Still com­pli­cated

Seven­teen years af­ter she shot to star­dom, Avril Lav­i­gne is back. Hav­ing sur­vived se­ri­ous ill­ness and di­vorce, she’s in no mood to com­pro­mise, she tells Laura Snapes

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page - Pho­tog­ra­phy Philip Che­ung

Pop stars – es­pe­cially women – are frozen at the age they be­come fa­mous. Break­ing the ice usu­ally in­volves a bad-girl rein­ven­tion, if not a gen­uine break­down. Some­how, this ten­sion never af­fected Avril Lav­i­gne, the Cana­dian pop-punk star who ar­rived in 2002 aged 17 with the bril­liant Com­pli­cated, a heav­ing teenage sigh di­rected at some poseur boy. It’s not that she didn’t have an in­deli­ble look: her low-slung skate pants, tie and ram­rod-straight hair are an en­dur­ing fancy-dress cos­tume. It’s that she never seemed to want to grow up.

Her al­ter­nately fun, angsty de­but al­bum, Let Go, seemed au­then­tic enough – she played gui­tar! The lyrics were hand­writ­ten! – to con­vince a gen­er­a­tion of teenage girls that she, and by as­so­ci­a­tion, they, were more cred­i­ble than Brit­ney. Then 13, I was one of them; I wore Dad’s tie to the shops and wasted hours learn­ing how to copy her hand­writ­ing. It was mu­sic many quickly grad­u­ated from, to acts whose cred­its didn’t list mul­ti­ple co-writ­ers: the drug of au­then­tic­ity hooks teenagers fast. But there is no shame in be­ing a gate­way artist, a role Lav­i­gne seemed sur­pris­ingly happy to keep play­ing.

Af­ter an emo­tion­ally in­tense sec­ond al­bum, she seemed to dial back the years with 2007’s The Best Damn Thing, led by sin­gle Girl­friend, a Hey Mickey-style rager about home­wreck­ing. Good­bye Lul­laby (2011) had What the Hell (“All I want is to mess around”) and her 2013 self-ti­tled al­bum boasted Bitchin’ Sum­mer (ie School’s Out with swear­ing) and Here’s to Never Grow­ing Up (“We’ll be run­ning down the street, yelling, ‘Kiss my ass’”). She was 29. A year later, she started feel­ing in­ex­pli­ca­bly ex­hausted. Doc­tors tried to di­ag­nose her with anx­i­ety and chronic fa­tigue, even though she was sure she had Lyme dis­ease. Fi­nally, she got a vin­di­cat­ing di­ag­no­sis and spent two years in bed on an­tibi­otics, cer­tain, at one point, that she would die.

What hap­pens when a teenage im­mor­tal faces death? Lav­i­gne, now 34, doesn’t want to talk about that. “It was a relief” to get the di­ag­no­sis, she says tersely, call­ing from Los An­ge­les. “I was like: ‘OK, now I can at least start treat­ing some­thing.’” She was treated at home. Who cared for her? Her man­ager in­ter­rupts and in­sists we “re­ally fo­cus on the mu­sic”. But it is hard to sep­a­rate Lav­i­gne’s ill­ness from her sixth al­bum, Head Above Water, named af­ter a song that came to her as she lay in her mother’s arms, feel­ing as if she was drown­ing. It is her best song in years, an em­phatic, gothic bal­lad that is do­ing well on the US Chris­tian sin­gles chart and has 57m YouTube views. “It just felt re­ally good to be singing,” she says. “The emo­tion was so raw.” In­ner strength is the pre­vail­ing theme of the eight songs I heard, which of­ten evoke Lana Del Rey’s moody epics.

Other songs al­lude to a toxic re­la­tion­ship. All Lav­i­gne will say is that my as­sump­tion is “ob­vi­ously” cor­rect and that they’re cat­e­gor­i­cally not about her sec­ond ex-hus­band, Nick­el­back front­man Chad Kroeger; they have a “great re­la­tion­ship” (he worked on the al­bum). “I ap­pre­ci­ate you try­ing to re­ally get the juice,” she says mock­ingly, “but I’m not gonna go there.” I ex­plain that

I’m not look­ing for gos­sip, but con­text for her most per­sonal al­bum. “That’s the thing about my mu­sic,” she says, ex­as­per­ated. “I write it and I put it out there, and peo­ple can in­ter­pret it the way they like.” It is hard to talk about the mu­sic when the mu­sic ap­par­ently speaks for it­self.

