I like writing like that.”
So I engineered all the original demos, every single one of 'em.
Morissette: I think there were a couple times where we tried to maybe do another vocal take and it just sounded like I was copying myself [laughs]. So we kept a lot of the original demos. I think "Hand in My Pocket" is maybe the original demo with a few tweaks.
Ballard: On “You Oughta Know” it was 11 o’clock at night, she sang it once. We were exhausted. That was it. That's the record, that's the vocals. From a vocal standpoint, no one has that much courage. Everybody wants to fix their shit, she never did. She never did. She just wanted it to be that. And of course it was spectacular. But there was no Auto-Tune, no double track. We doubled certain things just for effects, but all those vocals are just her at the end of the night, singing something she just wrote. And that's the most amazing thing to me, is the way she finished it.
Morissette: There is this illusion of safety for artists, when you’re alone in a room. Until the crazy fame that ensued, I literally thought maybe 10 people would hear this song. I didn't think anyone would really hear it. I mean, I wanted to share it with as many billions of people as I possibly could, but I was alone in a room with Glen, and it was safe for me to talk and share and write, and so I did, and it felt really liberating. It was only later that I realized that my own personal intimate experiences were things that people related to or were inspired by or comforted by. That came much later.
Recording engineer Chris Fogel was working for Ballard during the time Morissette wrote Jagged Little Pill, and mixed most of the album.
Fogel: I'd come in in the morning, [Glen would] decide which song I was gonna mix, he'd leave me for the day to do my thing with it, he'd come back and listen to it, make his tweaks to it and then we'd have Alanis come in that evening, listen to it, make her tweaks to it, or they'd listen to it both together for the first time and make their tweaks. I'm sort of the third wheel.
Ballard: On May 26, we wrote the song “Ironic.” So that was the third song we'd written. And honestly, when we wrote that one I was really excited because I loved it, it's still one of my favorite songs, and everything that happened in the writing of that song convinced me that this was special.
*Morissette: I think the malapropism in “Ironic” was the only thing I regretted [laughs]. I was like, oh God, if I knew more than 10 people were gonna hear this, I would've been a stickler instead of being shamed publicly, planetarily, for 20 years. And Glen and I wrote that one together. But, you know, other than that I have zero regret about anything.
Fogel: We were listening to a lot of indie rock at the time, I think at the time the Cranberries were very popular. So we were going for a little bit edgier, not so polished sound, and I think if you listen to the vocal sound in “Ironic,” particularly the bridge section, that's heavily affected, that's something that I came up with for the mix.
Ballard: We wrote a few more times and then she had to go back to Canada. And honestly, we wrote, I think the last thing we wrote was in June, and then I did not write again with her until October of 1994. In a short span we wrote “You Oughta Know,” “Mary Jane,” “Forgiven,” “Head Over Feet,” “Hand in My Pocket,” “Right Through You,” “You Learn,” all that was in October or November. We were just on such a roll at that point, it just felt like we knew what we were doing.
Fogel: We did live versions of “Hand in My Pocket” with studio drummers and studio musicians and presented those to the label. We did versions of songs that never existed.
[We started] doing a whole bunch of different versions of the package that became Jagged Little Pill and eventually wound it back to what it was.
Ballard: What astonished me was that she was writing stuff in real time. I mean “Perfect” she wrote right in front of me, and the whole concept of a child, sort of the pressure that a child feels from their parents. I mean, we weren't even writing that song, she wasn't thinking about it, it just kind of jumped into her brain.
Ballard: There was so much non-verbal intention in her vocal. You can hear there's the cry in the sound of her voice. What is that emotion, you know? What are the words that go with that? And somehow, she was able to do it. I mean, it was just an extraordinary thing to witness. And I was sort of hearing her do it as I'm making these tracks, and we're kicking stuff back and forth with the music, but she's just writing furiously, and then singing some, writing, singing, writing, singing, it was great. Sitting on the floor, never would sit in a chair [laughs].
People think that she was in this heavy state of mind when making it, the opposite was true. I've never been funnier, she laughed at everything I had to say. She was just in a place of wanting fun and laughter, and she was making me laugh, so hard that I couldn't even sit up. Honestly, it was that fun.
The secret track: ‘We wanted to scare people’
Morissette: I started to write that song with nothing, and we tried to envelop it with chords and music but it just didn't quite denote that haunted combination of shame and fear and grief and hope and vulnerability. It just really connotated what was actually happening.
