Interview

Q&A: Super-Producer Glen Ballard On Jagged Little Pill, “Man In The Mirror,” & His Other Classic Recordings

Given that the wave of ’90s nostalgia seems to be cresting right about now, it’s only fitting that one of that decade’s most successful and culturally ubiquitous records — Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill — is now getting the proper reissue treatment. Released in 1995, when Alanis was still an unknown here in the States, the record currently ranks among the best-selling albums of all time, having sold more than 33 million copies. Not only did the record bless us with singles that, for better or worse, will forever be a part of popular consciousness — “You Oughta Know” “Ironic,” “You Learn,” “Hand In My Pocket” — it opened the floodgates for a slew of other female solo artists who would shape the latter half of that decade. Would we have had Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” or Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” without Alanis? Would Sarah McLachlan have ever gotten Lilith Fair off the ground in 1997 if Alanis hadn’t basically smashed the roof off pop culture just a couple years before? Listening to it now, it’s hard to believe that Jagged Little Pill is an album that almost wasn’t. Written when Morissette was still a teenager and rejected by almost every record label at the time, the album — which was written and produced with legendary producer and studio whiz Glen Ballard — is the kind of unlikely (ironic?) success story that becomes the stuff of legend.

I spoke with Ballard about the making of Jagged Little Pill and the album’s incredible legacy. He also answered questions about some of the other famous records in which he’s played a role — including releases by the Pointer sisters, Paula Abdul, and a little-known ’80s LP called Thriller.

STEREOGUM: Twenty years. In some ways, it seems like such a long time ago, but then in other ways, it really doesn’t.

BALLARD: From 2000 onward everything changed with music. Anything before then really feels like ancient history. Honestly, it does feel further back than 20 years, and in some ways, it’s like a whole other world away.

STEREOGUM: Jagged Little Pill permeated almost every aspect of popular culture at the time, and there was no way to really get away from it, so it evokes a lot of feelings specific to that period of time for me. A lot of people might not remember that Alanis herself was really young when she made that record.

BALLARD: I met her when she was 19.

STEREOGUM: How did the two of you meet?

BALLARD: We were connected through our publishers: MCA Music, which is now Universal. I have to give a shout-out to them for making this all happen. First of all, Alanis was signed to MCA Records in Canada, and as a companion to that, they had her publishing. She made two records under that contract. I think when she was 17, the second record didn’t do well and they dropped her, but a guy named John Alexander in the Canadian office, who’s the publisher, believed in her as a writer and as an artist, so they kept her publishing contract, even though her record contract had run out.

I met her two years later at the age of 19. I’ll tell you exactly — I met her on March 8, 1994 at my studio. The reason I know it is because I just went through all the production notes from the time. Back then I didn’t know anything about her. I just got a call from my publishers, a guy named Kurt Denny said, “I’ve got this writer in town from Canada, I want you to write with her.” I said okay. I was a staff writer. That’s all I knew, and so when she came to my studio on March 8, 1994, I knew nothing about her and she really didn’t know much about me. Honestly, we were strangers on a train, meeting.

She didn’t have a record deal, so it was the perfect circumstance for us to be able to work creatively without any agenda. We weren’t making a record, we were just making music, because there was nobody sponsoring this thing other than our publishers, and they just figured we were going to write songs. That first day I met her, she was really smart, really fun. I use the word alacrity; she was brimming with energy, but smiling. She was just an open channel; I really believe that she was at that moment.

We didn’t talk too much about anything other than let’s write a song. I was talking to her about a club called the Bottom Line in New York — all these great artists that had played there — and I said, “Let’s write a song about meeting at the Bottom Line.” She went, “Oh, of course, I get it.” So we used that as a metaphor; the Bottom Line being the bottom line in a relationship, like the real part of it and also meeting at this club, so right away we wrote this one song in one sitting. She wrote the lyrics right there in front of me. I was working through the lyrics and the whole concept with her, and she sang at the end of the night, and honestly, that’s the first thing we did. We played it for the publishers the next day and they liked it. They weren’t crazy about it — it wasn’t a hit song — but they liked it, so that’s when it started.

We got together 20 times in 1994 and we wrote 20 songs, and 12 of them are on Jagged Little Pill, so that’s the long and short of it. We met on March 8, ’94. She turned 19 on June 1. The third song we wrote was “Ironic” and I loved that song. It’s my favorite song we wrote, and it was like, oh God, there’s something really special about this girl. I mean, she totally gets it, especially her voice, which was just this feral instrument that was completely tied to her intention. I didn’t have somebody telling me we had to have a hit single. I didn’t have anybody telling me anything, really, so it was just this blissful moment to write songs for no other purpose than to just please ourselves.

She went back and forth to Canada two or three times in ’94. I was a successful record producer already, so I started playing the demos for people. People liked it, but literally, by the end of the year, I had basically taken it to every major record company that I could, and nobody bid. In October we got on this crazy tear. We wrote “You Oughta Know,” “You Learn,” “Head Over Feet,” and “Hand In My Pocket” in about a two-week period. Every time we got together, we wrote a really cool song. We had all those songs, and they were already essentially the way they are now, but still, everybody passed. So I knew I was either doing something really wrong or really right.

