Avril Lavigne: Riot girl

Her début album sold 14 million copies and provided a perfect antidote to Britney. But two years on, can Avril Lavigne prove that she's more than just a teenager in a tantrum? Interview by Craig McLean
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The Independent Culture

ike much of the rest of her, Avril Lavigne's scalp looks angry. The strip of skin visible through her centre-parting appears red-raw and tender. The last time she was around, she was punting her début album Let Go and its big, teen-zeitgeisty hits "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi". Her tumbling, brown-blonde, all-Canadian-girl locks were straightened into no-fuss, sk8er-girl curtains framing her small, pointy face.

ike much of the rest of her, Avril Lavigne's scalp looks angry. The strip of skin visible through her centre-parting appears red-raw and tender. The last time she was around, she was punting her début album Let Go and its big, teen-zeitgeisty hits "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi". Her tumbling, brown-blonde, all-Canadian-girl locks were straightened into no-fuss, sk8er-girl curtains framing her small, pointy face.

Now, two years and 14 million album sales later, the 19-year-old's new CD, Under My Skin is a little "edgier", full of belted-out vocals, sugared electric guitars and teenage rage against useless boys. Her hair, too, is bigger and darker, a straw-textured mass of black and dirty white, like an explosion inside a goth scarecrow.

There are other elements to what Lavigne will reluctantly concede is the new image that accompanies Under My Skin. "I used to wear a lot of shorts and T-shirts. Now I just kinda like cute little rock outfits. Whatever you wanna call it." Right now, this means bondage-type trousers and a fitted black T-shirt. There is chipped black polish on her nails. She has a tattoo of a star on the inside of her left wrist, a version of a self-drawn doodle that appeared on the inside of Let Go, and on her stage backdrop. She got the tattoo one night when she was out on the piss in Los Angeles with Ben Moody, former guitarist with angsty rock chart-toppers Evanescence, with whom she wrote a song for her new album. He got the same tattoo in the same place.

Might we call this new look "glam-grunge"? "Yeah! It's not, like, Gucci. Not high-end shit. Grungy but glam."

Judging by the state of her scalp, it looks like she was a little over-zealous in the application of the bleach and dye. Did she do it recently? Lavigne emits a grunted affirmation, but can't be drawn for further clarification. The only immediately pertinent fact, it seems, is that "it was my idea. I wanted to dye it all black. But I decided I shouldn't." She cocks her head, fixes a smile and gives a robo-glam Stepford mantra: "Once you go black you can't go back!"

And Christina Aguilera did the black hair thing already. "Yeah, and I'm really pale too. So I decided on black chunks."

In the pasty flesh, Avril Lavigne affords plenty of opportunity for the scrutiny of the top of her head. For one thing, she is a wee slip of a thing: five-foot-not-much in her bare feet. For another, her crown is what she seems most comfortable presenting to the world. She sits in her chair, legs pulled up in front of her chin, head bent over as she assumes impossibly contorted positions - part yoga, part sulk - and studies the zips on her bondage trousers. Then, picking at her hair, she discovers seemingly unlimited fractal wonders in her split ends. When she's not gazing at the floor, she's staring blankly at the kitchen beyond the glass doors of the terrace on which we're sitting. When she's not looking away, she's yawning loudly.

To be fair, it is a nice kitchen: it belongs to Bryan Adams, fellow Canadian and gravelly-rocker-turned-star-photographer. She has come here to his rather fantastic, John Pawson-designed Chelsea studio/home to have her picture taken in a big black taffeta ballgown and tiny John Richmond T-shirts. Richmond himself is on hand to help style the shoot. Also, the sun out here on the concrete terrace this Saturday afternoon is scorching. Lavigne, clad in black and slathered in make-up, is melting like a Barbie vampire.

And she has every right to be knackered. Since landing in the UK a couple of days ago, her schedule has been mental. Yesterday, the combination of itinerary and a hangover - courtesy of a 5am drinking session with her band in her trendy London base camp, the St Martins Lane hotel - was so punishing that she had to take herself off and have a cry. "It was so intense."

