There was a time when releasing an album came with uncertainty.
Artists and record label executives would rack their brains wondering how new songs would be received. And whether any of them would become a hit.
Thanks to online streaming, the answers are immediate. Such is the case with Ava Max's debut album Heaven & Hell. It was released last month, but the singer, 26, didn't have to worry too much about how her tunes would fare.
Eight of the 15 songs had already been released as singles, with five of them topping charts from the US to Australia.
With Heaven & Hell home to established bangers Sweet but Psycho and Kings & Queens, it is as much a greatest hits collection as a debut album. That said, even with success achieved, Max – real name Amanda Ava Koci – couldn't dispel the nerves of releasing her first album.
"These are things you dream about when you are a kid," she tells The National. "Just the fact that I am saying I have an album gets me excited. The fans have been waiting a while and I am happy to finally give them what they want."
And what they want is large doses of flamboyant and up-tempo pop music. Heaven & Hell is anything but subtle. Nearly every track is infused with colossal hooks carried by oceans of synth lines and club-stomping beats. Max's vocals are equally maximalist as she tears through the tunes with unrelished glee.
This is what makes her such an an intriguing prospect.
Sonically, Max's music is out of tune with the current times. From Billie Eilish's goth take on the genre to The Weeknd's bleak outlook and Taylor Swift's recent introspective turn on Folklore, pop music has become decidedly slower and darker. Even superstars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry couldn't overcome this murky wave, with respective albums Chromatica and Smile sinking with little trace.
Max is not convinced that her unapologetic take on pop music, inspired by 1990s-era divas Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, is dead. “I hear what you are saying, but I think there will always be room for this. I mean, my streaming numbers definitely show this,” she says. “If done correctly, people will always move towards this style because it is uplifting and inspirational.”
Max has been aware of music’s transformative powers since childhood.
Born in the US to Albanian parents, her mother was a trained opera singer while her father played the piano. Watching both of them struggle with menial jobs and adjusting to a new country remains Max’s biggest source of inspiration.
It allowed her to push through the countless record label rejections and failed appearances at singing competitions that she has experienced since the age of 13.
“Their story is my roots. Watching them overcome their challenges is what keeps me motivated,” she says. “They showed me the importance of persevering.”
That determination resulted in a remixed version of her song, 2013's Take Away the Pain, catching the ears of Canadian producer Cirkut, real name Henry Walter, a year later.
After meeting at a dinner party, the duo hit it off immediately and a songwriting partnership was born that yielded over 100 tunes. Cirkut is executive producer of Heaven & Hell and co-wrote a lion's share of the tracks.
It’s a relationship Max cherishes due to its rarity within a hard-nosed music industry. She may be relatively new to the scene, but her experience has already given her a more realistic perspective of what is needed to survive.
“The industry is cruel in that it is really hard to make genuine connections. If I didn’t meet Cirkut, I probably wouldn’t have made it into the industry,” she says.
“It makes you realise that it is all about making the right connections. And when you want to enter the industry you can lose track of that because you want to party. You need to keep your focus and keep working hard because when you do that, the probability of meeting the right people gets higher.”
It’s good to have Max around. Not only does she remind us that pop music can be joyful, but she reaffirms the equally timeless principle that hard work pays off.