Alanis Morissette: A Biography

Alanis Morissette: A Biography

by Paul Cantin


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Just two years ago Alanis Morissette was a former teen pop star, dismissed by some as a footnote in Canadian pop history. Then her album Jagged Little Pill sold over 13 million copies worldwide, and a new queen of alternative rock was crowned.

Here Paul Cantin tells the tale of how Morissette transformed herself from failed teenage star into an artist whose work speaks to an entire generation. With multiple Grammys and MTV Awards under her belt; this singer/songwriter has achieved what none thought possible. This is the story of that rare second chance.

Included in this book are: Morissette's own account of her songwriting inspiration, exclusive interview material, a front-row account of the 1996 Grammy Awards, and never before-seen photos. This is the one book no Morrisette fan will want to be without.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312180355
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/15/1998
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 585,883
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Paul Cantin's writing on Alanis Morissette has appeard in the Ottawa Sun, and he was recently nominated for a Los Angeles Music Journalism Award. He lives in Canada.

Read an Excerpt

Alanis Morissette

A Biography

By Paul Cantin

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1997 Paul Cantin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-10917-0


Starting Early

Alanis Morissette's determination and self-assurance can largely be traced to her parents, particularly her mother Georgia, whose own childhood was marked by a harrowing journey to Canada.

Georgia Feuerstein arrived in Canada as a child from her birthplace in Hungary, having escaped the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. She was only ten years old when her family fled by train in November, 1956. Their escape was nearly foiled when their train was stopped and searched by Soviet forces. A sympathetic conductor warned the family and had the engineer unleash a cloud of steam, which let the Feuersteins slip off the train in the smoke and confusion. When it later pulled away, the family could see from a distant hiding spot that their fellow escapees had been forced off the train at gunpoint.

Later, in exchange for whatever worldly possessions they had carried with them — watches, jewellery, money — a farmer let them travel at night across his land to the Austrian border. As they made their way to the frontier, search flares were sent up in an attempt to spot escapees. The family had to dive for cover to escape detection.

A month later, Georgia and her family arrived in Canada and initially lived at the Uplands military barracks in Ottawa. At the time, Georgia's knowledge of English consisted of little more than "yes" and "no." When fire drill alarms rang out at school, she assumed it was a bomb-attack warning and instinctively cowered under her desk.

Georgia met Alan Morissette in a schoolyard when she was twelve years old, and they became sweethearts. Georgia's strict European parents did not allow her to date, and so they spent their time together playing badminton, broomball, and street hockey. Alan also tutored her in the French language. Later that summer, he announced she would one day be his wife.

Nine years later, he delivered on that promise. They married in the summer of 1967 in Ottawa, during a long weekend break from their summer courses at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

After graduating, the Morissettes moved back to Ottawa. Their first child, Chad, arrived in 1971, and three years later, on June 1, 1974, Georgia gave birth to twins at the Riverside Hospital in Ottawa. Alanis was born twelve minutes after her brother, Wade. Alan wanted his daughter to have a female variation on his own name and nearly settled on Alana, until he spotted a reference to the more distinctive Alanis in a book about Greece.

Georgia and Alan now found themselves the parents of three children, and they settled down to provide for their young family. Like many first-generation immigrants, Georgia has a relentless work ethic. For eighteen years, she was a school teacher and has also worked intermittently at everything from selling Fuller brushes door to door, to marketing air and water filters, home alarms, and utility audits. Where Georgia is gregarious, outgoing, and exuberant, Alan, a high school principal, is described by friends as reserved and academic. The couple may seem like a study in contrasts, but Alanis's personality naturally bridges the two. In conversation, Alanis takes after her father and can come across as analytical and quiet. Yet onstage, she is perfectly comfortable holding the attention of thousands, and, like Georgia, she has a tireless drive to achieve.

In 1977, Alan and Georgia accepted positions teaching the children of Canadian servicemen stationed in Lahr, Germany, at one of Canada's primary NATO bases in Europe. Almost every weekend during their time overseas, the Morissettes took their children travelling across Europe in a camper-van, visiting Holland, Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, Switzerland, and France. Alanis was bright, talkative, and active, and even at three, she was drawn to the spotlight. During the family's trek to the French city of Avignon, Alan took her to see Olivia Newton-John's 1977 cinematic debut in Grease. Alanis was so taken with the movie, she quickly committed the songs and storyline to memory. When her maternal grandmother later came to visit them, Alanis performed the entire film, using a nail polish bottle as a microphone. "As parents, you say 'cutsie, cutsie,'" Georgia told the Ottawa Citizen in 1987. "But by God, she had the words down pat."

