The motherfucking princess is in her motherfucking castle.
The princess is Avril Lavigne, who anointed herself on her 2007 No. 1 single “Girlfriend.” The castle -- a Tudor home in an illustriously ZIP-coded L.A. neighborhood -- is the only thing Lavigne has presided over since a tour that ended in 2014.
A few weeks before the release of “Head Above Water,” her first single in four-and-a-half years, Lavigne sits under the cathedral-high ceiling of her home studio. It is the room where, over the course of her public absence, she recorded much of the album she plans to release in early 2019.
Lavigne’s many songs about partying -- and the Jack Daniel’s lawn jockey who greeted me at the door -- suggested that we’d wind up drinking whiskey, or at least the rosé her publicist suggested I bring. (Avril Lavigne drinks rosé?) But Lavigne is sipping Emergen-C-spiked electrolyte water, combating seasonal allergies. From her seat on a massive gray sectional (Avril Lavigne owns a sectional?), she reveals that she painted much of the art displayed in the expansive foyer and shows me the pink devotional journal gifted to her by her mother. Under the daily prayers topping each page are guitar tabs and ambitious to-do lists written in Lavigne’s bubbly handwriting: Complete album. Choose single. Shoot video. Dentist.
It’s all just so... grown-up, a categorization Lavigne had given a hard pass to as recently as her last album, 2013’s Avril Lavigne, where she insisted, in Peter Pan bangers like “Seventeen” and “Rock N Roll,” that we “still love it.” (“It” presumably referring to Lavigne’s penchant for lyrics about spontaneous day drinking.) Between then and the September drop of “Head Above Water,” we heard from Lavigne only a handful of times: when she popped up on Good Morning America in summer 2015 to say that she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, when she got divorced from Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger later that year and when, in between those dual bummers, Taylor Swift brought her out in San Diego as part of the 1989 World Tour’s parade of admirable women, to perform her then-13-year-old debut single, “Complicated.” Lavigne says that at one point, she thought, Oh, I guess I’m done with making music.
And indeed, the calm 34-year-old woman sitting before me on her suede couch does not exactly seem ready to rock. When Lavigne tells me how excited she is to be doing this story, the words are delivered in her apathetic mall drawl, dragged out of her babydoll mouth like a child frog-marched through a museum tour. Does the motherfucking princess even want the motherfucking crown anymore? Who, exactly, would be her acolytes if she decided to seize it? And why did she disappear four years ago?
The esprit de brat still lives in Lavigne. She soon swaps her Emergen-C for the rosé, mounts a pink skateboard in her pink Vans and zooms down her vaulted hallway. Lavigne’s mom and stepfather, visiting from Canada, lounge in the backyard next to a menagerie of inflatable pool animals. But Lavigne wants it to be known that at her castle, outdoor activities are allowed -- encouraged, even! -- indoors. She informs me that later in the evening I will be sabering a celebratory bottle of champagne in the house, using a large sword she pulls out of a box and brandishes at me. When Avril Lavigne is excited, her tone retains its say-something-nice-to-your-sister reluctance but adds exclamation points of shrieks and giggles. It appears that she (like me) simply has resting bitch voice.
A framed copy of Lavigne’s last Billboard cover hangs on a wall. It’s more than 10 years old, but aside from some additional tattoos on her forearms, Lavigne looks the same, with Courtney Love-vaping-in-the-bathroom eyeliner smudged around her blue eyes, blond hair somewhere between Rapunzel’s and Sebastian Bach’s in length and a dearth of fucks given. Today, she adds to the look a baggy pink sweatshirt screen-printed with rib bones.
Perched on the kitchen bar under a sign that reads, “Wine! How classy people get wasted,” Lavigne recalls an even earlier phase of her career. “No shit, I sang with Shania Twain when I was 14,” she says from her seat next to a tray of nips. “I won a local radio contest by submitting a tape of me singing.”
Lavigne hops down and bops her cutoff-clad hip, re-enacting the 1999 performance of a lesser-known entry in the Twain canon at the Corel Centre in Ottawa: What made you say that? Was it the moonlight? Was it the starlight in your eyes? Lavigne adds an original verse to convey her 14-year-old inner monologue: Why am I singing this song? What am I doing? What if I got my own concert?