At such times, do you ever think, I wish I hadn't sold so many records? "Not at all!" Avril Lavigne says brightly, almost hysterically.

She's sort of sweet about it, but she really can't be bothered with all this. She has to talk about the same stuff all the time, she complains: the suggestions that she's as manufactured as any clothes-shedding teen-pop strumpeteer, controversy over whether she wrote her first album, the queries as to the state of her love life.

But what the heck - while we're here, let's have a look at those "issues".

1) She's a fake:

Avril Lavigne did indeed not start out as a pop-grunge skate-kid in hoodie and baseball cap. She grew up in tiny Napanee (population: 5,000), Ontario, the middle child of devout Baptists John and Judy. Her mum was so strict that she wouldn't let Lavigne sing the country song "Strawberry Wine" because it has the word wine in the title. Her vocal talents were discovered at an early age, and Lavigne would sing in the church. In her personal repertoire she favoured songs by country/folk artists such as Faith Hill and Sarah McLachlan. Her first trip to a recording studio, aged 14, was to sing "Touch the Sky", a country-gospel song written for her by local singer-songwriter Stephen Medd. The same year, she won a competition to sing a Shania Twain song in front of a 20,000-strong Twain audience in Ottawa (three years later, she relates with evident pride, she sold out the same venue herself). Lavigne might claim to have been a tearaway at school, handy with her fists and ever ready to flee in a huff on her skateboard, but Medd has said his kids count her as "the best babysitter we ever had" (and there are pictures on his website that vouch for her peachiness).

To which charges, Lavigne has the eminently straightforward response: "I was young and I was singing [Christian] music and when I got older I was like, ah, I don't wanna sing Christian music any more, or country music. So I kinda started to stop."

2) She can't write:

In pursuit of a record deal, Lavigne moved to New York aged 16, chaperoned by her older brother Matt. She signed to Arista and went to Los Angeles, where she ended up working with The Matrix. The hit songwriting/ production trio have claimed that Lavigne only wrote the occasional word on her breakout hit "Complicated" - a charge she denies. On Under My Skin, unlike the team efforts last time round, Lavigne has written one-on-one with, among others, Moody, her guitarist Evan Taubenfeld and a 30-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter named Chantal Kreviazuk. She is notably chuffed that the album's first single, "Don't Tell Me", is largely one of her compositions, written when she was 17, after the recording of, but before the release of, Let Go.

"Well! It obviously shows there that I'm a writer," she bristles, in a rare burst of animation. "I mean, that song's being played on the radio. And I only wrote it with Evan, and Evan just wrote the guitar, and I wrote everything else. So that's proof that I am a writer to people who thought that maybe I didn't write."

3) She's dating the tiny singer from Canadian chipmunk-punks Sum 41:

"Ah, I don't really talk about my love life."

She herself never reads interviews with other people - "I don't know why. I'd probably just look at the pictures and turn the page! That's a good thing to always tell a journalist, right?" - but understands the impulse. "I've seen my sister [Michelle, 16] be a huge fan of artists and collect everything on them. So I get it. And it's very important."

Leaving aside the odd implication that Lavigne, supposedly a big muso-head, has never been such a fan, we should cut her a little slack. Her sighing, yawning utterances are not necessarily evidence of her inner grumpy diva; although with the number of records she has sold and the markets she has conquered, Lavigne could be considered a world-weary veteran, albeit one not yet in her twenties. "God, I don't feel like I'm 19. I feel like, wooh, I'm way up there," she will declaim listlessly towards the end of our interview. At the end of the day, she's just a kid with a self-avowed - and typical - short attention span, as petulant and questioning of the "system" as teenagers are meant to be. And you feel for her.

In ways good and bad, she has captured the imagination of the masses, their ardour undimmed by the confusion as to how she got here. At just 17, she became a totemic figure for a female generation who felt that performers who danced with snakes or wore micro-skirts weren't for them. "I wouldn't feel comfortable being onstage in a bra and underwear basically," she sniffs. "And all those sexy poses, it's just not me. I like to come across as myself, as the person that I am. And I do."

