If the singer says she writes her own songs, who's going to tell her otherwise?
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.
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.”
Because Lavigne has been positioned as a singer-songwriter, the issue of “written with” takes on a certain significance. Moreover, the Matrix team – Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock – describe the collaboration differently than she does. Though the publishing royalties get split evenly among Christy, Edwards, Spock and Lavigne, Avril implies that she was the primary author of the songs on Let Go. She says that when she was working with the Matrix, “one guy was in the room while we were writing, but he didn't write the guitar, and he didn't write the lyrics or the melody. Me and Lauren sat down and did all the lyrics together for every single song. Graham would come up with some guitar stuff, and I'd be like, ‘Yeah, I like that,’ or ‘No, I don't like that.’ None of those songs aren't from me.
“When I wrote [‘Complicated’],” she says, “I was feeling what the song talks about – that there are tons of people in the world who are fake, who are two-faced.” And when I ask her how long it took her to write that song, she says simply, “Maybe two hours,” without equivocation. “Songwriting is like that for me,” she adds, with a snap of her fingers. “Someone can say, ‘Go write a song,’ and I can do it. I can write a song a day.”
But according to the Matrix, they wrote the bulk of the three hit singles by themselves, following their first meeting with Lavigne. “With those songs, we conceived the ideas on guitar and piano,” says Christy. “Avril would come in and sing a few melodies, change a word here or there. She came up with a couple of things in ‘Complicated,’ like, instead of ‘Take off your stupid clothes,’ she wanted it to say ‘preppy clothes.’”
A week later, I see Lavigne again, in New York. She seems annoyed when I tell her that I'm confused about how the collaborations worked. “I knew in my heart that I needed to be more pop to break,” she says, staring down at the untied shoelaces of her black Converse All Stars. She says that the harder-rocking songs on Let Go – specifically “Losing Grip” and “Unwanted” – had the sound she wanted for the whole album. Those tracks were co-written with Clif Magness, who gave her enough creative control that she was able to pen “every single lyric and the melodies.” She says the label wasn't thrilled by the heavy guitar sound, and that's when it hooked her up with the Matrix.
“Arista was drop-dead shit afraid that I would come out with a whole album that sounded like ‘Unwanted’ and ‘Losing Grip,’” she says. “I swear they wanted to drop me or something. I don't feel like ‘Complicated’ represents me and my ability to write. But without ‘Complicated,’ I bet you anything I wouldn't have even sold a million records. The songs I did with the Matrix, yeah, they were good for my first record, but I don't want to be that pop anymore.”
L.A. Reid glosses over the issue of who wrote what by saying, “If I'm looking for a single for an artist, I don't care who writes it. I don't place boundaries on writers. Avril had the freedom to do as she really pleased, and the songs show her point of view. Why would it be a discredit to her if she is savvy enough to understand when a song is a hit and decide to sing it? Avril has always been confident about her ideas.”
That confidence has helped Lavigne assert herself where other young artists might not. When Reid suggested she call the album Any thing but Ordinary – after another of the Matrix's tracks – Lavigne balked. She also pushed for the gloomy “Losing Grip” as her next single over the bright-and-bouncy “Anything but Ordinary.” “The main thing is, you gotta work with the artist,” she says. “A lot of people didn't want to listen to me, but I spoke up until they did. And I can always say, 'Screw you guys if you're not gonna work with me.’ If they're not gonna listen to me, I'm not gonna do things. Try and make me – I'm not gonna.”
Britney Spears may have made it a cliché, but in Lavigne's case it's an apt description: She's not agirl, not yet awoman. “I still feel like a kid,” she says. “Even though I take care of myself, I freak out sometimes when it's, like, lawyers, papers. I'm just like, ‘Mom!’” And, like a kid playing dress-up, she shows a charming mix of naiveté and savvy when she talks about schmoozing up radio-station program directors. “Get a load of my little business idea,” she announces to her bandmates one afternoon. “I always make sure I get to meet the program directors and personally shake their hand. And I say, ‘Thanks so much for all your support. Please give lots of spins to 'Losing Grip.' Because it means so much more when it comes straight from the artist.”
Lavigne doesn't have a boyfriend right now, but she says she's not sweating it since she's too busy and, besides, most of the boys who want to meet her have a tough time getting past her bodyguard. Her attitudes about dating are pretty old-fashioned, which isn't surprising considering the rules her mom enforced when she was a kid. “I wasn't allowed to have a guy in my room,” Lavigne says. “Especially not with the door shut. And she wouldn't let me call guys. They had to call me. I have that attitude now – that if a guy wants to hook up with me, he can come after me. I'm not going running after him.” At the time, she recalls, she hated all those restrictions. Now she realizes they were for the best: “That's a good way to bring up your kid, because if you let your kid do everything – go to parties, get trashed really young and get out of control – she's gonna get taken advantage of, and she won't be taught that having sex with a ton of boys is a bad thing. I do a lot of things that are very rebellious, but it's not like I'm sniffing coke or doing dirty stuff.”
