What is Ava Max going as for Halloween this year? “Something hellish. I feel hellish, as you can tell,” she said to MTV News on a recent Zoom call. “I’m wearing all black. I’ve been wearing all black the last two weeks a lot.”
Of course, feeling hellish is only half of Max’s story. On the “Sweet But Psycho” singer’s energetic debut album, Heaven & Hell, she’s both angel and devil, as asymmetrical as her trademark hairstyle. Max split the LP into its two titular parts after dreaming up the concept en route to the 2019 VMAs, where she performed during the red-carpet pre-show. She finished the ethereal opening track, “H.E.A.V.E.N.,” during quarantine earlier this year with producer and collaborator Cirkut. And to listen to Heaven & Hell is to discover not divine highs and evil lows, but a steady stream of uptempo electro-pop that could power an hourlong cycling class, a much-needed solo dance session, and just getting shit done.
That’s by design, too. “I try and make it super empowering, each song, and motivating, but I also want there to be a story, but then I also want you to be able to dance to it,” she said. “But then on top of that, I want it to be weird and theatrical. So I feel like, personally I like to have my cake and eat it, too.”
She dropped Heaven & Hell in September; by October 2, her biggest song (and so far, her signature song), “Sweet But Psycho” had reached the staggering milestone of 1 billion streams on Spotify. It’s all part of the long tail of Max’s success that began when she was a teenager chasing pop success. Now, thanks to a smash hit and a conceptually bold debut album, she’s getting comfortable showing off the various parts of herself. And she can’t wait for Halloween candy: “Snickers, Smarties, and maybe a Ring Pop. I love a Ring Pop. Let’s be real.”
MTV News talked to Max about Heaven & Hell, where she’ll keep her streaming-milestone plaque, and why chestnuts have the key to her heart.
MTV News: “Sweet But Psycho” just hit a billion streams on Spotify, which is insane. I feel like our brains can’t even fathom what a billion of anything is.
Ava Max: It’s insane to me, too. I’m like, really? You guys streamed that song 1 billion times? It’s funny, because my dad was hearing a lot of songs before I released “Sweet But Psycho.” He was like, “Ah, that song, we’ll see. It’s super pop.” At the time, there was not any pop. So my dad was like, “I don’t know.” He liked my slower songs that I never release, actually, that he’s like, “Oh, those will probably do better.” Now I hit a billion. I was like, “Dad, look. There are a billion.”
MTV News: I know the RIAA will send you a Gold or a Platinum record. Does Spotify send you any fun care package when that happens?
Max: I think they’re sending me a plaque, which I just got told. So that’s really cool.
MTV News: Where do you think you’ll put it? A place of prominence?
Max: Probably over my shoes in my closet. OK, so I don’t like to show off like that. I wouldn’t put it where people would see. It’s only for me privately, because I feel so awkward showing off my plaques. You know what I mean? My mom has them in her hallway in her house. Then every time I go, I’m like, that’s so awkward. I don’t know. I’m more of a private person. I talk about myself all day long in interviews. I don’t want to talk about myself when my friends come over. “Oh, look at that plaque!” Oh, no. I don’t want to see my face anywhere in my house.
MTV News: Your album Heaven & Hell is split between those two concepts. Where did that idea come from?
Max: Heaven & Hell, for me, it just made sense, because everything I’ve been through in my life has been heaven and hell. Everything in between has been up and downs: relationships, careers. I think nothing is ever perfect, or 100 percent amazing, or 100 percent bad. I think it’s all a mixture. It just made sense to me for what we go through as humans. It’s nothing religious, because I’m a very spiritual person. It’s more so just about the emotions we go through in life. For instance, my album came out two weeks ago, and then two days after my album came out, my grandpa passed. So it was very hard to celebrate my album because of that. It’s crazy, because I was talking about it so much, and it happened to me. I felt like I was living in heaven, but also hell, because I was so sad about my grandpa’s passing. It was the craziest feeling of emotions. It’s exactly what I talk about. It’s life. So that’s why Heaven & Hell, for me, is the perfect album title for my big album.
MTV News: I know this has been a hard year, and, obviously, it sounds like it just got a lot harder. I’m sorry to hear that. Is there stuff that you have been really coming back to, musically, to help?
Max: Well, when my album came out, I really liked listening to upbeat, empowering music, but then, I don’t know, when I’m in a sad mood sometimes, it takes me a minute, because music makes me think of all the memories, and it makes me cry even more. I mean, I think it depends. Now, music is helping me, but initially, the first few days, I have to be in quiet. But now, I definitely need to listen to upbeat music. Anything like Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child — something to get me feeling motivated, because I know that’s what my grandpa would have wanted.
MTV News: Do have anything you could say, or any pointers you could give, to people who still want to just dance to your album, even though they can’t dance in clubs or with people right now?
Max: Turn off your lights and dance in the dark. I like the nighttime. I’m a night owl. So I dance in the nighttime. But it’s a workout album, too. I love to workout to upbeat music. That’s why I made such motivating, empowering songs, because I personally feel like I go even harder working out, or even doing little things, I don’t know, cooking a meal. I like to put on music. I think as long as I’m putting out empowering music, I think it helps with all those things. Dancing, working out, creating your goals for the future.
MTV News: You mentioned cooking. Is that something you did a lot with some found time in quarantine? Because you, unfortunately, weren’t able to tour and do things like that?
Max: The beginning of quarantine, I did not [order from] Postmates because I was so terrified. I cooked every single meal. I’m not even kidding you. I told my mom, I’m like, I give you kudos, because my wrists were hurting. I was cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My niece would come over, I would make her food, and then I’d be like, wow, moms do so much. That was just cooking. That wasn’t even cleaning up babies, which I don’t have. I’m like, imagine being a mom. Kudos to moms. I just clap for all moms out there. Because the cooking was hard all day.
MTV News: Did you have a signature dish you made?
Max: Tacos. I love tacos. I was making a lot of tacos. I was making a lot of pasta. I was making a lot of really comforting food. Let’s just say my jeans did not fit at the beginning of quarantine.
MTV News: Were you bingeing any TV shows? Did you see any movies that you were like, “I need this in my life?”
Max: I regret watching Tiger King. I regret that, because everyone was watching Tiger King. Do you remember at the beginning? I was just like, no, I’m not going to watch it. Finally, I watched it. It was bad. I mean, I did not like it. Yes, it was a good show. Right? But it was just like, I don’t want to see them mistreating tigers. I just didn’t like the whole anger thing. I remember getting a headache after watching that. Other than that, I loved Dead to Me with Christina Applegate. Another one I watched was Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. Oh my god! I love small-town dramas. Can you tell?
MTV News: What are you excited for in the rest of 2020?
Max: I am excited for the holidays. Is that weird? I’m excited to spend time with my family, roast some marshmallows by the fire, eat some chestnuts. A lot of people don’t know this, but chestnuts are one of my favorite foods.
MTV News: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?
Max: Not even kidding you. It’s an Albanian thing, too. Albanians love to make chestnuts during the wintertime. We can turn into a chestnut if we eat too many. It’s full of carbs. But anyway, I’m also excited because I’m finishing the deluxe [edition of Heaven & Hell], and I’m really, really excited for everyone to hear these records as well. It’s just a lot of music. I promise you guys there will be no shortage of music.