Kirstin Maldonado had to break down a little in order to find herself. As one part of the platinum-selling, three-time Grammy-winning group Pentatonix, the singer, who now goes simply by kirstin, was searching for an identity of her own. She had the world at her feet but something felt unfilled, an uneasiness clawing at her.
That’s not to say her work with PTX hasn’t been fulfilling: She’s reached highs she never thought possible. But she also needed to explore the world and experience heartache, pain and self-discovery on her own terms. Her debut solo EP, LOVE (out July 14) flows with dark and edgy house vibes, firing on all cylinders with standouts like “All Night” and the biting “See It.” Meanwhile, lead single “Break a Little” is the throbbing club anthem for anyone who has ever had a broken heart.
Don’t let the singer’s bubbly exterior fool you, though; she’s nervous AF about the release of her first solo project. “I hope everyone likes it,” she admits. “I’m mostly excited. It’s been a long time coming and I can’t believe it’s here. I wasn’t nervous until this week, and then, we were counting down with little snippets of the songs. It became real. The reaction has been really great from fans.”
While she was busy logging many hours on tour with Pentatonix and compiling record-breaking holiday sets, as well as the group’s first all-original album in 2015, kirstin knew deep down there would come a day when she’d have the courage to step up to the microphone by herself.
“I don’t know if I had a defining ‘I’m ready’ moment. I’ve slowly become more comfortable as an artist and as a person. Honestly, sometimes, it takes a negative to bring about a positive. I had a negative happen in my life,” she explains.
“I felt good and I was growing. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m so fortunate for where I am right. I’m too scared to take the opportunities that are right in front of me.’ It was enough. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I put myself out there. I went to work with two new guys [David Pramik and Charlie Snyder] and we wrote the majority of the EP together. They were so amazing, and the entire experience was so great. My mentality was the only thing holding me back this entire time. After that, it was so fun,” kirstin recounts.
Once she broke down that mental barrier, creativity came pouring out. She kept the label mostly in the dark until she had “a done package,” she says, along with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation: “I was like, ‘I really want to release this music. What are your thoughts?’ [The label] was like ‘Yeah!’ They loved it, thankfully, and have been super supportive and backed it. It’s awesome for my little vision to go from me making a PowerPoint in my bedroom to them giving me the tools to really succeed.”
To celebrate her bold new release, we spoke to kirstin about the first song she wrote for the project, teaching her fans to love and when Pentatonix plan on finding a new member to replace Avi Kaplan, who departed in May.
What was the first song you wrote for the EP?
I wrote “Naked” first. That one is about being vulnerable and comfortable in your skin. It was really fitting. I keep going back to when David, Charlie and I first met, and we were writing all this music That song happened so quickly. It was crazy chemistry.
That song has one of the best lyrics: “I see my name has been in your mouth / Spit it out.” That’s so intense and honest.
That song has a more confrontational standpoint. I definitely relate to all the songs on the album. It’s really cool that I wrote them accidentally to mimic my life. I didn’t intentionally mean for them to all line up. I like that I could express that side of me. You do see the progression of getting stronger and getting to be able to stand my ground and speak for myself. I didn’t quite have that before.
What was the journey like while creating this EP?
Everyone is constantly growing. I’ll look back at this interview two years from now and be like “Whoa, I was really at that level.” In terms of just standing my ground and believing in myself and what I have to offer, I’ve grown so much. So, from “Break a Little,” where it feels very naive and confused, and throughout, I am navigating how to understand to be myself. Then, on “Naked” and “Bad Weather,” I find it. It’s coming into myself and being proud of who I am. Negatives are always going to happen. People aren’t always going to approve or like what you have to say. But as long as you believe in it and are happy, that’s all that matters. That was a really long journey for me.
How do all these songs fit under LOVE?
Well, I’m always trying to tell fans to love themselves. I see them going through a ton of hardships on Twitter and being bullied. It’s really important and easier said than done to take care of yourself. A lot of people put themselves out for others and don’t really think about mending themselves. Sometimes, they get a little lost that way. I know I definitely was doing things for others, and I lost myself. People need to remember that.
Do you think it is your responsibility to guide your fans in that way?
Absolutely. I am so blessed to be at the position I am now. Sara Bareilles was a huge inspiration for me, and I would listen to her lyrics or how she described her songs. I was floored. If you are ever in a position to better someone’s life or offer them advice, you should do that. I always try to be positive. I want everyone to be able to accept themselves. I think I used to promote too much “positivity, positivity” and “flowers and daisies,” and it’s not all always that. As long as you take care of yourself and you’re good in your heart, you’ll be good. I love seeing artists speak out, lift others up and recognize their fans.
What is your favorite Sara Bareilles song?
“Gravity” is like, The OG. I really like “Once Upon a Time,” too. I come back to that song very, very often.
Another standout song on your EP is “See It.” How did that one come together?
That one has another writer [Chloe Angelides] on it, as well. We then brought Charlie in again. David, who is the producer, is really amazing about being organic and throwing things in. He’s really quick, too. We were inspired by his production and what it was saying. It’s another confrontational song. In terms of the journey, it feels like the catalyst of realization. I always think of the production as a marionette.
What was it like practicing these songs with a full band? How did they feel?
They felt amazing. It gave an entirely new life to them. You’re in the studio and you work really hard on it. Maybe there’s a certain part you want to get an exact way. I’ve never really sang with a band before. It was keys, guitar and drums. I love the energy of a band. I knew that for any solo performances, if we had a budget, I didn’t want to sing with a track. I’d rather it be more band-focused than even just lights and dancers. I love the camaraderie onstage. You know, I’ve been in a group! [Laughs] It almost feels too weird to be up there by myself, so they were just so fantastic and talented. I’m excited for when we get the chance to do a live show.
When you heard the songs live, was there a track that struck you in a new way?
“Break a Little” sounds really awesome live. I know that’s the OG one since it is the single. The guys in the band were really excited to play that one. That was the one they most enjoyed, too.
Would you ever consider acting as opener on a Pentatonix tour?
Yeah, that sounds very vocally tiring but absolutely. [Laughs] That sounds difficult, but I’d be down!
If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
Oh my goodness! Um, I know we already toured with her as Pentatonix, but Kelly Clarkson is really amazing. I just admire her so much. Her or maybe Lady Gaga… or another really powerful female. I’ve never really gotten to see a bunch of shows because we’re constantly touring. I feel like I miss a lot. I loved being on the Kelly tour and getting to watch her and the band. She had a really cool vibe.
How did you know this house vibe would become your sound?
It’s honestly just based off the music that I like. When I went in with David and Charlie, I played a bunch of my influences. We went from there. I didn’t really put a cap on “Oh, this needs to sound like this and this doesn’t sound poppy enough.” We were just writing music. That was really great because we could be totally free and not have some preconceived notions that would limit any of that.
When will Pentatonix start looking for a new member now that’s Avi’s left?
We will eventually have to find a fifth member because we’re five voices. So, taking out one of those voices makes it difficult. We’re going to be figuring it out. We’re not trying to rush the system. Avi [Kaplan, bass] was super irreplaceable, and whoever we add would not be the same—but it would need to be different. We are trying to figure out what that new sound and direction is going to be.