Glen Ballard recalls making Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill,' 25 years later: 'I was just hoping that someone would hear it'

Alanis Morissette and record producer Glen Ballard accept the award for Album of the Year at the 38th annual Grammy Awards. (Photo: AP/Eric Draper)
Alanis Morissette and record producer Glen Ballard accept the award for Album of the Year at the 38th annual Grammy Awards. (Photo: AP/Eric Draper)

Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, released 25 years ago, is one of the most important albums of ‘90s, and of the alternative rock genre in general. It topped the charts in 13 countries, sold 33 million copies, won five Grammys including Album of the Year, and eventually became a Broadway musical based on a book by Diablo Cody. This week, when Rolling Stone revamped its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, which was originally published in 2003, Jagged Little Pill jumped from the No. 327 spot all the way up to No. 69, proving that the record has lost none of its relevance or impact. But Glen Ballard, who produced the landmark album and co-wrote all 12 of its tracks with a young Morissette, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume that he never even expected it to come out.

“When I met her, she was at 19 years old and had already been through this whole cycle of the entertainment business, of being elevated and then being sort of let down before she was even 18 years old. She was over that s***. She was like, over it,” says Ballard, referring to Morissette’s early teen-pop career in her native Canada. Morissette had released two Canadian-only dance albums, the 1991 debut Alanis and 1992’s less successful follow-up Now Is the Time, before getting dropped by MCA Canada — and she was at a point, Ballard says, when “she just wanted to be an artist. She didn't want the system to tell her they ‘didn't need her anymore.’ She just wanted to say what she felt. And so when we met, it was like strangers on a train. We didn't have a record deal. We didn't have any adult supervision. She just wanted to write songs and express herself. And it was like, ‘Great, let's just do that.’”

At the time, Morissette was considered “‘finished’ as an artist” in the industry, according to Ballard. However, she still had a publishing deal, so her publisher dispatched her on a songwriting sabbatical to Los Angeles, where Ballard (a music business veteran who’d co-written smash hits like Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Wilson Phillips’s “Hold On”) lived.

“I got a call: ‘Would you write with this Canadian songwriter? She doesn't have a record deal, but would you just write a song with her?’ I said OK, because that's what I do, right? But from the first moment I met Alanis, it was something special. We were able to write a song every time we got together. We got together only 20 times, only spent 20 sessions together, but we wrote 20 songs — and 12 of them are on Jagged Little Pill,” says Ballard. “We added some musicians later, but all of it is just the stuff we did in a room together. She sang the vocals that night. It's a handmade, unpremeditated demo record. She was a Billie Eilish of her time, that same kind of accidental success that sort of tapped into something that young women — well, everyone, but young women in particular — could really latch onto.”

Ballard knew they had created something extraordinary, but admits, “The truth is, I didn't think we were going to get the record out. I had absolutely no dream of it ultimately ending up on a Broadway stage! We took it to all the major labels, and everybody passed. We were deeply discouraged. I didn't even know if I would see Alanis again; she had gone back to Canada. And when she came back [to L.A. for one more session], she was very fragile, really pale. She walked into the studio, and she had her sweater on backwards and inside-out. And then we sat down and wrote a song called ‘All I Really Want.’ It was the last song we wrote [and it ended up being the first track on Jagged Little Pill]. And somehow, because of [A&R rep] Guy Oseary at Maverick Records, we got a little foothold, a tiny little release, and the thing just earned its way on its own. We barely got it out. So of course I never dreamed anything would happen. I was just hoping that someone would hear it.”

Eventually, in early 1995, Los Angeles’s tastemaker modern rock station, KROQ, started playing Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” and a “firestorm” ensued. Not only did the vengeful breakup anthem then get added to dozens of other stations across the country, but three weeks later, KROQ put “Hand in My Pocket,” which wasn’t even an official single yet, in its rotation as well. “We didn’t even ask them to do that. They did it because they liked it. That never happens in radio,” Ballard marvels. “So, she had two songs on the chart at the same time — and she was the only female artist on the chart. She was crashing the boys’ club and kicking ass. It was so beautiful.”

Morissette’s metamorphosis from teen-pop princess, former Star Search contestant/Nickelodeon star, and onetime opening act for Vanilla Ice to the voice of an alt-rock generation just may be one of the biggest career makeovers in music history. Jagged Little Pill was such a drastic and jarring departure from her previous work, in fact, that Canadian radio programmers rejected the “You Oughta Know” at first. But the States were a clean slate for Morissette, with the lack of internet and social media in 1995 making it relatively easy for her to distance herself from a pop past that some snobs and rockists may have dismissed as cheesy. However, Ballard argues that Morissette’s child-star career experience, cheesy or not, set her up for adult success.