Thus Lavigne did for the wearing of ties among adolescent girls what The Strokes did for the same accessory amongst indie boys. Her fondness for baggy, asexual skate clothes helped them become a global uniform, a respite from the craven sexuality pushed by practically every other young female performer and their (older, usually male) handlers. And the fans, from Malaysia (where Let Go went gold) to Brazil (platinum), responded with slavering devotion. "It's because I write about what I go through and people my age listen to my music and they know what I'm talking about."

The fans' enthusiasm is scary: she has rhapsodised about her favourite pizza at Napanee's La Pizzeria, which features pepperoni, mushrooms and green olives. Now fans make pilgrimages to the tiny place to sample "Avril Lavigne's Special Pizza". On Saturday Night Live last year, she sported a T-shirt advertising the Home Hardware store in Napanee. Hers was the endorsement that launched a thousand sales. "I think more like 10,000! I've seen tons of kids with that shirt. I even saw someone today!"

Seeing people dressed like you - is that weird? "It's so funny," she says, as if it's the most unfunny thing in the world. "I don't really think about it. Things just happened last year. It's kinda fucked."

Indeed. Like Britney Spears and Anna Kournikova before her, the promise of pictures of her has already been used as bait in an e-mail virus. It zoomed around the globe last year, just after Lavigne was nominated for five Grammies (she didn't win any, but in the UK, she - and The Matrix - did land the Ivor f Novello International Hit of the Year award for "Complicated"). Last month, a 30-year-old Seattle man was arrested for stalking her, after police searched his house. His harassing letters and e-mails "did place the family of Avril Lavigne, and Avril Lavigne herself, in fear", said police, who had been investigating the case since last summer. Her guitarist and former boyfriend recently left her band. Of course, she won't say much about that.

Now, at the time of our speaking, the release of her new album - a huge, high-profile, global-priority release - is still another month away, and already she's wilting. She will be promoting it, touring the world, well into 2005. God knows how's she's going to cope.

She recently undertook a tour of America's shopping malls, treating her original core audience to a free, acoustic set, five new songs and two old ones ("Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi", of course). The locations were kept secret until 48 hours beforehand.

"I thought it would just be playing in the mall and people would be walking by. By the time I got there, there were barricades and thousands of kids. A few of our shows had 10,000 kids!"

Were you intimidated?

"Fuck no! I never get intimidated. Unless it's [over] a guy that I really like."

This morning, Avril Lavigne was up at the crack of dawn to perform at ITV's CD:UK at the Riverside Studios in London's Hammersmith. She was, undoubtedly, the star of the music show. Next to this huge international megastar pixie, the other guests - domestic success stories Busted and Keane - looked like end-of-the-pop-pier pygmies. She had performed her new single, the shouty "Don't Tell Me". Cat Deeley stoked the excitement by offering tickets for a secret gig Lavigne was playing in London three days hence. The competition question: what was the name of Avril's big hit: "Difficult", "Complicated" or "Rocket Science"?

She wore glasses for the performance. She isn't impressed with the suggestion that they might be a prop. "I'm not just gonna wear fake glasses!" she snorts, as if it's the most ridiculous suggestion in the world. She has a stigmatism in her left eye, and has worn glasses since she was 10 (she wears them in a photograph on the CD booklet of Let Go).

After CD:UK had finished its live broadcast, Lavigne and her band of young, pretty-boy Canadian rockers hung around to tape a rendition of Under My Skin's mooted second single, "My Happy Ending". They had to do it four times. The audience of teenage girls didn't seem to mind but Lavigne hadn't looked too happy. "It's boring. I mean, it's weird, right?" she says now we're at Bryan Adams' house, her voice tricked out with typically teenage, end-of-sentence, questioning uplift?, old-stager jargon, and with only the odd hint of her rural Canadian accent. "You normally only go out in front of an audience to perform once, but [with studio performances] you're doing the soundtrack, you're doing camera blocking ... In a weird way, it takes the excitement away. I don't know why they do it like that, with all the crowd in there. But," she intones wearily, "that's what they do and that's how it works ..." These, presumably, are the things they don't tell you when you start out, that you'll spend endless hours on a hot morning in a dark studio doing the same thing over and over? By way of an answer Lavigne makes a noise like a gerbil.

