[4 June 2007]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Avril Lavigne is everywhere.
America’s favorite pop-punk starlet is inescapable these days, whether it be through her music (with her catchy-as-hell #1 hit “Girlfriend”) or her headline-making antics (including the controversial cover photo shoot she did for June’s issue of Blender Magazine). She even had the tenacity to name her latest album The Best Damn Thing, and judging by sales alone, a whole lot of people agree.
Lavigne, a Canadian native, still manages to be one of the most polarizing forces in pop music today. Critics scoff at the authenticity of her “punk” image while thousands upon thousands of teenage girls look up to her as a genuine role model. With The Best Damn Thing, Avril wound up not only taking her image into her hands, but also her music as well: she refused to work with an A&R guy, denied input from her manager, and refused to let her label listen to the tracks until she was done with the album, calling up friends and calling in favors to make the album she’s always wanted to make. Her work ethos is hard to top, as she is on a non-stop international promotion effort until year’s end, right before launching a major American tour in 2008. Fishnets be damned: there’s still no rest for the weary.
The Best Damn Thing is exactly what “Girlfriend” leads you to expect: the sound of Toni Basil stealing Joan Jett’s guitar while running around town with spray-cans filled with hot pink graffiti paint and a backpack full of glitter. It’s hooky, it’s catchy, it’s fun. Of course, she had to few a few ballads in there, but the big surprise is that they’re some of Avril’s strongest yet.
With this in mind, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get to some of the more insightful questions on my list (“What’s the one thing about your career you regret?” being one, “How do you respond to your critics?” being another), but during our phone interview, Avril proved more than up to the task, readily talking about her album, her career, rock critics, the key to writing good songs, and much more. She’s not “Complicated” anymore—she’s having the time of her life.
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Well first, let me say congratulations on the new album and the Blender issue that just hit stands.
Now, I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past week and it’s been really fascinating just learning about it. Your favorite song is obviously “I Can Do Better”, and it’s pretty awesome.
I know you set out to make this live, high-energy album, but there’s one song the really affected me which is [the ballad] “Innocence”, the one you wrote with Evan [Taubenfeld, her long-time friend and guitarist]. It’s just so different in style from your songs—even from Under My Skin …
So I was wondering, where did that come from?
Well, the song is about capturing a moment in time, of like ... a perfect moment of bliss and happiness and holding onto it. I’m very happy in my life right now. The song is always so beautiful to me, and I actually just listened to it yesterday ‘cos I hadn’t heard my CD for awhile and I wanted to flip through ‘em—thinking about my live show—so I listened to it and I was like fuck! I love that song too because it’s so stripped down that you really hear my voice, and it comes across very singer-songwriter-y, which is of course a side to me that I have. And, um, I find it to be a very emotional song, too. And, um, yeah.
Yeah. You know, I’ve read a lot of [your] interviews leading up to this, and you talked about how you wanted to create this fun, visceral, “live” album—yet at the same time, you’re not starting on the big tour until 2008, right?
So what are you going to with your downtime before that
Well it’s not downtime. I’m going to Europe for a month, and I’m playing summer festivals, like ... 30,000-seaters and stuff.
Yeah, “small venues.”
And I am playing shows, but it’s not my tour, you know what I mean? And then December will be all the radio shows, and a lot of it is because I have so many places to go internationally to promote this record it takes much more of my time, it’s not just “Hi, America and Canada!” you know? Japan and Europe and South America do really well so, um, it takes more time so therefore I’ll spend the rest of this year promoting this record and single and I’ll definitely be playing a lot of shows. I’m here in L.A. right now and I’m about to [have] band rehearsal for like three weeks to prepare myself.
It’s going to be awesome. I can imagine the sheer fun it’s going to be to do this album live. There’s another song that struck me, and that’s “When You’re Gone”. In the Blender interview it mentioned how Butch helped you write after talking about how hard it is to be away from Deryck when you’re on tour.
Yeah, a bit of it was about that. I mean, it was a song that we wanted to make universal, and a lot of the inspiration came having to leave someone that you love and all the little things you miss about them. The song’s gonna be the second single. I just shot the video for it. I came up with the concept for the video: I wanted to have, like, a husband going off to war with his pregnant wife at home, and then I wanted like an old man who clearly had lost his wife and he goes to the gravestone to visit her, and then I wanted like a teenage couple who [had a] “weren’t allowed to be together” kinda thing, so like there’s all these different stories. This video’s really pretty and it’s very personal. So it’s nice for me just talking about how I want it to make the record really fun and up-tempo. You know, I’d enjoy having a couple ballads so that I could really express my emotions and deliver emotion and just get ... you know, I love to be able to sing a ballad every once in awhile—it just feels good.