In 1980, the Morissettes returned to Ottawa, where they have lived ever since. Alanis's recent fame has brought new attention to the city, whose limelight is usually focused on the prime minister and elected officials who make up the federal government. Ottawa became the capital of Canada largely because it represented a compromise, falling as it does right on the border between Canada's two cultural solitudes, English Ontario and French Quebec, and Canada's two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal. For many, Ottawa still represents a compromise. Often damned with the faint praise of being "a nice place to raise kids," it is also occasionally derided as the city that fun forgot.

In a sense, Ottawa is a company town like many others. But in this case, the company is the federal bureaucracy. With so many citizens employed in the civil service, making reasonably similar amounts of money and having so much in common, many have looked at Ottawa and seen a largely homogeneous population. And compared to other major cities in Canada, that may be true. The uniformity of salaries continually ranks Ottawa at or near the country's highest average income bracket.

Most of the famous people associated with Ottawa are, naturally, politicians. Residents often have the modest thrill of seeing the prime minister or cabinet members climbing out of limos en route to the nation's business. But even before Alanis's success with Jagged Little Pill, some of Canada's biggest musical and entertainment exports called Ottawa home. Bryan Adams grew up in a military family and hop-scotched around the world throughout his childhood, but it was while living in Ottawa's Beacon Hill neighbourhood that he bought his first guitar and joined his first band — an incident later immortalized in his song, "Summer of '69."

In the late fifties, a local teen named Paul Anka recorded a song about his unrequited love for his babysitter, and "Diana" became one of the biggest hits of the early rock 'n' roll era. Then in 1974 — the year Alanis was born — he returned to the top with "You're Having My Baby," a treacly tribute to his wife's fecundity.

Ottawa-bred impressionist Rich Little has a street named after him. Actor Dan Aykroyd, who began his dramatic career in campus productions at Ottawa's Carleton University, and Saturday Night Live cast members Norm McDonald and Mark McKinney all lived in the city at one point. For a brief time, a youngster named Tommy Mapother lived in Ottawa with his mom and sisters, and would later become better known as actor Tom Cruise. U.S.-based news anchor Peter Jennings and Friends star Matthew Perry lived and worked in Ottawa, too.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the city became a hub for the burgeoning folk movement, and the nightspot Le Hibou became a major stop on the coffeehouse circuit. The most celebrated and enduring product of that scene is the politically committed and still active singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bruce Cockburn. And in 1971, Ottawa's Five Man Electrical Band scored a continental hit with the hippie protest anthem "Signs."

When they settled back in Ottawa, Georgia and Alan began to foster in their three children a positive, outgoing nature, coupled with a sensitivity to their own feelings and an openness about sharing. The Morissettes attended Catholic mass every Sunday, and every night, the family gathered together to share their personal thoughts and observations of the day. To make their children feel special, Alan and Georgia would individually devote a day or evening to one-on-one activities with each child — whether it was seeing a movie or playing catch or going shopping.

All three kids showed an early interest in performing, even choreographing and videotaping dance routines to hit songs of the day, like Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." They also acted out scenes from TV shows and movies. Gradually, Chad became more interested in other things, and eventually pursued a career in business. Wade excelled at sports and also enjoyed singing and dancing with his sister, but he wasn't as driven as Alanis, whose primary interest was always in art and entertainment. Her earliest childhood memories centre on her infatuation with show business, and she was fascinated with movies, performances, and music, wanting to take part in them herself.

Despite their diverging interests, all three Morissette kids displayed the same discipline. Whatever activity they pursued, they did it with vigour. "All three children have an attitude that says 'I'm going to do this until I reach my goal, not until the first obstacle gets in my way,'" Georgia told a TV documentary crew from Ottawa-based Carleton Productions in 1991, just as her daughter's star was on the ascent in Canada.

And Alanis wasted no time in getting started on her own goals. When she was six years old, the Morissettes arranged to visit entertainers Lindsay and Jacqui Morgan, family friends who performed as a folk duo in Ontario and Quebec in the 1970s and 1980s. The couple was booked to perform in the lounge of a hotel in the cottage region of Muskoka. Because the Morgans were performing in a licensed bar, the Morissette kids weren't allowed to go in, so the family perched on the resort's deck and watched their friends play through a set of French doors.

The performance had a profound effect on Alanis. Straining to see her friends singing onstage, she was rivetted by the spectacle and did not take her eyes off the Morgans' show. "When she looked up on that stage and saw me singing, her eyes were like saucers," says Jacqui. "She wanted to be there. I knew she was going to be there."

