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The Real Lavigne, Behind Ontario's pop-punk princess lurks a not-so-wild past
AVRIL LAVIGNE's image as a skateboarding, tough-talking pop-punk princess is more complicated than her fans might think.
The Napanee-bred 17-year-old singer's debut album Let Go is No. 3 on the Canadian retail album chart, just behind Eminem and Bruce Springsteen. Her debut single "Complicated" recently broke Madonna's record for most consecutive weeks at the top of the Contemporary Hit Radio chart.
The multimedia bio included with Let Go, released earlier this summer, describes Lavigne as "a skater-punk, a dynamic spirit, a true wild child," but that image is at odds with the young singer recalled by people involved with her early career.
They describe a bright, talented kid blessed with a decent voice, cover-girl looks and restless ambition. Lavigne recently told Rolling Stone of nightclub brawls and brandished knives, and she fosters the tough-girl image in her song "My World:" "Never wore cover-up/Always beat the boys up/Grew up in a 5,000 population town/Made my money by cutting grass/Got fired by a fried chicken *** /All in a small town, Napanee."
But there are no mean streets in Napanee, and Lavigne's early musical taste leaned more to the sunny new-country warblings of Faith Hill and Shania Twain ? far from the edgy sound of Let Go.
"She is not a skateboarder; she is not a punk. She is not from the streets. She is from a middle-class family in Napanee. She is from a very safe neighbourhood," says Cliff Fabri, whose Kingston company, RomanLine Entertainment, squired Lavigne through her early career.
Napanee-based singer-songwriter Stephen Medd, who worked with Lavigne in her early teens, also describes a much more level-headed young woman than the "wild child" portrayed in her publicity.
"(Avril was) just kind of incredibly positive. She babysat both my kids. They will say to this day that she is the best babysitter we ever had. She is engaging with people. She was a joy to work with. She had a real positive spirit about her," says Medd.
So the question remains: How did a small-town good girl with a penchant for the slick sounds of Nashville become a tough-gal icon with a punky take on pop music?
Lavigne is the child of John and Judy Lavigne (she has an older brother, Matt, 19, and a younger sister, Michelle, 14), and at an early age, she sang at fairs and in church. Medd first saw and heard her four years ago, when the then-13-year-old was singing in a Napanee musical theatre production, and he recruited her for his own indie CD.
The closest thing to rock 'n' roll in Lavigne's early repertoire was a cover of a song by the gentle pop act Sixpence None the Richer; she was happy to sing Medd's mixture of folk and country. "I didn't notice (the more aggressive style) until she did the Let Go CD," says Medd.
"Perhaps it was her love of singing that gave her the confidence."
Sessions in 1999 for his CD, The Quinte Spirit, were conducted in nearby Kingston, and Lavigne's studio performance of Medd's country-gospel song "Touch The Sky" did little to dampen his enthusiasm for her talent.
"It was absolutely amazing," he recalls. "The cut you hear on the CD is one take. This is a 14-year-old girl, never been in a studio, walks in like a pro and nailed it. It completely stunned me."
The following year, Medd produced a sequel CD, a tribute to the poet E. Pauline Johnson, My Window To You. On that record, Lavigne took the lead on two songs, "Temple Of Life" and "Two Rivers."
"She had the pieces," says Medd. "All the little nuances that truly good musicians can do with their voices. Dynamics was a big thing. Take a song down real soft and then just belt it out within a few bars."
In 1999, Lavigne won a contest held by an Ottawa radio station and earned the chance to get up onstage with her new country idol, Shania Twain. In front of about 20,000 fans at the Corel Centre, Lavigne brashly told Twain she wanted to be "a famous singer" and joined the superstar in singing Twain's "What Made You Say That?"
"Avril just got up there without batting an eye," says Medd, who was in the audience that night.
Around the time of Lavigne's guest appearance with Twain, the young singer came to the attention of Fabri, a manager who helped bring singer Jenifer McLaren and rockers Bomb32, since renamed Headstrong, to major-label deals. (Fabri and Lavigne parted company with a financial settlement more than a year ago.)
In December 1999, Fabri first observed her at the Kingston Chapters bookstore, singing karaoke new-country covers before a crowd of 15. "The thing that attracted me to her at Chapters wasn't the voice, wasn't the looks, wasn't the songs. It was the attitude, the confidence," he recalls.
If the sound of her music was radically different back then, so was her look. Early photos Fabri snapped at show a pretty, conservative teen. Later, she would experiment with wearing her hair in dozens of tiny braids (until she saw singer Christina Aguilera sporting the same 'do), and Fabri decked Lavigne out in a sportier look.
"All she had experienced, all she knew was country. She didn't know Blink 182 from Madonna," says Fabri, who soon was serving as the 15-year-old singer's manager and encouraging her to try songwriting. "I've never worked with an artist that doesn't write their own stuff. I don't want to work with a pop star. I want to work with someone who will tell your own story ... that's what people want to know about."
Fabri put together a videocassette of Lavigne performing onstage and in her parents' basement and sent it out to some industry insiders. Former Universal Music Canada exec Brian Hetherman was taken with Lavigne, and during the summer of 2000, travelled to Napanee to meet with her and her family. In the basement, she performed Sarah McLachlan's "Adia," Faith Hill's "Breathe" and a tentative original song.
