Chrissy Iley talks to Alanis Morissette (2023)

I was expecting Alanis Morissette to show up as a simplified version of herself. After all, she has a fiance now and has cut off her witchy hair, like a woman who has cut herself free from a tortured past. I had been told that she was mellow, calmer, blander these days. Fortunately, she is none of these things. When we meet, the hair is back, in the form of extensions; the eyes have a piercing darkness. She is wearing man's pinstripe trousers and a strappy peacock-coloured top with flashes of diamante. All at once she is embracing androgyny and sexual omnivorousness.

Morissette is about to guest-star in the London production of The Exonerated, about six people sent to death row for crimes they didn't commit. Morissette, who first appeared in Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's play off-Broadway, plays Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, a young mother of two who spent 16 years in jail for a murder of which she was innocent. By the time she was released, Sunny's daughter - 10 months old when she was jailed - was a stranger to her. "I feel very aligned with her and uplifted by her courage and faith," says Morissette. "Her ability to remain in a place of love is a guiding force for me."

Morissette is famous for her tortured, graphically personal songs about intense loneliness and rage against the world, and her extraordinary voice; she has been described as the love child of Sylvia Plath and Bruce Springsteen. Millions of uncomfortable souls have flocked to her in the 11 years since she released her hit album Jagged Little Pill. Surely she couldn't carry on being so tortured when she was selling millions of records and had millions of people empathising with her?

"There was a comfort in knowing that I wasn't alone," she says. "But then I felt horrified that so many people were as fucked up, depressed and sick.

But she lives torture-free now? Stable and fianceed? "Phh," she says. "Apparently. Fianceed, yes; stable, no. Anyone who is in a committed relationship will attest to the fact it's not the easiest path to choose. It's not made me calm. I find it exhilarating, challenging, healing and horrifying all at once."

We are in a little Japanese tea shop in Brentwood, Los Angeles - her local. She wants to make sure I order the right thing from the menu. She's very caring, very aware, and insists that I have a tea that comes with black pearls, which seem to be large balls of jelly that don't go up the straw properly. She kindly pretends not to notice when I can't suck a ball into my mouth.

You wonder about Morissette becoming a Mrs. There is something about her sexuality that is a little too raw. In one of her videos she played a woman whose love interest is another woman. "I think it's a rite of passage to experiment and explore your own sexuality," she says.

In the past she has searched for maternal mentors and experimented with women. She played a lesbian in an episode of Sex and the City and had a full-on kiss with Sarah Jessica Parker. She sparkles when she talks about toying with other people's visions of her sexuality. You wonder about how the marriage fits with all that and her feminist ideals, and so does she.

Perhaps that's why the wedding date keeps being put off. She met Ryan Reynolds two and a half years ago. He's an actor (Amityville Horror, Blade 3: Trinity). He is 28, she is 31. "I thought a few months ago we'd be married now. I hadn't realised how complicated it was to pull off a wedding, but I already feel like he's my husband. I call him my husband."

Does she want children? "I'm not ready for that yet. I feel like I've only just worked out how to parent myself." More on her self-parenting later. For now she tells me about Ryan; not so much how he changed her life, but how something in her changed, shifted and she felt ready for a less traumatic, more nurturing relationship.

"I first met Ryan at a party and thought, 'What a cute guy,' but I was then with my ex-boyfriend and I'm very monogamous-minded. There was always this spark and I thought he was my fantasy guy. I always said the kind of person I want to be with would have to be a dork and Canadian so I think I manifested that. I very much believe in thoughts creating words."

A dork? "Yes, I needed that and he was a special creature. I met him and I felt like I'd known him my whole life. I do believe than when we are ready a relationship comes that offers you the opportunity to finish unfinished business. A whole colourful journey of figuring it out together. And there was definitely that familiarity. We might have known each other in a past life, but just to get really practical, our actual upbringings were so similar. He and I both worked at the same TV station, all that kind of stuff, years apart as kids. It was uncanny." When Morissette was about 11, she worked at a TV station in Ottawa and hosted a show called You Can't Do That on Television. It was a curious show where she felt grown-up before her time. She spent a lot of time on her own and was writing her first album at the age of 14. She had her first breakdown at the age of 16; she was 21 when she signed to Madonna's Maverick label. Her 28 million-selling album Jagged Little Pill, her first international success, came out in 1995.

She hasn't had an easy ride of it; her recent greatest-hits album, a catalogue of tortured songs about being misunderstood, is testament to that. The question now is, now that she's no longer the tortured young woman she was, does she have enough demons to be inspired? "I think the self-loathing is waning and yes, there are some yummy songs that have come out of self-loathing, but at this point of my life I feel songs spawned from life questions and the torture within that is more alluring to me as a 31-year-old. Thankfully, I am not writing about the same tortures that I experienced as a 17-year-old. If I were, somebody should slap me.

"For a long time the voices in my head were all self-loathing. Even when I became successful, the tyrannical voices would say, 'You are in a privileged position in the public eye. You are not serving enough, healing enough, offering enough.' That never-enough theme was something that came and haunted my whole life. I mean, how many fucking humanitarian events can I take part in?"

