‘Sweet but Psycho’ singer Ava Max ready to conquer the pop world with debut album ‘Heaven & Hell’

Ava Max performs during Arthur Ashe Kid's Day ahead of the 2019 U.S. Open Tennis Championships at the USTA National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows in New York.

Last summer, Ava Max, a little-known newcomer from Milwaukee, foreshadowed a shift in the pop trajectory in the United States when her vivid single “Sweet But Psycho” cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Now she’s ready to reap greater rewards.

Two years and 2 billion streams since “Psycho” came out, Max, born Amanda Koci, is gearing up to release her debut full-length album, “Heaven & Hell,” on Atlantic Records Friday.

The success of “Psycho” was an anomaly in what’s been a largely moody, mellow Top 40 landscape post-Lorde, a throwback to the kind of bright, bombastic, sing-to-the-rafters pop that made Katy PerryLady Gaga and Ariana Grande superstars a decade ago.

” ‘Sweet But Psycho’ came after 15 years trying to make it in the industry,” Ava Max, 26, told the Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.

‘Why not be unapologetically pop?’ 

It was a dream that started when she was 8 years old, belting songs by singing idols like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in the family basement.   

“There was always that temptation to be more R&B,” Max continued, to chase radio and playlist trends. “But I always listened to pop music, so why not be unapologetically pop?So I did it, kind of taking a chance.”

It paid off not just stateside, but in Europe, where the song hit No. 1 on 27 different charts. And while hip-hop continues to be at the center of the music universe in the States, upbeat pop is on the upswing, post-“Psycho,” during the pandemic.

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s dance-club banger “Rain on Me”; The Weeknd’s ’80s-synth scorcher “Blinding Lights”; Harry Styles’ sweet pop-rocker “Watermelon Sugar”; Doja Cat’s disco-kissed “Say So”; BTS’ explosive “Dynamite” — they’ve all topped the Billboard Hot 100 this year. 

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“(Pop) is finally coming back and it’s exciting,” Max said. “Making a great pop song, it is a difficult thing. You have to be bold but also be vulnerable, but also be danceable but also have a message. I feel like making a great pop record is one of the most difficult things.”

Songs of empowerment and individuality 

Ava Max has co-written several infectious pop records on “Heaven & Hell,” most of them produced and co-written by her “Psycho” collaborator Cirkut, whose past credits include Perry’s “Roar,” Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and the Weeknd’s “Starboy.” 

The album’s single, “Kings & Queens,” co-written and co-produced by RedOne (Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance”), is a regal female empowerment anthem. Max sings, “No damsel in distress, no need to save me/Once I start breathing fire you can’t tame me.” 

The soaring “So Am I,” co-written by Charlie Puth, is a rousing anthem for individuality (“Do you ever feel like an outcast/You don’t have to fit into the format”). And “Naked,” co-written by Bonnie McKee — the co-songwriter behind several of Perry’s “Teenage Dream” smashes — is dressed up in shimmering retro synths, with Max confessing that her greatest vulnerabilities are hers, and hers alone, to see. 

Of the singles releases so far, “Psycho” excluded, “Kings & Queens” has racked up the most impressive numbers with more than 400 million streams, although it’s peaked at No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

But Max says she doesn’t feel any pressure to match or exceed her breakthrough single’s success. Even as she’s promoting “Heaven & Hell,” she’s already moving on to recording other songs, since the touring industry is at a standstill due to the pandemic. 

“I don’t aspire to make 100 ‘Sweet But Psychos.’ It’s not something I think about in the studio,” Max said. “I want to empower people, and inspire people, and inspire youth to reach their dreams.”

Milwaukee-born pop artist Ava Max

Inspired by parents’ struggles  

Beyond being the theme of her music, that’s also been Max’s way of life, inspired by her parents’ remarkable story. 

Her father Paul, a pianist, and mother Andrea, a classically trained opera singer, fled Albania in 1991, after the fall of the country’s communist regime, which triggered unrest and economic collapse. They lived in a church in France for a year, Max said — where they befriended a woman from Wisconsin, who secured them passports.

That’s how they ended up in Milwaukee, where Max was born in 1994, and where she lived for three years before the family relocated to Virginia. When she was young, Max said, her parents worked three jobs each, and they didn’t speak English.

“I remember one time my mom broke her arm, had surgery, and went to work the next night,” Max said. “My parents are definitely very courageous. … Seeing them struggle growing up and make it gave me the determination that I can do anything.”

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or plevy@journalsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ava Max, 'Heaven & Hell' (Sept. 18): After peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 with brazen breakthrough single "Sweet but Psycho," the rising pop star (frequently compared to Lady Gaga for her eccentric style and visuals) is ready to introduce herself with a full-length debut album.

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