By Erica Russell
Ava Max has been “working her butt off.” As she phones from Italy on a Sunday afternoon, she makes it clear that, despite my immediate assumption, Milan isn’t so glamorous after all — at least, not when she’s hustling so hard in the studio and pouring so much of herself into a global promotional tour that she can’t even steal away for a little sightseeing and shopping in one of the world’s most decadent fashion capitals. Sure, it’s a bummer for a style obsessee like Max, but somehow, the promise of pending pop superstardom makes it well worth the compromise.
Back in the U.S. where Max is from, the 25-year-old performer born Amanda Koci is in the midst of a bona fide breakout. Released in 2018, her addictive single “Sweet But Psycho” has become one of those “Wait, who sings this?” phenomenons, driving nearly 400 million streams on Spotify to date and charting on the Billboard Dance Club Songs (No. 1), Top 40 (No. 10), and Hot 100 (No. 29) charts. Across Europe, the song is already a No. 1 smash in multiple countries.
Despite what may appear like an overnight ascent, Max’s success is anything but sudden. Rather, it’s the result of “10 years of grinding.” When the singer was 14, she and her mom left their home in Virginia so Max could pursue a music career in Los Angeles. They returned just a year later. “It was crazy. No one wanted to sign a teenage girl. I guess they thought I was a liability, but it also felt shady... they didn’t want my parents around.” While things didn’t work out for a long time — she found herself working as a hostess, a waitress, and a model in the interim — Max “couldn’t stop thinking about making music.”
Eventually, serendipity (and a second West Coast migration) led her to Cirkut, the producer behind some of Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus’ biggest hits. Together, the pair concocted “Sweet But Psycho,” a poisonously sweet bop with a seriously relentless chorus; the song exploded instantly after being uploaded to SoundCloud. On its surface, the track may seem like it plays into the classic, and arguably problematic, “crazy” girlfriend narrative, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a subversive statement on gaslighting and how we stigmatize emotional expression, especially for women.
“I love it when people find out about it after they listen and really think about it,” Max muses. “I love it when they can relate, like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been in this situation!’ For me, pop music is a song that you can relate to but also makes you wanna dance. True, pure pop music is something people are missing in their lives. At the time, I didn’t realize what I was putting out in the world. But then everybody kept messaging me, saying, ‘I missed this!’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘We missed having a message in pop.’”
Social messaging is an integral part of Max’s M.O. Previous songs, like “Not Your Barbie Girl” (a riff on the Aqua bubblegum classic) and “My Way,” tackled feminist issues like bodily autonomy and gender roles. Similarly, her new single, “So Am I,” is a big, melodic pop anthem that celebrates individuality and embracing one’s unique flaws and quirks in the same vein as Katy Perry’s “Firework” or Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” The catchy, radio-friendly track is “very important” to the singer-songwriter, who was inspired to write it after grappling with the “unhealthy” way social media compels us to constantly compare ourselves to others.
Right on theme, the high-gloss music video for “So Am I” finds Max letting her freak flag fly as she frantically dances around a high school (“The same one they filmed Teen Wolf at,” she proudly gushes), beckoning a diverse group of “misfit” students to join her in her mission. The treatment for the video, as she explains, hits very close to home. “I was bullied as a kid. I was actually kicked out of seventh grade because I stood up for myself against a bully. And, of course, I was the one who got in trouble, which is so crazy. My video is about a dream high school, a fantasy of what we all want school to be.”
Max, who grew up as the daughter of Albanian immigrants, knows a thing or two about feeling like an outsider. Her upbringing is one of the reasons she hopes to be a “role model” for young people. “I saw my parents struggle and stress out a lot. My mom would roll up a pair of jeans just to make a pillow. I saw them work three jobs each, speak another language, and work really hard for what they wanted. Seeing that made me super passionate about what I believe in. I want more people to speak up about issues, like equal pay. I’m not interested in singing about sex and drugs.”
But Max’s parents weren’t her only source of inspiration: The performer also credits her drive towards pop stardom to the incredible women artists she grew up listening to, from Britney Spears (“She was a big inspiration to me growing up”) to “big, passionate vocalists” like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Céline Dion. It’s clear just how important girl power is to the promising upstart, who has coincidentally joined a growing sorority of wildly talented, chart-topping Albanian women in pop. In January, Bebe Rexha tweeted at Max, Rita Ora, and Dua Lipa asking to collaborate, to which Max enthusiastically suggested they all team up on a 2019 version of “Lady Marmalade.”
The jury is still out on what, if anything, the four ladies might eventually cook up together — Max says she has talked with both Rexha and Ora, but hasn’t met Lipa just yet — but the performer admits that music is deeply embedded in and important to Albanian culture. “My family is very musical. Growing up, my dad took me to the opera. Both my uncles were in bands, my grandpa was a comedian who wore clown makeup on stage. They all worked in entertainment. Everybody loves music over there.”
At the moment, however, Max, who’s currently putting the finishing touches on her debut album (“The album is straight pop and it’ll be out sooner than you think,” she teases) isn’t concerned with borders, traditions, or labels. Her goal is loftier than that: She just wants to reach “every single” person. “I want to make music for the younger generations, but also for all ages. It’s funny when people ask me, ‘What demographic are you going for?’ I’m going for everyone. I want it to be an experience for everyone, especially anyone who’s ever felt different.” After all, so is she.