Lavigne, Avril (Profile)
"TO UNDERSTAND ME you have to meet me and be around me. And then, only if I'm in a good mood - don't meet me in a bad mood." Avril Lavigne, the 18-year-old pop sensation from Napanee, Ont., says this the first time I meet her. It's early December, and we're in a Buffalo hotel room, a few hours before she's to perform at that city's HSBC Arena. Turns out Lavigne is in a foul mood on this particular day. Her face is barely visible behind the long hair and heavy eye makeup. She has a headache, is jet-lagged and hungry, does not want to go to the sound check and, worse, doesn't want to be interviewed yet again. "I find the promotion - all the interviews, photo shoots, the press - the annoying part," she announces.
Now I'm nervous. And sure enough, things go less than brilliantly. As she lies on the hotel-room floor, Lavigne doesn't have a whole lot of interest in being reflective. What kind of impact did moving from Napanee to New York to record her album have on her? "I didn't really focus on it that much. I just got there, and it was like, 'OK, I have work to do.'" Did she expect success to come this fast? "I don't know. I didn't really think about it." How has she adjusted to fame? "Most of the time I don't really think about it. I just focus on what I have to do - go to the venue and sound check, off to this city, that city." How is she handling negative press? "Negative press sucks, so I don't think about it." What are her plans for her second record? "I'm not thinking about it right now. I don't want to freak myself out." And what about the money? "It's not really an issue for me. It's how I make my living, whether I make 100 bucks or a million bucks it doesn't really matter to me. As long as I have a house and food and am happy."
Is she happy? "I'm doing what I wanted to do, I'm not flipping burgers." Here she takes a long pause, sighs, crosses her arms across her chest and says, with less-than-zero enthusiasm, "Yeah, I'm really happy."
Has Lavigne already become a spoiled rock 'n' roll diva who considers it her right to mope through an interview? She's certainly rich and famous enough for that. But after witnessing two concerts, watching her and her band's innocent backstage antics, and grabbing some more one-on-one time which yielded brief moments of animated conversation, a couple of smiles and even one hearty laugh, I'm ready to give Avril the benefit of the doubt. She's probably just a typically moody young person - likeable when she's up and trying when she's down. Her celebrity doesn't seem to have hit yet, but what has struck is the teenage blues. And she has to contend with them in that pressure cooker known as pop stardom.
Her debut album, Let Go, hit shelves last June, and only six months later she's sold over eight million copies worldwide. It was the second best-seller of 2002 in the U.S., after The Eminem Show. The first two singles, Complicated and Sk8er Boi, went to number one, while her latest,I'm With You, is at number 10 and climbing. And there are more radio-friendly tracks to come. Lavigne will be able to ride off her debut for at least another year as she goes on her first headlining tour in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America.
Meanwhile, against a backdrop of hyper-sexualized stars like Britney Spears, she's emerged as a tomboyish, skateboard-toting alternative for both boys and girls. Jeanie Goodman brought her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to a recent Baltimore show. "There's not that much you can bring them to these days," she says. "But Avril you can. She doesn't have all the trashy lyrics." Lavigne is well aware of that status, and it makes her uncomfortable - rock rebellion and aggression are, she says, a big part of who she is, and she's sick of the anti-Britney tag. "There are a few times when I'm a bit careful," says the singer, whose language is liberally spiced with the f-word, and who speaks with bravado about getting into bar fights. "But I am not going to hide who I am or change who I am."
It took the singer only two years to leap from the stages of county fairs to a global audience. Not surprisingly, Lavigne is exhausted, and pulled in every direction. "I do worry about her stress level," says her stay-at-home mother, Judy, 47, who describes Avril as normally sociable and full of energy. Judy and her husband, John, a 49-year-old technician for Bell Canada, have two other kids: Matt, a 19-year-old college student, and high-schooler Michelle, 15. They admit that if Avril were having trouble coping, she might not tell them. Like most teens, she's not terribly communicative with her parents. "I find it frustrating that it's hard for me to get hold of her," says Judy. In fact, she says they rely on the Internet to get news. They've missed a couple of TV specials because Avril didn't tell them, and John read in a magazine that she's met Eminem (one of his favourites). "C'mon Avril, you have to tell us a little more," he says, before adding, "but we try not to bug her."
John and Judy are heartened that their daughter now has a personal assistant, Shannon Reddy, courtesy of her current management, Vancouver powerhouse Nettwerk. Reddy recognizes that due to Lavigne's age and meteoric rise, this new assignment requires both a strong hand and a light touch. "She's out here with all guys," says Reddy. "She needs someone." And while Lavigne admits to not getting along well with girls, she and Reddy, 33, were fast friends by the end of their first week together - they'd already gone to a spa and had a pajama party. More important, Reddy is determined to create some free time during which Lavigne can pick up her guitar and write new songs.