Ballard: I thought I had maybe played piano, and actually, it's a song that I played electric guitar on and she sang to, and I just felt electric guitar didn't sound right, we just took it out. So it's a cappella now.
Morissette: Some of that was fictional obviously, I'm not that creepy, but some of it was based on my having stayed at this person's house, whom I was dating, and just how awkward I felt being in this person's house and everything was so vulnerable and out in the open. I had really good boundaries back then in that sense, but it was my fantasy of, unfortunately, things that wound up happening later, prophetically [laughs]. But it was a little haunted. That was actually probably the only fictionalized moments on the whole record. And that might've been why we had it be a hidden track, too.
Ballard: And we wanted to scare people. It comes on a minute into the sequence. So it doesn't turn off the CD, but if you were just sitting around, you've heard the record and 30 seconds, 45 seconds go by and you think it's over, you're thinking about something else, and you hear her singing. It's spooky. It's scared me a few times, I love it. We're grateful to everybody who sticks around to hear it [laughs].
Getting signed: ‘They were scared of me’
Ballard: Every now and then, when something like that happens, it can't be stopped. And this couldn’t be stopped. Lord knows, I tell you, at the end of 1994, right at Christmas, I was deeply depressed. We had all these songs. Alanis had to go back to Canada, and no one had signed it. I actually didn't know if I was actually going to see her again, and it was just like what a bummer, you know? ’Cause I thought there was something special there.
Morissette: We had started the process of [shopping it around], but I actually put a stop to it because I was taking meetings with people and they were saying things like, “Well how do you perform live?” and I turned to everybody at the time and I said I'm actually unwilling to take one more meeting where I have to describe what I do versus just evidence what I do [laughs]. They'll see.
Ballard: [We shopped it to] all the major record companies. Every single one. Every one. Interscope almost signed it, Atlantic, there was this guy at Atlantic named Steve Greenberg who loved it, he couldn't get his bosses to sign it. Warner Brothers passed, even though they [had] it up on Reprise. All the majors, I mean everybody, honestly, because we had a lot of people, we had enough connections to get people to hear it. Honestly, it was different. People sort of liked it, but it was like, that doesn't mean anything [laughs]. Are you gonna sign it or not? You're not a little bit pregnant. And nobody wanted to get us pregnant. It didn't matter. Honestly, how could it have been any better? It worked out perfectly.
Morissette: I was in the studio writing "All I Really Want" with Glen in my sweatpants [laughs] and we got a call from Ken Hertz, who was a partner of one of the lawyers I was working with. He said, “You've gotta come with me right now, meet me at Maverick.” And I said, “I can't, I'm wearing my sweatpants.” [Laughs] And he said, “Too bad, I don't care, get in the car.” So Glen and I were laughing and we just got in the car and I was like all right, well this is zero presentation, I'm not coming in with my stilettos and my special makeup or anything.
Ballard: I drove Alanis to Maverick and we walked in the front door, 8,000 Beverly Boulevard, and we played Guy a couple songs and he was like, “Oh man,” immediately he didn't play any games, he just loved it.
Guy Oseary started working for Maverick Records at 17 years old in the early ’90s. Today, he manages Madonna and U2.
Oseary: They both walked into my office, I didn't know if they were a band, actually. I didn't know anything, really — when I saw Glen I didn't have background, I didn't know Alanis's background. I didn't know anything about them. The first song they played me was the demo of "Perfect." Within, I don't know, 20 or 30 seconds into the song, I was done. I was already blown away and never heard anything like it and wanted to sign her. That was really it, for me.
Morissette: Guy was maybe two or three years older than me at the time. We played him “Perfect” and “You Oughta Know” and “Hand in My Pocket” and he was completely freaking out.
Ballard: I think we needed that, you know? And so it was enormously encouraging, and the next thing you know he was convincing everybody in that building: this is what Maverick Records should sign. And he convinced everybody. I mean honestly, the music did a lot of the convincing, but it was not without everybody feeling that this could work. We went from just being the unwanted stepchild to being Cinderella.
Morissette: That's why I wasn't as crestfallen as perhaps I could've been during that process of rejection after rejection is that I just thought well, someone's gonna get it. Glen got it. Kurt Dinney got it. And we had a small group of people who really got what we were up to so I thought it's possible to have people understand this music so I just won’t stop until someone does. And then Guy did.
