Inside the Music with Jagged Little Pill Songwriter Glen Ballard

Interview with Songwriter and Producer Glen Ballard

Glen Ballard is a 6x Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer whose records have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. In addition to having writing credits that include Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and Wilson Philips' "Hold On," one of Ballard's biggest successes is Alanis Morrissette's multi-platinum album Jagged Little Pill, which he co-wrote and produced in its entirety. The album celebrates its 25th anniverary this year and its Broadway stage adaptation was recently nominated for 15 Tony Awards.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Glen to discuss his work on Jagged Little Pill, as well as learning more about his background in music, what he likes to play when he's not writing, and other projects he's been involved in.

Download sheet music from the original 1995 Jagged Little Pill and its Tony-nominated Broadway adaptation.

Interview with Jagged Little Pill songwriter Glen Ballard

   Songwriting was my way of trying to figure out music."

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Could you tell us a little about how you began in music and got started as a songwriter?

Glen Ballard ("G"): Truthfully, I've been writing songs since before I really knew how to do anything else. I just had this obsession with writing my own material. My aunt had a nice grand piano and I spent a lot of time with her in my formative years.

I was always sitting at the piano, even at the earliest age. The architecture of the piano seemed like magic, and it just began an investigation for me. Songwriting was my way of trying to figure out music. I wasn't a good music student. I actually got kicked out of music because I just wanted to write and I was told that you had to prepare to do that. And I was like "well, I'm jumping the gun!"

I had a band in the fifth grade and we'd play—we were like a real band. We were called the Esquires and the Rogues and we did gigs every weekend for junior high and high schoolers, playing all original material. I only knew three cover songs, but we were really loud and aggressive and confident. So I've always presented my own material. I only know about five or six other songs, everything else I'm just writing and I can't even remember the songs that I've written!

   Being with Alanis, it was just like we were free. We were free agents, strangers on a train, no expectations."

S: Jagged Little Pill has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Obviously it's a seminal album, and one of the biggest-selling records of all-time. Did you get the sense it was going to be huge at the time you were writing it with Alanis?

G: No, no, no. In no way did we anticipate that because it had such a modest genesis. Believe me, it was not under the auspices of a record company. We didn't have a budget and it didn't have a recording engineer. It was just like a songwriting thing, and no one was expecting anything.

Usually there's this desperate need for every artist to have a hit song and songwriters are supposed to provide that. But we weren't trying to write a hit song at all. So being with Alanis, it was just like we were free. We were free agents, strangers on a train, no expectations. And it was just like a fun night out, you know? And that's the way we kept it.

We got together 20 times and wrote 20 songs. We couldn't get anybody to sign the material, and I didn't think it was going to make it out. So, in no way did we think we were making this huge album. We just hoped that somebody would actually listen and maybe even put it out. Because most of the major record companies passed on it.

   It was literally a different process. It was more organic and it was kind of growing out of these conversations about her take on life."

S: Could you talk us through the songwriting process with Alanis? Was it different from your usual process?

G: It was funny with Alanis because normally I would just sit at the piano. But for whatever reason, I just picked up the guitar. For "Ironic," I just got the acoustic guitar and it just sort of wrote itself. And so I just kept writing on guitar, almost all of it.

Occasionally I'd play keyboard, but I would do that after usually. I'd just get a beat, a bass part, a basic guitar thing, and then we would start channeling it. Honestly, that was the way it was. At no point was it ever calculated in a normal way where you'd go "OK, what's the hook?" It was literally a different process. It was more organic and it was kind of growing out of these conversations about her take on life. I mean, she was 19 or 20 years old when I met her, and she had a unique curiosity about everything. The topic was always about what she was curious about or what she wanted to explore. And we never knew until we sat in the room to do it. It was spontaneous and unrehearsed.

Obviously it doesn't always work that way because there's usually somebody waiting outside the door going "where's the hit?" I really believe that terrifies everybody, you know? You're writing from a place of fear rather than inspiration, and that's never a good thing. Although probably half the things I've written have been straight out of fear and desperation!

   When I sat and saw the [musical adaptation], man, I was in tears. I melted in a pool of happiness."

S: With the recent stage adaptation of Jagged Little Pill, it must be a great feeling hearing your songs performed in a completely new setting. Were you surprised by how well the music from the album translated to stage?

