2016 and 2020, despite their vastly different compositions, have at least one thing in common: they're both leap years. MAX's discography is similarly unique in timeframe, which is why it feels like no coincidence that they're also the years of MAX's debut album, Hell's Kitchen Angel, and sophomore effort, Colour Vision, respectively. Throughout four years without one, cohesive solo project, MAX focused on love, collaboration and polishing his vision for a new musical era. In tune with the relative rarity of the leap year cycle, MAX is back to claim his space in pop with the release of Colour Vision, out today.
This album was a long time in the making, but MAX ensured it came without compromise. Every detail, from the aesthetic to the merchandise and the lyrics, is part of MAX's vision to bring the colorful world he envisioned to life. "With this album, I really fought to make sure there was an intro and outro and arc and a real theme throughout color-wise with yellow," MAX told PAPER. "And just making sure that it really was a full magical ride that a fan could dive into if they wanted to and every piece was fleshed out."
The way MAX connected with music changed two years ago when he was left unable to sing for four months after a challenging surgery to remove polyps on his vocal cords. Colour Vision's blend of spirit and honesty feels reflective of that fresh outlook, and the result is an exciting entrance into this year's music scene.
Releasing an album so rooted in personal themes means that MAX bares it all in his music. Though the universe that Colour Vision exists in was conceived from pieces of MAX's imagination, the lyrical moments that MAX writes and performs are largely grounded in reality. "I think that, as an artist or a band, you take one path or the other," MAX said. "Either you really share every bit of your existence with the world and your fans, or you keep yourself a little more mysterious and you don't really share any of those things."
MAX chose the former, and the intention is apparent in more introspective Colour Vision tracks like "Circles" and "There Is A God," two songs that represent two greatly divergent, yet pivotal, moments in a long-term relationship. Both were modeled after MAX's marriage with Emily Schneider; he showcases the highs and lows of love, bringing listeners into a freeze frame of their trials, tribulations and greatest successes.
But he didn't set out on this vulnerable musical journey alone. From upbeat tracks like "Working For The Weekend" to smooth jams like "Missed Calls" and more, MAX worked with an array of well-known creatives: BBNO$, Hayley Kiyoko, Quinn XCII, Felly, Chromeo and Suga from BTS all make appearances on Colour Vision, creating a full-spectrum work that transcends genre.
Over a decade of work, from YouTuber to Nickelodeon star to mainstream musician, MAX tailored his image as a pop artist. With Colour Vision, though, he is ready to stand out as a pop star in his own world of color.
There has been a lot of change in the last few years for you and your music is one of the biggest. It has been four years since Hell's Kitchen Angel and "Lights Down Low." How do you feel you have evolved as an artist since then?
It's wild that it doesn't feel like it's been that long, and I promise my next album will not take four years! But for the time being, I learned how to fight even more for whatever I really envisioned. With Hell's Kitchen Angel, with "Lights Down Low," that song specifically, I fought so hard for to make sure that the video and the story behind it, being that I wrote it for my wife and I proposed to her with it, that whole story that was authentic resonated with every piece of every part of the journey of the album.
I felt like I gave in with other songs, and it wasn't completely what I wanted as an album. Whereas with this album, I really fought to make sure there was an intro and outro and arc and a real theme throughout color-wise with yellow, and just making sure that it really was a full magical ride that a fan could dive into if they wanted to and every piece was fleshed out. That definitely is the evolution of how this album is different from the last.
When you started making Colour Vision, were you going in with genre in mind or with more ambiguity?
My sound is pretty all over the place, but the throughline is always in stories behind the songs and feeling that authentic emotion and rawness. That's the main throughline; it's always pop music because I'm a pop lover and no matter what genre it has spices of, it's always going to have a pop song feel. That's how I always approach every song, every album, every feel.
But this album, definitely, I went in wanting to make sure that it felt like it was a ride, but you didn't know what to expect throughout the ride and that definitely came through sonically. Songs like "Colour Vision" are very different to songs like "Blueberry Eyes" or "There Is A God." I wanted to make sure that you still felt my presence, but they were unexpected in their sonic landscapes.
During that four-year break, you worked on some other projects, mostly collaborative like Neon From Now On as Party Pupils and on "Burn It" with Suga for his Agust D solo mixtape. What influenced your decision to collaborate with other artists before jumping into your next solo venture?
I'm always collaborating with people. It's very apparent with the collaborations I even have on this album, and because of that, that's usually how the collaborations come. I do something for their project, they do something for mine and we really feel a part of each other's journey. Party Pupils, that's my alter ego and my friend Ryan [EXOE], and it's nice to have a very different landscape musically, between Pupils and MAX, and jumping between them. As one project is gearing up to create a record, the other one has just released one. It's nice to have that back and forth, sort of how Diplo has Major Lazer. I love that we got to put that out a little before putting out this album.
What inspired you to bring on so many other artists to shape what Colour Vision became?
It's interesting because I'm a solo artist and I'm an only child, and I found the psyche is just that I love having people be a part of my thing so it feels like our thing. And that just happens throughout; anytime I have a song where I can hear a friend being a part of it, their vocal adding to it, it inspires me and makes me feel like it's even more complete. Sometimes there's songs like "Where Am I At," which felt it needed to be my voice, but for the majority of the time, I'm always open to adding someone else's story to really enhance the feeling of the song.