Oseary: I didn't even understand what “perfect” meant. When I finally understood it, when I finally had a chance to listen to it, it blew me away even further, right? I mean that song is unbelievable, lyrically and musically, it is pure. And so well written, and so well sung. But for me it just, I can't explain it. It just clicked. Very quickly, and I really fell in love. I fell in love with Alanis, she warmed my heart.
Ballard: It's a sweet vindication when a small label like Maverick and a young genius like Guy Oseary hears one song and wants to sign it. I mean, after everybody had heard all of it and passed. So you know, we just had to wait for that moment, and it was kind of like it needed to happen that way.
Morissette: I think there was something to be said for the fact that [Guy] was my age, right? He was my generation and so those lyrics resonated with him in a way that perhaps a 54-year-old at the time didn't get. They were scared of me [laughs]. But the people who were younger were high-fiving me.
Oseary: I feel even though a lot of people passed on Alanis, I don't feel like, “Oh I'm the guy who said yes,” I feel as if I'm the fortunate guy she said yes to. Again, I only found out about a lot of it later that everyone else passed. I didn't care about any of that. I just loved it and was really happy that she believed in me, this kid that was an up-and-coming kid who believes in her. It was really mutual, and it was really great. It's one of those things that just felt right all around.
Final production: ‘I’m 19 and I’m intense’
Ballard: We had to get the record really ready quickly and we didn't really do much else to it. We had six or seven other tracks, we added some musicians to it, but essentially every song it started with our demo, and whatever we added to it still is the demo.
Morissette: There were a couple of pieces of feedback, not from Guy but from some other people in the company who wanted to hear different versions of songs and I begrudgingly, we re-recorded some of them and then when Maverick heard it they just said, “Ew, no no no, we want the originals.” [Laughs]
Ballard: There was a sense, especially with Alanis, and I think with Guy, to try and not overproduce it. I mean my instinct was like OK we'll recut everything but boy, that would've been the wrong thing. Because I just looked at it as demos, you know? "My little demos."
Morissette: I think [Warner] thought it was a little too caustic, and they were just afraid of how intense it was, to be honest. And I said, “Well, I'm 19 and I'm intense.” [Laughs] If you want a Steely Dan record, why don't you go sign a Steely Dan band? Because I'm 19 and I have some intensity, so you just may have signed the wrong person. So that was a good boundary to set, and then we used the versions of songs that I loved.
Ballard: We added drums on six things, obviously some guitars and bass.
We did it on a couple things and we didn't go to a big, well-known mixer. [Chris] had been recording our stuff from there, we all just kind of believed that what we had was good enough. Not just good enough but it was the right thing. But none of it had the usual spit and polish of a record, of the many records I'd even made. I'd been a staff producer for Quincy Jones, and I'd made all these big, elaborate records. This was a handmade, really handmade record, you know? And certainly that was essential, I think, to its honesty.
Oseary: The record generally was Glen and Alanis, it really is their album, their baby, and you know, I was fortunate enough to be able to help here and there, but really didn’t need any of my help. I think that record was inevitable.
Except for one track: the radio version of "You Oughta Know" has Flea and Dave Navarro playing on it. Oseary, it turns out, is best friends with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis.
Oseary: There's a guy named Jimmy who I was hanging with at the time who played in “You Oughta Know” and he just kept saying, “Gosh, imagine what this would sound like with a stronger bass and guitar.” So he had the immediate vision for it. And then I talked to Alanis and Glen and asked if we could try to let Jimmy see out his vision. And so we did, we brought in Flea and Dave [Navarro], who were friends, and they tried it and the rest is history.
Album release: ‘She was Justin Bieber then, without the internet’
Ballard: I think her artist development needed to happen outside of the system. Clearly it did because the system didn't really like it. But the public liked it. The public in this instance, they spoke much more loudly than anything any critic could say. Because when they got on the radio a couple of times, people went crazy. Honestly, it was that fast.
Steve Waxman, director of publicity at Warner from 1992 to present, first heard Jagged Little Pill in the spring of 1995 while putting together a slideshow for a sales convention in Banff. At the convention, Alanis and her band ended up being secret guests.
Waxman: The band performed that night at the opening of the convention and completely blew everybody away. They were spectacular. And her performance was amazing. I think the club in [Banff] was called Wild Bill’s, it's a pretty small wing joint. And it was just the Warner staff, which would've been about 50 people. And it was just a really, really great performance and when it was over, I mean everybody was just over the moon.
