Ava Max has always been candid about two things: her ambitions (“We’re bringing pop back,” she told Vanity Fair last year) and her influences (“I grew up listening to Mariah Carey and a lot of pop divas like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and Beyoncé,” she told POPDUST earlier this year).
But the Los Angeles pop artist’s explosive debut album, Heaven & Hell, feels most indebted to Lady Gaga, whom Max has previously called “a legend,” “untouchable to me,” “iconic,” and “incredible.”
“I’ve had this title in my head for two years, and I’ve wanted it to be the title for a long time,” Max told me over the phone recently. “Especially after putting it in ‘Torn,’ in the bridge it says ‘I’m torn between heaven and hell.’ ‘Torn’ is actually purgatory, because side A is heaven and side B is hell. I just wanted to make it a duality, ‘cause I feel like we all face challenges and dualities on a day-to-day basis. We are in relationships that feel like heaven and hell, so I really couldn’t think of a better title.”
The album includes Max’s breakout singles “Sweet But Psycho,” “Kings & Queens,” and “Who’s Laughing Now,” but Max’s mid-tempo bops are just as catchy as her uptempo bangers. Other album highlights include “OMG What’s Happening,” “Born to the Night,” “Take You to Hell,” and “Belladonna.”
“Well, you can take off all my clothes / And never see me naked,” Max sings in “Naked,” another standout track. “Tell me if it’s safe to bare my soul / I wanna show you my deepest secrets / I think I’m ready to be exposed / I want you watching me.”
“I’m not trying to make my music thinking about how it will stream or perform,” Max said last year. “I make it thinking, is this something I love? Do I want to hear this blaring on my car speakers? If so, yes, let’s do it. It has to be something I love and am proud of.”
Max—born Amanda Koci—worked with her longtime producer Cirkut to craft the record’s fifteen songs. “He’s a genius,” says Max. “Ever since I started working with him, he’s really let me write about what I want to write about and be who I want to be. I feel like you really need someone like that. That’s what I struggled to find growing up. When I came out to LA a while ago it was very hard to find someone who actually let me be creative in the studio. He was that person, and everything changed when I met him because he really let me be myself.”
Max knows a studio session is going well when “we’re all dancing and we keep wanting to replay it.” Many of her favorite songs give her that same feeling. “I love SAINt JHN’s ‘Roses’—that song always puts me in a good mood,” says Max. “And I love anything Shakira—she puts me in a good mood. ‘Hips Don’t Lie’—I love that. Any pop singer puts me in a good mood.”
The world of Heaven & Hell also includes visuals by creative director Charlotte Rutherford, AKA Charlie Chops. “We actually got connected through DMs,” says Max. “I saw her Instagram and I just loved her work and always wanted to work with her. We had so much fun putting [everything] together.”
The album cover shows a mirror image of Max with blonde hair and orange hair (it’s styled in her characteristically uneven Max cut). “The cover of the album is pretty simple, and I wanted to keep it that way because I just feel like I do so many crazy things for my covers,” explains Max. “But the back of the album and the inside of the booklet is this entire world that I created and I’m really excited for everyone to see it. It’s kind of like heaven is space and hell is Earth. Once you see the booklet, you’ll understand. It all comes to life.”
Max has previously said that “Freestyling is my thing,” and that’s still an important part of her process. “I’m a very spontaneous person, in general,” she says. “I’m an air sign, so [I’m all about] whatever floats my boat in the moment. It really works to get on the beat and see what comes out of my head and my mouth, to really see what comes out naturally. I love that. I don’t like planning things.”
If Max has a spontaneous streak, she also has a perfectionist streak. “I’m an Aquarius,” she explains, “and I think I’m a Virgo rising, which means I’m a perfectionist.” Does that check out? “Definitely,” she confirms.
Though Max won’t be touring anytime soon due to the ongoing pandemic, she’s excited to get back on the road. “I’m super excited to perform ‘Who’s Laughing Now,’” she says. “I feel like it’s one of my favorites and I haven’t performed that one yet, so it will be new for me to perform.”
Beyond gearing up to release her debut album, Max has spent the last few months trying to stay positive at home. “I feel like I am such an active person—that’s why I love to tour so much—so being at home not doing much was definitely a challenge for me,” she says. “I started cooking a lot. I think I’ve become really good at cooking.” Her signature dish is chicken pasta with marinara sauce, but she can also make “bomb beef tacos.”
Right now, though, Max is happy to finally have her debut album out. “It means literally everything to me,” she says. “I’ve been dreaming about this debut album my entire life, and I can’t wait for people to get on the journey of Heaven & Hell.”
As Max told Pop Crave News last year, “Trends will come and go but the world will always need pop.”
Heaven & Hell is out now via Atlantic Records.