When Antonio “L.A.” Reid signed Lavigne two years later, Arista foisted prefab songs on the teenager. “Part of my growth process was learning to speak up,” says Lavigne of making sure she could continue to write her own music, which she had been doing for years. When I stupidly express surprise that Lavigne now composes music on the piano, she rolls her eyes: “I can play my own shit. The drums, the guitar, the bass and the piano.” No wonder, then, that she was self-advocating to powerful men while she was still young enough to need her brother, Matthew, one year older, to chaperone her.
“I want, like, more rock music,” Lavigne says she told Arista. So she started working with songwriters The Matrix and Lauren Christy, who helped set her very real teenage experiences to music. Take the 2002 Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit “Sk8er Boi.” “I was like, ‘If I see a guy walking down the street and he’s skateboarding, I automatically will look up and be like, ‘Who’s that?’” Lavigne recalls explaining to her collaborators. This became “He was a boy/She was a girl/Can I make it any more obvious?”
She could not: It was an expression of youthful frustration with a cave-painting level of simplicity. The authentic directness of the feelings, the fact that Lavigne seemed like someone who skateboarded around her house, the tie -- it was all irresistible. Nearly 7 million Americans bought Let Go, according to Nielsen Music, and three years after crashing Twain’s show, Lavigne sold out the same stadium on her Let Go Tour, putting 17,000 Canadian asses into seats to be empowered by a tiny girl who didn’t take any shit.
Lavigne didn’t seem to be making an intentional feminist statement any more than she jumped on her board to provide a colorful scene for this story. (She wound up skating for so long that I eventually had to ask her to stop and resume the interview.)
Her gloriously unapologetic sense of whatever-dude entitlement and jagged pop sound has inspired artists from Swift (see: the Lavigne-esque breakdown of “Shake It Off”) to an ascendant new generation of indie rockers like Soccer Mommy (who has told Billboard Lavigne is a “perfect blend of Elliott Smith meets Evanescence”), Snail Mail (“I just wanted to be her so badly”) and Alex Lahey, who says, “When you think of the ‘one of the boys’ thing that she has, in the past you had Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro types. The Avril vibe is more apathetic.”
That stance -- and Lavigne’s aversion to what she schoolmarmish-ly calls “selling sex” -- was also a permission slip for young women outside of music. For Jessica Williams, co-host of HBO’s 2 Dope Queens and frequent “Complicated” karaoke cover artist, “Avril was a breath of fresh air; a badass teen with a who-gives-a-shit attitude. And while, in retrospect, in the ‘Complicated’ video she and her friends behaved pretty terribly in the mall that day, at least Avril was having fun. She made me want to care less about boys and more about that fun.”
As for her own icon, Lavigne still counts her early-stage companion Twain among her influences. “I fucking love Shania,” she says. “She’s super hot.”
Turns out, Lavigne hadn’t heard about Twain’s spouse-shuffling. (In 2008, Twain’s husband and producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange reportedly left Twain in order to marry her assistant and close friend. Then Twain married the woman’s conveniently single ex-husband.) It’s moving how bummed Lavigne seems, particularly by the idea, put forth by one of her assistants, that the couples might have been swinging with each other pre-breakup. “What’s the point in getting married?” the twice-divorced singer asks quietly. One of the assistants attempts to comfort Lavigne, noting that the best friend’s husband is “way hotter.”
I feel compelled to point out that Lange is talented: He produced Twain, of course, and AC/DC and Nickelback, the band fronted by Lavigne’s own ex-husband.
“The real question,” peals Lavigne, perking up, “is who has the bigger dick!”