Alanis still recalls that night, and suspects that seeing close friends entertaining made the whole idea of performing seem like a very attainable goal. "A lot of people that age are just as capable of doing it as I was," Alanis says now. "But they may watch Carole King, and Carole King may not be a friend of the family. Whereas, with the Morgans doing it and being my parents' best friends at the time, I thought it was something I could do."

So Alanis settled on a career as an entertainer before she had even entered the double-digit age bracket. She relished any opportunity to perform, and Alan and Georgia did whatever was necessary to help her achieve her dream. If she wanted to dance, they signed her up for dance classes. If she was interested in theatre, they took her to auditions. Contrary to the cliché of the stage mother, Georgia never goaded her daughter into anything. Alanis stated her ambitions, and her parents became tireless facilitators of those dreams — providing unconditional support and encouragement.

"I realize how much freedom they gave me," Alanis says about her parents. "I also knew it was something I was destined to do. Not that I was destined to achieve some sort of external success with it, but to do it. To create. To perform."

Between the ages of nine and thirteen, Alanis participated in group jazz recitals at dance schools in Ottawa, and when she was eleven, she played an orphan in a local production of Annie. "But I loved music first and foremost," Alanis says. "There was a certain release and excitement that I got by being onstage. When I was younger, I saw music more from the performance end of it. To make people in the audience smile and take them away from reality."

Throughout that time, Alanis also began sitting alone up in her room, composing poems. It wasn't long before she was converting her rudimentary stabs at poetry into lyrics and setting them to melodies. Soon she was writing songs, although she kept them to herself.

In 1983 the Morissette family travelled to California, visiting the beach-side celebrity colony, Malibu. Alanis, who was nine at the time, purchased a map of superstar mansions and set out to track down the home of her heroine, Olivia Newton-John. When she found it, she marched up to the entrance, buzzed the intercom, and, with an uncanny confidence that would characterize much of her early career, spoke clearly into it: "Olivia? I don't know if you can see me. But if you can, I'm going to be big like you someday."

Alanis was already working on something that would launch her into a recording career. In early 1984, the nine-year-old mailed an audiocassette to Jacqui and Lindsay Morgan, who were living on a farm north of Toronto at the time. One side of the cassette featured songs Alanis had recorded from the radio (including Madonna's "Material Girl"). The other began with Alanis declaring: "This is another one of my favourite songs. I wrote this." And she proceeded to belt out an original composition.

The Morgans were a bit surprised to find the cassette in their mail, and even more surprised at how good it was. "I remember sitting there and thinking, there is something really special here," Lindsay Morgan says. "I could hear lyrics in there. The song was all over the place. It was like there was no structure. But she had all the music and was just singing away with no instruments."

Alanis is not certain what possessed her to send off the sample of her songs, but suspects she was interested in getting feedback from an experienced singer and songwriter. "When I first started writing songs, I wasn't even sure I had the voice to do it. So I was more into writing really horrible poems. And then I started just writing songs with music and lyrics and I put them on tape. And that's the tape I sent Lindsay."

Within a few months Lindsay was back in Ottawa and stopped by the Morissettes' house. He sat down at the family piano and asked Alanis to work with him on her song. She brought out the lyrics and music for a number she called "Fate Stay with Me," and the two painstakingly went through the rudimentary words and melody, with Lindsay pointing out trouble spots and arranging the unstudied music. He coached her through the song, playing various chord sequences and suggesting different words, but let Alanis make all the decisions until they had a completed song.

Lindsay hung onto the musical ideas when he returned to his farm, and during spare moments, used his synthesizers, drum machines, and eight-track home recording studio to work up an instrumental backing track for the song. The next time the Morissettes came to visit, he waited until Alan and Georgia were away on an errand and sneaked Alanis into his studio to add her voice. When her parents returned, Lindsay surprised them with the finished recording. They were overwhelmed by the sound of their daughter performing her composition. Georgia burst into tears as she listened to the lyrics.

What did you think I'd be doing now
While you left me, I was thinking aloud
Would there be no end to my sorrow
Will I make it through tomorrow
Let the autumn leaves fall
The chilly raindrops freeze
The white snow melt
I'll just sail on those seas.
Fate, fate, fate stay with me
I wanna be, wanna be, wanna be free.

Alan and Georgia couldn't believe their young daughter had written the song. Lindsay made a copy and gave it to them. He also played it for friends, who were all astounded that a nine-year-old had written it. But Lindsay was unsure whether "Fate Stay with Me" was a fluke or whether it was evidence of real musical talent. He told Alanis to keep writing and keep him posted on her progress.

