It’s no surprise that Ava Max, she of the lopsided haircut (her signature for the past three-plus years now) and voice behind breakout pop single “Sweet but Psycho,” likes a dichotomy. And when it came time to explore a theme for her debut album, the 26-year-old didn’t shy away from what’s naturally always intrigued her.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Max says over Zoom from a recording studio in Los Angeles. “The album’s actually been done, but the pandemic pushed it back. But I feel like this is the new normal now, as horrible as that is to say, so now we’re releasing it, finally. It’s ‘Heaven and Hell’: side A is ‘Heaven,’ ‘Torn’ is purgatory, and ‘Hell’ is side B. So, it kind of gets you through this journey.”
Those who know Max, born Amanda Ava Koci, and her music might not easily draw a through line to opera, but it’s where the Wisconsin-born, L.A.-via-South Carolina-via-Virginia-raised singer first started musically.
Max’s parents were refugees from Albania who initially landed in Wisconsin upon arrival to the U.S., after spending a year in Paris living in a church. (Wisconsin was where the woman who helped them get passports was from, so it seemed as good a place as any to settle.)
“They didn’t have money, they didn’t know the language, they just lived in Wisconsin,” Max says of her parents. “But then, my dad did not want to shovel snow all the time, so he was like, ‘Where’s four-season weather,’ and they went to Virginia.”
Her mother had sung opera in Albania, going to an opera school in secret as it was forbidden, and would sing to Max constantly when she was a child, waking her up for school in the morning by song.
“My parents were very supportive from the beginning. My mom sang opera, and my dad played the piano, my uncles are in music, my grandpa and grandma made music, so the entire family loved music. And so, when I started singing, and I loved to sing, they were like, ‘Oh, she’s actually good. We should support it,’” Max says. Her singing dreams were the reason behind the family’s repeated moving throughout her childhood. “It put a lot of pressure, obviously, on little eight-year-old and 14-year-old me, every time we moved,” Max says.
Max entered singing competitions from the time she was eight years old on, heading to Florida with her parents for the contests, road tripping to Disneyworld along the way. They moved out to L.A. when Max was 14, hoping she would get signed, but “when we got to California, no one wanted to sign a 14-year-old singer” — and so they packed up and ended up in South Carolina.
“I feel like I’m a mutt,” Max says of the various cities she’s lived in. It’s proved helpfully musically though.
“In South Carolina, they loved country music, but they also loved rap music, so I got into country and rap music. And then in Virginia, I would just listen to pop,” Max says. “So everywhere, whatever my friend circle listened to, I listened to as well.”
The song that got her signed, a track called “Anyone but You” that she uploaded to Soundcloud, features her mother singing opera at the very beginning, before dipping into a beat-driven pop track.
The new album is a continuation of such — Max loves a duality.
“When I was writing the song, one says, ‘Torn in between heaven and hell’ and I was listening to it one day, and I was like ‘heaven and hell, wow, all the songs have dualities to them.’ It goes with the whole thematic imagery I see in my head, with this and that, like the angel, the devil, but not so literal — it’s more what we go through in everyday life, we kind of have this rollercoaster, literally called life, and how ironic it feels we’re literally in heaven and hell one day, these days,” she says. “But I think it just makes sense for the album, and the songs, and everything that I’ve been through.”
Max always knew she wanted to make pop music, ever since she fell in love with the sound of Mariah Carey’s voice and the way it made her feel.
“When I was younger, I never really understood the lyrics; it was more so the energy I felt, that I wanted to dance,” Max says. “It ignited my fire, and I just wanted to feel like that all the time.”