How Alanis Morissette Saved My Life

One day in 1995, I rocked up to primary school to see a whole bunch of classmates gathered around an enclave behind the Year 2 classroom. Someone had scrawled an angry message in black Artline texta on the otherwise non-threatening beige bricks. The message read:

“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” – Alanis Morissette

Keep in mind we were all seven years old, so we were mystified by this strange message which actually contained One Of The Really Bad Swear Words. Now, one of the other kids alerted us that the teacher was coming, so we raced back to line up for class, and I suspect for everyone else that was the end of the mystery.

But my curious little sponge-brain kept churning. Who was this mysterious Alanis Morissette? Was he the dodgy guy who roamed around in the bushland next to our school? Was he a killer? Was he threatening to fuck someone, whatever ‘fuck’ actually meant? I was quite convinced I’d found a clue to some kind of local murder case. Of course, being seven, I eventually forgot about the brewing criminal investigation, failed to inform the Geraldton Police, and went back to learning my times tables.

I was too young to place the name – but looking back, I can clearly recall that was my first exposure to the woman who would, some years later, become my favourite musical artist of all time.

Over the next decade my awareness grew a tiny bit. I had a vague knowledge of Alanis Morissette as some angry chick with a harmonica on the radio. I heard her thank India on the radio when I was ten years old but never knew it was her song.

It was in 2004 that something significant happened. I was draped over the couch one Sunday and my dad was reading the entertainment magazine that came inside the weekend newspaper.

“Hey, you know that Alanis Morissette?” he asked me. (Everyone’s name has a “that” before it when my dad uses it.)

“Yeah.” The local bushland killer guy. No. Wait. Famous singer-songwriter bird. “What about her?”

“She says in this interview that she wanted to kill herself back when she was younger. Can you imagine? All that fame and money and she still wanted to top herself.”

“Huh.”

And that little factoid got stored in my brain. I didn’t dwell on it that day – I went back to whatever I spent my weekends doing at sixteen, which was probably either working on my awesome Pokemon fanfiction (it was super cool, thanks) or planning how to sneak away for my next wank.

A few weeks later, maybe, I heard Alanis’ single “Out is Through” on the radio and watched the video on Rage with my little sister. I liked it enough to wait for it to come on the radio and tape it on a cassette to listen to later, and it ended up as a mediocre track on one of my many top 40 mixes.

In 2006, a German girl I met while backpacking through Europe burned me a mix CD for my discman (I’d got with the times). Track 4 of that album was Alanis’ song “Everything”. It was a nice enough song.

The reason I list all these little touchpoints is because even though I knew who and what Alanis was by this point in my life, she was always just another singer-songwriter. Pleasing to the ear; lyrically skilful; beautiful voice. But nothing groundbreaking. I was quite heavily into Killing Heidi and The Offspring and The Darkness and solo artists didn’t really enter that equation.

It was in 2007 that everything changed. I was on a trip to Melbourne with my family to see Collingwood play at the MCG, and at some point later that week we wound up in a record shop. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered in typical eighteen-year-old bumfluff and I was in a moody depressive haze, and suddenly while flicking through CDs I came across a purple disc with a hand on the cover.

Alanis Morissette: The Collection.

And immediately, I heard my Dad’s voice from three years before. She wanted to kill herself.

It meant nothing to me in 2004, but everything to me in 2007, because by then, in that very moment, I was a rage-filled, repressed, suicidal timebomb and I was ready to explode.

Compelled, I bought the album and went straight to the hotel, put my earphones in and listened to it.

It was a song called Eight Easy Steps that changed my life. These lyrics, in particular, struck a chord inside me so deep that my soul reverberated until my teeth shook:

How to lie to yourself and thereby to everyone else
How to keep smiling when you’re thinking of killing yourself
How to numb à la ‘holic to avoid going within
How to stay stuck in blue by blaming them for everything

I’ll teach you all this in eight easy steps
The course of a lifetime, you’ll never forget
I’ll show you how to in eight easy steps
I’ll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best

I was stunned. She knew. She knew what this shit felt like. Real shit. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. She had written it down and articulated it in a way I didn’t have the skills, or emotional capacity or distance, to do. I’d never heard someone sing about wanting to kill themselves in such a way.

And all I could think was, “well, she’s still alive, so maybe she knows something I don’t”.

And so, I let Alanis Morissette show me how leadership looks. I followed her songs, one by one through YouTube searches, and became more and more amazed at her lyrical and musical artistry. I found the 1998 hard rocker “Joining You” on a YouTube video about gay suicide and must have played it a hundred times before finally going to a local record shop to buy the album it came from, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

Junkie was the first studio record of Alanis’ I heard, and it remains my favourite album of all time to this day. It is a sprawling mess of dirty riffs, drum loops, Eastern-influenced strings and dark, experimental lyrics, and each song was – and still is – like therapy. Before long, I’d worked my way through Alanis Morissette’s entire discography.