Her requirements for boyfriends are simple. “I need a guy who's sensitive,” she says. “I need a guy with edge. And most importantly, a guy has to give me lots of attention and hug me all the time.” She says that “Losing Grip” – her favorite song on Let Go – was inspired by a boyfriend who didn't value her enough. “Right now I feel invisible to you,” goes one lyric.
“I was this guy's girlfriend, and he didn't even treat me like it,” she says. “If he sat there with his arm around me, it was just because I was his chick. It wasn't like [wrapping her arms around imaginary person], ‘Oh, baby. I love you.’”
If the cute sadness of that scenario doesn't melt your cold, cold heart, try this pubescent romance narrative: “Too Much to Ask” is about a summer crush who smoked too much weed and blew Lavigne off more often than he should have. “He'd choose to go get high instead of be with me in certain situations,” she recalls. “He was never my boyfriend or anything. I was pissed off at the summer crush. I mean, he was a dick. I liked him. And I wanted something. And he liked me. But if I had a boyfriend, I would cherish him so much. I might look like a tough chick – and I am – but I'm also a hopeless romantic inside.”
In “Unwanted,” she addresses rejection by one boyfriend's parents with the line, “I just don't understand why you won't talk to me.”
“It's important when you have a boyfriend to go over to the house and bond with the parents,” she says. “I was really polite to them. I had dinner with them at the table, and I had my manners, like, ‘Can I help you with anything? Can I wash the dishes?’ But they didn't want me with their boy. I guess they thought I was a bit wild for him. And I was so hurt by that.”
But Lavigne is a bit of a hellion. In Tokyo, during a drive to TV Asahi, a Japanese channel she's performing on, Lavigne points out the window at a gigantic Ferris wheel that rises above the skyline. Last time she was here, she says, she and her guitarist, Evan Taubenfeld, dropped trou on the ride and mooned the people in the car behind them. “The first night we hung out, she took us to a bar,” says drummer Brann. “Within five minutes she's like, 'We're gonna do body shots. Pour salt on my neck and then lick it. We were doing tequila, tequila, tequila right away. I was like, ‘This girl is insane. This is going to be like Motley Crüe.’”
Lavigne and her band make perfect co-conspirators. The boys are all a few years older and treat their pint-size leader like a kid sister. The four punk rockers have been trying to school Lavigne on what she should listen to. “For her birthday, I got her [AC/DC's] Back in Black, the Clash singles and the new Me First and the Gimme Gimmes — your straightforward rock & roll, your punk and your pop punk,” says bassist Charlie Moniz, the resident indie-rock connoisseur. Brann gave her a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind. And Colburn gave her the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and some Pixies stuff. “I started her off with the more palatable ones, like ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven,’” he says. “Then I give her ‘Debaser,’ and she's like, ‘I don't know about that.’” She even got a lesson in recent music history from one of her heroes: the Goo Goo Dolls' Johnny Rzeznik. “What's that CD that Johnny Rzeznik bought me?” Lavigne asks her tour manager, Dan Garnett. “It starts with an R.” She squinches her forehead and tries to remember. Finally she asks me, “Do you know who Johnny Rzeznik's idol was?” The Replacements, I suggest. “Yeah, the Replacements! I never have time to listen to it, but I like it.”
She's hardly punk, but you gotta start somewhere. And there's no arguing that Lavigne is a different kind of girl than other teen superstars. She's girly and tomboyish at the same time – like when she shows me that she had her legs waxed and then explains that she did it because she can't be bothered shaving. Or when, regarding herself in a dressing-room mirror, she pulls her shirt up and pats her tummy to check for jiggles – and then points out the sparkly little bellybutton ring with dolphins hanging in her navel. She recently stopped wearing antiperspirant because she heard the aluminum in it can give you breast cancer, so she's constantly sniffing her armpits and spritzing herself with perfume.
Lavigne says she's always wanted to live on her own, but she admits that it has been difficult to adjust to the constant traveling. “When we're on tour,” she rhapsodizes, “I'll finally be able to go to bed in the same place. The tour bus is like your home, your security. For the past nine months, I've been in a different bed every night, a different city. On the bus, it's like living in a house with your family.” Lavigne should know: When she's not on the road, she still lives with her parents. “Basically, right now, my only friends are my band,” she says, before lowering her voice to add, “which I guess is kind of sad, but that's the way it is right now. Pretty much, this is everyone in my life.” With that, she takes out her new green and black disguise hat and gets ready to head back to her hotel room. “Look,” she says, and turns the hat around to show me what's sewn on the back. “I have something with a flower on it,” she says and giggles devilishly.
This story is from the March 20th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.