Alanis Morissette searched for what mattered most to her. She returned with Such Pretty Forks in the Road
After 25 years in Los Angeles, Alanis Morissette found herself at a series of crossroads, and in 2018, the free-spirited songwriter relocated to Berkeley. At the time, Morissette, 46, felt like she was immersed in a valley of change and chaos. She began asking herself questions like “What do I value?” and “What matters the most to me?” That sense of searching informed a lyric on an agonizing ballad called “Smiling," and would eventually become the title of her ninth studio album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road (out July 31).
“There's just so many junctures: moving from Hollywood, having more children,” she says of that time in her life. The new record, her first since 2012, not only addresses those personal shifts, it is filled with themes that have been woven throughout Morissette’s work over the years: female sexuality, sexual abuse, the pressure to be perfect, her mental health. The last topic is thoroughly broached on “Diagnosis,” a morose piano ballad she refers to as a snapshot of her current postpartum depression — which she admits is now “skewing towards postpartum anxiety.” Though Morissette tries to stay on top of her mental wellbeing, it’s not always easy. “It's like, ‘Wow, I just want to walk into the ocean and not come back. And that [feeling] scared the s–t out of me because I'm such a liver.” Antidepressants have been a saving grace, as has physically removing herself from spaces at times. “I’m highly sensitive and super empathic, so I have to hide in the bathroom, or hide in the closet, or do what I have to do to make sure that the system of my body doesn't get overwhelmed,” she says, but adds with a laugh, “I say that, but it always gets overwhelmed.”
Morissette, who released her first record when she was just 16, has learned how to cope in other ways over the years. Her breakout album, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill, was a vulnerable, sex-positive feminist manifesto that garnered both praise and criticism. Songs like “You Oughta Know” embraced female sexuality, while “Right Through You” challenged the sleazy, toxic patriarchy of the music industry. The year of Pill’s release, she was dubbed “Angry White Female” on the cover of Rolling Stone. “Of course there's going to be some reduction to a human woman, but, if I'm going to be violently one-dimensionalized, I'll choose anger,” she says, of the magazine’s framing at the time. “I'm just like, ‘Yeah. I love anger.’ Anger's beautiful, it moves this world. It fuels my activism. It fuels my advocacy. It fuels everything.”
Morissette calls many of the reactions to her work from that period “straight-up bullying that I had to, in some ways, tolerate.” But she was never one to sling mud back and forth. “I'm too Canadian for that,” she says. In the end, she had the last laugh: Jagged Little Pill shipped more than 33 million copies worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling records of all time. The only thing she would change about the project? “I look at the cover sometimes and I'm like, ‘Hmm...I could have put a little less excitement in that one.”
Following Pill’s success, she released Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept, both of which topped the Billboard 200. But neither would live up to the astronomical commercial success of her third studio record. The eight-year stretch between Such Pretty Forks and her last album, Havoc and Bright Lights, is the longest Morissette has gone in releasing new music. She has stayed busy, though. Following Havoc’s release, she began writing songs for the Jagged Little Pill musical, which premiered on Broadway late last year, but has been put on hold due to the pandemic (along with her highly anticipated tour with Liz Phair and Garbage). And in January, she was featured on Halsey’s album Manic, on a track called “Alanis’ Interlude.” “I had just given birth, so I had a couple of songs for [my] record that I loved so much, but they didn't really belong. So, I sent her a few things, and she wrote an entire song around the chorus. It was beautiful.” The collaboration was the perfect spark to get fans excited for her new album, which arrives 25 years after the one that made her a star.
Before making Such Pretty Forks in the Road, Morissette found herself listening to sparser music. “I'd been wanting to make a ‘piano record’ forever,” she says, and ended up writing each of the new tracks on the instrument. Written and recorded between Malibu and the Bay Area, the singer enlisted collaborator Michael Farrell and producers Catherine Marks and Alex Hope to help with the process. Hope, who produced five songs on the album and is a self-admitted “Alanis superfan,” said the process of working with Morissette was surreal. "Because all the demos were a piano vocal, I wanted to make sure I didn't produce everything with the piano being the driving force," says Hope, whose credits include Selena Gomez and Tegan and Sara. "I wanted to make sure we had a couple of piano songs, but then also take out the piano and use guitar or have strings to make them all sound like they had their own space and world to live in."
That orchestration can be heard on lead single “Reasons I Drink,” a gutting deep dive into addiction. “Here are the reasons I eat/Reasons I feel everything so deeply when I'm not medicated/And so that's it, I am buying a Lamborghini/To make up for these habits, to survive this sick industry,” sings Morissette with a trembling lilt. She has battled a handful of addictions herself over the years, and previously wrote about an eating disorder on Pill’s “Mary Jane.” “Food was a big one, and I've been working on that since I was 13,” she explains. “There's more and more people that have empathy for those of us who are mired in addiction to the point where I can really frame it. But at the beginning, before the substance or process kills you dead, it's really a relief you can measure.”
In 2001, Morissette shared her single “Hands Clean,” which cloaked its dark lyrics about sexual abuse and rape with the singer’s exhilarating vocals. “Sandbox Love,” on her latest project, functions as a companion track to that one, examining how to have healthy sex as a survivor. “[The song] is really like, ‘Okay. The last thing I want to do is keep pouring salt in each other's wounds. Is there a way that we can actively participate in each other's healing around sexual conversation, and not just to keep walking around it?’"
Recalling a narrative similar to Jagged Little Pill’s “Perfect,” Fork’s “Losing The Plot” details Morissette’s existential crisis that arose from the pressure of trying to be flawless and its subsequent deterioration on her mental health: “I am grieving the end of superwoman-ing/I have laid down my cape,” she sings with resign. Notes Morissette, “The pressure that so many of us moms put ourselves through just to be perfect: perfect mom, perfect wife, perfect CEO, perfect boss, perfect artist… [it’s] just too much.”
In fact, after being under the microscope of the music industry for so long, Morissette has thought about leaving for good. “I considered that every time I finished a tour,” she says. Though being on the road is still beyond intense, it hasn’t been enough to make her quit. She still needs to express herself after all. “I'll probably make records until I'm dead and gone,” she says. “I’ll just keep doing it.”