"She had a lot of work to do, but I was really impressed. I looked at her as a little kid sister. I was really taken by her. I thought she was an absolute doll," says Hetherman, who followed up by sending Lavigne CDs by Holly McNarland, Blink 182 and the Matthew Good Band (Fabri says Good in particular influenced Lavigne's shifting musical taste).
Nettwerk Records v-p Mark Jowett met Lavigne and was also intrigued by her budding talent. "I don't know if she herself had a clear picture of her direction yet. I think her parents liked country quite a lot, and there was a part of her that was attracted to that kind of music," says Jowett.
To help her find a direction for her music, he arranged in the summer of 2000 for her to work in New York with producer/songwriter Peter Zizzo (who has written for Jennifer Lopez, Céline Dion and Alannah Myles).
Initially, they worked on cutting one of Zizzo's compositions, but Fabri says he pushed for his client to co-write. The result was a song called "Why." Ultimately, the track didn't make it onto Let Go, but it proved she could compose her own songs.
"On the way home (to Napanee), we must have played it over 100 times," Fabri says. "The parents were going: She can write! Her confidence just soared. From then on, she never wanted to talk about doing other people's songs."
On a subsequent writing trip, Ken Krongard, at the time a talent scout with Arista Records, stopped by the studio and was so energized by Lavigne, he arranged to bring her back to New York to perform for label boss Antonio "L.A." Reid.
In the fall of 2000, Lavigne, Fabri and Zizzo hosted the record mogul at Zizzo's studio. Lavigne did two of Zizzo's songs and closed with "Why." Reid thanked her for singing, told her she was wonderful and left. Soon a limo arrived to take the group to dinner at the top of the World Trade Center. Arista wanted to sign Lavigne.
According to Fabri, they had a two-album deal with Arista worth $1.25 million (U.S.) and a pricey Manhattan apartment to live in while they worked on songs for the album. What they didn't have is a satisfactory musical direction for Lavigne.
In the quest for a different sound, Fabri and Lavigne travelled to L.A. in May 2001 and, through a publishing industry contact of Fabri's, hooked up with songwriter Clif Magness.
After their initial three-hour writing session, Magness and Lavigne came up with the Let Go track "Unwanted" ? a mixture of gurgling synths, dramatic, crunching guitar chords and lyrics that seem to vent about her songwriting experiences: "I tried to belong/It didn't seem wrong/My head aches/It's been so long/I'll write this song, if that's what it takes."
"When I heard `Unwanted,' we were literally doing ring-around-the-rosie. Jumping up and down, high-fiving," says Fabri, but the reaction was cool when he played it for the label. Fabri claims people told him Arista's expectations were more pop-oriented, and this stuff rocked too hard.
During their weeks in L.A., Lavigne and Fabri also called on the songwriting and production team of Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock.
The trio played a song they had prepared for Lavigne, but Fabri says this, too, was unsatisfactory, and played them Lavigne's Magness collaboration "Unwanted" as an indication of what they were looking for.
Fabri left Lavigne with the producers, and when he returned a few hours later, they were finishing up "Complicated," the song that would launch her career.
Fabri describes this period as the happiest of his tenure with the singer. But within two weeks, he was gone as Lavigne's manager (he says he's restricted in what he can say about the split), and the singer signed up with the management division of Jowett's Nettwerk empire. The label may have lost out to Arista in signing Lavigne, but now it had her in its management stable, alongside two other acts that also record for Arista in the U.S. ? Sarah McLachlan and Dido.
If there was, as Fabri claims, resistance to unleashing Lavigne's edgier side and a tendency to frame her somewhere in between the worlds of teen pop and new country, something evidently changed in the intervening year. Those two trends in music ? so dominant in the last decade ? have retreated, replaced by a host of edgier, arguably more honest sounds.
And it's also proven to be an incredibly popular sound. Last month, Let Go became the first album (barring soundtracks and compilations) in the history of the SoundScan sales chart to record five consecutive weeks of increased sales, and it has already been certified platinum by the Record Industry Association of America. Her fortunes are just gathering steam; she recently wrapped a video for her next single, "Sk8er Boi," which will likely further buoy sales of Let Go.
Hetherman says Lavigne's album coincides with a time when young record buyers are looking for something more substantial. "Kids that were 12 or 13 four years ago, buying Britney and Backstreet are like we all were when we became 16 or 17. Now they want more."
Fabri says he can't comment on Lavigne's personal life, but it's reasonable to assume that the challenges facing any teen may have influenced the development of her music.
"The way Avril comes across is a lot rawer and hits different emotional chords," Jowett says of the sound and image presented on Let Go. "I think (her success) might be because it relates more to what kids actually go through, rather than what kids actually aspire to."
Lavigne herself seems to have addressed those questions in her song "Nobody's Fool:"
"If you're trying to turn me into someone else/It's easy to see I'm not down with that ...
``I might have fallen for that when I was 14 and a little more green/But it's amazing what a couple of years can mean."