Years before she transformed into Ava Max — the 24-year-old rising pop diva who has drawn comparisons to early Lady Gaga and topped charts across the globe with her hit “Sweet But Psycho” — Amanda Ava Koci remembers sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car on the way to elementary school in Virginia, listening to Mariah Carey on the stereo. The daughter of Albanian immigrants, Ava Max stayed behind every day after school until dinnertime to learn English. But her real education came from those rides: “I would sing ‘Visions of Love’ over and over for a year straight,” she remembers with a laugh. “After that, I just started singing more.”

That included imitating her mother, a trained opera singer, by belting out arias in Albanian around the house. At 14, when she started winning local singing competitions, she realized her talent could grow into something bigger. “My mom said, ‘There’s nothing for you here,’” Ava Max remembers, and with that, her family moved to Los Angeles.

These days, she’s getting used to her own powerhouse voice on the radio. After establishing her sugar-coated, delightfully theatrical sound in 2018 with the empowerment-focused “My Way” and “Not Your Barbie Girl,” also featuring on tracks with David Guetta and Jason Derulo, Ava Max struck gold with her third single released last August — sticky electro-pop banger “Sweet But Psycho,” which has reached No. 1 on charts in 15 countries. Over a hypnotic hook and hand-clapping verses, the track pokes fun at how women are perceived in relationships — in the music video, Ava Max sports a mascara-streaked face and wears a wedding dress while coming after her lover with an axe.

The morning of our call, “Sweet But Psycho” had just notched its third week atop the U.K. Official Singles chart; it reigned for four before being pushed to No. 2 by Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” debut. Now, the darkly funny song is landing stateside, reaching No. 35 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Dance Club Songs for the charts dated Feb. 2.

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