By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Image source, Getty Images

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Avril Lavigne has sold more than 45 million records but says, ‘I still see myself as a normal person’

You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Avril Lavigne.

Twenty years after she burst onto the scene with her debut album, Let Go, her music is as spiky and direct as ever.

Exes and foes are dispatched with vituperative glee. “Don’t hold your breath / ‘Cause you’re still choking on your words,” she snarls on the recent single, Bite Me. In case her feelings aren’t clear, another new song makes it simple: “When I think of you, I just want to throw up”.

The song’s called Love Sux, and it’s the title track of Lavigne’s seventh album, written (although she won’t confirm this) after a split with fellow musician Pete Jonas.

“When I wrote Love Sux, I was having a moment,” she says. “I was feeling really exhausted and jaded on love. I’d gone through a break-up and my feeling was like, ‘Ugh, not again,’ you know?

“Relationships aren’t easy – and I had time to reflect on the gnarly stuff I’ve been through.”

The star, who’s 37 now, was previously married to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger and Sum 41 rocker Deryck Whibley. Despite the break-ups, they remain on good terms and she stresses that her more vindictive lyrics are written with a healthy dose of humour.

“At this point, it’s like, I just learn to laugh at these things, versus being upset by it and letting it get me down.”

But, in a twist of irony that fellow Canuck Alanis Morissette would be proud of, Lavigne’s plan for an album of break-up songs was derailed when she fell for her co-producer, the punk musician Mod Sun.

She tried to resist it (“the most I’ve ever tried,” she has said) but there was an undeniable connection. Navigating those feelings while writing about the end of a different relationship eventually inspired the album’s most tender song.

It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just I’m scared,” she sings on the piano-led Dare To Love Me. “Why’s it got to be this hard just to open my heart?

Image source, Getty Images

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Lavigne started dating singer and rapper Mod Sun (Derek Smith) after they worked on her new album

Lavigne wrote the song by herself, intending to keep it private. That changed when her collaborators Travis Barker (of punk miscreants Blink-182) and John Feldman (of California ska band Goldfinger) caught wind of it.

“I didn’t really want to put it out but the boys loved it,” she says. “They were like, ‘No, it’s our favourite, you’ve got to put it on’.

“It’s nice that there’s one super-raw and vulnerable song like that. It’s really about opening up and taking your walls down.”

Pop-punk’s new wave

After the heavy, cathartic lyrics of Lavigne’s last album (written after a near-death experience with Lyme Disease), Love Sux sees her return to the skatepunk sound she’s best known for.

The timing is perfect, coinciding with a renewed appreciation for Lavigne’s bolshy pop-rock bangers amongst a new generation of female stars.

Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4 U – the UK’s most streamed song of 2021 – owes an obvious debt to songs like Sk8r Boi and What The Hell. Willow Smith has cited Lavigne as a major influence; and when Billie Eilish met the star for the first time in 2019, she declared on Instagram: “Thank you for making me what I am.”

“Wow,” says Lavigne, when I read her the caption. “That’s crazy.”

“It’s cool seeing other female artists out there at the same age I was when I started out. They’re writing about the things they’re going through at that age – dating for the first time, breaking up for the first time, all those intense emotions.

“I love seeing them and the success they’ve had as singer-songwriters.”

Image source, Billie Eilish / Instagram

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Billie Eilish wasn’t born when Lavigne scored her first hit single, but she cites the star as a major inspiration

Lavigne arrived with such self-assurance in 2002 that it’s easy to forget she was just 17 years old at the time.

By that time, she’d been performing for years, singing gospel at church fairs, and country songs at local talent shows and hockey games in Ontario, Canada.

She made the jump from local entertainer to recording artist after winning a contest to sing with Shania Twain in 1999. After contributing vocals to several albums by folk musician Steve Medd, she caught the attention of Arista Records, who whisked her to New York and signed her for a reported $3.3m.

She quit school, moved to Manhattan and started writing a debut album inspired by her new musical obsessions – Green Day, Morissette, the Offspring and Blink-182.

Let Go, released in 2002, was edgy, melodic and a commercial juggernaut. It earned multi-platinum status in its second month of release and remains the biggest-selling album by a Canadian artist this century – more successful than any record by Drake, Justin Bieber and Michael Buble.

With her snotty attitude, combat trousers and penchant for neckties, Lavigne was initially dubbed the “anti-Britney” – but she bristled at the media’s tactic of pitting female artists against each other.