She says she only started to move from her constant self-punishment two years ago - around the time she met Ryan. Did he change her, or did she change her perspective to allow him to be "enough" for her?

"I think it happened after him because I believe that true love exists but it doesn't always show up with butterflies in the way you expect it to. It shows up with someone for whom your heart is palpitating but not gasping. I met Ryan and thought, 'I can be in a relationship.' For the first time I didn't think, 'I am going to be in another relationship and be unfulfilled.' I wanted to make it work - passion and harmony together. Most people who are breaking up are breaking up in the beginning of their relationship, not the end, and that's the most painful thing. My past relationships ended when I thought, 'We are just starting the love journey. Why do you want it to end now?' "

Was that because of commitment issues? "I think society is sold on a version of love that is ridiculous, that's always going to be infatuation, walking into the sunset together, hearts coming out of your eyes. Step two is the conflict and that's when most people break up. When everything you thought you loved you hate. Step three is when you start helping each other and growing up and take an active role in each other's feelings as opposed to being salt in each other's wounds. But I think you have to have the salt in the wounds to get to the next place.

"With Ryan the salt is that he is reminding me and releasing me from all the pain in my life. Without that there would be nothing to heal." She speaks as one who has had years of therapy, but she says that she has now abandoned the therapy and taken up with life coaches, because she thinks their advice has been more practical.

She orders more weird tea, this time without balls. She is an odd mix of hypersensitive and hyperconfident. Growing up, she was not encouraged to express her emotions or her anger, she says. She was encouraged to keep it all inside. "I have three ways of getting out of anger. One is writing a song - that's the easiest one. The other is to take a towel or a bat or my fist and hit something. I have to make sure no one is around or I freak them out. I can't even do it in front of my dog [a white chihuahua Italian greyhound mix she refers to as 'a piece of God']. The third is a trick from a life coach. You get mad at who you think you're mad at, then you get mad at who that person reminds you of, and then you get mad at yourself for having placed yourself in that situation. It is more effective than blaming, venting and freaking out. It is more of a relief and it can make you feel empowered."

She has particularly empowered-looking yoga arms. "I do push-ups. I was obsessed with yoga for years [her twin brother is a yoga teacher], but now I don't do it as much."

Her parents were very young when they had her. They were both teachers. She is very kind about her parents, yet obviously something in her childhood went very wrong. As a 14-year-old she expressed herself through kleptomania. Why? "It was the only thing I could do better than my brothers. My brothers could always run faster and do things better, the twin one and the older one. And it was exciting. It was that adrenaline rush. The drug of feeling alive. In essence, the root of all trouble is a deep yearning for a sense of aliveness, and that may give it to you for a minute or an hour."

Shoplifting has been said to involve a similar adrenaline rush to eating disorders, especially bulimia. For a minute you think you have control, and then you relinquish it all by having to binge and puke all over again. Shoplifting, too, is an addiction. "I'd bounce between anorexia and bulimia," says Morissette. "Throwing up or excessive working out, whatever was the compensatory thing. For me it was linked to the shoplifting because it was about that trying to be good enough. There was a lot of 'enough' in my life. Not desired enough, not good enough, not thin enough. Even when I was very successful I never felt I was successful enough and it would drive some of my ex-boyfriends nuts. I think they were afraid it would be their job to make me feel good enough. Looking for approval outside of yourself doesn't work. I was always with guys that were mentor-type figures, that were older than me. I wanted to learn from them and I wanted their approval. I would always fall short, and so would they."

Her father, Alan Morissette, has always been a shadowy figure in her life. Was she looking to re-create him with her older boyfriends? "I think growing up there was a lot of confusion ... I was looking for approval and praise all the time and I never got enough of it. And sometimes when I did get enough I couldn't appreciate what I had. I think my parents being teachers started it. I mean, it takes a pretty fucked-up person to want to teach all the time and I include myself in that. I see myself as a teacher."

From an early age she was a ludicrously high achiever. "I remember buying my first house as a 21-year-old, the house I live in now [in Los Angeles]. It was not age-appropriate. I remember going shopping for furniture and I was paralysed. I bought a teddy bear for $12. I was awkward with my money at first. It's only in the last two years that I've learned to have fun with it."

She is a lot of fun, and sexy. Her hair is neither witchy nor brutalised by her own chopping. "People said, 'She's cut her hair, she's changed her life,' and here it is back. It was strange. I used to cut it every day more and more and by the end of the tour it was chopped very short. It was a great way to get rid of anger. In kindergarten my hair was really long. My parents would admire my golden ringlets - princess hair. I cut it in class. I like long hair now because it takes care of the femininity thing. I like to dress masculine but be in touch with my feminine. The short hair required me to put more effort into looking stereotypically female."

Being stereotypically anything would never work for Alanis Morissette. She is happiest when contradicting herself.

· Alanis Morissette appears in The Exonerated from May 23-28 at the Riverside Theatre, London W6. Box office: 020-8237 1111.

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