A few months later on his next pass through Ottawa, Lindsay once again took up position at the Morissette family piano and asked Alanis if she had been following his advice and working on her songs. She responded by producing an exercise book, with page after page jammed with song ideas she had worked up in her bedroom. He asked Alanis to sing one of her new songs for him.

"Now, don't laugh," she warned.

"Alanis, I am not going to laugh at all. Trust me," Morgan replied.

With that, she launched into an a cappella performance of a song called "Find the Right Man."

You find the right man in the wrong place
Once in a while, you meet him face to face
If it's love at first sight, honey you gotta fight for his love ...
Will all this hidden emotion give you the notion
To make the first move ...
You know you can take his heart away
Just look straight in his eyes and then you say
Can't you just see, we'll be great, you and me?

As she warbled the words, he was struck by the alarming incongruity: here was a nine-year-old brashly dispensing advice to the lovelorn, in song. And the song was pretty good. "I tell you right now, at that point, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck go up. I swear, I knew there was something really special," he says, still sounding awed.


Excerpted from Alanis Morissette by Paul Cantin. Copyright © 1997 Paul Cantin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Starting Early,
2. On Stage and on the Tube,
3. Find the Right Mentor,
4. Friends in High Places,
5. Paris in the Spring,
6. Alanis-Nadinia and New York Fries,
7. A Package of Perfection,
8. Too Hot,
9. A Reality Check,
10. Change,
11. Inside the Music Works,
12. California,
13. Sanctuary,
14. The Deal,
15. Head over Feet,
16. On the Road,
17. Perfect,
Appendix 1: DJ Surveys,
Appendix 2: Postcard from the Junos,
Appendix 3: Songs,
Appendix 4: Tour Dates,
Appendix 5: Hospitality Rider,
About the Author,

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Alanis Morissette 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SighKoBlahGrr-Blogspot More than 1 year ago
Alanis Morissette's resurrection in the mid-'90s as the first of a new genre of post-modern, interpersonally savvy, male =and= female songwriters, stands along with Tina Turner's as two of the most remarkable sagas of re-construction in the entire entertainment world. Turner was in her mid-thirties when she "got traction." Morissette was only 19. And that is really the "big story" here. Cantin's book may well be largely assembled from interviews with (highly significant) others, as well as interviews of a very private woman (despite her self-revelation; see below) that were published in =Spin=, =Rolling Stone= and elsewhere. But the author is a very sophisticated and understands the developmental, as well as creative, process. Those who are intrigued with her because of her remarkable grasp of interpersonal behavior and =intra=personal character will not be disappointed, even if =AM: A Biography= only describes her first 23 years. (Would I love to see a "second edition?" Am I waiting for her to finish the book she's been writing for some time now? Duh.) What is clear for those who want to "reel it in" about her is that Morissette is the product of two very functional, competent, adept and supportive parents. Her mother (a refugee from the Hungarian uprising of 1965 with her own, very fascinating, early life story) appears through Cantin's eyes to have been anything but the "demanding stage mother" pictured by many who have asserted this and that about Morissette's background. As reported here at least, her assertive support was considerable but well balanced and non-intrusive. (We are given only the briefest glimpse into her father's personality, but I was easily able to hypothesize where Morissette's esteem of intellectual and analytical activity is derived.) To the developmental psychologist, one of the most significant achievements (or failures, if it doesn't occur) in adolescent identity formation is the transference of trust and balanced autonomy acquired in childhood into choice-making in relationships with other people. If Cantin's picture is accurate, few people I have ever run into have made such choices as consciously and adeptly as the adolescent Alanis Morissette. (Most of us will never operate at her level of conscious election at =any= stage in our lives.) Morissette sorted her way through literally scores of would-be confederates and mentors (many of whom are =well= rendered herein) from the age of 14 to 19 in her quest to shake off the identity that she had acquiesced to at 12 and 13 (leading to a very successful first album in Canada) and construct a new one. Ice-skater-turned-talent-developer Stephan Klovan, singer-songwriter-producer Leslie Howe, talent manager Scott Welch and producer Glenn Ballard are profiled in depth here, and that is important because of their immense contributions, but there were many, =many= others. And they are mentioned in sufficient detail to provide a clear documentation of her sharp-eyed choice-making, as well as their considerable contributions. What would make a second edition or her own book intriguing to those who find her lyrically reported adventures so illuminating, of course, are revelations about her =romantic= choice-making. and its discernable upshots. As interpersonally responsible to others - without being co-dependent (at least for very long) - as she is, however, I expect we'll never know.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I borrowed this book from a friend, and never reterned it. It was just that good!