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Avril Lavigne: lost in Wonderland? Add to ...

“No one was seeing eye to eye.”

Avril Lavigne is on the phone from Calgary, speaking about the rough experiences involved in making her latest album, Goodbye Lullaby, released after much delay last March.

“There was a lot of fighting and going back and forth,” she continues. “I don’t think it was good for the record or for me and the creative process.”

The album’s contrasting styles suggest the source of her frustration. Swedish pop maestro Max Martin (who cashes cheques signed by people named Britney, Ke$ha and Pink) collaborated on four bubble-gummed tracks, including the bratty lead single, What the Hell.

Lavigne, coming off a divorce with Sum 41 rocker Deryck Whibley, resisted what she saw as her label’s desire for more rhythmic material. She instead wanted songs that were personal and acoustic, with her voice higher in the mix. We hear that on the strummed Wish You Were Here and the album-closing Goodbye, a poignant ballad written and produced by Lavigne. “I did my best,” she says. “And it’s all good now.”

Or is it? In some Canadian cities, Lavigne’s current Black Star tour has been drawing pitifully small audiences – an estimated 4,000 (mostly) kids and mothers at Rogers Arena in Vancouver on Oct. 3, and 6,000 at Calgary’s Saddledome this week. Those are cavernous arenas that can hold several times that many concertgoers. Some of the reviews have been harsh, too, asking when Lavigne, the 27-year-old pop star who once skateboarded the friendly streets of Napanee, Ont., was finally going to grow up.

It’s a good question. She is trying to mature, it appears, but her (now former) record label, RCA, didn’t seem to have much interest in seeing Lavigne outgrow her snotty Sk8er Boi image. Something like last year’s Alice in Wonderland soundtrack song, Alice – an emotive ballad in the style of Chantal Kreviazuk – is the path the singer-songwriter would herself like to follow.

Major labels, though, aren’t generally in the business of fostering careers. They mine the trends, loving the pop-sexy, not the long-term artistry. It’s the business.

But if growing old with your audience is challenging, it’s not impossible. In the industry, it’s called “pulling a George Michael,” a reference to the British singer’s jump from bleach-blond Wham! singer to the more mature artist who made Faith and Freedom. The video for the latter was clear in its message: To create a fresh new image, you have to do some tearing down and blowing up.

Thing is, it might be too late for Lavigne. “I’ll win the race, keep up with the pace,” she sings on Alice. But Lavigne is stuck in limbo, in danger of being left behind altogether. On tour and on her new album, she’s playing to children even as she attempts to grow up. Like Alice, one pill makes her smaller while the other one makes her tall.

“I think she’s stuck,” says Eric Alper, a veteran of the industry, who looks after media relations and label acquisitions at eOne Music Canada, a leading record distributor. “She’s stuck in an area, knowing why people liked her in the past, and she’s not leaving that area.” Alper and eOne tend to work with older, established artists. “She needs to do what she wants to do,” he advises, “but I don’t think she’s there yet.”

Lavigne exploded in 2002 as a 17-year-old pop-punk princess with her album Let Go and its breakthrough single, Complicated. Her follow-up records, Under My Skin and The Best Damn Thing, sold awfully well. She has diversified into fragrances and fashion. She’s massive in Asia.

So, no bake sales yet to raise money for Lavigne. But her original girly fans are in their 20s now, not too likely to place Avril posters in dorm rooms. Recruit fresh middle-schoolers, you say? Not likely either: The Glow Stick crowd has its own heroes – the Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys of the pop sphere.

When asked about recruiting new audiences or keeping old ones, the singer sounds puzzlingly unfocused. “I don’t really think about that kind of stuff,” she acknowledges much too readily. “I make my music. I go on tour. I work really hard. I do the best that I can do.”

This is an artist who needs guidance. She left her Vancouver-based management, Nettwerk, in 2009. “When you think about it, none of Nettwerk’s artists ever really grow,” says veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc, perhaps overstating the case, but pointing to other former Nettwerk acts such as the Barenaked Ladies. “Even Sarah McLachlan: How much did she really change or grow when she was there?”

This summer, Lavigne moved to the Epic label from RCA, where, says the singer, she had never been a good fit. “They didn’t really try to understand me. These were business people trying to … discourage me. It’s not helpful.”

“They tried to dress her up,” says LeBlanc, presumably referring to the lavishly posed cover shot on Goodbye Lullaby, “but I’m not sure where they take her.”

Where to take her is the decision of Epic, the label now run by L.A. Reid, the man who signed Lavigne to the now-defunct Arista Records way back in 2000. Listening to Lavigne, it sounds as if she and Epic will start with a relatively fresh slate. “I’m not really sure what I have in store for my next album,” says the star. “I never really think about it until I’ve started the project and I’m in it.”

That kind of short-sightedness doesn’t tend to serve recording artists well, according to Alper. “If you want to be an artist with a career, you have to be looking one to two albums down the road, because their audience might not be there any more as the artist grows up.”

George Michael is not the only recording artist to successfully move up in weight class. Michael Jackson disappeared as a child and came back a few years later the king of pop. After leaving boy band ’N Sync, Justin Timberlake expertly matured as an artist.

Justin Bieber is making the moves of a teen idol in it for the long, long run. His upcoming Christmas album pairs him on duets with such older artists as Mariah Carey, Usher and Boyz II Men, the R&B group whose name, fittingly, describes the formidable professional trick Bieber is attempting to achieve.

As for Lavigne, she might not possess the talent and savvy of Timberlake, Bieber and Jackson. Very few do. Still, she puts on a brave face, saying that the tour is going well and that she’s playing to “thousands of people.”

The poor attendance is an alarm bell, but it isn’t just about the money. “It can shake an artist’s confidence playing to empty arenas, and it can destroy their career,” says Alper. “It can lead to horrible shows, and you start second-guessing yourself. You start thinking ‘Maybe this isn’t what people want to hear.’ ”

On Alice, Lavigne sounded a defiant note: “When I fall and hit the ground,” she sang, “I will turn myself around.” In the real world, that’s easier said than done. Rabbit holes, after all, can be deep.

Avril Lavigne plays Sudbury on Sunday; Ottawa on Monday; Moncton on Wednesday; Halifax on Thursday; London, Ont., on Oct. 22; Toronto on Oct. 24; Montreal on Oct. 25.

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