Little Miss Can't Be Wrong

If Avil Lavigne says she writes her own songs, who's going to tell her otherwise?

March 20, 2003
Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne on the cover of Rolling Stine
Martin Schoeller

Avril Lavigne's tiny face is eclipsed by a pitcher of beer that she has set about emptying. After the last swallow, she puts the pitcher back on the table, belches loudly and grabs a microphone in time to sing the opening notes of Creedence Clearwater Revival's version of “Suzie Q.” It's 1 A.M. on the last day of a two-week trip that has taken her to Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo. Lavigne – clad all in black, except for her silver skull-and-crossbones belt buckle and the dingy red, white and blue sweatband on her wrist – is celebrating in a dark, private room at a fifth-floor karaoke joint in Tokyo with her band and a dozen or so Japanese record executives. She passes the mike to her drummer, Matt Brann, and convulses with laughter when he inserts the word fuck into every single line of the next verse.

For the first time during four days of interviews, press conferences and TV appearances, Lavigne is having a blast – and not simply because no one is stopping this eighteen-year-old from drinking as many pitchers of beer, glasses of wine and shots of tequila as she likes. And not because, at dinner, the label honchos in Japan gave her a pair of diamond stud earrings, though it sure doesn't hurt. The more likely reason is that, for the first time in over a year, she's going to have a vacation; in just two days, she will be on a beach in Hawaii, slathered with SPF-30 sunblock.

MTV Awards Fail to Suck

After that, she heads to the Grammys, where she has been nominated for five awards in categories including Best New Artist and Song of the Year. (“It would be cool to win one,” she says. “But even if I don't win, it's fine. I can still walk around the rest of my life, like, ‘Once, I got nominated for a Grammy.’”) And then, starting March 3rd, the event she's been waiting a lifetime for: her first real tour. “My dream was always to hop up onstage in front of my fans every night and perform,” she says. “That's what all of this was supposed to be about.”

Not every artist gets to play arenas on her first headlining tour. Since “Complicated” hit the airwaves last spring, the teen-pop singer who is anything but “teen pop” has experienced phenomenal success, including 4 million in sales for her debut album, Let Go. “You can't really predict when an artist is going to become a teen icon,” says L.A. Reid, president of Lavigne's label, Arista Records.

An icon, that is, who wears baggy pants, plastic bracelets and a scowl – not the skimpy threads and Ultra brite smiles of Britney and Mandy and Beyoncé and pre-“Dirrty” Christina. An icon who sings about crushes on skater boys and who listens to Blink-182 and who may or may not know who Sid Vicious was. An icon who had quite a bit of help writing the songs on Let Go but at least not from the Swedish hitmakers who write Backstreet Boys songs, or from the Neptunes, who write everything else.

Lavigne's blockbuster performance – Let Go was the third-best-selling album of 2002 – is surprising, but clever marketing has certainly helped. To a young audience tired of glitzy teen disco, Lavigne has been presented as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter. But it is unclear how much songwriting she does. You have to get by the handwritten lyrics and examine Let Go's liner notes very carefully to find out who wrote what, and the booklet contains photos of Lavigne's touring band, which doesn't actually play on the record.

And then there's the issue of her punk-rock cred, or lack thereof. It's a sore subject for Lavigne, who avoids using the p word these days. But her bandmates, all veterans of small-time punk bands, are quick to defend her. “I can totally understand why people would be pissed off at Avril,” says rhythm guitarist Jesse Colburn, who used to play in an Ontario band named Closet Monster. “But it's not her fault. Punk pop is in right now, and someone out there thought they could capitalize on it with Avril. You can look kind of punky without listening to punk rock or writing punk-rock music.”

Still, Reid contends that “there are no guys in suits that can manufacture artists like Avril Lavigne. I wish there were. God knows the record business needs them right now.”

