When Ava Max stormed to the UK number one spot in December 2018 with ‘Sweet But Psycho’, even chart geeks were blindsided. Few had heard of Max — an L.A.-based singer-songwriter whose Albanian parents emigrated to the US in 1991, three years before she was born — and her song sounded like nothing else around. An unapologetically bold and bombastic pop banger, ‘Sweet But Psycho’ almost seemed to hark back to the era of massive chart anthems like ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘Born This Way’.
Nearly two years later, Max is helping to spearhead a full-on pop revival alongside Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, who have each released excellent albums this year. Max’s own debut LP ‘Heaven & Hell’ dropped last Friday (September 18) and features her glossy follow-up hits ‘Kings & Queens’ — which has now spent 26 weeks in the charts — and ‘So Am I’. Max is so serious about bringing back copper-bottomed pop anthems that there isn’t a single ballad on there.
But who exactly is this rising star who co-writes her songs with the likes of RedOne (Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez) and Cirkut (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus)? Here’s five things we learned when we caught up with Ava Max on Zoom for the latest instalment in NME‘s In Conversation chat series.
She thinks ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna is the best pop song ever
Max can still remember hearing it on the radio for the first time, shortly after she moved from Virginia to Santa Monica, California to pursue her singing career. “One: it’s catchy. Two: it has this emotion behind it in the production where it just hits you,” she says of Ri-Ri’s 2007 mega-hit. “It feels like a ballad, but it’s a big pop song — how crazy is that? And it hits you in the heart but it makes you want to dance.”
She wasn’t worried when ‘Sweet But Psycho’ was accused of stigmatising mental illness
“A lot of people thought I was talking about mental illness [in the song], but that is not what I intended,” Max says. “‘Psycho’ is actually redefined in my book. It means strong and independent and passionate, and being able to speak your mind in a relationship. Because we can be gaslighted — you know, male or female, but mainly female — to think we’re crazy and psycho.”
Max says she’d only have worried about a possible backlash if she’d been lying about the song’s true meaning. “But I wasn’t [lying]; I was telling the truth,” she continues. “If you watch the video, the guy cheats on me. And I become crazy because that’s what guys see. They think we go crazy and then they gaslight us. So I think if you really dissect the video, you’ll understand.”
She wasn’t confident that ‘Sweet But Psycho’ would be a hit
“Two years ago, there was really no pop music on the ‘New Music Friday’ playlist on Spotify,” she recalls. “So when it went out, I was like: ‘Oh I don’t know if this is gonna do well.’ Then it started flying up the charts because people missed pop music. And I really truly believe that, you know, [the song’s producer] Cirkut brought pop music back.”
She’s had to overcome a lot of hurdles to make it this far
“People who I thought were my friends in the music industry were actually backstabbing me and prolonging the process and trying to make me, like, not make it,” she recalls. “That was kind of the hardest thing: to go beyond those people who were really just trying to stop my career because they didn’t like me. But karma, I have to say, is real. When you’re a good person and you give good to the world, and you’re working hard for something you want, you will get there. I truly believe that because I am living proof.”
Still, Max says she tries not to hold a grudge or take anything that happened personally. “These people were maybe just insecure and didn’t want to help me because they had issues with themselves,” she adds sanguinely.
She wants to be known as an artist who’s “bold”, “outspoken” and “just doesn’t give a fuck”
“I really do give a fuck about this album coming out,” Max clarifies, “but I don’t give a fuck about my haters and what they have to say. Like, I gave this project my all… I can’t wait for the fans to hear it and hear what their favourite songs are — that I do give a fuck about. But all the [other] noise? It’s like it’s not there to me.”