“I look at it as a huge advantage for her, because I think people have this unrealistic view of what success is, what fame is, what ‘making it’ is,” Ballard explains. “And she sort of had to go through that all before she turned 18 — that cycle of success and failure. People get this fixed idea of who you are, and it's never quite right. Especially with image-building of a young star, you sort of have to give them time to find their true artistic nature. We put so much pressure on everybody: You're being elevated, then they tear you down and they forget about you. And so what she learned from that… obviously, emotionally, there's a lot to learn, but she also learned how to be an entertainer during that time. And that's an important part of it.”

Ballard continues: “Even if you're trying to access your deepest artistic impulses, you have to have some sort of artistic way to get that out. And so she learned how to perform. She learned how to put on a show. She learned how to make a record. And she was only 10! How is she supposed to be writing from the deepest place? But she was learning the craft. So when I met her, she already had all that, and it was about going to the next level of being an artist — not just trying to be famous, because she knew that that was an ephemeral goal. And then it was like: ‘What can I find in all of this? Can I find a way to really say what I really think? Because nobody seems to want me to say that.’ So on every level, I just think it was just a liberation of someone's spirit to be able to tell the truth.”

When asked what he thinks it was about Jagged Little Pill that struck such a chord (helping usher in an era of confessional, female-driven ‘90s alt-rock that included Meredith Brooks, Tracy Bonham, and Fiona Apple), and continues to strike a chord a quarter-century later, Ballard insists that it wasn’t just the unprecedented, unbridled, unapologetic anger of “You Oughta Know.”

“There's no question, it was a voice that needed to be heard and insisted on being heard. But there are so many other dimensions to the album,” says Ballard. “Anger was one of them; I feel like that was the emotion that kicked the door open. But even in that song, there's a subtext of disappointment and regret… this other betrayal that goes beyond anger and has a resolution. I always felt like none of her stuff was one-dimensional or just one emotion. You have great moments of fun and humor, like ‘Ironic’ is just a fun romp, and ‘Hand in My Pocket’ is sort of this wry different emotion. So, it's not an all angry record, but it’s so truthful. Every emotion to me is something that is real.”

As for the “You’re So Vain”-style mystery surrounding which bad ex-boyfriend inspired “You Oughta Know’s” vitriol, Ballard chucklingly declines to comment. “I have no idea who the song is about. … We never talked about it,” he claims. “And that's the way we approached all of it. Even though a lot of the record was deeply personal stuff, she was creating characters — you know, it's her and it's not her. I think for all writers, a lot of people think everything you write is just a personal experience. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, but it's always informed by what you've been through. So, I'll leave it to others to tell you who it's about. It's all about every guy that's ever messed you over.”

Ballard’s involvement with Jagged Little Pill inspired another voice-of-a-generation superstar, although his work with that woman made less of an impact at the time: In the early 2000s, a Christian pop artist named Katy Hudson, now rebranding herself as Katy Perry, sought out Ballard mainly because of her Alanis fandom. Eventually Perry joined the roster of Ballard’s label imprint, Java Records, as his final signing.

“Katy came into my studio, picked up an acoustic guitar and played a song for me right in front of my face, and I signed her on the spot because I knew how talented she was,” Ballard recalls. fondly. “She was a courageous, musical, funny, smart, beautiful superstar. That was obvious to me. … And every time she performed, everybody was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’ I mean, we did a show at [Hollywood’s] Hotel Café on an Easter weekend, before anybody knew who she was, and Katy showed up in a chicken suit that weighed about a hundred pounds. It was so hot, but she performed the entire show that way! And I went, ‘Wow, she's got it. She goes all the way. This is what you have to do.’ I knew it then, and now everybody knows it.”

Ballard says he and Perry “wrote lots songs with a lots different people” and thought they were “heading in the right direction,” but once again, the project was met with the same with baffling resistance and disinterest that he’d experienced with Morissette. “My record company was with Columbia; it was with Capitol; it was with Island Def Jam. And none of the companies would put out the record. They weren't particularly sold on the record or Katy.” One song written during their time together, the undeniably Alanis-esque “Simple,” did end up the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack in 2005, and another one of their joint compositions was recorded by Kelly Clarkson in 2009. (“I actually have a video of Katy performing that song in my old studio,” Ballard says of that track, “Long Shot.”) But it took a while for the rest of the industry to catch on. “After five years, unfortunately it didn't work out, but Katy proved my point. She made me look good,” Ballard laughs.

As for why Ballard’s collaboration with Morissette was so massively successful, however — and why it inspired a generation of female singer-songwriters, like Katy Perry — Ballard muses, “I just think it has everything to do with how truthful Alanis was and how honest and what a brilliant singer and writer she is. And the fact that she had the courage to just speak her mind and heart and do it in a way that wasn't trying to be famous. She was so ahead of the curve. … I think if anything, I just gave her the freedom to just be who she is. And man, it's just such a lucky thing for me to ever have met her.”

Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard pose at the opening night of the new Alanis Morissette musical 'Jagged Little Pill' on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on Dec. 5, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
Alanis Morissette and Glen Ballard pose at the opening night of the new Alanis Morissette musical 'Jagged Little Pill' on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on Dec. 5, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

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The above interview is taken from a portion of Glen Ballard’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.