Like all the best pop superstars, Ava Max (born Amanda Koci) seemed to emerge fully formed – a riot of platinum-blonde exaggeration – when she bulldozed into the public consciousness in 2018. “Sweet but Psycho,” Max’s unapologetic bold and bombastic banger, quite literally swept the globe. Peaking at #1 in 22 countries, reaching the top of the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart and later peaking at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Sweet but Psycho” succeeded in confidently helping to kickstart the recent pop music resurgence. Nearly two years later, Ava Max is continuing to spearhead a full-on pop revival alongside Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga (to name but two), who have each released exceptionally loud and proud pop albums this year too.
It’s hard not to be enchanted by Ava Max. Heaven & Hell, Max’s 16-track indulgent debut album, does not even come close to containing a single ballad. Recorded over the course of two years, her long-awaited debut is an amalgamation of everything we as listeners have come to love about Max’s music since landing in the spotlight, a collection of high-octane, unapologetic pop anthems. “My favourite memory of 2020 was the night I released Heaven & Hell. We counted down the minutes like it was New Year’s Eve. I was with a group of just really close family and friends, and it was just a very intimate moment,” she reminisces.
“Everything’s an anthem. For me, it’s impossible to not write an anthem,” Ava admits. Formed of two contrasting sides, Heaven (side A) and Hell (side B), the album theatrically glides between both dualities, pulling you between the angel and the devil on your shoulder. And from the moment we begun following Ava, it’s clear that duality plays a large role in a lot of her identity. Whether it be the concept of Heaven & Hell, the masculine and feminine composition of her name or the defining, angular lengths of her hair (a style that has come to be known as the Max Cut), duality plays into many areas of her identity. “I grew up with people telling me to be something that I’m not or asking me to question whether I’m dressing too sexy or too masculine. But I can be both,” Max tells me through the phone, as we catch up through different time-zones on an icy December evening.
Ava Max’s album contains the 2020 smash hit “Kings & Queens,” a fierce and empowered anthem that demands to be bellowed. The fifth single released from Heaven & Hell, “Kings & Queens” was produced by long-time collaborator Cirkut (and RedOne), utilising an eclectic guitar with synthesizers. “I worked with Cirkut a lot, he is the executive producer of Heaven & Hell. He is so talented and a genius – a production genius,” she praises. Cirkut, the highly acclaimed Canadian record producer and songwriter (Rihanna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Jessie J), produced the album track-by-track across two years and while in multiple different countries. Meeting him at a dinner party in 2014, they wasted no time in working together on “Anyone but You,” and track released on SoundCloud in 2016 and leading to Max’s deal with Atlantic Records shortly after.
Aside from “Kings & Queens,” the album also contains singles “Who’s Laughing Now,” “Naked” and “OMG What’s Happening,” but for Max, the track that tops the list of her favourites is the haunting “Belladonna.” “The track that stands out to me the most is ‘Belladonna’ as it’s just so different from everything else on that album,” she confesses, “it’s something I really wanted to do that was a bit outside of the box.”
“I am overwhelmed by all the love for the album and I love hearing what everyone’s favourite track is – everyone’s taste is so different! Some people’s favourite could be ‘Belladonna’ while others are still obsessed with ‘Torn’. So, I just feel very blessed to have such a beautiful, diverse group of fans, and so blessed to have such an incredible group of people surrounding me. At the end of the day it’s all about energy, I truly believe that. My fans are great energy.” “Torn,” the disco-tinged single, is about “how the world is falling apart but you’re coming to save pop music,” a fan commented. However, Max confesses the real meaning behind the track comes from feeling torn in a relationship; a topic that can no doubt resonate with listeners around the world.
While it may seem as if Max appeared out of nowhere when she burst onto the scene in 2018, her arrival came after years of attempts to break though. Now 26, she was born in Wisconsin after her Albanian parents emigrated to the US in 1991, three years before she was born. Often witnessing her parents struggle to earn an income, working three jobs without speaking much English, Max had already taken her first leap at 14 when she decided to move to L.A. to pursue music. Rejected for being underage, she went back to L.A. at 17, with her older brother acting as her manager, and tried for a second time. Today, Ava Max is one of the most streamed artists in the world right now and has recently been selected for Forbes 30 Under 30 list, a huge milestone and a tangible way to measure success for any artist. “The more successful I become, the more people I can give back to and the more people I can help,” she tells me. “That is the way I see it – if I can be more successful, I can help more people. That is how I was raised; my parents are very giving people and now I can give back to them. Success is beyond yourself; my success is beyond myself,” she proclaims.
And for Ava, like for many of us, success means a huge amount more in what has been such a turbulent and unpredictable year. 2020 has offered us all a gruelling ten months filled with both moments of intense grief and moments of extreme motivation and gratitude. This year has been filled with many highs and lows, and Max definitely agrees. “This year has been a rollercoaster… it started off great but has since got crazier,” she tells me. “Thankfully we can do everything virtually, and I can still connect with fans that way. That has been a blessing for me. I honestly don’t know what people used to do before social media! I really do believe that we can all do a lot online and it can have a huge impact. I feel so blessed to be working with such amazing people and be doing what I love. I just feel super grateful and blessed, even more so this year because we are all living through such an uncertain time.”
As we speak on the phone in December, rapidly approaching the end of the year, we all will have a lot to reflect upon. This year, Ava tells me, she has learnt the importance of taking time for her music and taking time for herself. “I have learnt that taking time on your music, even longer than I usually do, is a good thing. You really have to live with the music. I have also learnt the importance of really taking time for myself.”
“[This Christmas] I’ll definitely still be working but it’ll feel good to give it a week off and reflect on the year and be grateful for everything that has happened and look forward to everything that will happen in 2021. My parents live down the street so I will be seeing them, but I know it will be a different holiday this year without being able to gather in huge groups.”
“I can’t wait to release new music, and I’m really excited to travel. Europe, Asia, Australia, New York… I want to go everywhere,” she concluded, remaining refreshingly positive.
Photo: Easton Schirra @eastonschirra from The Only Agency
Stylist Wilford Lenov
Hair Dimitris Giannetos from The Wall Group