If not just to change tempo.
Yeah! Diversity. So there are three ballads on the record, and it’s kind of like “five songs/ballad/couple songs/ballad/five songs/ballad.” [Laughs]
You know, in reading about this [album], you had lots of fun just making this—you just camped in, got all your friends together, and made something really exciting. But the interesting thing is that you really took a hands-on effort with this, like: you yourself are in there helping with the production of it.
Yeah, because you know it’s my third record and I’m 22 now—well, I was 21 [at the time of recording]—and I’m so fucking hands-on with everything. It’s like, just because I’m older now it’s like I’m so involved with them, with business stuff, and I work so closely with my management now ... ‘cos when I was 17 it was like they just booked my schedule they just, you know, called all the shots or whatever. I mean, I [still] made all the decisions and approved everything. So when it came time to do this record, I had my vision. So I knew exactly what I was going to do and I was just like, I didn’t want an A&R guy or anyone talking to me from the label. You know ‘cos like I knew what I wanted to do and … it was just going to be a pain in the butt for me. [Laughs] Someone going “Oh, can I hear the songs? Can I hear the songs?” and I’d be like “No.” I didn’t preview the songs for my family and my friends or my label or my management because I wanted to focus on what I thought and no one heard anything until it was done and it was good that way because I got to ... I didn’t want to hear what other people had to say and other people’s opinions because I wanted to really just listen to myself and my gut because I feel that I’m pretty “on” with my own music, and what ... you know, I’m creating it. So, it worked out really good and everyone agreed on all the same singles when I handed it in and everyone was really excited. Oh my god, I [am so] excited about this record, like it was so ... I just felt so good about it and I really felt like this was going to be a good thing for me.
And it obviously has been. So, you’re getting used to producing, and you also helped co-write that one Kelly Clarkson song [“Breakaway”]. So I was wondering: have you ever thought about branching out and doing more of that, like producing another artist?
Well, I used to think “Oh, it would be fun to get into producing,” but I don’t know about producing. I would be more into writing. But you know what? With writing for me I find, like, at the end of the record I was like “OK, done” like I didn’t want to write anymore. It’s like you have all this creative energy and I put it all into this record and I want to not write until my next record because I want it to build up again because it always happens to me every record: when I get off the road and it’s time to make a new record I’m like freakin’ overflowing with a million ideas and I’m so excited and I’m like just really eager to get it all out, all my thoughts and ideas. So, I like to write for me instead of just being like “Oh, I’m gonna write for this person,” but I think yes, I would like to write for a couple other people, but I’d have to really like them, I guess. And I’ve had a million opportunities to write for TV shows and for movies and I was never interested ‘cos I didn’t want to just like write a great song and give it away when it could’ve been a single off my record, you know?
Except with Eragon [she contributed the song “Keep Holding On” which also appears on The Best Damn Thing].
When Eragon came along I was already in the studio—that was the first one I did.
You know—there was this one song you did that was really cool, it was one of the ones you did with [ex-Blink 182 drummer] Travis Barker: “Alone”. It got relegated to a B-side for “Girlfriend”.
Yeah, I didn’t want it on the record.
Oh, why not?
Because it didn’t go with it.
It didn’t flow [with the rest of the album] naturally?
It was just very different. I, um ... well you need B-sides, anyway.
Well there you have it. With this record you also just got to collaborate with a lot people: Luke Gottwald [Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”], Rob Cavallo [Green Day’s American Idiot], Travis [Barker], Butch [Walker, who produced Under My Skin]—all these really talented artists. Is there anyone that you’re still dying to collaborate with?
Um, no! And you know what? When I went to do this record, I had no idea who the hell I—well I knew I was going to work with Butch, but I didn’t know who else I was going to work with. I was like “Fuck, I’m about to start my third record. I have no idea who I want to work with!” And, it just happened: I met Luke [Gottwald] and we hit it off. I didn’t even know who he was. He came over to my house and we talked and we ended up in the studio for four months! Like, it was supposed to be two weeks after I got married in August or whatever it was. July. August I started back up ... and it turned into four months. Then, I had this ballad “Innocence” that I wrote with Evan. When Evan and I write together, Evan doesn’t produce, so, you know it’s like I had to find someone to give it to to produce. It was ballad, and I love the Goo Goo Dolls, so I found out that Rob Cavallo did the Goo Goo Dolls, so I called him and him do it. So, I had no idea who there was to work with, ‘cos I didn’t want to work with all the popular “pop” people ...