Reddy, who has worked for Lilith Fair and was there when Sarah McLachlan garnered international attention at 28, says she's impressed by how well Lavigne, at 18, is coping. "She's amazingly grounded. It hasn't seemed to hit her yet." Take money, for example. Reddy tells of how they were in an airport and Lavigne ordered a sandwich. After she asked for a couple of extras, like avocado, the woman working behind the counter said, "You know that'll be extra, dear, it'll cost $6.50." As Reddy tells it, Lavigne said, "Forget it, no, that's too much." After all, she had just spent $4 on freshly squeezed juice. "I think," says Reddy, "she needs to see something on paper that shows her exactly how much she has."
According to her parents, Lavigne does know how much she's worth. (She signed a record deal for a reported $1.9 million and got a publishing advance of $1.4 million.) "She's always been a saver," explains Judy. But John goes a step further. "She's a tightwad," he laughs, "a mini-Scrooge. A while ago we went by a BMW place. I said, 'You could get a convertible.' I was just teasing her but she got so mad and told me, 'Dad, I just want to get a used Jeep.'"
As far as John and Judy can tell from the little time she gets to spend at home, their daughter hasn't changed much. She loves her miniature schnauzer Sam - who wears a tie in homage to Lavigne's first fashion statement (which she now eschews in favour of camouflage everything). She still orders pizza from downtown Napanee's La Pizzeria. On the menu is Avril's Favourite, topped with pepperoni, olives and mushrooms. Now that she's a quasi-vegetarian she orders it without the meat - and instead of eating it there like she did in high school, she gets it to go. She still goes to the 24-hour A&P in the middle of the night for tofu. And she still keeps the family awake all night while she plays guitar and sings in front of the mirror. "She's still a teenager," says Judy. "We have three teenagers. We go through a lot of changes and mood swings."
While Avril is bored by questions about how she got her start, her parents are happy to fill in the blanks. When she was five the family moved from Belleville in eastern Ontario, where all the kids were born, to Napanee, pop. 5,000, 40 km to the east. It's primarily a farming town, big into sports and country music. There, the family attended Evangel Temple, where Avril sang solo in a Christmas pageant when she was 10. "They really had no choice," says John, "she hogged the mike anyway. She had such a big voice."
Avril then branched out to secular gigs like a Canadian Tire celebration, hockey games, an insurance company Christmas party, county fairs - choosing new country numbers by Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. "It was a lot of work," recalls Judy. "We got her a sound machine with instrumental soundtracks for her to sing along with; she practised continually. Then we'd get to the event and have to buy our own hamburgers. But it's all kind of coming together." John adds, "Now it's steak in New York."
Avril made the jump from local entertainer to recording artist soon after she won a 1999 contest to sing with Shania Twain in Ottawa at the Corel Centre. The following year, while in New York, she came to the attention of L.A. Reid, head of Arista Records. Impressed by her confidence and a voice that was strong and versatile despite a lack of vocal training, he signed the 16-year-old immediately - and she promptly dropped out of high school. At first, Arista gave her new country material to record, but it turned out that Lavigne was by then more interested in rock. Eventually, she was sent to Los Angeles, where a couple of different writing teams took her lyrics - about jerky boys, boring small towns and being an outsider - and added addictive rock-pop hooks. The result, Let Go, is Alanis Morissette-lite, a highly marketable kind of skate-girl pop.
Good-natured and devoutly Christian, John seems both exasperated by, and proud of, his daughter's rock 'n' skate persona. He wishes she wouldn't talk about drinking in interviews, but recognizes she's 18 and has to experience things for herself. He calls her a prankster: "She can stir the pot if she wants to. If she didn't have this [career] she'd be in more trouble than you can shake a stick at." But when asked about her self-perpetuated reputation for fighting, he says, "I don't think she looks for fights, but she can hold her own if she has to. She's had enough of those in hockey."
At ages 10 and 11, Lavigne played in a boy's league in Napanee. "One time," John recalls, "the two teams were coming off the ice and next thing you know there's a great big commotion and moms and dads were pulling kids out. I went to the dressing room thinking, 'Who's that rotten kid that started this?' and turns out some guy called one of Avril's teammates fat pig or something and Avril slugged him right in the mask. So she started it." She also played baseball and was a pretty good pitcher. In Grade 10, she discovered skateboarding. While John proudly shows off the Napanee skate park where Avril learned to ride, he says that with it came boyfriends with baggy pants: "I didn't like them much."
The only thing about Avril's image that seems to really offend her parents' religious sensibility is her foul mouth. But they'd be happy to know she's learning to tone it down. At the recent show in Buffalo, consisting of an older teen crowd, Lavigne and her rhythm guitarist, Jesse Colburn, traded obscenities, turning the rock level up a notch. Two days later, Lavigne got on stage in Baltimore and looked out on a sea of six- to 12-year-olds, wearing ties, sitting on their fathers' shoulders and passionately singing along to every single word. "It's the youngest crowd we've seen," said Lavigne's personal security guard, Joe Self, before she went on stage. "I hope this helps her understand what a role model she is." That night, not a bad word was uttered. But when compared to the Buffalo performance, in which Lavigne owned the stage, exhilarated and pushing her voice, in Baltimore she lacked energy and seemed bored when stripped of the rock posturing.