G: I was blown out of my seat! I first saw it at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, at the Harvard campus. I'd been looking at workshops as they were working it up, but I'd had no direct involvement other than just a couple of comments and some advice about what song should go here and there.

When I sat and saw the thing, man, I was in tears. I melted in a pool of happiness. Because first of all, I just loved hearing the ensembles sing these songs that are usually just Alanis. But also how beautifully Tom Kitt [the show's music director] took this stuff in. He had ultimate and utter respect for things like these guitar inversions like I just played you. He got all of that.

So actually I think I like the soundtrack from the show even more than the album! Because on some level I can't even believe how good it is, how it embraces so many people to get in on this music. And it still works, you know, so I love it. It was just like a Christmas present for me. We wrote these songs 25 years ago. And then for Diablo Cody to conjure up this whole other story—and Diane Paulus, the director—they are just geniuses. So, for me it's the easiest gig I ever did 25 years ago!

S: While we're on the topic of musicals, you were also involved in the songwriting of Ghost: The Musical. Was that your first foray in musical theater? How did it come about?

G: It all happened because of Dave Stewart. He invited me onto that project. Dave had been invited to work on it through Bruce Reuben who was the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the movie. Dave and I shared a studio space for ten years between 2000 and 2010, right here in Hollywood. He just knocked on my door one day and said "hey, you want to write a musical?" I said "hell yes!" It only took us like three or four years to do it, but it's all because of Dave. I'm just happy that it's been running for ten years. It was actually running in Paris last year and we had to shut it down. I was working in Paris for the last year and a half on a TV series and I also had that show running. It was kind of a dream come true. I was having my Paris moment!

S: You have written songs for a number of iconic albums, musicals, and films. Are there any specific projects, aside from Jagged Little Pill, that you are particularly proud of?

G: Well, I think one that's out right now on Netflix called The Eddy. It's a series that I'm an executive producer on, and I wrote 50 jazz songs for it. It's about a jazz band living in Paris in the current day. We did eight episodes and we recorded the music live on set. Damien Chazelle directed the first two episodes. I think it's my love letter to jazz and to the experience of being a jazz musician. The music is available on Spotify right now.

It's shot in Paris and half of the show is in French, about a third of it's in Arabic, and the rest is in English—so it's really multicultural, subtitles and everything. But it's a beautiful portrait of a jazz band.

   Netflix built a club for me in the 12th arrondissement in Paris and we created this club called The Eddy."

S: Wow, live music on set! That must be pretty rare?

G: Yep, nobody had ever done it. Literally none of us had ever done it! TV would never do that. You don't do it in movies, it's just too hard.

So, Netflix built a club for me in the 12th arrondissement in Paris and we created this club called The Eddy with a recording studio behind the stage. So everything's live. And the editing of this thing was mind-boggling. Please check it out. That's what I'm proud of right now.

S: As a pianist, is there any specific music that you're enjoying playing at the moment?

G: I would have to say I think the biggest influence on me musically is Erik Satie, the French impressionist composer. And probably Ravel and Debussy. Just because of the way they approach the whole-tone music, which I love—it kind of lifted us out of diatonic boredom!

And of course the Erik Satie pieces are simple as hell to play. I can actually play the Erik Satie stuff, but they're like investigations of music. He didn't even call them compositions. They were just intervals for him, like he was doing measurements or something. But it's just so haunting to me. I mean, obviously, everybody knows "Gymnopédie No. 1," but all of his pieces have this weird symmetry to them. It's like looking at fingerprints or something. So Erik Satie for sure. That's the stuff I can sit around and play and it just hypnotizes me because I can't play the harder pieces.

S: Can you tell us about any other projects you've been working on lately?

G: Well, there's Back to the Future: The Musical which actually opened in Manchester, UK back in March. In fact, it opened on March 11th and then the government shut down theaters on March 14th. We had two weeks of previews before that, so we got our opening and it was a huge success—all the reviews have been fantastic. Our next stop is the West End. I can't say which theater, but it's going to be great. At whatever point we re-open, it's going up. I'm so proud of the show. I'm very sanguine about our chances to have a hit show.

S: Well, that's something for us all to look forward to. Thank you again, Glen, for taking the time to speak with us and for all the fantastic insights you've shared.

G: You know, I'm just so grateful for the fact Jagged Little Pill has got this long life. So thank you for helping to extend it!

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