By Janee Law
As she swiftly strums her fingers across the strings of her guitar, she nods her head with every note to prepare herself for what’s next. Her short ombre curls sway back and forth as she subtly moves with the music to soak it all in.
Singer-Songwriter Kirsten Maxwell looks down at the chords, closes her eyes and leans into the microphone to begin singing the lyrics to “Crimson,” the title track on her debut album.
After showcasing her music in several competitions, Maxwell won first place at the Rhode Island Songwriters Association contest in May 2015, and was also named one of three winners at the 2016 South Florida Folk Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition in January.
“The thing that keeps bringing me back is singing live,” Maxwell, 23, of Huntington, said. “Every time I do a show, I’m in front of an audience and I’m engaging with them and singing. It’s great. I’ll do what I have to do to keep doing that.”
Singing contemporary folk, Maxwell’s soothing sound and illuminating voice is reminiscent of artists like Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. The latter is one of Maxwell’s favorite artists of the 1960s folk scene.
Born Kirsten Freiman, her musical career began when she was 12 years old and wrote her first song, “Sunshine in Your Eyes,” using three chords, C, G and A minor.
“We were staying in New Hampshire for a weekend and I was sitting by a fireplace with this guitar, those three chords and that’s where I wrote it,” Maxwell said. “I was really excited.”
Maxwell came from a musical family, noting that her brother and uncle are singers, too. Her parents, who are now divorced, met at an opera house when her mother was an opera singer and her father was a conductor and director.
From age 5 until high school, Maxwell sang in the chorus at the Amato Opera house in Manhattan and learned the craft of singing on stage from her parents.
“I didn’t think when I was a kid that I was going to be a singer-songwriter,” Maxwell said. “I definitely figured that out later on.”
After discovering her passion for songwriting, Maxwell consistently wrote songs about her personal experiences.
She said, “There was a high school breakup that happened so I wrote a song about it and I was like, ‘Wow this is powerful stuff that brings healing.’ That was the next level, realizing how powerful it can be and that just made me like it even more so I just kept going.”
Attending the State University of New York at Potsdam for two years, Maxwell took up creative writing. She majored in the subject when she transferred to the State University of New York at Geneseo.
“I had determined that sing-songwriter was the career path I wanted to pursue so I was super focused on that,” Maxwell said, adding that she wrote songs and went to open mic’s regularly. “Studying creative writing was great for learning how to use language, tell a story and express yourself through language.”
Having written approximately 100 songs, Maxwell returned home after graduating in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and began compiling a list of songs to create her first album.
“When you’re starting out, you kind of want to imitate other people and there’s nothing wrong with that, but at a certain point while doing that you’re learning about who you are,” Maxwell said. “That’s what’s going to make you stand out is being your unique self because nobody else is you.”
“Crimson,” Maxwell’s debut, 11-track album, was released in April 2015, and then saw a national radio release in February.
Following her success at the Rhode Island Songwriters Association contest and the 2016 South Florida Folk Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition, Maxwell said she will be entering more contests and is currently working on an extended play.
“I figured out more about who I am, what kind of artist I am in the past two years, so I want to have a product that reflects where I’m at now,” Maxwell said. “That’s the goal with that, and send it to record labels to see what happens.”
Maxwell continues to perform live around Long Island, and will be stopping off at the Huntington Public Library at 338 Main St. on Friday. The show is slated to begin at 7 p.m. To register, visit Myhpl.org.