Alanis went back to Ottawa at Christmas of 1994. I was in L.A., she was in Ottawa, and I think we were both depressed because nobody was getting the music, so I honestly didn’t know if she was coming back, but she came back again in January. We wrote one more song, and honestly, we were running out of options. Our publishers believed in it. Her manager, Scott Welch, believed in it, and her lawyer [did too] — so those were the people who believed.

Then we got a call from someone named Guy Oseary, who was just starting at Maverick Records, which was Madonna’s new label. We were working at my studio in Encino, California. We were so naive; we thought, we’ll just keep working, so we’re writing this song, and we get this call. I drove her over to 8000 Beverly Boulevard and we sat with Guy Oseary and played him two of our demos. He loved them. He was the first person who just went, “I love it. I want to do this.” So that very day, our fortunes changed.

Guy, he was like 23 years old at the time, so he took it upon himself to sell it to the company, to Madonna, and suddenly we have this boutique record company that believes in this music we’ve done. They’re essentially demos, and there was a lot of talk about, let’s produce and write and do all this stuff. Guy and Alanis basically felt like what we had was more true to the intention, so we didn’t polish it up. It was Guy’s idea to add Dave Navarro and Flea to “You Oughta Know,” which we did. He introduced us to a great guitarist named Joel Shearer and he played on “Right Through You.” I put real drums on six of the tracks. I got Benmont Tench — I had him play on everything, and that was it. Everything else was just me playing it and it turned out pretty good.

All I know is that everything that could have gone right went right. You have to be lucky in this thing, and we were so lucky that everything worked.

STEREOGUM: I always find it really interesting when I talk to people — especially in hindsight — looking back at records that turn out to be massive, because sometimes people are like, “We’re just making this thing, we had no idea,” and then other times people will say, “Well, you know, there was a point midway through where we started to feel like maybe this is something big.”

BALLARD: I never felt that way. I felt it was good, but that’s not my personality. Anytime it gets all the way through, I’m astonished. I’m putting everything I can into it, but some of my best work has been unrecognized, so it doesn’t really matter. For me, it’s like this wave comes along and you ride it — you just ride it until it breaks. In her case, it was just like a rocket to the moon. Look, she turned 21 on June 1, 1995, and we had just delivered this record and it was just blowing up everywhere, so it was a hell of a way to start your adult life. Then it just went for three years. She went out on the road for almost three years and it nearly killed her. That was probably the wrong thing to do, but nevertheless, it was such a big wave that she rode it around the world a couple of times.

STEREOGUM: It always seemed to me that she handled it all really well, unlike a lot of people in that position.

BALLARD: She handled it really well, but it doesn’t change the fact it was hugely stressful on her whole body and mind, to go from complete obscurity to world-famous, and delivering this stuff basically in every country. People were just freaking out. I went out and saw the show in Australia, and this was about a year into it, and it was like a Beatles concert. I couldn’t even hear the music, the girls were screaming the entire time. When we were sitting in the studio, the two of us, making this, did I ever think that [would happen]? No, not for one second.

STEREOGUM: It’s an interesting album for so many reasons, not the least of which is what it tapped into in the culture at the time, particularly for women. “You Oughta Know” really articulated a feeling that a lot of people had. That being said, sometimes people think of her as being this angry woman, but when you listen to the entire record, there’s an element of that, but it’s also very generous, very humane.

BALLARD: She wasn’t angry at all. There was anger that informed that particular song, but mostly it was … Actually, we did a broken-down version of “You Oughta Know” with a string quartet, and I was playing piano, and you can hear the ache in the song on that [version]. It’s really more about the sense of betrayal than anger, and the anger comes out of the betrayal. The 20 times we got together in 1994 were probably the happiest times for both of us, because we never stopped laughing. I thought I was the funniest guy in the world because she was laughing at virtually everything I said, and she was funny, so when people started describing her as this angry young woman, it’s like, okay, I don’t think they understand that that was just a moment. She was smiling and laughing the whole time; really she was.

STEREOGUM: You guys worked together again on her next record, too. I would imagine going through this experience with someone, and then seeing it be this thing that skyrockets their career, would be the sort of thing that would bond you for life.

BALLARD: I would think that we are, just based on that, although we have not worked much together since then. She’s an incredible artist, and I’ve done a million things since then, too, so I do feel completely creatively tied to her in every way, although we’ve spent almost no time together in the last 20 years. It’s an enormously intimate relationship, and then you never see somebody for a long time. That’s just the nature of the business.

STEREOGUM: You’ve worked on so many great records over the course of your career.

BALLARD: It covers a lot of different genres. I’m just a musician and a writer and I have a diverse background in music, and it all seems comfortable to me, honestly.

STEREOGUM: Are there certain records for which you have a certain tenderness that maybe weren’t huge hits, that are forgotten favorites?