John Richmond pops his leonine head and adolescent-girl frame round the corner. Did she like the Mickey Mouse top she had worn in the shoot? "Um, yeah," she says non-committally. It was a sample, he beams, the only one he has here, but when he gets back to Italy he'll get her another one. "All right, thanks," she says, profoundly unexcited.

Three days after our meeting at Bryan Adams' home, Lavigne and her band are playing the Barfly, a scabby pub in Camden that was the scene of her first UK show, like, a million years ago (ie, two). It turns out to be a curiously tepid affair: the crowd comprises a few (quiet, overawed) competition winners, some (loud, verbose) record-company types, and (drooling, hormonal) boyband McFly. Lavigne's band were ropey, and again, Lavigne looked a bit fed up. But the rampaging new song "He Wasn't", the lighters-in-the-air girly anthem "Don't Tell Me" and the beats'n'riffs mosher "My Happy Ending" boded well for another multi-million seller. And her voice was, frankly, staggering.

She was wearing the same trousers she'd worn three days ago. When she grinned- and-beared her way through "Complicated", she changed the chorus to "Why do I feel so constipated?" Both these presentational details were dead cool - for a teenager with a supposedly airbrushed past and ultra-marketed future, Avril Lavigne is refreshingly willing to go off-message.

Back when we were at Bryan Adams' lovely home, the battle raging inside Avril Lavigne, between rock cliché and teen spirit, had been evident. Having long outgrown Napanee and its smalltown Canadian attractions (she won't be playing much ice-hockey or going hunting any more) Lavigne was also getting tired of her adopted hometown of Toronto. Sure, she'd bought a flat, and was proud of her expensive black leather sofa with its crucifix pattern. She told me how she likes the two silver skulls on her mantelpiece, the old wooden table "from France", the wrought-iron chandelier, her huge TV and Lava Lamp. "It's kinda Gothic," she said. "Kinda churchy." She reckoned that she and pantomime shock-rocker Marilyn Manson probably have similar tastes in décor. None the less, all the attention she gets from gauche Canadian folk is beginning to get to her. A relocation to LA, Malibu specifically, seemed to be on the cards.

But she won't be embracing many other rock-star tropes, no sirree. A dirt bike is about the height of her material aspirations. "Yamaha said they were gonna give me one and I was all, like, excited," Lavigne moped, panting like a beached fish, as she tried unsuccessfully to manoeuvre herself out of the sunshine. "Then they were like, 'You have to do photos with it,' and all this stuff. I'm like, 'I don't do endorsements.'" None? What if - as with those other supposed independent women, Britney, Beyoncé and Pink - Pepsi threw enough money at you?

"No! 'Cause I've had tons of offers - make-up companies wanted me to be their, like, girl. I could have made, like, shitloads of money doing that. But I'd rather keep my integrity."

What if it was something you were into, say a brand of shoes you wear?

"Well, I like Converse, and someone brought up [the idea] of me designing my own Converse, and I was was like, 'Ah, I don't think I wanna do that.' I just feel like I'm here because of my music - why do I want to sell someone else's product? I'm here to sell my music myself, and offer what I love to do to the world."

It's not about offering your body?

"It's not all about money either. I'm very ... low-key. I came from a home that didn't have a lot of money, I hardly ever spend money. I live in a little apartment, I don't have a house, I don't have a mansion - I could if I wanted, probably. But I'm 19, I feel like I don't deserve a house. I deserve a small, cute place."

You can take the good-girl championship babysitter out of Napanee ... 'Under My Skin' is released on Monday