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Ava Max: My parents left Albania in 1990 and lived in a church in Paris for a whole year

American singer-songwriter Ava Max has had a remarkable few months since the release of her breakout single Sweet But Psycho, which narrowly missed becoming the UK Christmas number one. She tells Lucy Mapstone about her struggle to make it in the industry

Rising star: chart-topper Ava Max
Rising star: chart-topper Ava Max

Ava Max is buzzing. She's bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and raring to go at the start of what many critics are already predicting will be a stellar pop career.

Although you may not be familiar with her yet, there's a very strong chance that you've heard her breakout single, Sweet But Psycho, which was nearly 2018's Christmas number one in the UK.

She lost out on the festive chart accolade to YouTube star LadBaby's novelty charity single about sausage rolls, but the American popstar did manage to come in second place, beating Ariana Grande to the runner-up spot.

Max then topped the chart the following week, and she's also just done it again, nabbing the first number one single in the UK of 2019.

The song has also topped charts in more than 10 countries across the world, including Germany, New Zealand and Sweden.

Not a bad start for anyone, let alone a newcomer.

"For me, it's disbelief," Max admits, reflecting on the past few months of her life.

"It's exciting, for sure, but I want to achieve more. I want to release more songs and I want to release an album."

In case you haven't heard Sweet But Psycho, or seen the video, think Just Dance-era Lady Gaga. Max is all peroxide blonde hair and bold outfits. The track is infectiously catchy, earworm-friendly dance-pop with a heavy dose of sass.

Her style is unashamedly pop, a bold move at a time when it's still sometimes considered a weaker genre, and she cites her musical inspirations as the Beatles, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and The Fugees.

She was first introduced to listeners as a featured artist on American electronic musician DJ Le Youth's Clap Your Hands last year.

In early 2018, she dropped her debut single, My Way, followed by viral hit Not Your Barbie Girl, a playful reimagining of and ode to Aqua's 1990s hit Barbie Girl.

She then released another single, Slippin', and featured on David Guetta's album as a vocalist, before Sweet But Psycho put her firmly on the map.

To some it may seem the 24-year-old's success has happened overnight with that one great song, but Max insists that was simply not the case.

"It's been a chase my whole life," she explains. "When I was 14, I moved to California with my mum for music because I ended up doing some competitions when I was 10, 11, 12.

"Then my mum sold her house and we came to Los Angeles from Virginia.

"That year didn't go so well because LA wasn't exactly what we thought it would be. There was a lot of disappointment.

"Then, when I was 15 years old, we moved back to the East coast. I lived there for two years, in South Carolina, before I moved back out when I was 17 with my brother. So, it's been this whole chase with singing and writing songs. Then I finally met the right people after years of struggling."

The right person, in Max's case, was Cirkut, a Canadian record producer who has worked with modern music icons such as Rihanna, The Weeknd, Katy Perry and Jessie J, among a host of others.

He took her under his wing and they started writing and recording music together, before putting a song on audio platform SoundCloud.

"I got really noticed by record labels, and that's how I got signed," says Max.

Born Amanda Ava Koci to Albanian parents, the singer-songwriter understands what it is to struggle in her own career, having watched her parents face battles following their move to America from war-torn Albania.

"In 1990 and 1991, they left Albania and went to Paris for a year. They ended up in Paris and they lived in a church for a whole year. It was very hard for them, but it was beautiful because they were in Paris. They met a lady in Paris that gave them passports and they ended up in Wisconsin - that's where I was born.

"They went to America with nothing, no money, no language. It was very hard for them. I remember watching them as I grew up, struggling, working three jobs each.

"Watching them do that, sometimes I now think, 'Wow, I feel so lucky to be doing what I am doing."

Max confesses that she often felt like she wanted to give up, particularly while she spent time in Los Angeles during her first difficult year, but that her "strong family" pushed her to succeed. "They were like, 'Really, you're going to come this far and give up?'" she says.

Max "can't wait to give it all back" to her parents, but she also wants to carve out a persona as a bit of a philanthropist in general, alongside a hopefully triumphant music career.

"Really, I just want to help my family, my friends and people in general," she proclaims. "I can't wait to start organisations - that's all I really wanted to do."

Despite being born in America, she says she is "100% Albanian" and that she "definitely wants to give back to the Albanian community when I can". "It would be amazing to do a fundraising concert over there. It's important to give back."

But before she achieves all of that, Max's goal for the next 12 months is to release her debut album, as well as more singles, all while dealing with her new-found fame.

"I definitely don't like red carpets," she admits. "I go on the red carpet because I have to, but I'm not a big fan of the 'look what I'm wearing' and all those flashing lights. That's not my thing. I'd rather be in the studio, making music and performing."

However, she is loving the response from her fans, who have started approaching her over the past few months.

"I have the sweetest fans - they come to me for advice," Max says. "They tell me my songs are getting them through school when they're being bullied, or maybe when they feel sad and my songs uplift them."

Of her forthcoming new album, she gushes: "I'm really excited to show everybody the next side of me. Yes, they've seen the Sweet But Psycho side and they've seen me being like that, but I want to show them more of a real side."

She concludes, firmly resolving to stick to her pop guns: "But I also want to keep releasing more pop songs. We need more pop songs and more empowering songs.

"I'm just excited for people to hear more of my music."

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