But maybe never show­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity is key to Lav­i­gne’s 17-year pop ca­reer. She has heart­felt songs – her de­but al­bum’s I’m With You is a fan­tas­tic pop-rock bal­lad, later sam­pled by Ri­hanna – but her ex­te­rior has swung be­tween feck­less (giv­ing the fin­ger on MTV’s er­adefin­ing To­tal Re­quest Live in 2004) and brit­tle. (She re­grets the tear­ful 2015 tele­vi­sion in­ter­view an­nounc­ing her ill­ness.) She is pub­licly close to both her ex-hus­bands, Kroeger and Sum 41 front­man Deryck Whi­b­ley, whom she met aged 17, mar­ried at 21 and di­vorced at 25.

Pop is built on fe­male re­silience, which seems to have come nat­u­rally to her. When asked whether sex­ist and de­risory crit­i­cism af­fected her as a teenager, she is unim­pressed: “I don’t know what you’re re­fer­ring to.” The sto­ries she told about Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst try­ing to sleep with her; the man­u­fac­tured feud be­tween her and Brit­ney Spears?

‘I’m young at heart, a free spirit – I’m su­per-fun’ … Lav­i­gne

“Oh, that’s OK,” she says, flip­pantly. “It’s just be­cause I was su­per­pow­er­ful and they needed gos­sip to talk about.” Her de­but sold more than 6m copies in a year and she toured the world. Did she al­ways feel pro­tected as a teenage girl in a cut­throat in­dus­try? “It was a whirl­wind, and it was so mag­i­cal and un­be­liev­able.”

What seemed less nat­u­ral as her ca­reer pro­gressed was Lav­i­gne’s ac­tual iden­tity. The driven 15-yearold from On­tario was dis­cov­ered singing coun­try songs in a book­shop. A year later, she moved to New York af­ter a Cana­dian la­bel sent footage of her singing karaoke to a pro­ducer. Two months af­ter turn­ing 17, she was signed by pop im­pre­sario LA Reid. In Lav­i­gne’s telling, Arista thought they had a Sh­eryl Crow­style coun­try act on their hands, but she wanted to write heav­ier songs. A com­pro­mise was reached: af­ter writ­ing rock­ier ma­te­rial with one co-writer, she was paired with LA trio the Ma­trix, who wrote Let Go’s three mas­sive sin­gles, Com­pli­cated, Sk8er Boi and I’m With You.

The first al­bum was so suc­cess­ful that Lav­i­gne says she had only six months to write 2004’s Un­der My Skin: “They made me put it out be­fore I was ready.” She and co-writer Butch Walker kept writ­ing un­til the last minute, pro­duc­ing the bit­ter­sweet grunge an­them My Happy End­ing. “I called them and I said: ‘Guys, I have the first sin­gle.’ They’re like: ‘No, we’re go­ing with Don’t Tell Me.’” Arista led with their choice but Lav­i­gne was right: My Happy End­ing sold al­most three times as many copies.

The brood­ing Un­der My Skin re­flected the kind of pro­gres­sion that makes sense, es­pe­cially for a pop star who stressed her au­ton­omy at a time when girls weren’t af­forded much of it. Which is why her third al­bum, The Best Damn Thing, seemed so odd. Her first for

a new la­bel, RCA, it was a ri­otous pop record led by the dead­pan cheer­leader banger Girl­friend, her only US No 1 sin­gle to date.

Like Gwen Ste­fani, Lav­i­gne has al­ways been con­ser­va­tive de­spite her punk image. Her fam­ily are de­voutly Chris­tian. She once de­scribed girls “hav­ing sex with a ton of boys” as “a bad thing”, a be­lief that in­formed Don’t Tell Me: “Did I not tell you that I’m not like that girl, the one who gives it all away?” By the time she re­leased The Best Damn Thing, the Dis­ney-pushed pu­ri­tyring craze dom­i­nated pop. But even that couldn’t ex­plain the al­bum’s re­gres­sive lyrics.

In ret­ro­spect, it would be a relief to blame the al­bum on its pro­ducer and co-writer, Dr Luke, who made his name cre­at­ing de­bauched hits for the era’s fe­male icons, and lost favour af­ter Ke­sha ac­cused him of abuse. (He de­nies all claims and is su­ing for defama­tion.) But Lav­i­gne en­joyed work­ing with him: “We wrote re­ally great songs to­gether.” These three al­bums were the only records – un­til now – where she didn’t have to com­pro­mise. “It was the fourth al­bum when the tears started,” she says.