Nettwerk supplied Lavigne with a touring band that's likely to take her in an edgier direction. While many solo artists are backed by seasoned players, most of Lavigne's musicians had barely made it out of their basements before being thrown onto the world stage. Colburn, 21, and drummer Matt Brann, 22, had been part of the Ajax, Ont., punk scene, playing with the guys from Closet Monster and the hit band Sum 41. Bassist Charles Moniz, 22, had been in a Burlington, Ont., punk band. And lead guitarist Evan Taubenfeld, 19, from Baltimore, was in a rock group. "She's young, her music's young, we needed a band that would fit well with who she is as a person," says Lavigne's manager, Shauna Gold. "Maybe they're not top-of-the-line studio musicians, but they still play really well and have the right energy and the right look."
It was the right decision. What's keeping Lavigne from getting a big head is that she wants to be treated the same as the guys in her band - and they're not stars. These tattooed, pierced, Converse-and-work-pants-wearing dudes have been hired for a professional gig. They didn't make it big with their own groups, they lucked into an opportunity of a lifetime and know they are easily replaceable. They show up on time and slowly nurse only a beer or two before the show. In Buffalo, they laugh at the glass-topped table they find in their dressing room - explaining to Lavigne that other bands would use it to snort coke off of. With no illicit drugs in sight, this band heads straight for their food table, which is loaded with veggies and soy snacks. Colburn and Moniz are vegetarians, and now Lavigne is flirting with vegetarianism too. Things are pretty chilled-out backstage before the show - the rowdiest it gets is a competition to see who can do the most Charlie Chaplin heel kicks in a row. Lavigne trips and falls constantly, and ends up getting teased.
After a year of the jet-set life, including travelling to Europe three times, appearances on Jay Leno, David Letterman, the Billboard Music Awards, MuchMusic Video Awards, and tickets to the L.A. premiere of the Eminem movie 8 Mile, what Lavigne and the band yearn for is a real tour, with buses and the actual rigours of the road. Until now, they've flown everywhere. At the Buffalo show, the first thing they do is check out the tour bus of Quebec band Simple Plan, which is also on the bill. "They travel like real musicians," says Moniz, adding disdainfully, "we travel like Hollywood stars."
Later, Lavigne looks to Brann for his opinion of Simple Plan: "So do we like those guys?" But while her bandmates may act, at times, as her cool barometer and musical mentors, in matters of importance they defer to Lavigne, their meal ticket. Lavigne offers little about her boys - "They are going through everything with me, so I don't feel completely by myself." But guys in general is a topic that piques her interest. She doesn't have a boyfriend right now, but wants one - and hopes to eventually marry and have kids. "The world thinks that me and Deryck [Whibley] from Sum 41 are together," she says, laughing. "Derek's a f---er. Me and him are sort of friends, we hang out. But anytime we hang out I either get in a fight with somebody or end up in a tabloid. Something happens every time." Besides the guys from Sum 41, Lavigne says she doesn't know many other famous boys. And when she goes to Hollywood-type events she finds that celebrities don't talk to one another. "How do you f---ing meet people? You'd think that me out of all people - but I never meet anybody. Even though I'm all around the world, I'm all worldly now, whatever, I'm so sheltered at the same time. I get into airplanes, have a security guard with me, I go right to the hotel, to the venue and I come right back. I don't go anywhere public."
What's endearing, and puzzling, about Lavigne is that she's way more comfortable chatting about boys, shopping and fishing than she is talking about her music. That's the complete opposite of most artists, who clam up about their personal lives and steer everything back to their craft. Lavigne's reluctance to talk shop might be an indication that she is overwhelmed by her success, that she's scared to death of a follow-up album, that her career is controlled or manipulated by the record company. But a less cynical view would be that she's just a teenager who's bored of proving herself. "The image out there of me," she says, "is this chick who writes her songs and is herself. And I can see how it could, for some people, look like the label made me up - this chick who wears a tank top and a tie. Whatever, I think the image is way too f---ing pop, it doesn't show my whole realness and my rock, edge side."
It's true Lavigne likes to rock out more than many of her female contemporaries, but she's a long way from the likes of Courtney Love and Patti Smith. Lavigne's is a parent-friendly, drug-free rock to go along with the musings of what her mother calls a "sensitive" kid. "She was always writing us little notes," says Judy, "'Dear mommy and daddy, I love you and I miss you.'" John says he kept the letters she sent him while he was working in Ottawa during the 1998 ice storm. "I let one of the guys I was working with read them, and he cried."
Now her intimate musings are gospel to millions of young girls. But Lavigne doesn't think about that too much. "My lyrics," she says, "are just what I'm feeling, like if I'm pissed off or hurt. I don't write if I'm happy, I feel like I need to be hurt. Usually I'm angry at guys or something. Every guy I've ever been with has always made me angry." Avril Lavigne seems to have fallen into another bad mood, but maybe when it comes to her career that's not such a bad thing.
Maclean's January 13, 2003