Colour Vision was originally slated to drop in May. Do you feel like the extension on the release allowed you time to really perfect everything?
Oh my god, definitely. It's crazy to think that I was going to put out in May, and I can't even imagine how everything would've gotten done for it now in that time frame. We've had so much more time to really perfect the designs for all the merch, the vinyl, the CDs. I just wanted everything to be a part of this world. The custom Rubik's Cubes we made, I want every experience of it to feel cohesive and having that extra time definitely helped. With the videos, the "Blueberry Eyes" video, we turned it in a week before the album was supposed to come out. That time was very precious.
The aesthetic of this album is very bright and bold, and the visuals we've seen so far, especially "Working For The Weekend," match that vibe, too. What inspired its overarching look?
I woke up knowing that it was gonna be yellow, after having this health crisis [with vocal cord surgery] and really appreciating the world and my music and my voice in a different way. That's really what Colour Vision stands for. The title didn't even come until probably 75% of the album was done, but it just made sense because the vision of the colors was already there with all the videos for "Love Me Less," and having this really rich but based-in-reality world that resembled Disney-meets-Wes Anderson was something I really wanted to just dive in and approach and have people feel the cohesion between every video. It's been so cool to see some people appreciate it and know the "Jane" character in different videos and all these different characters that are just homies of mine that became parts of the videos.
This album has, without exaggeration, one of the strongest album openers I have ever heard. It sounds like it was designed to be performed live. I can imagine the suspenseful "pulling back the curtain" moment onstage. Was that track — or any others on the album — created with live shows in mind?
Every song I do is with live shows in mind because that's where my soul is with music, and it definitely inspires me to keep pushing for a song when I can see its experience live. That one specifically was the most intended for it to be the intro for the live show, and it was actually one of the last songs we wrote. I had the album title, but I didn't have the actual song. I went in with my frequent collaborators, Nolan [Sipe], Imad [Royal] and Rogét [Chahayed] and I said, "We've got to do the title track." It was really fun to know it was going to be the intro of the album, intro of the show. What would that be like if you can do that? We went for this risky "Bohemian Rhapsody" vibe and were inspired to take the risk and go for it.
What's the relationship between color and music on this album?
I really wanted you to feel the energy of each color in each song, like "Blueberry Eyes" being this sort of blue and jazz club world. I wanted "Colour Vision" to explode like a rainbow in every moment with so many moments. I wanted "There Is A God" to be almost that white light you see at the end of the tunnel. I wanted every song sonically to not be in a box of, "Oh, this all sounds the same," but I wanted it to feel like you were experiencing every color of the rainbow within each song, and what would that be like sonically?
"Working for the Weekend" takes the shape of a pop bop with considerably deep lyrics about feeling overworked. Was this song always intended to be a high-energy track?
Yeah! I did the song with AJR, who are great friends of mine and I wrote something on my last record with them. We've been in the trenches together for a long time, and they had already heard what I had done with "Love Me Less" and other songs on the album. We knew we were going to write one for this album. So they came to me, we had a day, which is super wild.
Fun fact: I didn't realize this until an interview a couple of weeks ago, but it was the same day as the story where I brought Suga to his first basketball game. It was the same day that I wrote "Working For The Weekend," which is so wild, I didn't even realize. But, basically, we went in and they just said, "Hey, we have this chorus. Can we play it for you before we dive in?" I said, "Yeah, I'll hear anything." Fell in love at first listen, and I said, "Oh, we have to flesh this out." They really came in knowing the sound that I was going for with the album and tried to fit their world into it, which was the best way they could have done.
Then you get even more introspective later on, which brings me to "Where Am I At," which you wrote with Mako. "Hardly got out of bed this morning/ Felt this rush, it lingers and I can't ignore it/ 'Cause I've been running for so long." What sparks your drive to be vulnerable in your music?
I think that, as an artist or a band, you take one path or the other. Either you really share every bit of your existence with the world and your fans, or you keep yourself a little more mysterious. I made a decision early on with "Lights Down Low," realizing that the potency of that story was people feeling a part of that story. And I realized, at that point, that I didn't want to just put out songs that sounded great or were bops, I wanted to make sure that there was a really present and deep emotional feeling behind it without you even knowing that's what the song is about.
I always reference it, "Billie Jean" is one of those songs that, if you don't know the story of it, you listen to it and you feel it. It's a great record. But then you read those lyrics and you see what that story is, and there's a whole new layer that you find in the vulnerability of it. That's always the goal, to give that extra layer if someone wants to dive in.
That brings me to "There Is A God." When you write about love and romance, do you always draw from the feelings and emotions that you have within your own relationship?
