Ava Max Releases Empowering Album Heaven & Hell, Talks Ascent to Success: 'I Finally Made It'

"Sometimes people love it. Sometimes people hate it," she tells PEOPLE. "I'm very polarizing. I started to realize that, but I think that the best way of speaking your mind is not caring about what anyone else thinks"

Ava Max is reflecting on her ascent stardom. Or should we say, "queendom?"

The pop singer dropped her anthem-filled debut Heaven & Hell on Friday, at a time when "people need music more than ever" and with lyrics that will have listeners singing at the top of their lungs.

Heaven & Hell represents both a culmination of years of hard work (inspired by her parents' immigrant backgrounds), but also the starting point for one of pop music’s brightest stars.

"Heaven & Hell is not a religious thing," Max, 26, tells PEOPLE off the bat. "It's more so the emotions we go through, the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows, the dark moments, the light moments, the happy moments, the sad moments. Everything in between."

The album — whose halves are made perfect for vinyl — opens with an angelic intro that takes listeners straight to an idyllic "H.E.A.V.E.N." Side A features tracks such as the female-empowering, TikTok favorite "Kings & Queens" and Tove Lo-written "Call Me Tonight."

Ava Max
Ava Max. Credit Charlotte Rutherford

Separated by "Torn" in "purgatory," Side B presents a more vengeful, darker side of Max with songs like "Belladona" — a "vibey" record with a "very unexpected" energy, she says — and recognizable singles like "So Am I" and "Sweet but Psycho."

"Strong women are not crazy. They're just going out for what they want," Max says. "If a woman goes after something they really want, they look crazy? No. If men can do it, women can do it too."

Max isn't afraid to speak her mind. And she admits that perhaps her music is not for everyone.

"Sometimes people love it. Sometimes people hate it," she says. "I'm very polarizing. I started to realize that, but I think that the best way of speaking your mind is not caring about what anyone else thinks."

Oh, and her new album is strictly anthem-filled. It has no ballads — and there's a reason behind that.

"I usually go all or nothing," she says. "If I do ballads, I'm going to want to do a whole ballad album. One ballad wouldn't be enough for me."

Artists To Know Gallery
Ava Max. Charlotte Rutherford

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For Max, the release of her debut LP at age 26 is a long time coming — she started singing and attending music competitions at age 8.

"Have you ever heard the saying 'the age you make it, you stay forever?'" she asks. "I feel blessed that I wasn't a teenager when I first popped out. I'm so blessed that I got to enjoy my teen years in private."

And she hopes that her album provides inspiration for people and serve as a reminder that "they can do anything in the world."

"I'm living proof that after over 15 years of trying to make it in the music industry, I finally made it," she says. "It's because I stuck through it. As cliche as it sounds, I didn't give up."

And how could she give up? Max comes from a family that epitomizes resilience.

Her parents fled Albania in the early 1990s — first living in a church in France before making their way to the U.S. In the States, they worked nonstop to give Max and her older brother a brighter future. Max recalls never having a family dinner until she was 10, because they were always working. Three jobs each.

Ava Max
Ava Max's album Heaven & Hell.

"Growing up, they were always like, 'Look, if we can come here with no language, no money, and have two kids and raise you guys and work hard for three jobs each, you can do anything.'"

"So they really looked at me like, 'Hey, if you don't make it, it's your fault,'" she adds. "This is easy compared to what I have to do. That's what they always told me."

Max recalls one time when her mom was hospitalized after breaking her arm. The next morning, she was already back at work.

"My mom slept one hour a day. It was pretty crazy," she says. "So I just have these vivid memories of them working so hard and saving and finally buying their house. It was incredible."

Max says that "every single bit" of her work ethic is inspired by them and "everything I do is for them," she says.

Now, after years of hell, if you will, Max and her parents have the perfect, powerful body of work proving that they made it. That Ava has made it to what feels like popstar heaven.

Heaven & Hell is out now.

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