BALLARD: I can think of one right now; it’s called Love, Shelby by Shelby Lynne. It was released on September 11, 2001, the day all the terrible shit went down, so it’s like that record never came out, and it’s one of my favorite all-time records. Honestly, it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made, and I had maybe the best band I’ve ever assembled in the studio. It was an incredibly wonderful experience and no one’s ever heard the record, so please go listen to it! If you have nothing better to do some day, check out Love, Shelby. That’s the first one that comes to my mind because I love it so much and it’s never been heard. Every record that was released that day, it’s like it never happened, so it’s on that long list of records that had the misfortune of coming out that day.

STEREOGUM: STEREOGUM: I’m just going to throw some names at you, because these are records that were very important to me. I want you to tell me the first thing you think of.

BALLARD: Sure.

STEREOGUM: The Pointer Sisters.

BALLARD: Oh gosh, I think of Studio 55. We recorded there. It’s right on the Paramount Studios lot. There was a studio there where “White Christmas” had been recorded, at 5505 Melrose. Richard Perry was the producer. I love Richard Perry; he’s one of the great, great record producers, and I learned so much from him. I was a songwriter over there working on a lot of projects with him [including] the Pointer Sisters’ record, the Break Out record. It’s one of my favorite all-time records. We did a song called “Dance Electric,” and I helped produce a song called “Automatic” with my friend Brock Walsh.

STEREOGUM: “Automatic” is a classic. I love that song.

BALLARD: Nothing but fun. The Pointers were fantastic. The three of them sang around one microphone. They were so un-precious about it. They had been singing their whole lives. It was a lot of fun to make that record. I was probably in there four days in a row on that stuff, but we would live at Studio 55. He had great coffee, and we lived on it.

STEREOGUM: Paula Abdul.

BALLARD: Paula Abdul, yes. It was just fun at Virgin Records around that time, I have to say, and Paula was a total blast. She’s so easy to get along with..

STEREOGUM: Forever Your Girl was huge.

BALLARD: I remember Virgin Records over in Beverly Hills; it was great. It was like the heyday of the business. It was incredible. They still had good parties in the record business back then. They could afford it.

STEREOGUM: I guess I have to ask what it was like to work on Michael Jackson’s records. You worked on more than one?

BALLARD: Yes, I think “Man In The Mirror” was our biggest collaboration, but my relationship with Michael began on Thriller. I wrote a song that actually the Pointer Sisters cut called “Nightline,” which Michael was going to do on Thriller, and I actually redid a demo over at Westlake Studios, and just the two of us are singing it. I think there’s a copy of it probably on the Internet. We were getting ready to cut that song. It was one of the last songs on Thriller, and then Michael came in with two new songs. One of them was called “Beat It,” the other was called “Billie Jean,” and it knocked my little song called “Nightline” off the record. So Thriller comes out, sells like 45 million, 50 million records, and everybody says, “Oh my God, you’re probably so depressed that your song didn’t make it.” And I have to tell you, I said I would be depressed if Michael hadn’t come in with “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” both of which knocked my song off. I said they’re both so much better than “Nightline.” If he had come in with some songs that weren’t any good, that would have been one thing, but he killed it. They were two of the greatest songs ever, so I really felt like there was no way for me to feel like I deserved to be on Thriller.

I was working with Quincy a lot anyway, so when the Bad record came along, I took my shots at it. I wrote five or six things for it; didn’t make it. We were right near the end of the record. Quincy said, “We need one more song.” I had already written out for it, so my dear friend Siedah Garrett called me up on a Saturday and said, “Well, you have to write one for Michael.” I said, “I’ve been writing for Michael for six months, it’s not going to happen.” She said, “Come on, let’s do one more.” So I agreed. I cancelled my plans on a Saturday night. She came over on a Saturday. I sat at my Fender Rhodes, we wrote “Man In The Mirror” in one sitting, did a little scratchy demo. I didn’t think that much of it. The next day, Si was so into it, she drove it over to Quincy’s house on a Sunday and played it for him, and I got a call on Monday. Quincy said, “I love this song, I’m going to play it for Michael today.” And I went, “Holy shit.”

The next thing I know, on Tuesday, I’m in there with Michael. I’ve got the whole song programmed in my Linn 9000, and we were working on keys, arrangements and everything. It’s like, shit man, every now and then you get lucky. It was the last thing we cut on Bad, and I’d written it in A flat; we just dropped it a half-step. Then I got to do the half-step modulation back to A-flat, which he loved. So on every level, I felt like Thriller wasn’t meant for me, but then I got to write this song, “Man In The Mirror,” which is a much better song than what I had done for Thriller.

I remember that I had this long outro for it, which I was getting ready to take out, and Michael said, “Leave that in there. I know what to do.” And then he just proceeded to turn the last two minutes of the record into this whole other movement, and he just killed it, man. I will never have another moment like that, where everything was working. I had the greatest musicians, engineer, producer, artist, studio in one place at one time — everything was perfect on that one.

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On 10/30, Jagged Little Pill will be reissued by Rhino Records to celebrate its 20th anniversary. A two-disc deluxe edition will contain a newly remastered version of the album, appended with 10 previously unreleased demos, with a four-disc collector’s edition adding 2005’s Acoustic album and a full live concert recorded in London at Subterranea on September 28, 1995.