Ava Max: ‘I need to make it, no matter what’

Ava Max is running late. The pop star is meant to be promoting her debut album, Heaven & Hell, with a day full of Zoom interviews, but her laptop has disappeared.

It takes 30 minutes to track it down, while her PRs fire off apologetic emails to journalists sitting in online waiting rooms.

Then, as if by magic, she pops up on the screen, sitting on her sofa in LA, without a single, asymmetric hair out of place.

“I’m so sorry!” she says. “I was playing music outside yesterday and I left my laptop out there. When I couldn’t find it in the house, I was freaking out.”

Max is speaking two years after the release of her breakthrough single, Sweet But Psycho, which topped the charts in 20 countries, and sold two million copies in the UK alone.

Since then, the singer-songwriter – who was born Amanda Koci in 1994, to Albanian-immigrant parents in Milwaukee – has released enough thundering, maximalist pop anthems to destroy a spin class, from the outsider anthem So Am I to the current chart hit Kings And Queens.

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Her debut album combines those seven singles with a clutch of new songs (“no ballads,” she points out). With early reviews comparing it to Abba and Lady Gaga, it’s on course to be the UK’s number one on Friday.

“It’s crazy to be releasing my debut during a global pandemic,” says the star. “I miss being on tour – but I know that day will come, so as long as everyone’s healthy, that’s all that matters.”

What’s your first musical memory?

I’d have been seven or eight years old. My mom would just walk around the house singing opera – and I started singing with her.

Was she a trained opera singer?

She did go to school for it – so yeah, she was trained.

Did she ever sing professionally?

No, she wasn’t able to. It’s always been her dream but she came to America and got lost in working and taking care of me and my brother. It was a tough one for her to say no to.

Who were your inspirations growing up?

I was listening to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, all the big pop artists – and a little R&B with the Fugees, you know?

Who was the first person outside the family who told you that you could sing?

Man, that’s a tough one. I was never consistent with vocal coaches. I was like a little girl who was always running around being rebellious – but I had this one vocal coach who told me, ‘It’s not special that you can sing. A lot of people can sing. It’s more about how badly you want it. How hard are you going to work for it?’ That really stuck with me.

Do you still do the scales now? Do you practise every day?

You know, here and there.

That sounds like a ‘no’.

No, I do! I do! If I didn’t, I’d mess up my vocal cords.

You entered a lot of singing competitions as a child. What was that like?

There was a thing called Talent Rock down in Florida, and I drove there from Virginia with my mom. There was, like, 3,000 kids auditioning and I got in the top three.

The only reason I didn’t get number one was because the winner did three back backflips before singing. I was just crying like, ‘That’s not fair!’

Yeah, that’s not really got anything to do with vocal talent, has it?

But it looked cool.

You released an EP when you were 14 under the name Amanda Kay. How did that come about?

I released a couple of EPs actually. You don’t want to uncover those!

Too late! But I think I Need You holds up as a decent mid-2000s pop song.

It’s a very old song, but thank you. I was about 12 years old when I recorded that in Miami.

I love that time in my life but, you know, the music? I’m like, ‘Meh.’

What’s the first song you wrote where you felt, ‘This is it. This is who I’m supposed to be’?

It’s a mixture between Not Your Barbie Girl and Sweet But Psycho – because they both feel very strong and bold, which is what I’m like as a person.

Your lyrics avoid a lot of the pop clichés about love and romance. What’s your writing process like?

It’s like surgery. We take our time, and we go one by one, dissecting everything because if I don’t love the message I cannot sing it.

So, most likely I’ll be in the studio, in my headphones and writing a melody on the beat. Whatever I’m feeling in my heart is what comes out, if that makes sense.

So it’s totally spontaneous? You don’t keep notes or a book of ideas?

Literally, that’s me.

There’s a fantastic line in OMG What’s Happening: ‘There’s something about your face / I don’t know whether to kiss it or punch it.’

Oh my god! I did that in the beginning of quarantine, and I was laughing so hard because actually, at first, it was a joke, and then I’m like, ‘Wait, this is awesome.’

Who did you have in mind when you wrote it?

Every ex-boyfriend!

Sweet But Psycho was your big break. What was it like to see it conquer the world?

Oh gosh, there were just so many big accomplishments every single day. Number one in Sweden, then Norway, then Finland, then the UK.

The song couldn’t be stopped – and I don’t even know why. This song touched almost everyone on the globe and that is very hard to do. I still can’t believe we did that.

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You hadn’t even started making an album at that point. Was that an issue?

It’s hard to say. I’m actually happy I didn’t have an album ready then – because it would have been very not me. And now I have this body of work that I really love. I feel like everything happens for a reason.

How many songs did you record for the album?

Over 100. But we’re very critical. If we don’t feel it, we just push it aside.

One of the themes of Sweet But Psycho is being misunderstood. Is that something that’s affected you?

Always. It was very hard for me to make friends growing up. I was bullied, I guess because I am very out-of-box but I’m also very blunt. I really don’t sugar-coat things and I’ve always been like that, my whole life. It’s not something I can change. I’ve tried to change and that doesn’t work. Trust me.

So school was tough [because] it’s fake sometimes, you know? You’ve got to put up a persona and that was never me, and then I got bullied. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Are the lyrics of Who’s Laughing Now aimed at those bullies?

Who’s Laughing Now is more about the music industry for me. A lot of people really did not want to help me out, did not want to help me at all.

But if you see the video, the music is coming out of my veins – and that’s how I felt. I literally was like, ‘I have music pouring out of me, This is not something I can stop. I need to make it, no matter what.’ And that’s the mentality I had.

But it can be hard when that doesn’t happen straight away. How did you keep your spirits up during those teenage years when things didn’t go to plan?

I had a lot of down moments, I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t like rainbows and happiness and excitement.

Every year that went by, I was like, ‘Am I ever going to make it? Is this ever gonna happen? I’ve been trying since I was 10 years old.’

One day, about a year before Sweet But Psycho, I was crying and my mom said, ‘I really don’t want you to get disappointed if you want to choose another career.’

And I look her and I go, ‘No. Why [do you think] I am crying? This is what I want to do. I will never let go of this.’ And so I continued and Sweet But Psycho happened. It’s pretty crazy.

Your album is coming out in the middle of a pop music resurgence. Why is this sound so popular now, after years of artists like Drake being down in the dumps?

I’ve always liked to go against the grain. So, I always want to be the person who fills in what’s missing [in music]. But not only that, I love anthemic, positive music. I go back to the early 2000s and late 90s music, where it was really happy and unapologetically pop – and I really, really wanted to give you guys something you can dance to.

In the video for Torn, you’re playing a superhero. What would your superpower be?

If I had to choose one I would definitely choose healing, because I feel like the world needs healing. And my superhero name would probably be Electra, ‘cos that’s my great-grandmother’s name!

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Ava Max’s album, Heaven & Hell, is out now.

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  • Opera
  • Pop music
  • Music

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