- Avril Lavigne is less hemmed in by cutesy metaphor and sk8er-girl coyness these days.
Avril Lavigne is a good sport. Not since before she was 16 has the Canadian 'tween-rock pioneer lived a day the way a typical teenage North American might, the way one of her typical teenage fans might: driving around, talking shit, hanging out, killing time. As she describes on the phone from a tour stop in Hampton, Virginia, here's what she does instead: "I wake up and do some radio stuff -- go over to a radio station and do acoustic performances -- then I have some interviews, then I have my downtime, just relaxing my voice and practicing. Then I go onstage, and then after stage I do meet-and-greet. I get to meet the fans and take pictures with them."
Despite the material rewards and the sweet parking spots, does she resent her situation and the omnipresent handlers keeping her on a leash? Nope, not Avril. "I love it," she says with the emotionless efficiency of a seasoned pro. "I absolutely love it. I'm just grateful every day."
Not that she'd tell us if she did resent it, of course. After all, that's what she's got music for -- the zippy mall-punk effervescence of her gazillion-selling 2002 debut Let Go and the glorious skate-goth evanescence of this year's follow-up, Under My Skin. "I don't think it affected it at all," she says when asked how the demands put upon her influenced the making of her second album. "My life was different, but that didn't have anything to do with the way I wrote or the ideas that I had and stuff. Because I don't really write about topics of my career."
Of that we remain unconvinced. "I don't think you'd understand," Lavigne yelps quite rightly in "Take Me Away," Under My Skin's roiling, minor-keyed opener, "'Cause no one understands." "I am small and the world is big . . . All around me is fast moving," she admits in "How Does It Feel," an acoustic groover with a meaningful string arrangement; "I'm gonna live my life," she asserts in the crunchy "Freak Out," before realizing "I can't ever run and hide." Boyfriend-babble aside, this is high-stress star talk, plain and not-so-simple: the musings of a young woman who spends most of her time with older men.
"It's more personal," Lavigne allows of the album. "Because I'm older. I was 16 when I worked on the first one, and I was 19 when I did this one. And I've been writing longer and know how to express myself better. And that's where my songs come from anyway: personal things."
Lavigne is much franker on Under My Skin than she was on her debut, less hemmed in by cutesy metaphor and sk8er-girl coyness. "Don't Tell Me," the disc's hit lead single, is a bravura performance of firm feminine resolve. "This guilt trip that you put me on won't mess me up," she tells a hungry-handed boyfriend over a refined-sugar guitar chug cribbed from her spiritual big sister, Alanis Morissette. "I've done no wrong." Did she use the success of Let Go as leverage to wrest fuller control over Under My Skin from her handlers?
"I had no intentions," the singer replies with a baroque, multipart sigh. "That's just the way it was, just because I was doing more this time around. It felt more like I was in control of the whole record. I went off and I said to management and to the label, 'Leave me to just kind of have my space to go do this kind of by myself.' And I picked the people that I was working with and kind of did it on my own that way. I didn't have people picking the people I was working with. I did that."
The people she picked -- picked all by herself, with no help from anyone -- are a motley crew: Linkin Park producer Don Gilmore, former Marvelous 3 frontman Butch Walker, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace, erstwhile Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody, fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk ("We're like best friends now," Lavigne crows). Yet each finds ways to accentuate the positive that Lavigne so adamantly affirms as her own. Gilmore brings the sweetened Marshall-amp roar, Walker and Maida the intimately untouchable Helen of Troy atmospherics, Moody the moody-grunge chord progressions, Kreviazuk the touchy-feely heart.
"I probably worked on it for about seven months," Lavigne says of the record. "That was kind of taking my time writing songs, then recording them. If my songs were written for me, what I could have done is pick them all and recorded it in a week. No problem. The reason why it took so long is because I had to write all the songs."
That insistence on authenticity and credibility is both an asset and a liability in Lavigne's hands. Battered by accusations of song-doctor stage-managing after Let Go's conquest of adolescent America, Lavigne is understandably sensitive about asserting her autonomy; it gives Under My Skin a compelling, paranoid sense of drama that's missing from stuff by, say, her 'tween-rock peer Hilary Duff. But you also get the sense that if she stopped caring about what people think of her -- whether or not she writes her own songs, whether or not she can sing outside of the carefully modulated confines of the recording studio, whether or not she lip-synchs on late-night sketch-comedy shows -- she wouldn't have to wear a miserable smirk along with her ballerina's tutu on the cover of her next album.
"You know what?" she says, when asked if she thinks her musical turf has been crowded by the likes of Duff and Ashlee Simpson and Fefe Dobson. "I don't think about stuff like that. I just kind of do my own thing, and that's how I keep myself focused -- just kind of doing what I do and not really thinking about those kind of things. I mean, you're coming up with these questions because you're an outsider looking in, right? Well, it's me. I'm the person who's doing it."