All the love songs have always come from an honest place. It's always transparent to where my relationship's at, even with "Circles." You say "There Is A God," which might be my favorite on the whole record just because of how meaningful it is to my own life, and that's one of those songs I'll always look back on. The story is, essentially, my wife and I were trying to have a baby and we weren't successful quite yet. But I knew that your faith gets restored in the universe or whatever you believe in when you have something to lose. For that, I really started believing, having really strong faith in God and the universe. That's because I knew I never wanted to lose this person and I wanted to create another person with her. It's wild because, a few months later, we got pregnant, which is crazy, but this was sort of the imminent sign that was bound to bring a baby into the world.
On the other side of the coin is with a song like "Circles," which was when we were going through a really rough time. The line in there where she took her ring off, we had those struggles, too. I always want to be open about that in the music because it shows that it isn't always perfect. If it's the right person, then you work hard to make that relationship work.
Do you think that, in turn, that kind of vulnerability and honesty also strengthens your relationship with your fans?
I hope so! They feel like they're family or old friends and that's the goal with the fans — to have them really feel like they're a part of your life and you're a part of theirs. It's always special when someone gets married to "Lights Down Low" or feels like they've known us their whole lives in the same way that music makes them feel that way, and I like to welcome that.
It seems like you have a whole new fan base because of the hype around "Blueberry Eyes." It's probably the most anticipated song, especially by BTS and K-pop stans. What was the process?
It was so great to work with Suga. I got to be a part of his Agust D mixtape and that was from our first meeting. ARMY knows the story, I talk about it all the time. We hung out in Korea after years of giving love to each other's music, found out that we were both huge basketball fans and Korean barbecue fans, so I took him to his first basketball game that night, the same night that I did "Working For The Weekend." Then I sent him the whole album; I basically said, "Whatever song you want on, man, I would love to have you on." He chose "Blueberry Eyes," and his verse, when you see the translation, it's wedding vows. It's so sweet and so different from what his fans usually hear him singing about. It was amazing to have him share that story in part of the song.
Do you have a favorite lyric in "Blueberry Eyes"?
When we first wrote the song, I went into the day and I didn't really know what we were going to write about. It was just my usual collaborators of mine, Imad, Rogét and Michael Pollock, and I was spitballing and said, "I'll kiss you each morning with strawberry skies because I get so lost in your blueberry eyes." I remember Michael said, "What's that?" [Laughs] I just went, "I don't know!" I was feeling this fruit world, I always wanted to write about Emily's eyes because they're just so potent and blue and gorgeous, and he was like, "We're doing that song right now." I feel like that lyric, because it started at all and it's the first line of the chorus and really what the whole song is about, has always been my favorite.
You mentioned earlier that you created the visual during quarantine and turned it in a week before the album was set to drop, but you are countries away from each other. How did you make the video?
Fun fact: I'm sure you've noticed, but the BTS members are never a part of the videos of their features... they only do their own videos. With that in mind, we said, "That's totally cool, we'll figure out how to make his spirit be a part of it even though we can't have him physically in the video." Emily and I learned the entire Korean verse. It took us two weeks to do our homework and learn it, and we made it our wedding vows in the video because it's such a romantic lyric. We basically went back and forth like we were saying our vows and it's Korean. In the video we have a little cat moment and the real ARMY know what's up with that reference. We wanted to make sure that people felt like his spirit was in it, even though he couldn't physically be in it.
How does it feel seeing a lot of engagement with you from ARMY since the collab was announced?
I love ARMY because they are not quick to trust. They know that everybody is wanting to jump on this BTS train because they have such a vibrant and excited fan base. I love that they knew very quickly that my love and respect for them was authentic and had been years in the making. Because of that, they embraced me with open arms, which has been incredible that they've not just made it that I'm a side piece or anything like that. They really embraced my own artistry and also my respect for Suga and our friendship. It's been so cool to have them feel like they're a part of the journey and so many new wonderful fans discovering the music because of it. It's an honor.
Some of these songs are unreleased, while others made came out last year. How did you determine where each song belonged on the tracklist?
I really got in there and tried to feel the arc. I spent a few weeks with some of my trusted collaborators and really wanted to make sure that each song felt like, once you get to that middle where "Where Am I At" is basically, it feels like you're at at the bottom of the hill, and then you're climbing back up towards "There Is A God." It really was a meticulous process of seeing things moved into each other the right way, like the end of "Missed Calls" going into "SOS" just felt so perfect. I really wanted the transitions to feel very seamless in this whole record.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
It's so cool that you love the intro because, honestly, the two songs I'm most excited for everybody to hear are "Colour Vision" and "There Is A God" — the intro and outro, for different reasons. I really took some creative risks I don't usually take with a song like "Colour Vision" and it's so fun to create a song that is just for what it feels like to be in a live space again. With "There Is A God," there was a special sauce to it that I'm always striving to find when you walk into a room to write a song. And I hold on to it; I hope it means as much to people as it meant to put it into the world and share it.
Now that the album has dropped, what's next for you personally and musically?
I've got some exciting additional pieces to the album, of course. The deluxe, we're saving some little gold coins in our back pockets that I think fans will be excited about to keep it going. Then, I already have the main single for the next record. That'll probably be heard before people know it, so I think it'll be a lot less time than four years for my next record. I want to spend as much time with this baby when she comes into the world in December, so that's my life. That's what it's looking like for the next few years.