They were smokin' hot players and they're just, f--k, it was like a full-on rock show. I mean there's no other way to describe it. That being said, I have to admit, that I think I was the only one in the room that was skeptical at all about whether or not we would be successful with this thing.
Craig Halket worked for MuchMusic when the “You Oughta Know” video arrived in 1995. He was a host, live floor manager and also associate music programmer. He’d previously worked with Alanis during her “Too Hot” time, when she performed on Electric Circus.
Halket: A lot of people just felt that [Jagged Little Pill] felt too different. Some of those people were just, again, more skeptical, not so much cynical, but a little more skeptical about whether it would break through. But it just seemed so confident and just seemed so raw compared to what she'd done. I thought everything she did about it seemed to be the right thing to do to move herself away from what she was. And it had been a few years, she'd moved away and there had to be an understanding that she wasn't 15 anymore.
Waxman: I didn't know if radio programmers and press would be able to get past her past. So I think I'm the one person, probably in the company, that thought, “Meh I don't know.” I mean I knew that the record was really good and I knew that the performances she put on was a really great rock performance, but I also didn't have all that much faith in radio programmers and the press people at the time, giving her the opportunity to express herself the way she wanted to express herself. I ended up servicing the record to media without telling them who it was, initially.
Halket: There was a lot of talk about how [Alanis] was Canada's Debbie Gibson, how most of the American media was portraying it. [She] was releasing a record and we didn't really know what it was gonna be. We knew some of the people that she worked with — Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, there were a lot of people that had been talked. So there was a lot of anticipation for when the record company was gonna deliver it. When it finally arrived, I immediately grabbed it, took the tape and ran to the back of the MuchMusic studio to pop it in and Sook-Yin Lee was VJing at the time so we both watched it.
Halket: We just sat down and watched it, and I loved it. I mean I just think that the song was just so obvious. The fact that she was trying to push some buttons with the lyrics, that was the thing that stood out the most the first time: “Would he go down on you in a theatre?” That kind of stood out. And it was like OK, this is a new Alanis.
Lisa Worden is the music director at KROQ-FM in L.A., which was the first American radio station to play “You Oughta Know” when it came out.
Worden: The [Maverick] record rep had called us saying, “We have something really special, we want to come play it for you and it's a new artist and she's out of Canada,” and whatever, and so they came in and played us “You Oughta Know.” And I remember sitting in the room and me and my boss, Kevin, and my coworker Jean, all of us kind of looked at each other on one listen and just went holy crap, that thing is huge. I remember in one of those rare instances, we put the record on that moment. It seriously was one of the biggest phone reactions I've ever seen in the history of the station.
Maie Pauts was a midday announcer throughout the ’90s at Toronto’s alt-rock radio station the Edge, where people also kept calling in requests for Jagged Little Pill singles.
Pauts: I think it blew us away as someone who was not only working in the industry but as also a female listening to other female artists. What stood out to me was that [Alanis] was accepting her vulnerability but she definitely was not, shall we say, a victim. She was very angry, she was very aggressive. And I think the tone of the whole Jagged Little Pill album was one that embraced women for all that we are. Yes, we are women who have emotions and, like anybody else, weaknesses, but that doesn't mean that we don't have our strengths. And I really think that that spoke to us. To a lot of our audience.
Waxman: [My reservation] was completely unfounded. Completely unfounded, I was an idiot [laughs].
Halket: [The pickup] was fairly immediate. People really forgave and forgot. I mean, I think certainly some of the radio people were probably hesitant at the beginning because it was moving to a completely different genre. We played Alanis then and we decided to play Alanis now, just based entirely on that, I mean, there was a lot of hype about who she worked with and the themes of the songs. So she did really kind of shake things up.
Waxman: People were so overwhelmed by the record. It was actually fascinating to watch because it wasn't just that people were reacting so positively it's just that the record really seemed to connect with everybody. It was really quite amazing.
Ballard: Of course I know that it moved a lot of people, and I'm still astonished by how many people were touched by that record. Over 30 million people went out and bought it. These days, you can't even imagine it.
Halket: She was an MTV artist. She was a MuchMusic artist certainly, but it was MTV Awards, it was all of the video outlets, everything. VH1. Everything was all about Alanis. She was the artist.
She was Justin Bieber then, without the Internet.
Waxman: As big as it was, and as quickly as it got big, when she was on the cover of Rolling Stone it was like holy s---. This is f--king big.