Or the Matrix again or anything like that.
Yeah, so ... I don’t know, it just all fell into place. No one suggested anything ‘cos I didn’t have an A&R guy ... and I didn’t want one. It’s kinda cool that it just happens very naturally.
Do you ever read the reviews of your own stuff?
No, because, um ... I don’t think that they’re ... they don’t matter because they can, say, give a record a bad review and it can do great, and I don’t need to read them because I know how I feel about my records, and this record especially I was really confident with, and I feel like some of my best songs [are on] this record. So, I knew what it was for me. I don’t wanna know what other people—that aren’t fans—think. A lot of reviewers sometimes are like kind of bitter anyways or they work for a rock magazine so they try to be super-cool, like too cool, and ... it’s kind of retarded. [Laughs]
Well, the thing about The Best Damn Thing is that a lot of critics really liked it. But there’s this one particular review that had an interesting statement: you did Let Go and then the more introspective Under My Skin and now you’re back with this full-on energetic pop, and, again it got really good reviews ...
Yeah, I think that was the Rolling Stone one which is the only one I heard about ‘cos people always brought it up.
Yeah, but one of the things they said was [paraphrased] this might be the last time you’re able to pull off a fun, energetic album like that [many critics note how she sounds even younger on this album than Let Go, which was released when she was 17]. You know, you’re 22 years old, your next record you’re going to be a bit older ...
Um, Gwen Stefani’s like, what, forty? And she has energetic songs. I don’t think that’s true at all.
So you’re not worried about that.
I don’t think about anything. I go into the studio and I write what I, like, am feeling at that time and then always in the right direction. The key is: not thinking about anything. Just going and doing it. I went into the studio [and] I was like, “I’m just going to have fun!” I wasn’t thinking, “OK, what are my cymbals going to be like?” Blah blah blah. Or “Radio! What songs are appropriate for radio?” I wrote a record that’s like, I’m cursing all over it and I’m totally trying new things. And “Girlfriend”? [That] was the last song I would’ve thought—when we were writing it—that that would’ve been my first single and been this big #1 hit across the world and it was like so ... [sings] “I don’t like your girlfriend / I think you need a new one!” like it was just a joke and we were like laughing and we’re like, “This is funny, ha ha ha”. It’s so out there, you know what I mean? So, it’s important not to think about things.
Because if you overthink it, then it’s just becomes so “bleh.” Oh, and P.S. I liked the French version [of “Girlfriend”], just FYI.
[Laughs] And that was probably a good reason why I took time off before I went into the studio [because] I think that was good just being ... my headspace was just back into normal life and reality, just living at home and not ... I felt like I had stepped away from the spotlight for a bit, so I didn’t think about what other people are going to think.
Just taking some time off for you.
Now, you’ve had a huge, incredible career that’s been amazing to watch. So I wonder: what’s the one thing about your career that you regret, like what’s the one thing you could do over or wish you had actually done? And conversely, what’s the one thing you’re proudest of—your greatest achievement?
I don’t have any regrets because I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong. I feel like everything I’ve done has been [as the] good and honest person I’ve always pictured myself. And what am I proudest? Everything. For sticking to my guns and following my gut. When I was first coming out when I was 17, I didn’t want to wear the clothes that everyone wanted me to wear. Like, in photo shoots, the magazines want you to wear certain clothes to have a certain look, and I was like “Eew, I’m not wearing that—I’m wearing my tie” or whatever. My tank-top and Dickies. And I always fight that, and I’m really glad I did, and that I had a strong personality, ‘cos I could’ve been weak and been like, “OK, I want to be in this magazine so I’m gonna wear what they want me to wear,” but I was like “Pfft—I’m not wearing that.” And then my manager had to like fight with them all the time and ... I’m glad that I kept it because I have my own individual look, that I looked like no one else and I think that was a huge part of my ... and that was my image, too! That I had my own look, and it was just that I was so different from everyone.
That’s something that has really resonated with your fans. That and you write your own songs, too. OK, so one last question (and this is a fun one): what’s your favorite album you’re listening to right now, on top of everything?
Aside from The Best Damn Thing, obviously.
[Laughs] I’ve been listening to [the] Pixies a lot.
That’s sweet. Any songs you’re diggin’ with?
Um ... I like all of them .. I think, what? Is the album called Doolittle?
Yeah, that’s the album.
That’s cool. Well, that’s about it. You got a tour coming up and a band rehearsal to get to, but hey, thanks for sitting down and talking with us.
You’re welcome. Thank you very much!