She describes how she ended up marrying Kroeger. (The story, at least, does not involve his dick.) In 2012, her then-manager, Britney Spears whisperer Larry Rudolph, asked her what she thought about working with him. “He’s had a ton of hit songs. He plays guitar. This could be great,” says Lavigne, recalling her initial reaction. “A month later, I had a 14-carat ring on my finger.” In other words: Lavigne did not marry Kroeger and then start sticking up for him. She collaborated with him on the strength of his oeuvre and then married him. And she defends him still: “Chad’s band has sold, like, over 50 million albums! They’re selling out arenas worldwide!” she says. Plus, he brought a $3,000 bottle of Screaming Eagle wine to their first session. How could Lavigne not think, as she recalls, “Like, I’m in love”?
After two days in the studio, Lavigne told Kroeger they were getting matching tattoos, reading “Vivre le moment present” -- aptly, “Live in the present moment.” Up in her studio, Lavigne shows off more inkings, from the cupcake with a skull in its icing (picked up while shooting the “Hello Kitty” video in Japan) to the constellation of stars in the valley of her inner hip (revealed when Lavigne stands up, unzips her shorts and pulls them down). She discovered the stars the morning after she got them. “I remember, like, peeing,” recalls Lavigne, “And looking at it like, ‘What the fuck did I do!? I love it.’”
Lavigne estimates that she has done 75 percent of her tattoos in tandem with other people. “Do you want to go get tattoos?” she asks. I laugh nervously, wondering if Billboard will expense laser removal. “Shamrock is down the street. Yasss, let’s get matching tattoos, bitch!” This bitch has not had enough rosé for that.
The way Lavigne sees it, her preternatural intuition justifies this impulsiveness. “I remember being in New York” at age 16, she says, “and realizing, ‘Oh, I can meet someone and tell what kind of person they are.’ I mean, that’s what I do with my music. I’m very sensitive and hyper aware.” And therefore, when it comes to things like getting tattoos and marrying members of Nickelback: “I jump!”
Though Lavigne jokes about being divorced twice by 33, “I love love,” she says. “The way I looked at it is I married my long-terms.” She met her first husband, Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley, when she was 17. (Their matching tattoos: a musical note and the number 30, marking Whibley’s 30th birthday, after their marriage ended.) Lavigne speaks lovingly of her former husbands, bestowing Whibley with the ultimate Ottawa endorsement: “He’s a good Canadian guy.” As she does not regret any of this, we aren’t allowed to either. “I see those eyes,” she says to me. “That was a, like, bittersweet aww.”
After cranking her cover of favorite Nickelback song “How You Remind Me,” Lavigne searches YouTube for her and Whibley’s performance of Sum 41’s “In Too Deep.” “What a great song, right?” asks Lavigne. (I have to admit, it is.) She joins her 23-year-old self in harmonizing: “’Cause I’m in too deep, and I’m trying to keep/Up above in my head, instead of going under.”
The lyrics of “In Too Deep” are reminiscent of “Head Above Water,” the tonally inverse first track from Lavigne’s new album. “God, keep my head above water,” she sings. “Don’t let me drown.” The song explains why Avril Lavigne disappeared and how she came back.
Lavigne started feeling unwell during her 2014 tour, going to doctor after doctor and asking them all the same thing: “I’m achy, I’m fatigued, I cannot get the fuck out of bed -- what the fuck is wrong with me?”
It only got worse when the tour ended. A friend finally put it together: “Dude, I think you have Lyme disease.” Coincidentally, Canadian music producer David Foster’s then-wife Yolanda Hadid had been diagnosed with the tick-borne illness, which played out on a multiseason arc of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. A friend suggested Lavigne call Hadid, who gave her the number of a Lyme specialist.
After that, says Lavigne, “I was in bed for fucking two years.” It was like being gaslighted by her body. Instead of being able to do what she had always done -- precisely what she wanted -- she was trapped. Doctors put her on multiple antibiotics and antimalarials in an effort to recover from a disease that doesn’t have a standard protocol of treatment. “It’s a bug -- a spirochete -- so you take these antibiotics, and they start killing it,” Lavigne explains with the hard-earned medical education of the terribly unlucky. “But it’s a smart bug: It morphs into a cystic form, so you have to take other antibiotics at the same time. It went undiagnosed for so long that I was kind of fucked.”
