INTERVIEW: Ava Max on staying positive, being the change and having a badass mom!

Over the course of just a few years, rising star Ava Max has proved to the public that she’s not just there for you when you need a good party started, but also when you need an optimistic and motivational pep talk about sticking with what makes you different.

Photo: Lauren Dunn
Photo: Lauren Dunn

Staying true to the new normal of 2020, I’m “meeting” Ava Max on Zoom – Ava’s in Los Angeles and I’m in Copenhagen. We’re less than a month away from the release of her long awaited debut album Heaven & Hell, out September 18th, and Max’s still somewhat in denial about the fact – that more than 10 years of hard work is soon out for all of us to hear. “It feels like homecoming, you know?” Max says with a wide smile.

As of August 17th, 2018, Ava Max’s life was changed forever when her breakthrough single “Sweet but Psycho” caught the attention of pop fans all over the world. Listeners showed the track so much love that it reached number one in 22 countries. And in the time since, Max has gone on to release smashing hit singles like “So Am I”, “Salt”, “Kings & Queens” and “Who’s Laughing Now”, all to be found on the forthcoming album.

With punchlines like, “And you might think I’m weak without a sword // But if I had one, it’d be bigger than yours” or “In chess, the king can move one space at a time // But queens are free to go wherever they like”, both from the single “Kings & Queens”, Ava Max is spreading a message of female empowerment – a common theme in her music along the call to celebrate what makes you different, as “So Am I” proclaims in an ever-so-catchy line from the first verse: “You’re beautiful, but misunderstood // So why you tryna be just like the neighborhood?

Warner Music
Photo: Warner Music

For Ava Max, it was never a question whether she should touch upon topics like these or not: “I want to talk about sensitive subjects, I always do. I always wanna talk about the feelings we go through, and I want to empower people,” she says. To her, music is the perfect way to do just that: “[Music] is just such a great way to express [yourself] and also not be forceful with people, like ‘hey! do this!’ Music is moreso… You listen to it and you think positively instead of having somebody preaching at you. It’s like you feel it rather than being told in your face – kind of like when parents tell you something and you’re like ‘whatever’; then when you hear it in songs, you’re like, ‘oh!’” she laughs.

You can’t change traffic

Growing up, Ava Max was bullied and she learned the hard way that life’s far from easy. Fast-forward to entering the music industry, and life still wasn’t easy. “I mean, I was on the rack for a very long time. I felt like I was never going to achieve anything cause it was so difficult to break into the music industry,” she explains. Still, she’s become known for her optimism and positivity. She does believe that change can happen, but that it starts with yourself. And that’s exactly what she wants us all to take away from listening to her new album. 

“I really hope people can take their time to nurse themselves and their souls, because Heaven & Hell really just is about the emotions we go through in our relationships, in our careers and everyday life. Life is a rollercoaster and we have to accept that. And when we accept that – and the more we accept that and don’t get angry or sad about harsh things in our life – the better our future is going to be. I feel like we need to stay positive and optimistic, and good things will come.” 

Really, it’s all about your state of mind and what you bring to the world: “I believe in having good energy, giving out good energy and bringing it back in. If you see something that you don’t like, maybe do something to help it. Don’t get angry about it.”

Photo: Lauren Dunn

“We’re like stardust. The universe feels you, the universe sees when you work hard and it rewards you” – Ava Max

Photo: Lauren Dunn

Thinking like this has, in her own words, changed every aspect of her life. Six years ago, she explains, driving in heavy traffic could’ve ruined her whole day – but those days are long gone. “Now, I’m like okay, you know what, it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do to change traffic. Don’t get angry about things you cannot change, just be the change. Be different and change in yourself. Act as if the world maybe isn’t messed up right now,” she says with a laugh, hinting that a lot of things for sure are messed up right now.

As is the case for a lot of things in life, completely changing your state of mind isn’t as easy as it sounds. For Ava Max, it required a lesson from a good ol’ friend to realize that something had to happen: “Karma hit me once,” she says, in a tone as if it just happened yesterday. “I did something bad and something bad happened to me. And then I looked in the mirror and was like, ‘Wooow, karma is real!’ What you put out into the world is real, and it changed my whole life. I literally changed my entire life, so I think it’s all a state of mind and energy is everything. The universe is energy, we’re made up of energy. We’re like stardust. The universe feels you, the universe sees when you work hard and it rewards you, and I really believe that.”

You have a mouth, you can speak!

Ava Max didn’t go through all these life lessons alone. She’d wanted to make music since childhood, raised by a father who played the piano and a mother who was an opera singer. “My mom really was there for me at a very young age,” she remembers.

Both of her parents are immigrants who, in 1990 and 1991, left a war-torn Albania to pursue a better life elsewhere. They went to Paris and lived for a year in a church before they got American passports and ended up in Wisconsin, where Ava Max was born.

Max has previously talked openly about watching her parents struggle, working three jobs each to make ends meet. Still, her mom would tell her that everything is possible. “She was just always telling me, ‘I couldn’t do it back in Albania, but you should try to do it’,” Max recalls. They tried together for a long time and even moved to Los Angeles for a while to pursue a career in music. But it didn’t happen for Ava Max until later on, when she started doing it on her own.

“You have to move through experiences and harsh times by yourself, cause you will never learn any other way. It’s easier said than done, saying, ‘oh, learn from other people’s mistakes’. But you kinda have to go through it on your own and see it for yourself. And I saw a lot of things first-hand. I saw a lot of things in the music industry, I saw a lot of things in relationships and I felt like, ‘you know what, I don’t wanna be mistreated, I wanna prove to people that it is possible.’”

Doing it on your own doesn’t mean doing it without the influence or support of other people, and Max’s mom taught her an important lesson on privilege that would take her a long way: “She always said, ‘If I can come to America with no money, and I didn’t know the language and I could make something out of myself, you being born here and knowing the language and having these opportunities’ – she’s like – ‘and you have legs, you have arms, you have a mouth, you can speak, you can go and get it. You can get it! It’s all about making it yours.”

Heaven & Hell is out September 18th. Listen to her latest single “Who’s Laughing Now” here and see Ava Max and her girl gang shutting the mouth of everyone who told her she couldn’t make it in the past.

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