Among the in-crowd of young, female pop singers that includes Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, and later, Jessica’s sibling Ashlee Simpson, Avril Lavigne doesn’t totally fit in, even though people consider her part of that clique. Her music, beginning with the hit single “Complicated” from her 2002 debut, Let Go, offers up precisely crafted pop much like the rest of the flock, but she works in more guitar riffs and sports a snarky attitude and baggy skater clothes that make the tweens with a rebellious streak think she’s hella cool.
Her follow-up, Under My Skin, revealed a more pensive, brooding Lavigne, with songs that hinted at a young woman mulling over late-teenage dramas. Now at the ripe old age of 22, Lavigne has seemingly unloaded some of that emotional baggage, leaving her free to play around with some seriously catchy and way fun pop/punk-inspired fare. In honor of her fascination with power chords and light profanity (there’s a dirty and clean version of this record), Lavigne comes forward with The Best Damn Thing, released this past spring on RCA; it’s a lighthearted collection of mostly upbeat numbers with a few emotional ballads tossed in, oh, I dunno, for fun, I guess.
Lavigne reportedly hand-picked her producers and musical collaborators. On the production end, she turned to Butch Walker, with whom she had worked on Under My Skin, Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, My Chemical Romance) and Dr. Luke, best known for producing Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” the influence of which can be heard on Lavigne’s Best Damn debut single, “Girlfriend.” The album also features six-string work from Lavigne’s husband, Derek Whibley of Sum 41, and her longtime guitar player, Evan Taubenfeld, who also co-wrote several tracks.
Walker’s name appears on three of the album’s final cuts, including the title track, the ballad “When You’re Gone” and the hard-driving so-long-evil-ex-boyfriend song, “Everything Back But You.”
Lavigne and Walker collaborated democratically: Lavigne expressed both her lyrical and melodic ideas, then left Walker to his own devices to hash out a basic track. He played most of the instruments himself, working with Karl Egsieker, his engineer of more than six years and now his first-call partner on the West Coast. (They both relocated to L.A. from Atlanta in 2004.)
Working at Michael Bienhorn’s Venice Beach studio, followed by stints at NRG Studios, Sunset Sound and Walker’s studio, Egsieker recorded Walker’s guitar, bass, keyboard and background vocal parts on the nearest available Pro Tools HD system. Phase One took place at Bienhorn’s studio, where renowned drummer Kenny Aronoff pounded out the initial drum tracks. “We laid down a basic guitar, bass and vocal melodies — some songs had words, some didn’t — and we tracked drums to that,” says Egsieker.
Egsieker miked Walker’s guitars — which he plays through Bogner, Marshall and/or Fender amps — with a Royer R-122 and a Shure SM57 blended together in varying combinations, then used an Audio-Technica AT4047 either as a room mic or positioned up close to the instrument. Continuing the chain, he typically used Chandler TG2 mic pre’s and an API 550 EQ, both from Walker’s rig. Drums received treatment from API 512, 550 or 560s, depending on the song’s requirements. He also pulled out Empirical Labs Distressors for drums, guitars, vocals — “just about everything,” Egsieker says. On occasion, he used a Neve 1073 EQ or Universal Audio’s 1176 on the guitars to create a slightly different effect.
With the basic song structure in Pro Tools, Walker further developed the songs — adding parts here, tweaking a line there — until he felt he had nearly completed a track. At that point, they called in another renowned drummer, Josh Freese, for a second round of monster rhythms. When Walker had what he felt was a keeper, he put in the call to Lavigne. From there, Lavigne expressed her likes and dislikes, and she and Walker then worked together to fine-tune the arrangement and make sure the song moved in the direction Lavigne wanted.
Their mutual fondness for hook-laden melodies (as proven on her earlier releases, as well as Walker’s power-pop-influenced solo work) makes them a good team, and their established relationship helped both parties feel more comfortable about expressing ideas. In Walker’s case, that can mean brutal honesty as opposed to overly gushy compliments. “I’m not going to B.S. her,” he says, noting that other producers may be inclined to spare the feelings (and boost the ego) of an artist who could bring them multi-Platinum royalties. The direct approach, in this case, helped Walker take this singer to an even higher level of achievement.
When the time came for Lavigne to step into the vocal booth, she sang primarily through an AKG C 12. Egsieker ran their mic of choice through an API 512 mic pre into a Distressor and an API 550 EQ. For monitoring purposes, he used the Fairchild 670 tube compressor on the back end. Walker also occasionly used the Waves SSL channel strip plug-in on the monitor side “to hype up the track a bit and get it sounding good in the headphones so Avril will react to it,” says Egsieker.