People who know me personally already know that I am a huge fan, but they may not know the extent to which Alanis’ music quite literally saved my life.

When I describe myself as a timebomb in that era, I mean I was a mess of sparking, short-circuiting emotions and I had no way of processing or understanding them. That changed when I found this artist. Her music and lyrics helped me to get through each black day. They made me unravel and try to understand myself. They eventually made me want to keep living.

“Joining You” and “Eight Easy Steps” and “Can’t Not” and so many other songs helped me tackle the dark shit in my head.

“Right Through You” and “Sympathetic Character” and “Not The Doctor” helped me to channel my rage.

“I Was Hoping” and “Hands Clean” helped me rethink and reprocess my teenage dalliances with much older men.

And beyond helping me endure the hardest times and make sense of the mess that was my own brain, Alanis’ approach to art informed my own. I became utterly convinced that good art is honest art. Art that is unflinching and unfettered; art that speaks to what hurts more than anything else; art that yields to no sacred cows, but speaks the truth regardless of fallout.

It is a philosophy that now, in 2018, is at the very core of who I am as a writer and an artist. It’s what made me throw caution to the wind and write my novel INVISIBLE BOYS, which is, upon reflection, incredibly unabashed and honest.

This same drive is now burning anew in my chest since last night’s concert, when I saw Alanis perform at the ICC Theatre in Sydney. The way the songs connected directly to my inner self, like a lariat of healing wrapped around my heart, brought tears to my eyes again. Her voice during Mary Jane reminded me of the power of putting all your emotion into something. Her delivery of You Oughta Know recalled the power of channelling truth into art.

And so I’m revitalised for 2018 – not just to write another novel, but to write a novel that brims with honest emotion. Honest and unfettered expression is my ultimate paragon in this quest, and I can’t wait to see that spill across the page.

It’s hard being an artist and it’s hard being a sensitive person. But it’s a little easier when someone leads the way and somehow manages to understand and express your inexpressible feelings for you.

Holden

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I Met My Favourite Band Killing Heidi – and it was Glorious

WARNING: Unabashed fanboying ahead.

It’s an old maxim delivered to the young and starry-eyed with regularity: never meet your heroes.

The implication is, of course, that the idols you cherish for their sporting prowess, acting talent or musical genius may not necessarily be the nicest people. In fact, they could be rampant arseholes. The Internet is replete with stories of fans who’ve met with their heroes only to have their perceptions shattered with cold indifference or blatant rudeness; or, on the other hand, fans who get starstruck and embarrass themselves.

I am so glad I never listened to this old axiom, because I met my heroes a couple of weeks ago, and it was one of the best moments of my life.

These particular heroes of mine aren’t my literary idols, by the way. They are an Aussie alternative rock band – my favourite band – and they are called Killing Heidi.

I should probably back up.

I grew up in a country town and as a kid I felt quite isolated and alone. I don’t mean geographically isolated – although my hometown Geraldton is four hundred k’s from the state capital, and close to nothing else except the Indian Ocean. I don’t mean literally alone, either, because I grew up in a family of eight and with truckloads of Italian cousins, so people weren’t exactly hard to come by.

No, I grew up feeling isolated and alone in the sense that I had a creative, artistic, sensitive, ponderous, powerful element to my personality, and I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it or where it belonged. I knew I wanted to become a writer from this young age, but I had no concept of how to get there: from country boy to published writer seemed an impossible step. From where I started, actually crafting a career as a fair dinkum author seemed about as likely as making it as a rockstar.

Enter Killing Heidi.

This angsty teenage rock band from country Victoria formed the soundtrack to my teenage years. I can’t remember the first time I heard their debut hit Weir (1999) – a massive teen anthem – but I can recall the first time I heard their number 1 track Mascara. It was early in the year 2000 – February or March – and I was eleven years old. We were in Perth to pick my sister up from the airport, and while we waited around the hotel room in Belmont, this super cool music video was on TV with this awesome, melodic song thumping over the top, all giant riffs and bouncy synths.

I was entranced. Mascara became my favourite song. It was all about being different, not conforming, being yourself … self-empowerment and individuality. I identified. Even though I didn’t have the words for it at that age, I knew I was a bit of a weirdo. It was nice to know someone on the radio knew what that was like. There was a wordless understanding.

I had an obsession for a few months – I did a school project on Killing Heidi and their first album, despite not yet owning it. Then my twelfth birthday came around, and my brother gave me a CD for my present.

