Avril Lavigne on Head Above Water, near-death experiences, and that crazy conspiracy theory
For people who witnessed Avril Lavigne’s entrance into the music world with 2002’s Let Go, it might be surprising to hear that Avril Lavigne, in 2019, listens to jazz and soul music all day every day: Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. Those interests have spilled over into the 34-year-old musician’s latest record, Head Above Water. “I get a little jazzy on the album,” she tells EW. “I needed to evolve musically and not do the same pop-rock thing over and over again.”
Water is also a departure from Lavigne’s 2013 self-titled work, trading in guitar and live drums for a more stripped-down, less pop-oriented experience. While there are exceptions — the power ballad “Head Above Water” and the playful, empowerment anthem “Dumb Blonde” — Lavigne instead offers a resilient project crafted around her vocals.
But the road to this latest release hasn’t been easy for Lavigne. In 2015, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, which kept her bedridden and away from the spotlight. “It was painful to face it, and I don’t like to talk about it sometimes, but to turn it into music and put it out there into positive experiences to help others has been good,” she tells EW.
From Los Angeles, Lavigne discussed her soulful new album, her health, and the crazy conspiracy theory about her that went viral.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know your record took longer than expected to come out. What’s the story behind the delay?
AVRIL LAVIGNE: The funny part is I was ready to record…it took a long time to find producers who were the right fit. I had written all the songs and most producers don’t want to take on songs that have already been [completely] written, so it was like, ‘Who can we get on board?’ I had different people produce “Head Above Water” until it was right. Because I’m very close to the music and I have a vision for it, the production ends up being a big part of it. It takes longer as opposed to being an artist and having songs handed to [you].
How did “Head Above Water” end up being the lead single?
That ended up being [one of] the first songs I wrote — “Head Above Water” and “Warrior” — about my health. The whole team — the record company, management, myself — thought it should be the lead since it was what I went through in my life. It felt so powerful and emotional so it was very special to me.
I feel like this record is much more focused on vocals [compared to your previous releases]. Tell me about the direction you wanted to head in.
I wanted to make this record about the vocals so you could really hear the lyrics and feel the emotion because sometimes the music can be overbearing. I really just wanted to sing and make it about that, so it was nice to explore with different sounds like “Crush” and “Tell Me It’s Over”; they’re a little bit more throwback and jazzy. I kind of felt like I was going back to my roots — I got my start in church and musical theater before I started writing my own music. It was nice to have the time to write music for myself and write songs about something I’ve been going through because I’ve had a crazy few years.
You’ve said that there was a point you felt like you were going to die [from Lyme Disease]. How did you come back from that moment?
It was that bad that night, and I was like, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” I think I was about to die because I had this weird feeling of, “Whoa. I feel like I’m on a cliff and I’m about to fall, and it’s dark.” Coming out of it I felt like I was underwater drowning, coming up for air. That’s when I literally said, “God, help me keep my head above water.” I wasn’t even thinking about music — it just happened.
How’s your health now?
It’s up and down. I’m doing my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle — eating healthy, sleeping well, and working out. I definitely have to pace myself. But at the same time, I have my life back now: I’m able to make music and make videos. I’ve come so far.
With this record, did you feel like you had to convince people you’d grown up?
I don’t feel the need to convince people with anything. I think after what I went through, I’m really just making music today because I love it and it makes me happy. I’m making it for myself. I’m also eager to put music out because I know my fans have been waiting.
“Dumb Blonde” is one of the most radio-friendly songs on the record. What’s the story behind that one?
It’s something I actually went through where I had an experience with someone calling me a dumb blonde. I was like, “Ooh that’s a good concept and title.” It started as a misogynist intimidated by my independence. I just thought that was really unfair. If you’re a leader or you’re a strong woman or someone who has an opinion or is driven, you shouldn’t be made to feel bad about that. Men, or anyone for that matter, should embrace that and not put you down because of their own insecurities. That’s really what that song is about.
“Birdie” is a stunning, Memphis soul-influenced track. How did that come together?
I had that concept in my head two years before I wrote it. I was feeling bad. I kept saying to myself, “I feel like I’m a bird locked up in a cage. I feel like I’m in jail.” I was just stuck with a bunch of s–t. That’s where that concept came from. It’s not necessarily about my illness but about other stuff in my life. I love that song because it has an empowering message of standing up for yourself, doing something about a situation you’re in, taking charge, and removing yourself. I think a lot of people can relate to that whether that’s a toxic relationship they’re in, or they’re not happy with their job.
Besides getting healthy, what were you up to in-between records?
I’ve been doing a lot of painting. I’ve been dating and spending a lot of time with my family. When you go through something like that you really see who your true friends are, and a lot of people fled because I wasn’t the “fun party girl” anymore. I needed my friends and my family. I needed support, and it was a total eye-opener in general. So it was just a lot of life lessons. I gained a lot of perspective. But I’ve come so far. I couldn’t get out of bed for almost two years, and there are still days where I can’t get out of bed. To be putting out songs that mean so much to me…I’m excited.
Have you joined any apps since you started dating?
No, there’s been no need for that. [Laughs] I don’t have an issue there.
There was a conspiracy theory a few years back going around that you died and a doppelgänger named Melissa took your place. Seeing that story go viral, how did that affect you personally?
More like that it’s just a dumb internet rumor and [I’m] flabbergasted that people bought into it. Isn’t that so weird? It’s so dumb. And I look the exact same. On one hand, everyone is like, “Oh my god, you look the same,” and on the other hand people are like “Oh my god, she died.”