“I don’t like that term. It’s stupid,” she told EW in 2002. “I don’t believe in that. She’s a human being. God, leave her alone!”

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The star suffered badly from Lyme Disease in 2014-15, and was bedridden for five months, but says she is over the condition now

The pigeon-holing didn’t end there. Lavigne was lumbered with the “teen pop” label, even as her lyrics matured and she entered her 30s. But she understands that those early hits still define her career.

“I still feel young!” she smiles. “It’s quite an extraordinary thing that’s happened. I look back and feel very humble. Honestly, all I really cared about as a little girl was just singing. I didn’t even know what Hollywood was, or a record deal, and it all came together.”

Becoming a global star at the age of 17 can have a detrimental effect on your mental wellbeing, but Lavigne says fame has largely passed her by.

“In a weird way, it didn’t really hit me – and it almost still hasn’t. I feel like I’m grounded and I’m normal. I cook, I go grocery shopping, I do normal things – and then I have my career.

“I kind of separate it. There’s these crazy achievements that have happened, but I don’t think about them.”

She does admit, however, that the experience of being a solo artist is a lonely one.

“I was so young and so shy,” she recalls. “Being on camera for the first time and talking was really awkward for a teenager.

“I envied bands – because all five of the guys get to do interviews together and travel together and go on stage together. But it’s always just been me by myself for my whole career.”

Image source, Avril Lavigne / Facebook

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Lavigne serves up her signature pizza with restaurant owner Bill Kosmopoulos

Fame does have some perks, however. In Lavigne’s home town of Napanee in Canada, the local pizzeria has named a special dish after her – and she’s not shy about picking up the phone to order a large Avril’s Favourite.

“That’s the only one I would get!” she laughs. “The Avril Lavigne pizza is green olives, pepperoni and mushrooms. It’s really, truly my favourite pizza to this day.”

(For the record, she’s neutral on the pizza topping debate that’s divided the internet: “I’m cool with pineapple. I never order, it though.”)

Sk8r Boi: The Movie

Lavigne started her career at the peak of the CD era, but she’s successfully transitioned to streaming, with 16 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone.

Promoting her new record, however, meant she had to create an account on TikTok – where practically all modern hits are born.

“Everyone was harassing me to join and, honestly, I wasn’t super-amped on it,” she admits.

When she finally relented, she insisted on ground rules: “I’m not going to post three times a week [but] whenever something makes sense and it’s fun and I’ve thought of it, then we’ll post something.”

Her first idea was to make a video for Sk8r Boi, featuring a mini half-pipe she’d recently installed in her Malibu home.

The clip starts off simply enough with Lavigne lip-syncing the lyrics, before the camera transitions to reveal skateboard legend Tony Hawk pulling tricks in her back garden.

Image source, Avril Lavigne / Instagram

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Tony Hawk gave the singer a few lessons on the half-pipe and has been asked to appear in the singer’s upcoming movie

It instantly went viral, with more 35 million plays and almost six million likes. Amazingly, Lavigne had never met Hawk before they filmed it, simply sliding into his DMs to ask if he’d be up for making a video together. When he walked up her driveway holding his board, “I had to pinch myself,” she says.

“He is the coolest, the nicest skater dad. He came over to my house, we had a barbecue and… no big deal… we skated in my back yard. It was pretty epic.”

Meanwhile, Lavigne is adapting Sk8r Boi’s lyrics into a movie. The script is “being written currently” and she’s hired a director, with the story looking at high school cliques, and “missed opportunities at love”.

The production will have to fit around her world tour, which starts in Canada this May and wraps up a year later with three nights at London’s Brixton Academy.

“This album, it’s going to be perfect live,” she says. And with Blink-182’s Travis Barker joining her for live shows, she’s finally got the band she always craved.

“It’s cool. I get to hang out with my friends and do all this. It’s way more fun.”

Image source, Ryan McFadden

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Lavigne recorded and co-wrote her new album with Travis Barker, who subsequently signed the star to his record label, DTA Records

Which leaves one question… What’s it really like to be on Avril Lavigne’s bad side?

On her recent single, Bite Me, she describes taking a boyfriend’s clothes, throwing them out the window and setting them on fire.

Has she ever been tempted to do that in real life?

“Tempted? Maybe. Have I done it? Naaaah. I’m crazy but I’m not that crazy.”

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