Havoc and Bright Lights

On her new album Havoc and Bright Lights, Alanis Morissette distills her entire body of work into its closing track “Edge of Evolution.” “Here I leave my story, I leave it in the dust…But we’re ready to push envelope into full-blown consciousness,” she declares in the verses. “The evolution of consciousness can be such a lofty, overly heady, and, frankly, confusing conversation for people,” Morissette says. “So the song is an invitation to talk about it. Because ultimately, it’s all I really care about. And I think that’s what my contribution is — to engage musically and lyrically in the conversation and take it forward is really what I’m here to do.”

Over the course of her two decades in the music industry, Morissette has never shrank from that goal. In the process, she has become known as many things: an introspective confessionalist, a relentless seeker, and a hardcore truth-teller among them. She continues her quest for authenticity and emotional connection on Havoc and Bright Lights. Set against a musical backdrop of bright, bold melodies, adrenalized guitars, and lush sonic textures, the album lays out Morissette’s mission in her swooping confident voice, while the urgent rock rhythms drive home her themes: misogyny and the gender wars (“Woman Down”), the price of fame (“Celebrity”), the shame that comes from self-defeating thoughts (“Spiral”), the unrecognized danger of work addiction (“Havoc”), and the deep divisions created by people’s differing religious and political beliefs (“Lens”). “I’m inspired by the essence of an idea,” she says. “I like to take the macro and make it micro by writing about it in a personal and concise way. That’s what interests me. Rather than paint broad strokes, I’d rather write about the one-on-one of personal interactions.”

This time around, rather than being fueled by anger and pain, as some of her best-known songs have been, Morissette plays with a duality in her songwriting — a hard-won equanimity that has come from having achieved a balance between her personal and professional life since the 2008 release of her epic break-up record Flavors of Entanglement. In 2010, Morissette married rapper Mario “Souleye” Treadway and gave birth to their son Ever seven months later. Naturally, these transformative events are reflected on her new album, providing a softness and vulnerability that has always been present in her work, but rarely approached with as much conviction. The album’s first single “Guardian” is about her relationship with herself as well as with her son. “It’s about the care I have to offer myself in a way I never have in the past in order to sustain wifehood and motherhood,” she says. “Till You” is an open-hearted love song for her husband, while “Empathy” thanks him for truly seeing her. “I really do think that empathy is the cornerstone of what will not only raise the consciousness of the planet, but will also heal the planet,” she says.

Morissette began writing the songs on Havoc and Bright Lights shortly after giving birth to Ever. “Once my son was born, I immediately felt this surge of ‘I have to write this record,’” Morissette says. “Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse. Post-partum is not the time to be doing anything other than post-partum-ing. Because I’m an attachment parent, I wanted to be near him 24/7.” She turned the first floor of her home into a makeshift studio, inviting her Flavors of Entanglement collaborator Guy Sigsworth over from London where the pair would knock out a song a day. “It was this unusual but perfect blend of mom-hood and artist,” she says. “It was a challenge to do both at the same time, but I had no other option. There was no way for me to singularly be a mama, but there was no way for me to singularly be an artist and not be an attachment mom, so this was the only way to do it.”

The results include the darkly swirling rock songs “Woman Down,” “Celebrity,” and “Numb,” which throb with Sigsworth’s adventurous synths and drum loops, and the softer-edged “Win and Win,” “Receive,” and “Guardian.” Together Morissette and Sigsworth, who has also worked with Björk and Madonna, wrote between 25 and 30 songs. To warm up the electronic vibe, Morissette brought in producer Joe Chiccarelli (Jason Mraz, White Stripes, The Strokes), who gave the songs a grounded, organic feel. “Guy contributes this otherworldly, technologically savant-esque, limitless magic,” Morissette says, “and then we have Joe, who honors the narrative and creates this incredibly modern, kick-you-in-the-teeth rock sound. The blend of both of these producers was the perfect integration for me. I wanted the album to have the fantastical aspects of what technology can build, combined with a human earthiness, and I think that’s what we achieved.”

Even the title is a reference to the album’s overall balance, though Morissette admits it was a challenge to come up with something that reflected the variety of subject matter. “‘Havoc’ refers to the song with that title and the challenges and consequences of taking responsibility and recovering from different addictions,” she explains. “‘Bright lights’ speaks to both the spirituality that pervades all the songs, with us all being ‘light’ at our core, and the hot heat (or bright lights) of being famous and in the public eye, as in the song ‘Celebrity.’”

Morissette, of course, knows a thing or two about that. The Ottawa, Canada, native first rose to fame in 1995 with her four-time Grammy Award-winning album Jagged Little Pill, which at 16x-platinum remains the best-selling debut release by a female artist in the U.S. and the highest-selling debut album worldwide in music history. She has scored a series of memorable singles off her subsequent studio albums 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and featured the international, Grammy-nominated smash single “Thank U”), 2002’s Under Rug Swept (which also debuted at No. 1), 2004’s So-Called Chaos (featuring the Adult Top 40 mainstay “Everything”), and 2008’s Top 10 Flavors of Entanglement. She has sold more than 60 million albums worldwide, won seven Grammy Awards (and received an additional 14 Grammy nominations), and won 12 Juno Awards.

Yet despite the accolades, the one thing Morissette has always craved most is connection. “In my teen years, I thought fame would afford me more of that but the opposite was actually true,” she says. “Instead I became a screen upon which people could project their ideas, and it actually pushed them further away from me, which was devastating. The reason this new album represents such a celebration for me is that I can still exist in the context of popular culture, but I’m also experiencing connection because the climate now allows for it. Whether it’s through social media, Tweeting, or blogging, it’s enabled me to achieve the intimacy I’ve always wanted.”

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[July 2012]