For the final bits of overdubbing, the team migrated to Walker’s former studio at Pulse Recording, the facility owned by producer Josh Abraham that occupies the former Sound Castle building in Los Angeles. They used Pulse’s large live room to record drums for “When You’re Gone,” then retreated to Walker’s personal space — which contains his Digidesign D-Control worksurface, Pro Tools HD system with Apogee converters and racks of classic outboard gear — for additional elements. Walker assumed the space at Pulse not long after moving to L.A., but after purchasing a house in Malibu that came with a built-in control room and iso booths, he moved his operation home.
While Walker took the one-man-band approach (sort of) with Lavigne, Rob Cavallo, who produced the emotional mid-tempo number “Innocence,” employed a full band of A-list L.A. session musicians. Working mainly at Ocean Way Hollywood’s Studio B, Cavallo aimed to create a track reminiscent of Alanis Morissette’s moving “Uninvited,” which he produced for the City of Angels soundtrack. That song, as well as the many albums he has produced for the Goo Goo Dolls, prompted Lavigne to seek out Cavallo for her new album. Considering she once covered Green Day’s “Basket Case” and is occasionally compared to the band, one would assume Cavallo’s long association with Green Day would have come into play. But that’s not why she called him. “‘Uninvited’ is one of her favorite songs, and she even played it at her wedding,” Cavallo recalls. “She wanted a song with that same sort of epic intent. So based on the strength of that song, and particularly the Goo Goo Dolls’ songs, we were brought together.”
Lavigne had a very clear idea of what she wanted melodically, as well as a sheet of lyrics she had written with Taubenfeld. During her initial sessions with Cavallo, the two explored her ideas a bit further. “We played around on the piano and thought of different ways of recording the song,” Cavallo explains. “We used the Goo Goo Dolls and Alanis as reference points, but by cutting the song the first time, we were able to learn about the song. And the song told us a lot about itself, so we were able to make subtle changes from there. It was a great process. Avril doesn’t like to spend hours on a song; she likes to come in and make her comments, and then let you work on it so that she can stay fresh. Then when you’ve actually gotten there, she knows it.”
For the basic track, Cavallo’s “dream team” of ace musicians included Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums, Paul Bushnell on bass, Tim Pierce and Greg Suran on guitar, and Cavallo and Jamie Muhoberac on piano and keyboards. David Campbell orchestrated the string arrangements. The band recorded the first pass together in Studio B’s ample live room, while engineer Doug McKean manned Ocean Way’s custom 48-input API. Keyboard and electric and acoustic guitar parts were then broken out and fine-tuned, followed by drum programming and strings. McKean, who recorded the sessions at 96k to the studio’s Pro Tools HD system, notes that once the mood, tempo and key of the song were worked out, the musicians’ high level of talent helped the tracking dates flow seamlessly.
With the first version of the song complete, Lavigne and Cavallo made necessary tweaks; in just two takes, they had her vision of the song nailed, and one highly inspired vocalist sang her parts like a pro. “She sings very fast, pretty much in the pocket, right off the bat,” says Cavallo. “But that track has to be inspiring to her, so she works really hard to get the track together, and then, because she has such a strong vision of what she wants to do with that vocal, when she does it, it really comes together easily.” To capture those nearly spot-on vocals, McKean used a pre-G Series Sony C-800 mic, which ran into a Neve 1073 to a Universal Audio 1176. He used the Telefunken Elam 251 on certain takes, but ultimately the C-800 vocal track made the final cut.
The album’s final dozen songs were then delivered to Tom and Chris Lord-Alge, who took tracks from three disparate producers, recording in multiple studios with varying techniques and equipment, and mixed them into a cohesive collection that’s primed and ready for Top 40 radio. But unlike some of the other songs vying for top chart positions, the spunky cheerleader shout-outs, hand-claps and insanely catchy chorus on Lavigne’s debut single, “Girlfriend,” for example, reveal a bit of Lavigne’s no-nonsense personality. And while her voice could very well be layered more times than her recently sliced wedding cake, the song maintains some semblance of authenticity that’s hard to find in today’s modern music. “She’s very talented and very much responsible for the stuff that you’re hearing,” says Cavallo. “She has more to do with the record than I would imagine a lot of [solo] singers do. She ain’t no pop princess — she’s way more than that.”