In real time, it was hard to know what to make of Lavigne’s absence, to reconcile her cheerful social media posts with the teary Good Morning America interview in which she said that doctors had told her she was “crazy” for thinking she was sick. This whiplash was exacerbated by Lavigne’s own conflicting ideas about what constituted courage: Was there a way to bring attention to Lyme disease but not to her own suffering? On one hand, she says, “I was like, ‘I’m going to be brave and tell the world what’s going on.’ And I did it because I was releasing a song for the Special Olympics and I wanted it to do well, so I got forced to sit on camera and talk about it [on GMA]. I wasn’t ready, and I shouldn’t have done it. I was a mess.” At the same time, she says, “I put on a brave face because I didn’t want it to be a part of my identity. So the second I was up, I would take a picture and post it on Instagram and act like my life was fucking great.”
Lavigne seems annoyed at the doctors who haven’t figured out how to cure her, annoyed that I didn’t understand how misleadingly edited the GMA interview was, annoyed to be telling this story at all. She sounds annoyed when she says, “This is me being totally vulnerable with you right now,” knitting her eyebrows and dragging her fingers through her hair. She clarifies: “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to relive it. But it’s my responsibility.”
Lavigne is annoyed because a tick bit her while she was doing something like four-wheeling or hiking with friends -- she’s not sure exactly how it happened -- and it is now her duty to educate people about Lyme disease. (Which is, by the way, newly added to the Avril Lavigne Foundation’s supported causes of people affected by serious illness and disability.) And most annoyingly of all, Lavigne has had to consider what people think of her. She has to let us know she wasn’t left behind by a market in which hip-hop has largely displaced traditional pop and rock. She wasn’t over making music. She wasn’t mourning her divorce. She was annihilated by an infection.
One night, in bed with her mother and barely able to breathe, Lavigne started to pray. “I had accepted that I was dying,” she says. “And I felt in that moment like I was underwater and drowning, and I was trying to come up to gasp for air. And literally under my breath, I was like, ‘God, help me keep my head above the water.’ ”
Lavigne grabbed her phone and opened Notes. She had the beginning of a song, and, if not a way out of the water, at least some light visible above the surface.
Kroeger and Lavigne had already split up when she wrote those lyrics. But since he is, attests Lavigne, another “great Canadian guy,” they remain close, and he worked on several tracks from her album, including “Head Above Water.” The first time she sang it -- or anything at all, after literal years -- was at his studio. Lavigne was terrified. Would her voice have withered, like her muscles? But when she opened her mouth, it was there. “God was like, ‘Nope, you’re going to keep doing music,’” says Lavigne. In that moment, she began to believe her gift was innate, holy and uncomplicated, now deepened into something more profound than her earlier expressions of frustration.
“The silver lining of it” -- making her way back to health after years of incapacitation and physical therapy and powerful drugs -- “is that I’ve really had the time to be able to just be present, instead of being, like, a machine: studio, tour, studio, tour. This is the first break I’ve ever taken since I was 15.” In this small way, Lavigne breaking was a blessing.
And so “Head Above Water” sounds like the prayer it is. And on the track, Lavigne’s voice is huge, swollen with gratitude at its own existence, a whole chorus coming from one tiny body. It is both surprising and perfect that Avril Lavigne has a hit on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart.
“Music’s powerful,” says Lavigne, shrugging and dragging her Vans across her fancy suede sectional.
We’re on the back lawn, having ascertained from a YouTube video that sabering champagne is an activity better attempted outside. “You’re so responsible,” says Lavigne, perhaps remembering that I declined to join her at the Shamrock tattoo parlor. “I love it.” The bottle is decapitated in one stroke, and we all cheer. “That was, like, perfect,” decrees Lavigne.
There’s so much to toast. Here’s to Lavigne’s album and the tour that will follow. Here’s to allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Here’s to freedom. Here’s to growing up. Here’s to skateboarding through the mansion you earned and to not giving a fuck what people think.
Here’s to the motherfucking princess. “She’s evolved into Queen Lavigne,” says Avril. “How about that?”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20 issue of Billboard.