If the response in Asia is any indication, Lavigne's fans are way more vocal than her detractors. In Singapore, she had an experience that might remind her of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, if she has ever seen the film. “I got attacked at the airport,” she says while browsing through racks of vintage T-shirts at a thrift store in the Shibuya section of Tokyo. Run-DMC's Raising Hell is blaring in the background. “There were, like, 300 people waiting. And we had to run and jump into the car, and they threw presents in on top of us. Then we looked in one of the bags, and there were these two bunnies in there!” She shops like a dude – moving quickly and zeroing in on only what she came to buy. We spend three hours traipsing from store to store, stopping longest in a hat shop, GA4LA, where Lavigne buys a new “disguise” hat. With her hair in a messy ponytail, her face free of makeup and wearing a hooded bomber jacket, she is already in full disguise, and only a few kids seem to recognize her.

But at our hotel, well-behaved young fans – mostly girls – wait in the lobby from morning to night, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lavigne or one of the cute band boys. Most of them carry cameras and small gifts. One woman, a dowdy-looking thirtysomething, is waiting nearby when we head for the elevators. She politely hands a paper bag to Lavigne, who flashes a halfhearted smile and murmurs, “Thanks.” Once we are out of earshot, she says to her assistant, “That's the one. She's here waiting every day.” Lavigne looks in the bag, suspiciously eyeing the candy and snacks inside. “Eww,” she says. “Why would she give me food?” She opens one of the packages to find crispy fried potato sticks, and, suddenly, the fear of poisoning vanishes as she digs in.

Lavigne never doubted she'd be a star. She has always believed she was destined to be a famous performer. As a child growing up two hours east of Toronto, in the tiny town of Napanee, Ontario (population 5,000), she would stand on her bed and pretend to be playing for a crowd of screaming fans. “We knew she was talented, but we didn't realize how talented,” says Judy Lavigne, Avril's stay-at-home mom. Avril was the middle child of three — she has a brother, Matthew, who's almost two years older, and a sister, Michelle, who's three years younger. Judy and husband John became aware of Avril's singing ability when she was only two years old. “One day I started singing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and I couldn't believe it when she sang along,” Judy says.

The Lavignes are devoutly Christian; some of Avril's first singing appearances were in church, and her earliest recordings were with Christian singersongwriter Stephen Medd on tracks such as “Touch the Sky.” Though she has always been a mischievous kid, Lavigne says that her core values were shaped by growing up in a religious household. “My mom wouldn't even let me sing [the country song] ‘Strawberry Wine,’ because it said ‘wine’ in it and I was this little kid,” she remembers. “She protected my image. And that's not the only reason why I don't dance around like a ho onstage, but it definitely has something to do with being brought up with tons of morals. And I'm not saying I'll never write a song with a curse word, because there's definitely been times when it's like, ‘Aww, man, “fuck” would sound so good there!’ But then I think about my mom, and how it would probably hurt her,” she says, laughing quietly. “So I just say ‘frig’ instead.”

Lavigne never listened to much music until she hit puberty, and even then it was mostly country divas such as Shania Twain or mainstream rock bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty. Which is one reason she had never seen David Bowie's name when it came time to read it off a list of nominees at a Grammy press conference in January. (She pronounced the “bow-” like “bow-wow” rather than “bow-tie.”) “Did people think that was bad?” she asks coyly. “What's the big deal? I was born in 1984 – why would I know who he is? My parents didn't bring me up listening to him. Besides, people mispronounce my name all the time.”

Things took off for Lavigne after a Canadian label representative sent New York songwriter and producer Peter Zizzo a home video of her singing karaoke. “She was singing without any affectation,” says Zizzo, who has written songs for Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez and Vanessa Carlton. “She was, like, fourteen and wearing these fuzzy bunny slippers, and she had a bandanna around her head. I called back and said, ‘Get her to New York.’” Lavigne moved to Manhattan with her brother and took up temporary residence in a West Village apartment. “She really wanted this to happen,” Zizzo says. “She was living to have a career as a singer-songwriter.”

She landed a deal with Arista after Reid watched her perform in Zizzo's studio one evening in December 2001. “It was her voice and her songwriting,” says Reid, explaining what sold him on Lavigne. “And she's a dynamite-looking girl with an amazing attitude.” During the next several months, she worked with an assortment of producers but struck pay dirt with Los Angeles hitmaking trio the Matrix, who wrote and recorded five of the songs on Let Go, including the first three singles, “Complicated,” “Sk8er Boi” and “I'm With You.”

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