“The ma­jor­ity of the time in my ca­reer, [RCA] want me to write an­other Girl­friend. They don’t want the bal­lads.” It seems es­pe­cially tragic that on 2011’s oth­er­wise lovelorn Good­bye Lul­laby – writ­ten fol­low­ing her split from Whi­b­ley, al­though he pro­duced half of it – she had to in­clude What the Hell, a song about snog­ging a guy’s friends and go­ing “on a mil­lion dates” that sounded un­for­tu­nately sim­i­lar to the then ubiq­ui­tous Dis­ney pop-rock she had in­spired.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to be a woman and to be heard, and peo­ple some­times don’t take you se­ri­ously,” she says, fi­nally warm­ing to a sub­ject. “I’m highly in­tu­itive and I’ve al­ways got a very strong gut feel­ing. I’ve al­ways felt that I’ve known what’s best for me to do and I’ve had to fight dif­fer­ent peo­ple on this jour­ney over those 17 years: ‘You need to do this and it needs to go Top 40.’ You make those songs cos you have to, but then the stuff that’s the best on record is the al­bum tracks.”

It sounds mis­er­able. “I would get some songs the style I re­ally wanted,” she says. “I al­ways loved the pop-rock thing and it’s still who I am. I’m still proud of those songs and I wrote them. It wasn’t like peo­ple wrote them and gave it to me. It was like: ‘OK, I get it. You guys want sin­gles that are go­ing in this di­rec­tion. Fine, I’ll work with you but I’d rather be do­ing some­thing else.’ You can’t be stub­born and just do every­thing your own way.”

If com­mer­cially in­clined com­pro­mise is one of the se­crets of Lav­i­gne’s ca­reer, it re­mains at odds with the delin­quent at­ti­tude of many of her songs. That was the mood on her 2013 self-ti­tled al­bum, which dwelled on teenage re­bel­lion and con­tained a J-pop-in­flu­enced song about Hello Kitty that many deemed racist on see­ing its stereo­type-laden video. (She de­nied the sug­ges­tion, cit­ing the Ja­panese pro­duc­tion crew.) Its lyrics fared lit­tle bet­ter. Ref­er­enc­ing Spin the Bot­tle and “roll[ing] around in our un­der­wear”, it sounded like a mid­dle-aged per­vert’s idea of teenage sleep­overs.

“The la­bel didn’t tell me what to write, lyri­cally,” she in­sists. “I’m young at heart. I’m a free spirit. I’m su­per-fun. I love to hang out and have fun and dance and skate­board.” She reels off the di­verse types of song she can write “in my sleep”: about love, breakups, par­ty­ing, danc­ing, rock’n’roll, friend­ship. “I’m a fuck­ing rock star, bitch!”

Per­haps it’s a sign of how ef­fec­tively Arista mar­keted Lav­i­gne’s de­but that you want to be­lieve there was a frus­trated artist in there all along. Two years ago, a con­spir­acy the­ory that Lav­i­gne had died and been re­placed by a dop­pel­ganger went vi­ral. It was ab­surd, and must have been ex­tremely hurt­ful for Lav­i­gne to wit­ness peo­ple laugh­ing about her hy­po­thet­i­cal death when her health was so pre­car­i­ous. Be­yond the de­light of a well-rea­soned crack­pot the­ory, I don’t think peo­ple were gloat­ing about her demise, but at­tempt­ing to make sense of her jar­ring ca­reer: surely these artists weren’t the same per­son?

Mu­si­cally, maybe Head Above Water is what will fi­nally kill off the teenage im­mor­tal. She switched la­bels, to BMG, whom she said treated her like a “legacy artist”. “That was the first time, other than my first al­bum, that a la­bel re­ally just was like: ‘Take your time and write the mu­sic that you want to write.’”

It would be easy, af­ter our fairly painful en­counter, to want to pin the baf­fling mid-por­tion of Lav­i­gne’s ca­reer on her alone. But the self­evi­dent re­sults of a la­bel’s over­due trust – a stronger al­bum with real emo­tional stakes and so­phis­ti­cated am­bi­tions – should em­bar­rass an in­dus­try that prefers its women pow­er­less and pick­led in as­pic.

The al­bum Head Above Water is out on BMG on 15 Fe­bru­ary

‘It’s dif­fi­cult to be a woman and to be heard, and peo­ple some­times don’t take you se­ri­ously’

‘I al­ways loved the pop-rock thing’ … Lav­i­gne in 2003

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