“It’s that song from that band you like,” he grunted.

I opened it with excitement, to find an unfamiliar CD single. It was Beauty Queen by Perth rock band Lash. Ohh, I thought, my heart plummetting. Lash. Mascara. I can see how my brother got confused. I was crushed, but just said thanks and went on with playing Pokemon: Yellow. (Incidentally, Lash totally wailed.)

I guess, being that age, I moved on to the next obsession, never got Reflector, and trundled along for a few years – until I hit a snag.

I was about sixteen when I got mired in a massive pit of depression. I knew what normal awkward teenagehood felt like, and this shit was worse. Impenetrable black. I eventually didn’t want to be on this planet anymore.

Around that time, Killing Heidi released their self-titled third album (2004). Recalling how much I’d loved their music as a younger kid, I begged for their new album for Christmas, and got it (the right CD this time). That album introduced me, properly, to the world of rock music. Moreover, the lyrics spoke of pain, anger, hurt, reflection, fear, freedom and self-determination … and it struck a chord.

I quickly got myself copies of Reflector and Present, their second album, and Killing Heidi became my favourite band. The music and lyrics on their three albums got me through the worst and darkest years of my life, and have stayed with me ever since – inspiring me, pumping me up, spurring me on.

In 2006, the band broke up, and though I caught them live a few times over the years (2006, as an acoustic duo, and 2009, as The Verses), I was hanging out to see the real-deal plugged-in Killing Heidi I grew up with.

Seeing the band at the Astor Theatre in Perth on June 2nd as part of their national reunion tour was a total trip. I went along with my partner and one of my best mates. Neither of them had seen me quite so hyperactive before: I felt transported back to my youth, so excited for the meet-and-greet session before the show.

About thirty or forty fans lined up for the meet and greet. The first pair went through the rippling black curtain to meet the band. I figured it would be like when you meet actors at Supanova or ComicCon: you say g’day, maybe a couple of sentences, they take your photo and whisk you away.

This wasn’t like that.

The first pair were with the band for a good five minutes. So were the second pair.

“This band are so nice,” the security guard told us as we waited to go in next. “You work with a lot of different bands over the years, but these guys are nice to everyone – the crew, all the staff, the fans – everyone.”

He wasn’t wrong. The members of Killing Heidi were the nicest people I’ve ever met at a meet and greet – and I’ve been to quite a few. I met Perth-born drummer Adam Pedretti, guitarist Jesse Hooper, and his sister, lead singer Ella Hooper. We chatted. We hugged. We got to talk about the band, their music, how much it meant to me growing up. I suggested they release a Greatest Hits already (which they totally should). We talked some more, about their other projects. We got a few photos. They signed my copy of Reflector. It was ace.

I left the room on a cloud.

Then we saw the band live, and they were everything I’d hoped for. This was a full electric show, and Killing Heidi rocked out hard, and I was front row. Reflector songs got heavy play – unexpectedly, even deep cuts like Real People and Astral Boy which I was so glad to hear live – and Ella nailed all the notes. They also played all the singles from the other two albums, and even a Verses song and an Ella Hooper solo number (Monkey Mind, which was rockier and incredible live).

But for me, the most poignant moment was when they played their 1996 song, Kettle.

Ella and Jesse Hooper were 13 and 16 respectively when their first song Kettle won radio station Triple J’s Unearthed competition in 1996. They were an acoustic duo from Violet Town in Victoria – a place much smaller than Geraldton, if not quite as remote. A few years later, their debut album Reflector (2000) became a massive sensation across Australia. Reflector became the fastest-selling album in Australian history, going four times platinum, and making them massive rock stars.

Their success story is so well-known, and their triumph over the pop charts seemed so instantaneous, that it never seemed like there had been any hard yards for the band in reaching their zenith.

But that night at the Astor gig, Ella reflected on their humble beginnings. How they were two no-name teenagers from a little country town with a single song. How Ella thought it was big-headed of her brother Jesse to submit the song to Triple J, because how would they ever make it, really?

“I don’t wanna get all ‘footprints in the sand’ on you guys,” Ella told the crowd at the Astor. “But if you have a big dream, go for it. You might just make it.”

I’m paraphrasing, because I was transfixed at that moment and forget her exact words, which were probably more poetic. But her words felt, to me, like motivation. And confluence.

If two ambitious kids from Violet Town can make in the end (through all the twists and bends …), maybe I can, too.

I am so glad I met my heroes, because they gave me the same joy and strength in real life that their music and lyrics have given me for years. And the inspiration to keep going.

I’m going to make it.

Holden

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